05 April 2010 National policy: education

Shadows Of The Dreamy Spires?

The arrival of foreign universities could create ‘creamy layers’ of another sort
Shadows Of The Dreamy Spires?
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
Shadows Of The Dreamy Spires?

Generous with his comments on policies framed by his ministry, Union human resources development minister Kapil Sibal was unusually discreet when it came to taking a call on reservation for the underprivileged in foreign universities, which are likely to set up shop in India once the Foreign Education Institution (Regulation of Entry & Operation) Bill is passed and signed into law.

By and large, American universities—which currently admit close to 85,000 Indian students every year—have in place affirmative action policies, whereby points are awarded to the less privileged in order to make admissions more inclusive. But the big question is: will they follow the same policies or draw up new parameters for reservations in India?

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It is learnt that the bill has no provision for quotas for the economically and socially backward, although some officials who discussed the bill say foreign universities setting up campuses in India must make allowance for such students. Their argument: what purpose will the new universities serve if they aren’t socially inclusive? Privately, officials say the quota issue is likely to come up during the parliamentary debate on the bill.

Legally, private universities in India have the autonomy to regulate their fees and determine admission norms. The Supreme Court verdict of 2005 is categoric on that. And it is learnt that Sibal is a votary of the apex court view that foreign universities are private and therefore free from any commitment to social inclusiveness when operating in India. But there are many others who beg to differ. Dr Anil Gupta of IIM, Ahmedabad, wonders why foreign universities should be exempted from provisos that are meant to help the underprivileged. It’s a view that has many supporters.

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“The arrival of foreign universities will increase competition and benchmark quality in education.”
Kapil Sibal, Union HRD Minister

But, if one were to look beyond the quota debate, what are the objectives for allowing foreign universities to come to India? The ostensible purpose is to provide better quality education in India. But will they create a layer of students who can afford to pay for the quality education foreign universities supposedly provide, leaving the poor to battle it out for seats in Indian universities of ‘lesser repute’? Vinod Raina, an educationist, cautions that higher education is likely to go through the same turmoil that school education went through two decades ago. At that time, the middle class opted for private schools, leading to a virtual downslide in the quality of education in government schools. “Twenty-five years ago, the middle class studied in government schools and the quality was good,” says Raina. “Once they shifted to private schools and schools with foreign affiliation, government schools began to be seen as meant for the poor and underprivileged. Therefore, they came to be neglected. The foreign universities coming here are likely to create a similar situation.”

According to educationists, the emerging scenario will be something like this: the creamiest layer will continue to go abroad—arguing that it’s not just the degree but the ambience of, say Harvard, that’s worth the money. Those below them in economic terms will enrol in foreign institutions with campuses in India. And those who can’t afford them will study in local colleges, some of repute, others not really known for quality education.

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“I think the hrd minister should also think of improving the quality and standards of education in the country while he opens the door to foreign universities,”  says Dr Gupta of IIM, Ahmedabad. Then there’s the cost factor. Shekhar Chaudhary, director of IIM, Calcutta, says, “Make no mistake. Foreign universities aren’t coming out of the consideration that India is an emerging economy. If the demand is for quality education, the fees won’t be within reach of the majority.”

The commerce ministry estimates that $4 billion goes out of India every year to universities in the US, UK, Australia and Singapore. Even if half of this amount stays in the country, the government reckons, it will be able to achieve the target of setting up 1,500 universities in the country by 2020. Narendra Jadhav, Planning Commission member and former vice-chancellor of Pune University, says, “The bill will lead to a good dose of competition among Indian universities, just as privatisation of banks propelled the public sector banks to do exceptionally well.”

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“I think the minister should also think of improving the quality of education in our own universities.”
Anil Gupta, IIM, Ahmedabad

According to a paper on reform in Indian higher education by Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the government’s share in overall education expenditure, according to National Sample Survey data, has declined  from 80 per cent in 1983 to 67 per cent in 1999. Private expendititure, on the other hand, has risen 10.8 per cent in the last 16 years. This is why, says Raina, we have to first debate the social goals of higher education. “Competition requires an even plane,” he says. “Many students don’t just go abroad for the courses offered but for the atmosphere provided by Harvard or MIT. You cannot impart lectures on DVDs if the goal of  education is creating a competitive social space with a commitment to equality.”

Jadhav, too, believes a Harvard in Mumbai cannot be the same as the one in Boston, but he thinks the arrival of foreign universities could make a difference. “It has taken years to establish Brand Harvard,” he says. “If they come, the education on offer will be decidedly better and improve the quality here.”

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Of course, it remains to be seen whether the top-rung foreign universities will actually come here. M.S. Ananth, the director of IIT, Madras, says, “We have to wait and see if premier institutes from the US and UK actually come to India. There are two possibilities: if the premier institutes run only undergraduate programmes here in India, it is unlikely they can match our standards for the amount of fees we charge.”

There are also other concerns expressed by academics. Will teachers flee for greener pastures? Will quality higher education become the exclusive privilege of the rich? Surely, these questions must be reflected upon before Sibal pushes through his reforms.


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