Monday, April 18, 2011

30/100: India's Higher Education : Moving In Circles

The problem of Indian Higher Education does not come from the poverty of ideas, but the populism and vested interests that drive the policy-making. This plagued India's past, and just when it seemed to be emerging out of lumber, the same disease caught up with it again. Indeed, Higher Ed is good business and most politicians keep their money invested in it, but by continuing to protect their interests, the country risks missing out on its demographic dividend and getting itself on the slippery slope of missing a historical opportunity.

India is Higher Education's most attractive market. It has all the ingredients of a Higher Education revolution of sorts: Millions of young people, growing economy, skill hungry employers and an education system not fit for purpose from the word go. Higher Ed in India, in particular, is a game of political privileges and cronyism; consequently, Indian institutions fail to make it to global top table and also fail to equip its 2.9 million graduates a year with basic employment skills. It is common to hear from Indian employers that only 1% to 2% applications they receive are fit to be employed, and there is talk of a 'manpower mirage', that the promised manpower pool fails to realize once a company has invested in India.

This is clearly affecting India's economy. Not only the shortage of skilled people will drive away foreign companies from India, but it will also make Indian companies go elsewhere. Besides, with so many hardworking young people looking for opportunities, not being able to give them a proper education is demographic suicide: Nandan Nilkeni, in his excellent book, did cite Soviet Union which failed to take advantage of its demographic moment, the sort of peak India is experiencing now, and imploded as a result.

India's approach to the question of expanding Higher Ed was as muddled as it could be. Instead of less regulation, which seems to have worked for the economy, Indian government has opted for more regulation. Instead of focusing on skills standards and quality control, the government policies seem to be centering around licensing of the businesses. While the country has failed to come up with a system of credit transfer between its own universities, it has put an enormous amount of resource behind its regulatory body, AICTE, which works with the sole intent of gagging any innovation in education. Indeed, a number of AICTE officials have been arrested last year for taking bribes: Indian government has not learned the lesson that bureaucratic control of education will not work.

This is evident in India's new Foreign Education Providers' Bill, which raised big expectations in the Western Academia, and at one point, there was even talk that India would be the new Malaysia, Education's silicon valley of sorts. Indian government has failed to pass the bill, which was expected to allow foreign educational institutions to operate in India, for more than ten years now. The new government came to power a couple of years ago, raising great expectations that they would treat this as a priority, as India needed foreign investment in education and human infrastructure as much as it does in the energy sector. But, since then, the reformers in the government, including the current Human Resource Development Minister and the Prime Minister, have surrendered to the old guards of Indian politics, the all-mighty lobbies of black money and education mafiosi, and come up with a pathetic legislation that will rather drive away foreign education providers from India.

The current legislation is about tightening control and not expanding access. The legislation is written with the attitude - we know what needs to be done - rather than, let innovation happen. This is a surprising piece of work for a country like India which needs to up its game for Higher Ed and give its students a better deal. This legislation is keen to further the powers of education police and give them the power to fine anyone who is caught offering 'unauthorized' foreign education. And, also, it lays the rules for authorization for foreign education: The provider must maintain a corpus fund of £7 million (US $10 million) at any time, apart from its investments in India. And, after all the trouble, they can't take home a profit, all profits made in India must be reinvested in India, 75% of it must go to the building and infrastructure and the balance 25% must go to the corpus fund. And, finally, in the classic Indian style, a discretionary loophole: A committee formed by the Prime Minister can exempt any institution from these requirements.

Someone, who may have drafted the bill, thought this discretion bit was a stroke of genius. They must have thought this would be the mechanism that will attract the Harvard and Yale of the world to India. And, this, in a way, what ails India as a country: The elite has usurped the country and imposed its tunnel vision without regard to reality. The question to ask is whether India needs a Harvard or Yale in India (and a lesser question, why they would come). India's challenge is to create high quality education provision for its emerging middle classes, not its elite 2% of the population. This could be achieved through the foreign investment in expanding higher education, and that investment is unlikely to come from universities like Harvard and Yale. The more common sense solution lies in attracting the huge corpus of Higher Ed investment available in the Western countries as of today: Indian policy-makers are completely oblivious of the possibility.

This is yet another example, I shall contend, of India's inward looking thinking that ailed the country for so long. India has the world's most attractive higher ed market, the policy-makers thought, and they thought they could pick and choose who they allow to come to India. They did not take Malaysia's lead, which laid down the norms in a fair and square way, letting everyone compete: They would rather stick to the bureaucratic tinkering which is anti-meritocracy and anti-innovation. This would allow other neighbouring countries, for example, Sri Lanka, or Mauritius, to re-invent itself as an Education Island, and steal India's show under its noses. Higher Ed is a global growth industry, but India's politicians and policy-makers are too disconnected and too corrupt to pay any heed to that.

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