Can a high level of literacy, excellent human development indicators, a reputation for being a developed region, and the presence of a good many institutions of higher learning ensure a significant advance in respect of access to and performance in higher education? No, not necessarily. This has been established by a study in the case of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts, which are considered the most developed regions of Karnataka. The two districts have long been popularly known as buddhivanthara nadu or “land of the intelligent people.”
Revealing this in a news report (The Hindu, Mangalore edition, April 21), Senior Reporter Sudipto Mondal pointed out that the study revealed that in the districts where the literacy percentage hovered around 90, “an astounding number of people” did not go beyond middle school. The study, conducted by the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2007, also found that only nine out of a 100 persons in these districts were graduates. Further, 31 per cent in Dakshina Kannada and 33 per cent in Udupi dropped out after middle school (classes 5, 6 and 7). A graph showed a steep fall in the number of persons who expressed their wish to study beyond middle school. Twenty-six per cent of high school (classes 8, 9 and 10) students in Udupi district and 17 per cent of students of the same category in Dakshina Kannada district discontinued their studies after the high school stage. The gradual withdrawal of the government from higher education since the 1980s is generally cited as the reason for the fall in the number of students aspiring for higher learning after completing school education.
A look at higher education
Added to this is the indiscriminate privatisation of higher education. Of the 157 arts and science colleges in the two districts, only 30 are government-owned. In the case of professional colleges, the position is worse: only the government runs only one of the 30-plus engineering and medical colleges. On the other hand, of the 1,400 primary schools in Dakshina Kannada district, 1,000 are under the government control. As for post-graduate medical studies, the report says, the aspirants have to pay huge sums ranging from Rs, 45 lakh for anaesthesia to Rs. 1.3 crore for radiology. What is true of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts may be true of several other places in India as well: not even the moderately rich among the upper middle classes can dream of accessing post-graduate medical education. The country has been brought to such a pass three decades after the government began abandoning its responsibilities in areas such as education and healthcare as part of its policy of liberalisation. Even in respect of non-professional colleges, access is a serious problem for the majority of the people.
The research has thrown up several important issues. Imagine in this situation the impact of the government's fresh attempts to open up the country to foreign educational institutions. Six weeks ago the Union Cabinet approved a bill that seeks to allow foreign educational institutions such as universities to set up their campuses in India and offer degrees. Ever since a bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in August 1995, the proposal has been in the public realm, with different political parties and stakeholders taking different stands on the issue. A serious attempt by the previous United Progressive Alliance government to obtain the approval of Parliament was blocked by the Left parties and their supporters. If things go according to plan, once the Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill 2010 gets Parliament's approval, the first set of foreign educational institutions will start functioning in mid-2011. The Bill will enable foreign universities to invest at least 51 per cent of the total capital expenditure required for starting their institutions. About 50 foreign universities are believed to have shown interest in setting up campuses in India.
A ‘milestone' or wishful thinking?
Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal visited the United States in November 2009 and met the presidents and representatives of many top educational institutions. A confident Mr. Sibal has described the Bill as “a milestone, which will enhance choices, increase competition and benchmark quality.” The main arguments the proponents of the Bill put forth are these: The foreign institutions' entry will stop or at least curb the outflow of foreign exchange on account of Indian youth going abroad for higher studies. (About 1,60,000 Indians are studying in various countries, spending anything between $4 billion and $7.5 billion a year.). Higher education will become much cheaper owing to competition between Indian and foreign institutions. The quality of education will be enhanced. Advocates of the Bill also contend that the quality and the earnings of teachers will be enhanced in due course.
The critics characterise these arguments as wishful thinking. They contend that the entry of foreign universities cannot solve the basic problems of the country's education system, which begin in school and go all the way up. They point out that for two decades now, the government has retreated from the field of education, abandoning its social responsibilities. In the absence of a holistic approach to the problems, which are complex, ideals such as “inclusive education,” “education for all,” and “equitable access to quality education” will only be empty slogans. The entry of foreign educational institutions, the critics contend, will create further inequality in access to education, unless they are required to follow the state policy of reservation for non-privileged sections.
Sixty years ago, soon after Independence, the government set out on a mission to invest serious funds to educate the people and build a new nation. Today the situation has been turned upside down. The Bill and the related set of issues have been in the public realm for about 15 years now. The good thing is that there has been extensive coverage by both the print and broadcast media and plenty of interaction with readers and viewers. The Hindu has published about half-a-dozen analytical articles, rich in content and mostly critical of the government's resolve to go ahead and let foreign educational institutions set up shop in India. As many as 45 readers shared their views on the subject. Many raised basic questions about the state's failure on the education front. Interestingly, while 20 readers were critical of the Bill, 19 supported it. Six others extended conditional support: predictably, while some of them wanted the government to insist that the foreign educational institutions should follow the reservation system for admission of students, others opposed reservation.