Setting the Tone

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

- Theodore Roosevelt

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Why does Indian Higher Education need Foreign Investment?

In India, the Higher Ed talk is about big numbers: The policy makers talk of millions of graduates and hundreds of universities. The never-ending debate about Foreign Investment in Higher Education is centred around the issue of capacity creation and the assumption that it can't be done with capital available in India.

However, Indian Higher Education is going through a quiet crisis, and this must be taken into perspective and in reframing the debate. Suddenly, capacity does not seem to be a problem: Over the last five years, every day on average, 10 new institutions seem to have been created and 5000 new students have been offered a Higher Ed place, reckons Pawan Agarwal. However, despite this expansion, the system is still facing a crisis, one of confidence. In fact, despite all the excited projections about student numbers, seats are going empty. If there is a lack of appetite for education investment in India at the time, it is not because of the lack of money but because of the perceived lack of demand. At the face of it, the demand argument for inviting foreign investment seems to be misplaced.

Usually, the commentators are quite dismissive about the causes of this crisis in Indian Higher Education, lumping these together into a 'quality problem'. The theory goes that since the newly created privately owned institutions offered poor quality education, students decided to shun them. However, this simplistic theory begins to unravel the moment one goes beyond decrying the state of affairs and start exploring what the nebulous 'quality problem' may be. At its heart, it is not so much a 'quality problem', which is about whether Higher Education is delivering what it promised to deliver, and more about how quality is defined: In its very Indian construct, educational quality is meant to be a magic formula which should make students employable without enhancing student engagement or making curriculum or teaching relevant. The whole discussion about Higher Education capacity in education, both from the policy makers perspective and from the educators, is about supply of cheap labour with pieces of paper. The problem, however, is that the Indian companies are already so pressed for labour, they would hire a capable person anyway whether or not they got a degree from one of these sweatshop colleges: So, the degree makes a little difference.

Seen thus, India's higher education just does not suffer from a demand or delivery problem, but a proposition problem. The prestige end of the education, older public sector or publicly supported colleges nd universities, are doing fine: Some would demand a perfect score in intermediate examinations as the basic eligibility for application. Seen from their vantage point, there is no demand problem. Besides, they are now enjoying the attention from the big Indian employers, who, rather fed up with mediocre technical colleges, are now recruiting English Lit students from good colleges.

At one level, demography is indeed destiny and pressure of population will keep feeding the demand for Higher Education. But, inherent in this statement is an irony: India's young population does not want an education their parents wanted. The hidden message of demography is not just the number, but the fact that India's Higher Education is still a largely urban affair, and India's urban youngsters are far more aware, agile and ambitious than they are given credit for. The Higher Education offering laid out before them is typically unambitious and poorly designed: These are utterly disconnected from the ambitions of people born at a time of plenty and shrouded in rhetoric that comes from their parents' times.

So, it is not about money that foreign involvement in Indian education will bring: It is about the imagination and creative proposition that will come with it. The contrast with China is interesting here: China's government is pursuing a deliberate shift from 'Made in China' to 'Designed in China' and therefore pushing the educational institutions to innovate. In India's case, as always, it is the Government which is the problem, the overzealous but corrupt and inefficient regulation being the stumbling block, and it is the students themselves who are voting with their feet and pointing to the direction they wish it to go. So far, the Government and the investors in education has read the signals wrongly and invoked the catch-all 'quality' excuse, but one would hope that the foreign participation in India's education will both shake the regulatory structure and reshape the Higher Education proposition.

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