Opinion

‘Joint study’ to unlock demographic dividend

Chiraag Mehta/James Abdey | Updated on March 15, 2021

Full marks for the Budget in moving to bring foreign university collaborations under regulatory purview

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 clearly underlined, as part of its vision, the objective of making India a global knowledge superpower. The backdrop to this, as the NEP recognised, is the fact that over the coming years, India will have the highest population of young people in the world, and the quality of education they receive will dictate the future course that our country takes.

Indeed, with India poised demographically, and dependent in large part on the quality of its human capital, for what could prove to be a ‘dividend’ or a ‘disaster’ over the coming decade or two, there is no exaggeration in this.

This makes the government’s clear focus on revitalising higher education timely, as we add nearly half a million youth to the workforce every month. To this end, initiatives such as the publication of the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF), the Annual Refresher Programme in Teaching (ARPIT), the setting up of a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) to shore up higher education regulation and the expansion in numbers of branches of institutions of eminence are all very important for securing the quality of home-grown higher education institutions in the long term.

These initiatives mean that if we do most things right from here on in higher education, we should, in theory, end up with India having proportionate representation among global higher education ranking systems and league tables in two or three decades. That much is just the gestation period of achieving high quality in higher education, and therefore the lead time after which these institutions will start contributing materially to building top-flight human capital.

But what about the short term, when the ‘dividend’/’disaster’ fork in India’s journey will be reached, and the path we're able to take be determined by the preparedness and quality of our workforce at that stage?

Grim situation

The prognosis here is grim, and has been clear as day for a while now, with one CXO after the other lamenting the unemployability of our graduates, including those those from our best institutions and are widely considered our most employable. And this is why Budget 2021-22’s Annexure A, a pointer to put in place a regulatory mechanism to permit dual degrees, joint degrees, twinning arrangements and other such mechanisms to promote enhanced academic collaboration with foreign higher educational institutions, is a masterstroke and one that has gone almost unnoticed.

This is because domestic institutions collaborating with world-leading ones, through the kinds of arrangements indicated in the Budget, is the quickest and surest way to expose our talented youth to world-class undergraduate and higher levels of education at affordable costs, and to set in motion the virtuous cycle of the creation of knowledge and of high-quality human capital. In fact, we believe that here the Budget does one better than even the NEP, which spoke of allowing foreign higher education giants to open up campus in India, as this too will take time to create an impact. Why not stand on the shoulders of these willing giants in the meantime?

Collaborations that enable domestic institutions to do just that are rife already in India, even if they have had to operate in a regulatory vacuum despite being of the highest quality. This has happened because leading higher education institutions, typically located on first-world shores, have been seeking greener pastures for a variety of reasons (the eastward shift of global economic power, and now the Covid-19 pandemic) and have forged several different types of partnerships locally.

Some have licensed their curricula, others have a ‘validation’ arrangement going, then there is ‘twinning’ and also full-fledged collaborations where the foreign institution offers its education and degrees for studies undertaken entirely in India, all the while guaranteeing standards and quality.

Such collaborations have several other things going for them, too, with the benefits for the ‘host’ country increasing with the depth of collaboration. For instance, in the full-fledged collaborations mentioned above, of the kind that, say, the University of London offers, all employment is created locally and the lion’s share of income also accrues to the local partner.

What is more, the transfer of cutting-edge knowledge, higher education systems and processes, as well as pedagogical best practices is priceless in training a cohort of high-quality teaching professionals whose benefits will accrue to many generations and multiply over time. Not to mention the enhanced employability in the post-pandemic world, where competition for jobs will be more global than before, and the reversal of the brain drain we have long complained about.

For the layman to appreciate all these benefits, though, local regulatory endorsement is critical. Only then will large numbers take to them, and the employability of our workforce improve materially. As an example, the University of London programmes mentioned above are recognised locally in nearly all the other 150-odd countries they are offered in, but have operated in a regulatory vacuum in India for over two decades.

This is why, in initiating the move to bring such extant foreign collaborations under regulatory purview, and in thereby unlocking their benefits for the populace at large, the Budget may just have identified the key that ensures India turns towards the ‘dividend’ come the fork.

Mehta is Associate Director, Indian School of Business & Finance (ISBF), and Abdey is Lecturer at the London School of Economics and Visiting Lecturer at ISBF.

Published on March 15, 2021

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