Monday, March 22, 2010

Does India Need Foreign Education Providers?

For all the talk on foreign universities in India, everyone seems to have taken for granted that India needs them. One would wonder why this is so obvious. India is not a small country like Dubai, and India's problems are different and not to be solved by creating a few glamour universities. Also, India has very little public support for education expenses and most people may not be able to afford the fees of even a middle-tier university anyway.

I have talked about the Foreign University bill to be a part of the overall reform business, and tried to describe the politics of reform. The idea seems to be that this is a tester, an easy one because of the positive public perception, which the central government would want to push through. The bill will set precedent and realign the policy agenda, and this will be followed up by deep impact reforms of a national schooling and qualifications system.

However, on the business of foreign universities themselves, the government may not have a very high expectation at this time. As I mentioned, a top tier university may not want to invest in a campus in India, because it makes no sense, unless there is a significant financial incentive laid out. But, the financial incentive will be difficult to justify, given that India would still need to invest in its basic education infrastructure. [These points are eloquently presented by Dr Rahul Choudaha here] Unless, of course, the Indian public believes that such incentive should actually be provided, because India needs these top schools.

Which is very likely to happen. India's economic and political developments have been skewed in favour of the urban middle class. This issue sits on the top of their agenda - what is better to be able to study at Harvard-in-Hisar - and they have the political clout to push through such incentive programmes. There is no guarantee that this will sway the top schools, because, as Rahul points out, they have already burnt their fingers in the gulf. But, in the context, it is indeed very relevant to examine closely whether such an incentive will be worth the effort, and by extension, whether this fuss about the Foreign Education Providers' Bill is justified.

In fact, if we look beyond the reforming impact of the bill on the overall education agenda, there is very little to justify the need for such a bill. The preferred route for good universities to establish themselves in India would be through collaboration with local institutions, and a model already exists in that space. A number of top schools are already collaborating with Indian universities through research, student and faculty exchange and dual-degree programmes. For example, IIM Lucknow and McGill offers a joint programme, and IIM-Bangalore is part of a collaborative global executive programme with INSEAD, Lancaster University and McGill. I know Queens University in Belfast has entered into a collaboration, covering student exchange among other things, with the University of Delhi. And, this is not just top-tier schools and public universities; a number of private business schools, among them IIPM, have a number of collaboration partners among lesser known institutes in Europe, America and Australia. It is hard to see why these schools should take the risky and complicated option of setting up their own campuses, even if they are given incentives.

And, from the perspective of the Indian student, they don't need to. The collaborative format offers the best option for a student to align his/her local qualifications to global skills. Besides, such collaboration opens up Indian academia to the global possibilities and impacts their overall offerings, thus passing on the benefits, arguably over a period of time, to students in other, non-collaboration streams as well.

Also, from a different perspective, what India needs is not a set of elite institutions, because India already has a fair share of them and those who can pay the bills, can also travel abroad; where infusion of fresh ideas is really needed is how to reform the High School/ Vocational College system, which has failed to take off so far. One can blame this on Indian disregard for physical work, but that is only a spatial view, and it can be argued that we constructed the theory to under-prioritize those segments of the education system.

In fact, though it sounds antithetical, vocational training system is possibly where India needs foreign education providers to come in. I do mean vocational training as in plumbing, construction, healthcare, hospitality etc. The Indian system has not evolved due to neglect, and on the other hand, such professional training as in Britain [which I know closely] helped a number of people to find paying jobs and stable lives. There is a well-refined system in existence, which will need to be adapted to Indian realities no doubt, but there is a gaping hole in the Indian system which can be effectively plugged by the foreign providers.

I can see a number of reasons why the vocational training providers should be interested in the Indian market. Though low margin, the Indian market at this end is supposedly limitless. The Indian job market, at this end, is short of skilled labour, and a significant premium can be earned by those who have the necessary professionalism and expertise to do the job. However, the state is in full retreat from this sector, selling off its Industrial Training Institutes or allowing these to fall in disrepair. The preferred method in many states is a voucher-system of funding vocational training, which should be just fine with the vocational training providers. Besides, the training providers can earn a significant premium from the employment market as well, if an effective employment linked programme could be established.

Indeed, this is not easy and partnership will still be the preferred method of market entry for vocational training providers. There are significant challenges, most significantly the linguistic variations of India which will come in the way, which will necessitate effective local partnership. But, partnership in this sector will involve import of curricula and competency frameworks, something that will get easier with the current bill.

So, in summary, India may need foreign education providers, but in a different form and in a different area than what is being perceived now. In all, this bill has some positive impact - it will surely make Indian education sector interesting to watch and transform its usual bureaucratic core sooner than later.

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