R Srinivasan

A ‘Made-in-America’ vishwaguru?

R Srinivasan | Updated on September 01, 2021

Government-run institutions such as IITs still rule the roost   -  Sandeep Saxena

The National Education Policy 2020 will fundamentally disrupt higher education and not in a good way

Much of the discussion around the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) has been understandably focused on schools and online education. Understandably so, since two successive pandemic years have wreaked havoc with the school system.

In a country obsessed with examinations and marks, we witnessed the unprecedented sight of millions of school-leavers being awarded their Secondary School Certificates without having to write a make-or-break ‘board exam’. With the government’s own findings showing that only a little over a tenth of India’s 250 million-plus schoolchildren — the world’s largest school-going cohort — having access to a digital device or functional broadband, a question mark hangs over the future of these children unfortunate enough to be caught in two successive ‘zero’ years.

So the focus on school education is understandable. But the NEP, whose actual contours are slowly emerging as guidelines for various parts of the education ecosphere get released in dribs and drabs, is going to fundamentally disrupt the other end of the education spectrum — universities and other ‘Higher Education Institutes’ (HEIs). And not necessarily in a good way, at least for many of the existing players.

The “Guidelines on Internationalisation of Higher Education” released last week by the University Grants Commission (UGC) — the apex regulator of the university education system in India — seek to, and I quote from the stated objectives: “make India an attractive study destination for foreign students; foster international competencies in our faculty and students; develop a global mindset of our learners and shape them as global citizens with deep rooted pride in being Indian; and to promote active linkage between Indian and Foreign Higher Education Institutions.”

Global in India

Which is all very suitably noble and grand but what does it actually mean? The key goal is something the UGC calls “internationalisation at home” — in other words, give Indian students a global class education at home. To achieve this, HEIs are being actively encouraged for collaborative communication between Indian and foreign HEIs, adding international dimension to their curricula, incorporating internationalisation into broader quality assurance process and as a sop to local political sentiments, “offering local language courses to bridge any gaps.”

In other words, the NEP would like to see many more Indian HEIs either partnering with or becoming the local campus of foreign university, develop faculty and curricula which will seamlessly meld with global university programmes, so much so that “twinning” — where an Indian student will complete part of the course in a foreign campus, and credit transfers, where credit for courses taken in an Indian HEI are seamlessly transferrable abroad, will become commonplace.

There is a lot of other detailed stuff, up to and including use of social media by Indian HEIs for building, but the underlying message is clear. The government has realised the quality and skills gap in the existing system, and it has also decided that the solution lies in basically becoming adjuncts to the highly successful western model of higher education. In principle, this may not be such a bad thing. India’s colossal higher education superstructure — estimated to hit ₹2.3 lakh crore a year in turnover by 2025, according to a CII/IBEF estimate — is huge in numbers but pretty poor in quality. The number of colleges in India reached 39,931 in FY19. As of May 2021, India had a staggering 981 universities. India had 37.4 million students enrolled in higher education in 2018-19.

Technical and specialist education is equally big. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research alone runs 102 institutes and 71 agricultural universities across India. The All India Council of Technical Education, which regulates technical education, has approved a staggering 9,700 institutes, which offer 4,100 undergraduate, 4,951 postgraduate and 4,514 diploma courses.

The quality factor

Quality, though, is another thing altogether. Most of these universities — mostly privately owned and run — churn out unemployable graduates holding worthless degrees. Even today, as per the National Institutional Ranking Framework, seven out of the top 10 institutions for technical education in 2020 were government-run IITs. The situation is no different when it comes to medical or management education, with government medical colleges and the government-backed autonomous IIMs consistently topping the lists in both quality and affordability, with private pretenders lagging way behind.

Which raises the question of what exactly the NEP 2020 and these guidelines hope to achieve. The UGC’s stated objective in releasing these guidelines is to help India regain its position as “vishwaguru” — teacher to the world. But how exactly does one become a “vishwaguru” by essentially becoming cut-rate off-shore campuses for western universities?

India’s socialist pre-reform era has been rightly criticised for hobbling the economy and choking free enterprise. But that was the period when India built an enviable capacity in higher education, building world class institutes like IITs, IIMs and AIIMs right here in India. In non-technical education too, many Indian government universities were internationally known, and a beacon for students from the developing world.

When I attended Delhi University in the 1970s, I had batchmates from Asia, Africa, Latin America and even Australia and New Zealand. Today, Australia and New Zealand attract billions of dollars of Indian savings as fees for Indian students studying there.

Those students came to India then to get a higher education which was of high quality, cheap and affordable, and focused on the issues and priorities of the developing world. The NEP envisages a fresh horde of fee-paying foreign students coming to India in these so called “foreign branch campuses”. The question is, why would they come, if they can access the original?

The NEP has focused on the right problem — an out of date and low-quality higher education system — but appears to have plumped for the wrong fixes. The solution is not to become an educational colony of the West. Rather, it lies in rediscovering the successes of the past and templating and rolling out that model of excellence across the system at home, rather than importing foreign universities in CKD condition.

It is also important that we create new generations of qualified workers who are appropriately educated and skilled. Above all, it requires tremendous qualitative improvements in curricula and pedagogy. As India’s tryst with privatised higher education has shown, greater privatisation and autonomy have failed to yield these objectives. What guarantee is that now, greater internationalisation will deliver this?

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on September 01, 2021

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