Recolonising Academic Spaces?...........
THE economic structures have been liberalised since 1991 but the educational structures are yet to be liberalised --- union HRD minister Kapil Sibal is reported to have lamented, while addressing the students of St Stephan’s College in Delhi. He then proposed to do for the education sector what Dr Manmohan Singh had done for the finance sector in 1991. He would unleash a slew of reforms, administrative and legislative, which would substantially improve access and quality of higher education in India. Of the many reforms he talked about, the establishment of foreign educational providers is perhaps the one that would most upset his calculations. Kapil Sibal argued that foreign educational providers could help improve the quality of Indian education, both directly and indirectly: directly by providing quality education to Indian students through off-campus centres and collaborative arrangements and indirectly by instilling competitive spirit in Indian institutions.
Kapil Sibal’s optimism is based on a number of assumptions, the veracity of which is questionable. One of these assumptions is that there are universal yardsticks for assessing the quality of higher education .The other is that Indian higher education is, by and large, inferior to western higher education. It is also presumed that greater approximation with western education could improve the quality of Indian education.
This implicit faith in the efficacy of western, more particularly, English education is a legacy of colonialism. The craze for the foreign label which had been smothered by the Gandhian movement has been legitimised with the introduction of neo-liberal reforms in 1991. The appropriation of foreign models as a shortcut to quality enhancement ignores the importance of creativity, which is hallmark of quality in higher education.
Creativity in higher education thrives through research which involves diversification, localisation and internalisation of intellectual enquiry. While research is enriched through assimilation of knowledge from diverse sources, it degenerates through transplantation or imitation of external models. One of the possible reasons for the backwardness of modern Indian education is its failure to integrate the insights of western systems with indigenous knowledge systems. The attempt to improve the quality of Indian education by importing foreign educational packages would be a remedy worse than the disease.
Even assuming that there are universal norms for measurement of quality in higher education and yardsticks such as Nobel prizes, patents, publications in international journals etc, which are indicative of quality, a proper assessment of Indian capabilities could be made only with reference to institutions like the IITs and IIMs which share a level playing field with reputed western institutions. World class education, if at all it is conceivable, would require world class facilities, an important component of which is adequate infrastructure, physical and human.
Modernisation of higher education requires huge investment. The requirement of inclusiveness further demands massive public investment. With government expenditure on education as a whole pegged at 3.5 per cent and on higher education alone at 0.4 per cent of the GDP, public expenditure on education by western standards is abysmally low in India. Any attempt at improvement of quality to bring it at par with western countries should begin by implementing the recommendations of Kothari commission and CABE committee on public expenditure in education. Going by their recommendations, public expenditure on education should be increased to at least 6 per cent of the GDP, of which 25 per cent should be set apart for higher education. There are no quick-fix alternatives to adequate public investment in education.
The entry of foreign educational providers will not resolve the problems of access, equity or quality, but aggravate them. Kapil Sibal said that the issue of access could be resolved by starting 800 more universities and 35,000 more colleges in the next few years.
The assumption is too simplistic to be seriously debated. Increasing the number of institutions or seats alone would not ensure greater access. Even for the most sought-after engineering courses, there are plenty of vacant seats under the self-financing streams. For example, about one third of the total number of seats in self-financing engineering colleges in Tamilnadu were not filled up in the last year, as the fees were unaffordable.
What thus we need is equitable access, which foreign educational providers will not provide, more so as there is no cap on the fees that can be levied by these institutions in the proposed bill. There is in the bill no provision for reservation of seats either, which would tend to strengthen the existing iniquities in Indian higher education. The foreign providers would also wean away a large chunk of bright students from Indian institutions. The exodus of such students could only lead to academic impoverishment and deterioration of Indian institutions.
The chimera of quality that foreign educational providers supposedly bring in, would dissipate once we look at the experience of other countries in this regard. The experiences of Singpore, China, the Gulf countries and Israel over the last ten to fifteen years (as documented by The Times of India) have been far from satisfactory. Despite extending substantial cash subsidies and providing land at a third of the market price, soft loans, housing access etc, reputed institutions such as Chicago Booth School, John Hopkins Centre and Warwick University --- to mention a few --- which had set up teaching shops in Singapore have packed up and left for home. Despite stringent regulations which enable domestic supervision of foreign institutions set up in China, there is internal criticism on “foreign universities offering crappy courses.” The “knowledge cities” and “academic zones” in Gulf countries are so expensive even by international standards that these can be maintained only by the uninterrupted supply of and demand for black gold. Israel which welcomed foreign educational agencies with loose regulations had to drive them all out on account of the low quality of services provided.
TECHNIQUE OF CAMOUFLAGE
Kapil Sibal claims that stringent regulations are being put in place in the bill against fly-by-night operators. But the contrary is true. Going by the stipulations in the bill, it is much easier to set up a foreign educational institution than to set up an affiliated college under a state university. The technique of camouflage is cleverly used in the drafting of the bill to cover up the inadequacies in the requirements for registration and operation of the institutions. The requirements of transparency are played up, while the right of the foreign provider to decide the norms for admission, fees structure and nature and content of courses are conceded by default.
In fact, it is not mandatory for the foreign provider to offer courses in fundamental disciplines or conduct research level studies. It is unlikely that they would on their own invest in research, the returns on which are uncertain. Research would suffer in local institutions as well. Compelled to compete with foreign providers for survival, they are also likely to wind up whatever little research programmes they have and offer easily marketable courses.
Nor does the bill stipulates any mandatory minimum requirements of land, libraries, laboratories, buildings and faculty. Any university with a foreign label can register as a foreign educational provider by depositing a paltry amount of Rs ten crore as corpus fund. Even such a minimal requirement could be waived in respect of universities which have “reputation and international standing” (!) Given the experience of de novo deemed universities, it is only a matter of time before such exemptions become the norm rather than exceptions.
Assuming that only the best institutions would be permitted to set up campuses and such institutions would be interested in running their quality programmes and post their best faculty in India, foreign educational providers would still have little impact on the overall quality of Indian education. The experience with IITs and IIMs is illuminating. These have been isolated islands of excellence, contributing little to the improvement of neighbouring institutions. This is not merely because the IITs/IIMs have been indifferent to the general improvement of Indian education, but also because external agencies can only play a minimal role in the process of quality enhancement. Improvement of quality has to come from within, through an internal process. Collaboration with foreign institutions of repute can certainly assist the process of internalisation of quality it cannot substitute the internal processes that each institution or individual has to undergo. What we need therefore is not the foreign universities operating their campuses on the Indian soil, but active academic collaboration of the best foreign universities with Indian universities. There are adequate provisions in the existing laws for facilitating such collaboration. Moreover, such collaboration has all along been taking place, albeit on a limited scale. All we need today is to encourage and enlarge the scope of such academic collaborations, while ensuring that they do not degenerate into commercial collaborations.