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Course correction

We still have some way to go to fix higher education....

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
May 8, 2010 10:39:31 pm

The flurry of bills introduced in Parliament on higher education express a laudable desire for action. But they do not provide evidence of any deep thinking about higher education in India. Instead what these bills offer are some correctional measures and some false promises. Some of the provisions,in the bill on education tribunals,to protect students from extreme cases of outright fraud were necessary,though it is debatable whether whole-scale tribunalisation of the system is the best way to address these. While some of the measures may introduce a minimal degree of accountability,their overall impact on improving the system will be slight at best.

The bill regulating foreign education providers in India is based on three untenable premises. The first is that there can be a differential system of regulation for foreign and domestic players in a way that disadvantages domestic players. Foreign institutions have,on the face of it,been given a whole range of liberties,on admissions to fees and curriculum that are not allowed to domestic public and private institutions. This principle is patently wrong. There ought to be a level playing field for all institutions; and in some respects the bill would not be too bad if it simply dropped the word “foreign” and applied it more generally. Raising this concern is not,as some have argued,a product of an infant industry mindset,where domestic institutions need to be protected.

It is about fundamental fairness in regulation.

Second,it is premised on the false promise that there are a slew of top-class research institutions waiting to come to India. Top research universities do not create branch campuses,and certainly not without massive subsidy. NYU Abu Dhabi is one of the few major experiments in this direction. It has received subsidies and the jury is still out on it. Most top universities are looking to open offices or small research programmes in India,not serious campuses. There is most likely to be some mid-grade investment in teaching institutes,working largely through Indian partners. A few low-end Indian private entrepreneurs may be able to upgrade their quality with partnerships. While investment is welcome,the form this investment will take is suboptimal for several reasons. It is not going to address the critical issue in Indian higher education,the shortage of good faculty.

Research institutions that have top quality PhD programmes require serious subsidy that private investment will not generate. If anything this investment will lead to more attrition and dispersal of existing faculty. And it will not necessarily be a conduit for attracting faculty from abroad. Attracting this faculty will require top-class research institutions. It is will also require salaries and infrastructure that simply make the cost advantage any institution might be contemplating by coming to India redundant. India should become a global education hub. But this is easier said than done. The cost of faculty when you are competing in a global market and the cost of intermediate capital inputs like land in India do not give India cost advantages in the top-end education market. That would require creating an extraordinary cadre of faculty. Not a single measure proposed

by the government addresses this challenge.

Third,there is a touch of bad faith in starting reform with foreign institutions. The bad faith consists in the fact that we are so morally upset about Indian institutions charging capitation fees that we punish them,but are not really concerned about any kind of fees foreign institutions may charge. While capitation fees are abhorrent,we must recognise that it is a phenomenon resulting from overregulation. By the way,foreign institutions routinely accept “donations”. Also,the claim that the education by the foreign provider being given in India must be of the same quality as that in the parent institution has to be taken with a pinch of salt. This claim cannot be understood literally,for there are no examples of this kind. And the priority being given to this bill betrays a little bit of a defeatist mindset. By sequencing reforms to allow foreign players before reforming the public system or creating a domestic level playing field we have signalled that we are throwing our hands up when it comes to real reform.

Ask yourself this question. Why is there a shortage of quality institutions? The answer usually given is lack of investment. The ostensible rationale for the foreign education bill is to attract investment. But this is a misleading story. Investment in public higher education is enormous. But this investment goes waste because public institutions are not functioning well. If even half our public universities were running well we could solve three problems simultaneously: these universities would be the source of good faculty,they would ease the pressure on students to enrol in bad quality private colleges at any cost,and they would produce accountability even in the private sector because there would be genuine competition. The mistake we are making is to suppose that private and foreign education providers can be substitutes for public universities. In reality,private and foreign providers will also

do better only if there is a strong public system.

Nothing in the present bills prevents the government from attending to the public system. But issues of sequencing and messaging are important. If all political effort is expended on the periphery of reform,rather than on the core,then little will be achieved. We also need to remember that we are at a tipping point where several functioning public universities will also become more unsalvageable. Even if,for argument’s sake,we manage to get a handful of new institutions functioning,the total supply will not increase if a few more existing ones go down. All we are doing at best is effecting a displacement rather than augmenting supply.

Many of the measures in the bill on tribunals,particularly on false advertising and misleading information,are welcome. But there are three issues. First,what is going to be the relationship between the tribunals and the proposals on the National Higher Education Regulatory Authority? Are we again running the risk of multiple jurisdictions in different guises? Second,with tribunals there is always the danger of mission creep: instead of being agents of accountability,they risk judicialising vast areas of university education,including admissions criteria. Third,the proposed measures,at best,deal with the punitive instruments of accountability. No system that relies on punitive measures only can succeed. The challenge is to infuse genuine life into a struggling system. And there is no strategy yet in sight.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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