Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Fear of the Foreign: Indian Higher Education and Policy Paralysis

India's higher education is fast approaching an inflection point, as demographic changes and increasing affluence alter the nature of demand for higher education. The 'new' students will be more discerning, demanding higher quality of educational experience, meaningful knowledge and not just a certificate, and global careers not just employability. The current structure of the sector, failing general education structure, narrow private sector offering and a few world class institutions, is not fit for purpose to handle this demand. New thinking is indeed needed to bring about the changes and create educational opportunities that this new, dynamic, global middle class needs.

The Indian policy-makers, mostly products of elite institutions themselves (in many respect, India's ruling classes resemble France's), can anticipate the problems but are clueless about how to solve it. They are acutely aware that India must open its doors to foreign education institutions, like China has now done to absorb at least a part of the new demand, and have been fiddling with legislation on how best to do it. They have taken more than a decade to get agreement on a bill to allow foreign education providers, and still couldn't get it through. However, last week, the University Grants Commission (UGC) of India announced that they would allow twinning and partnership arrangements between Indian universities and any of the Top 500 global institutions. The announcement was concluded with the threat that anyone tying up with any institution outside the Top 500 will be severely penalised.

This is typical of the Indian state, which refuses to give up its paternalistic pretensions. This new announcement is a step forward and accepts the urgent need to allow foreign collaborations as the only solution to meet the rising middle class demand, but shows an intent to control the flow. This is bad judgement, though this is untypical. Nowhere in the world such faith has been put on University rankings. The UGC chooses two rankings, Times Higher Education Ranking and the Shanghai Rankings, but ignore the rest, including the ones done in the United States. It overlooks the problems of such comprehensive rankings, eloquently argued by Malcolm Gladwell (read the article here).  And, finally, be focusing on the Top 500, UGC also shows how they mis-perceive the nature of Indian Higher Ed demand.

The starting point for such regulations should be that Education is no longer about what the state can provider, but what the students and their employers need. If that demand is global, and it is, then India needs more globalization, not less. This notion that allowing any global institution will result in unscrupulous operators duping Indian students is nonsense. In fact, trying to put up ineffective regulatory barriers have resulted in just that. This charade of regulating out bad foreign providers usually keep the serious foreign providers away, as they would want to work within the regulatory framework. The bad ones don't care anyway: After all, India is a country where the education regulators not only publish a list of of approved providers, but of 'unapproved' providers as well (see list), bizarrely. The fact that some of these unapproved providers are quite profitable, like ICFAI, and the approved institutions are struggling to make ends meet and more than 100 institutions have recently filed for closure proves that the students are voting with their feet on the regulatory regime. One institution, IIPM, operates without any kind of approval at all, and makes all kinds of claims about accreditation and even ranking: The regulators failed to act on them for over a decade (Read story). All this points to the pointlessness of more regulation, but the pretension is hard to kill off. The Indian bureaucrats love to meddle and unwittingly, they end up meddling in areas where innovation is most needed.

Besides, despite the talk of protecting students interest, it is really about protecting those politicians and businessmen who park their idle black money and real estate in education enterprises. This is only to create a protected area where rent seeking can be permitted: Indeed, that's exactly what happens in Indian Higher Ed. While there is a danger of foreign providers cheating on Indian students, the students are cheated nonetheless, with sub par education handed out to them by local henchmen. Opening the gates, at least to the institutions who are approved in their respective home countries (and one could draw up a list of countries and include US, Europe, China, Japan and Australia, but exclude such places like DR Congo and Chattisgarh) can reduce rent seeking and corruption and may lead to better deals for the students.

In summary, the muddle continues, but there is clear need to emerge sensibly out of it. This is the only way Indian can get investment in the sector, and develop the great institutions it needs for building the country. So far, it is doing poorly on both counts.

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