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The elite's classrooms

Last updated on: November 12, 2012 14:26 IST
The government is internationalising Indian higher education in quite the wrong way, says Devesh Kapur

The Indian government recently announced a grant of Rs 25 crore to Oxford University for the Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development in Somerville College. As higher education in India continues to struggle, the government's largesse to one of the world's most elite institutions is indicative of its impoverished thinking on internationalising Indian higher education.

While India undoubtedly needs to access institutions of elite learning, they are not the solution to the country's higher education crises. The higher education challenge in India is not about the top one or two per cent, but the median institution that is ignored because the remedy is long-term, the effort enormous, and the publicity rewards few and never immediate. And that is even truer of the country's strategy in accessing international higher education.

Most of the attention on internationalising higher education has focused on the Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill and whether this would simply result in an influx of high-cost, low-quality institutions that would distort the lofty priorities of domestic institutions, as well as taking away jobs from supposedly dedicated low-paid faculty. These debates are largely sui generis.

No outsider can commercialise Indian higher education any more than what those run by India's politicians are brazenly doing. Yes, their fees will be high; but that will simply ensure that foreign providers would at best occupy a small niche for wealthier students, who in any case are being served by foreign institutions outside the country and spending their money there. But, by the same token, many of their purported benefits will also be modest. Indeed, given the politics around the issue, it is unclear whether the Bill should be a policy priority relative to other issues plaguing Indian higher education.

The government (through the Indian Council for Cultural Relations) now supports 92 chairs in universities around the world (according to its 2010-11 annual report) ranging from a chair on the Indian economy in Denmark (which clearly lacks the resources), Germany (six chairs, including one on corporate governance and corporate responsibility!) and Indian studies in Lithunaia [sic]. It's a pity we cannot spell the name of the country where we want to spread our soft power. 

This comes amidst the granting of the projected $300 million capital costs for the South Asia University, not including a 100-acre plot of land in a prime locality of south Delhi. But the ministry of external affairs (which clearly knows a lot about higher education in India, since most of their children study abroad), has another brilliant idea -- Nalanda University -- the non-recurring cost of which is reportedly around Rs 2,500 crore. Yes, this institution does have international stakeholders, but in the end most of the financing (especially recurring costs) will come -- where else -- from the Government of India.

It is just extraordinary how India's elites have so grossly distorted priorities of Indian higher education by invoking the past or seductive projections of "soft power". Imagine giving the same subsidy to Somerville College, but if the Centre were set up in India. The department of Hindi in Delhi University may not have enough office space, tables and chairs for its faculty, but let us create chairs in Hindi around the world. We will not give visas to Pakistanis, but we will create a South Asian University.

Imagine if the 100 acres of land in south Delhi were given as a land grant to Delhi University, which then used the resources from its sale (Rs 1,000 crore) to create an endowment whose annual income would be used to develop facilities and programmes to attract students from South Asia. But why do that, if one can create a plush ghetto for another tiny elite?

If the Bharatiya Janata Party fantasised that the past could be recreated in Ayodhya, our secular elites want to recreate it in Nalanda. The involvement of iconic figures has ensured that there is no debate on just what justifies spending so much money on a higher education project for so few when so many students in Bihar face such acute deprivations in higher education.

One might imagine the possibilities of internationalising higher education in Bihar -- and across North India -- by rebuilding the veterinary sciences institutions with help from, say, New Zealand, given the importance of livestock for poor rural households. But that would be too lowbrow an intellectual activity. And, of course, one can be sure that few Indian elites so passionate about this project will be sending their own children to study there.

If India wants to harness the benefits of internationalising higher education, there is lower hanging fruit to be harvested. The University Grants Commission currently bars recruitment of foreigners as full-time faculty. US universities, which have far more talent, are constantly looking to recruit foreign talent. India, on the other hand, while desperately short of talent, bars foreigners and even forbids PIOs from doing "research" (as well as "mountaineering"!).

A simple administrative change, removing this self-defeating UGC proscription and allowing universities and institutes to recruit talent globally -- with flexibility on contracts and pay -- would not bring a deluge of talent, but would make a difference at the margin. This can be augmented by creating National Visiting Professorships -- especially in S&T fields -- as China has done and leverage them to train faculty and graduate students in India. The main focus should be to bring talent into India, not fritter away scarce resources into grandiose building projects. Even reducing the high transaction costs of holding conferences in India by making it easier for foreign scholars to get visas would be helpful.

India must recognise that it simply cannot recreate the Western experience of brick-and-mortar universities -- it does not have the luxury of time -- given the sheer demographic influx. It needs to leverage every possible global resource for training and this may now be considerably easier (and much cheaper) because of the arrival of MOOCs -- "massive online open courses" built on open-source teaching platforms -- which are threatening to overturn the century-plus model of physical campus-bounded instruction. For the first time -- at least in principle -- anyone anywhere in the world can access outstandingly taught courses from some of the world's most talented teachers. Already more than a million people around the world have signed up to take them in barely over a couple of years.

For India to harness the potentially huge upside of MOOCs, it needs to subsidise the translation of some of the course material in multiple Indian languages, make broadband cheaply accessible across the country, and ensure that there are no regulatory hurdles. Again, this is not a substitute for domestic knowledge creation efforts. But it can be an excellent complement, exposing students to a broader world of knowledge, especially in S&T-related areas.

The Cabinet reshuffle has brought a new team into the human resources development ministry. Given the legislative travails of the previous regime, in principle at least this change offers a glimmer of hope in an area where challenges are mounting. The demographic tide inexorably rising in India is bringing ashore tens of millions of young people seeking to join India's workforce with aspirations that their parents couldn't even dream about, many with credentials that they can ill afford, but without either the critical thinking or specific functional skills that matter for labour markets.

Managing their expectations will be no mean task. But a failure to do so would be disastrous. Allowing the winds of international education to blow into India, though by no means a panacea, would be a step in the right direction.

The writer is director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania
Devesh Kapur