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Is it education or mere profiteering?

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DEEPA KURUP

Opinion is divided on the merits of foreign universities coming to India.

In this quantitative age of numbers and figures here is a statistic which would surprise you, if not shock you out of your wits. In a country with a population of around 111 crore, there are only 400 universities for higher education, private and public sectors included, and an alarmingly low enrolment rate of eight per cent (according to the Association of Indian Universities). Compare this to a UNESCO world average of 20 per cent and we know that we are nowhere near the millennium development goals.

Sam Pitroda’s Knowledge Commission report calls for immediate action and says that 2,000 universities should be opened immediately. Combine this with the fact that the Central budgetary allocation for higher education is less than one per cent, and you know that a solution is nowhere in sight.

Lack of regulation

The Foreign Universities Bill is nowhere near being even tabled. But in spite of the lack of any regulation and complete ambiguity over the Government’s stance on this issue, foreign universities are setting base in India by the dozen.

According to the procedure, individual courses come under the purview of the AICTE, whereas universities with collaborations have to deal with the UGC. In the past year the AICTE has recommended 11 courses across the country for accreditation, all of which are waiting for approval from the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Reputed institutes such as M.S. Ramaiah Institute of Advanced Studies-Coventry University and Ohio-Christ College, which have been issuing degrees to students over years, have their accreditations pending with the AICTE for the past four years.

While there are numerous reputed universities, there are an equal number of less-reputed ones which are of dubious quality and charge exorbitant fees. A student who would like to verify the credentials of universities listed is at a loss, since there are no regulatory forums or bodies that maintain such records. The AICTE has put up on its website a list of three colleges which have been approved. With “bucket-shop” universities that do not do well in their own countries floating around their prospectus, several students get duped into courses that are sub-standard.

“The glamour factor around these colleges attracts students who prefer these third-grade universities over our own courses which are quite strong in content. UGC is looking at upgrading content and making it more relevant, but the foreign factor prevails,” says Alphonse Xavier, member of the University Grants Commission.

“There are good universities which do not enter India because of these procedural delays. I understand the need for regulations since there are colleges which are ‘foreign’ only in name,” says Shivaprakash, Director of Ohio-Christ Business College.

Bagari, Regional Officer of AICTE, Bangalore, says that they receive routine complaints against such universities and conduct inspections regularly. “While some fail to meet standards and are denied accreditation, others have been recommended for accreditation, but it is not in our hands anymore.”

“The university system in India is fossilised and follows the Macaulay structure. The only way it can be revamped is by allowing these foreign universities to step in and set higher standards for everybody,” says Ramaswamy, founder member, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

Huge difference

While opening up the higher education sector to foreign participation seems to be the solution to the inadequate structure in place, one cannot deny the question of equity and access.

While a management course in Bangalore University costs Rs. 12,000 a semester, and private colleges charge up to Rs. 2 - 3 lakh, most of these foreign courses average around Rs. 6 - 7 lakh. While most academicians think that it will bring up the value of education, they also think that most of these players have no rationale but that of profit.

“Is their objective to educate people or to take money home? I am more interested in the average man who cannot afford such fees. What will he do?” says K. Eresi, Director of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, Bangalore University. Colleges maintain that the high fees is to meet the cost of bringing in foreign faculty and covering a part of their salaries and infrastructure.

M.S. Thimmappa, ex-vice-chancellor of Bangalore University, believes that this issue can be solved by regulations which can dictate the social dimensions. “Regulations should concentrate on quality as well as increasing access and not stop at mere licensing,” he asserts.

Course content

In an increasingly global world, as far as the youth of today is concerned, employability is more of a problem than employment itself. Most of the syllabi offered at these universities are tailor-made to suit global standards. While those who are fighting to keep the university system intact will say that this will lead to an erosion of values and lead to an alienation of sorts; today’s industry is merciless and does not care about values.

“There is nothing alien about foreign courses, and it saves me the trouble of having to live in a different country,” says Vivek K., who studies with Wigan and Leigh. “The course may suit the industry and be strong on practicality, but our syllabus provides a firmer grounding with better content,” says Mr. Eresi.

The C.N.R. Rao report in 2005 proposed several methods of regulation for the entry of foreign universities, from forfeiture of security deposit (to prevent them from taking off) to rigorous inspections.

The MHRD recently made proposals to formulate rules such as 51 per cent investment and disallowing repatriation of profits. With the urgency in demands placed on the higher education sector, the issue is not about liberalisation anymore but of introducing regulations to ensure quality and accountability.

Political instability and vested interests have long stood in the way of development in the education sector. “It does not pay to dish out low quality education which is State-sponsored. There are institutes with very good track records which need to be validated by bringing in a system of regulation,” says Prof. Thimmappa.

Sluggishness at making policy-level decisions and unwillingness to tread what was once a forbidden path is retarding the pace of development. In a country like India there is no lack of academicians and there is no dearth of talent. What is lacking is much more basic — avenues and access for those who seek higher education. The abysmal statistics quoted at the beginning of the article are the result of a study done by the MHRD. Perhaps the Government should take a closer look at these statistics and try to set the record straight.


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