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India’s education revolution April 4, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Stoddart, Brian , trackback

Brian Stoddart

While Australia’s “ER” remains bedevilled by arguments over infrastructure and waste, India has made a bold and far-seeing investment with the recent passage of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act.  Kapil Sibal, Union Minister for Human Resource Development and overseer of the Act, argues that the revamp of the entire education system, of which the Act is part, is as much about content as process and structure.  That is, it is an investment in human capital.

Underpinning this, the Eleventh Five year Plan aims at spending something like 19% of Government budget on education, with emphasis also on people rather than infrastructure.

The Gross Enrolment Data (GER) indicates the importance to and potential for India of this revolution.  India’s GER stands just under 13%, while in the so-called “developed” world that mark stands around 40%.  Expressed in numbers for India, of 220 million children now in school just 18 million will go on to college level education.  As Kapil Sibal points out, that leaves 190 million who will not go beyond school.

For observers familiar with the quality of India’s higher education products, especially from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the rapidly emerging private universities in business, any participation increase would produce a substantial rise in the strength of India’s intellectual capital at home and abroad.  A 5% increase, for example, would see almost 10 million additional students in the system.

An important manifestation of this, watched around the world with interest by higher education authorities, is the current debate over legislation that to allow foreign universities to set up shop in India in their own right.  That is, if passed the legislation would allow foreign institutions to create stand-alone campuses in India.

On the face of it, of course, that would help India meet the massive rise in demand that will eventuate if and when the education revolution takes off.   Similarly, in some policy quarters it is considered that this provision would help India retain at least some of the thousands of students who now go overseas for studies.  One estimate has the financial outflow at $US 4 billion per year.

Malaysia provides an interesting parallel case study here.  From the late 1980s and into the 90s it saw substantial numbers of students go overseas propelled by lack of places at home, restriction on access to some social groups, and the prestige of a foreign degree.  By the late 1990s the Government responded so that the number of local university providers rose rapidly from under 10 to well over 20.  While the move was not automatically successful, it did provide more choice to students.

Australia has been a major beneficiary of the rapidly escalating Indian outflow until the recent rise in the strength of the $A, media speculation about student safety, and aggressive marketing from other countries have combined to see application rates fall.  The “foreign universities” Bill is obviously of great interest.

However, the Bill’s tortuous passage demonstrates that the matter is not a simply straight forward means of lifting support pressure or retaining a percentage of students who presently go overseas.  Around for some years now, the Bill has been opposed fiercely by the Left, in particular, on the broad grounds that any such provision would compromise Indian sovereignty and, effectively, return India to a colonial state condition. With the Manmohan Singh government now less burdened by the Left, it was thought that passage might be easier, but that is still not guaranteed.

At present the Bill is approved by Cabinet, even if media reports suggest that debate was sharp and opinion divided.  At least two other concurrent developments complicate matters in addition to the internal political divisions.

One is the Union Government’s parallel move to enhance the quality of the higher education system, and its rapid moves towards creating a quality assurance agency.  The most obvious and serious expression of intent has come with a review of the “deemed” university sector.  There are somewhere over 130 of these throughout the country, institutions assessed by the University Grants Commission as being of sufficiently high standing and performance as to warrant their effectively operating as universities.

A 2009 official review of these institutions has reported that only 38 were really up to the standard required, and it is proposed to withdraw accreditation from 44 – a very high proportion of the total number.

The Indian higher education sector, then, is experiencing the “quality debate” that has gone on around the world now for several years, so the possible advent of foreign universities takes on a sharper edge.  Some Indian observers see that possibility as a quick way to encourage quality competition in India, others as a slight to India’s own institutions, and yet others as an attempt to undermine or even reject national values.  The debate is as much about national ideology as meeting student demand.

The second complicating development concerns discussion about the rise of private university provision in India.  While international focus has been upon the “foreign universities” Bill, the Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Technical and Medical Educational Institutions and Universities Bill 2010 has been more under the radar, despite its importance for understanding the overall picture.

That Bill, too, is now ratified by Cabinet and awaits the next steps.  While complex, the essential aim is to provide stronger controls over private educational institutions, guarantee greater transparency in their operations, and impose severe penalties including prison terms for officials found guilty of breaching the provisions.  The prime targets are misleading information given to students, and the charging of illegal fees that “guarantee” a place.

This Bill has also had a long, contested evolution but many observers are still unhappy because, they believe, the provisions do nothing to support entry by merit based on a common admission standard, to guarantee access equity for minority communities, or to confirm any legislation at state level that guarantees such merit- and equity-based access.

Kerala’s Minister for Education and Culture (The Hindu, 3 April 2010) goes so far as to see this Bill as Kapil Sibal and the new UPA Government attempting to “expedite neo-liberal reforms in higher and technical education”.

That all suggests the passage of the “foreign universities” Bill will not be straightforward, that any aspirant international institutions will have to wait longer, and watch the modifications carefully because the ideological considerations are powerful.

Presently, for example, the draft Bill contains a requirement that any applicant international institution effectively pay a deposit of several million dollars.  Australian universities over the years have developed a cautious approach to such in-country ventures and generally prefer local partnerships.  But some, like their overseas counterparts are finding the lure of India too strong.  They would be well advised to do their homework, and watch the complexities that surround this massive change in India’s approach.

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