Philip G. Altbach, a renowned education expert, talks about the maladies afflicting the higher education sector in India.

Philip G. Altbach is J. Donald Monan, S.J. University Professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. He was the 2004-2006 Distinguished Scholar Leader for the New Century Scholars' initiative of the Fulbright programme.

He has been a senior associate of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and served as editor of the Review of Higher Education, Comparative Education Review, and as an editor of Educational Policy.

He is author of ‘Turmoil and Transition: The International Imperative in Higher Education', ‘Comparative Higher Education', ‘Student Politics in America', and other books. He co-edited the ‘International Handbook of Higher Education'. His most recent book is ‘World Class Worldwide: Transforming Research Universities in Asia and Latin America'.

Prof. Altbach spoke to The Hindu-EducationPlus on various issues related to education. Excerpts from an interview in Thiruvananthapuram:

Most significant changes in higher education sector

The most significant change over the past thirty years is what the Europeans calls ‘massification' — the development of universities and the access of larger and larger pockets of population to higher education over much of the world.

In the coming twenty years most of the developments in higher education would be in two countries — China and India. Because China and India still enroll only a modest percentage of the age group for higher education. In China now it is about 22 per cent and in India 10 per cent. So there is a huge scope for growth here and that is a dramatic challenge for the higher education system.

Another factor is globalisation which affects a lot of sectors including higher education. Science and scholarship have become much more internationalised. You have large numbers of students going abroad to study. The number of students who flow across borders have increased dramatically. The two largest sources of students for the USA are China and India.

On quality of education

Even in the U.S. there is a huge difference in quality between the brand names you know here and the average university. But an average university in the U.S., I guess, is much better than an average university here. I once wrote an article on Indian higher education ‘Tiny at the Top' in which I said for a country of its size, wealth and brain power it amazes me that India has so few top-class institutions.

The IITs the IIMs, the Indian Institute of Science, Banaglore,…all are world class. If you look at China, Korea, Taiwan they have more top quality institutions.

Why? Some elements of corruption in the system, politics…but mainly I think a lack of attention by the government at the Central level especially and in most of the States to building world class institutions and making the investments necessary to build them. If you look at your competitors—China especially—they have done it.

They have invested huge amounts of money in their top 25 universities and they are large institutions. A lot of students leave India and other developing countries because they are thinking of emigrating and a lot of students leave India also because they cannot get the quality education they want here. The IITs here are perhaps the most selective of institutions. Those who cannot get into them do get into institutions such as MIT or Caltech… So you just don't have enough capacity at the top, the middle or the bottom.

The 10 percent you enroll right now is going to go up and not all of them may want to or may be smart enough to go to top institutions. There has to be a space for them. One of the things India has done is to promote the private sector. And that is a challenge, a problem and an opportunity all at the same time because India doesn't do a good job of what is called ‘quality assurance.' It does not make sure that the higher education sector is monitored properly so that they can weed out institutions that are really at the bottom of the system.

On the role of government

I am critical of the private sector, but it has a role in higher education. In developing countries, however, it is the government that has to ensure access to higher education. The government has to make sure that the quality offered by institutions of higher education is appropriate, making sure that the qualifications of teaching staff is appropriate, that the private institutions are not gouging the customer and that they are transparent and honest about what they are.

The government has to find money for education because it is the country's future. India is not anymore a poor country and a decision has to be taken on what your priorities are. Now, this proposal that Mr. Sibal (the union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal) has made about building more world class universities, top quality research institutions, expanding the number of IITs… it isn't going to work. Why? The financial figures that I have seen, what the Central government is discussing…is way too inadequate for what they are trying to do.

Honestly, I think it is very difficult to have world quality institutions in far flung places because good professors don't want to live there and top students don't want to go there. Yes, it is important to help local communities and you can do that with other local institutions. Most of the top universities are in relatively interesting parts of the countries in which they are located.

I think India needs to be realistic about how it builds these new institutions. You might want to start with the ones you already have and improve them. Even JNU or a Delhi University and such institutions which are discussed as being among the better institutions here, are not there high up in the global rankings. Academics need to be of high quality and they need to be paid properly. The creation of a work environment and the measurement of academic performance do not take place. An academic sticks around and his pay goes up gradually…that is not a good system.

On the entry of foreign educational institutions

I don't think the proposals formed by the Indian government on this front are going to solve any problem. To expect foreign universities to invest the kind of money they are being asked to… why do it? Then you say, you cannot take profits out. Most branch campuses are intended to make money for the home institution. That is the reality. There are very few exceptions.

Even without these restrictions, the Harvards and the Oxfords are not going to establish branch campuses here or anywhere else. If they do establish a small campus they are going to be very careful about who they are admitting. Just last week one of the branch campuses of the Michigan State University in Dubai failed—there weren't enough enrolments.

In any case India should not be relying on foreigners to improve the higher education system. It is not practical. Most of the institutions which are going to rush in if India opened its policy doors wider are low end institutions.

Here, I think the Chinese have got it right. There the regulatory environment is about partnering. Their rules say that if a foreign university comes it has to partner with a Chinese university and it has to be 51 per cent owned by the Chinese. Some, not many, decent foreign institutions have gone there. There may be 10 or 15 such partnerships. But there are low end institutions too going there.

In this sense I am sort of happy that the legislation planned here is so restrictive. But all the same I think inviting foreign universities is a bad idea. Some of the IITs and such institutions already partner with the U.S. institutions. Expand this model.