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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Free higher education

Article Collected by - Education is My Passion

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Author : Ashok Malik  
IF STAKEHOLDERS in Indian education look to 2010 with hope and optimism, it is because the year could trigger a decade-long process of genuine expansion of opportunities. Ideally, these will run the gamut -- from access to schools for all children of a certain age to greater availability of seats in higher education, especially technical fields such as engineering and medicine. A modern, transparent regulatory process and quicker clearances for honest investment in private universities -- as opposed to fly-by-night racketeers and their degree shops -- are also realisable.

Not all of this will happen in 2010. To be fair, some of it will probably still be an aspiration even in 2020. Yet, the coming year could see the first serious steps in the direction of making the country's education system compatible with the needs of a 21st century economy. India has wasted years not upgrading its education protocols. It was only in the summer of 2009, with the appointment of Mr Kapil Sibal as human resource development minister, that decided urgency came into education policy, as opposed to education politicking.

In the past six months, Mr Sibal has been a very busy man and has thrown up a flurry of ideas. In the end, not all the minister's ideas and suggestions may fructify. Yet, grant him this, he has got a debate or even several debates going.  Most reassuringly, he has not shown the kind of congenital hostility to private and nonIndian service providers in higher education that marked his predecessor's term.

Education reform is a complex business and means different things to different sections.  It could simply imply entry into schooling for some people, availability of quality neighbourhood schools to other people, a greater number of colleges and higher educational institutions with contemporary curricula to a third set of people.

Reform in one component is not necessarily linked to that in another. The priorities and concerns of the urban parent who wants his daughter to graduate in computer engineering, and doesn't want to spend a fortune on a university in America or Australia, are never going to be the same as those of a humble semi-rural parent who only wants to find a good primary school, close enough to home, where he can send his son and have him learn basic, functional English.

Yet, if there is one catalyst for the coming decade, for 2010 and beyond, it is likely to be the freeing of higher education. This will do two things. First, it will take care of at least some of the pressure cooker atmosphere in high school. A system that has a Class 12 candidate getting 95 per cent and still not being sure of admission to a college of his choice is ridiculous. Yet, the fault lies less with the school examination and more with the fact that there are just not enough top-grade college seats to go around. Higher education is the last bastion of India's shortage economy.

Second, the arrival of private and foreign education providers -- and often a mix of the two -- will ease the burden on public education to that extent. The government will not only earn more revenue, it will also be able to transfer potential capital investment in higher education to enhanced outlays for primary and secondary education.

In turn, this could happen in a variety of ways -- building government schools in hard-to-reach areas or, and this is perhaps more efficient, providing subsidy for a voucher system that would allow children from poorer families to seek admission even in expensive private schools with the promise that the government will "honour the voucher" and reimburse the requisite fee. Indeed, Mr Sibal has mentioned the voucher model as one India could consider.

The key lies in revamping and rapid enlarging of higher education. It can be reasonably expected that Parliament will pass the necessary legislation and that by the end of 2010 the first foreign institutions will begin to set up facilities in India. Even so, these are unlikely to be full-fledged universities, at least initially.

There is no compelling logic for a Stanford or an Oxford to establish a second university in India. This will only deprive its original campus of an Indian or south Asian market. More important, it will dilute the brand, as there is no guarantee of finding gifted faculty and adequate human and institutional resources to replicate the excellence of the original.
Given this, foreign educational institutions are likely to come to India in one of two forms.  Individual schools or departments in the best universities abroad will seek appropriate partners in this country. For example -- and this is completely hypothetical -- it is conceivable that an environmental sciences school in an Ivy League university could tie up with The Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi for a degree programme in, say, climate change mitigation technology.

Cornell University has a fine hotel management school. It could partner with the Oberoi School of Hotel Management or any one of the Indian Institutes of Management. The Singapore-based Cornell-Nanyang Institute of Hospitality Management offers a precedent. A California Institute of Technology or a Massachusetts Institute of Technology may seek synergies with one of the Indian Institutes of Technology for a specific programme.

These notional scenarios constitute the upper layer. On the other hand, the bulk of foreign education service providers may focus on the demand for vocational courses, often offering diplomas rather than degrees. For instance, thousands of Indian students who go to Australia don't necessarily study mechanical engineering or history. They seek admission in small colleges, some of them downright dodgy, offering courses in hairdressing or cookery or automobile repair.

There is a domestic boom waiting to happen here. One or two year courses in nursing or cookery, in paramedical expertise, even in driving or tailoring, benchmarked against international standards and leading to a diploma that is recognised in overseas markets: the scope is immense. This is where the first foreign institutions will come. By the end of 2010, they should be changing India's skill-building landscape. ASHOK MALIK can be contacted at

Source : Deccan Chronicle 

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