Keep the focus on education

The State’s involvement is of utmost important from identifying a suitable location to addressing challenges related to equity and equality.

The State’s involvement is of utmost important from identifying a suitable location to addressing challenges related to equity and equality.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In June, the Kerala government had formed a committee headed by M.P. Poonia,vice-chairman of the All India Council for Technical Education to study the feasibility of setting up an ‘education city’ in the State. The idea for establishing the ‘education city’ had its genesis in the government-supported Loka Kerala SabhaConference — a platform for the cultural, socio-political and economic integration of non-resident Keralites — held in Thiruvananthapuram few months ago.

Although Kerala may be able to offer a good environment for an ‘education hub,’ the government’s decision has surprised many due to two reasons. First, when the previous Congress-led government organised a Global Education Meet in Thiruvananthapuram in 2016 to discuss establishing an Academic City and International Higher Academic Zones, the Left-affiliated organisations, who were in opposition then, had strongly opposed the move. Second, it comes at a time when globally “the halcyon days of growth in educational hubs and franchise operations and other forms of transnational education are diminishing”, an important argument raised by Philip G. Altbach and Hans de Wit, who are known for their extensive contributions on the field of internationalization of higher education.

While there is not an absolute definition of ‘education city’ or ‘hub’, there are certain concepts that are common to most discussions on this theme. According to Jane Knight, who examined the international dimension of higher education at the institutional level, the term ‘education hub’ is used by countries seeking to position themselves as centres for student recruitment, education and training, research, and innovation. According to her, ‘student hub’ is the most popular type of ‘education hub’ and the key activity in these ‘hubs’ is the education and training of local, expatriate and international students. These ‘hubs’ also focus on attracting foreign higher education institutions to offer franchise and twinning programmes.

Embracing new ways in a favourable national policy environment

A careful look at Kerala’s policy retreat shows that it is closely linked to ongoing reforms at the national level. The Central Government has, in recent years, brought out a number of blueprint documents in recent years on higher education, including the National Education Policy (NEP), approved by the Union Cabinet last week. It is a fact that currently there are many legal hurdles in India regarding the operation of foreign universities. The NEP addresses this and recommends for the operation top foreign universities through a new legislative framework.

While the new programmes such as ‘Institutions of Eminence’ and ‘Graded Autonomy’ provide greater autonomy to select institutions, the ‘Study in India’ launched in 2018 has been focussed on promoting India as a study destination. The country had also signed agreements on Mutual Recognition of Academic Qualifications with France and Morocco in recent years.

Another important development is the growth of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the Indian education sector. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s and Qatar Investment Authority’s investment in educational technology firm Byju’s and Baring Private Equity Asia’s investment in NIIT Technologies are some examples. It is important to note that the last Union budget had proposed to encourage External Commercial Borrowings and Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in the country’s education sector.

Shifting state and institutional priorities

In India, many States have attempted to establish ‘education hubs’ in the past. However, only Haryana and Gujarat have been successful to some extent, as reflected in the‘Rajiv Gandhi Education City’ in Sonipat and the ‘Knowledge Corridor’ in Gandhinagar.

Although branch campuses of foreign universities are not legally permitted in the country, many other forms of international collaborations are happening within the existing framework. For instance, the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata is now part of the 170 institutions across the world that offer programmes on Coursera. Similarly, seven higher education institutions in the country are in the process of adopting cloud computing curricula from Amazon Web Services (AWS) Educate into their mainstream syllabus.

In Kerala, the ‘Start-up Mission’ under the government had recently established Fab Labs — technical prototyping platforms — in association with the Center for Bits and Atoms, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Last year, the State established the Institute of Advanced Virology with the support of Global Virus Network,an international coalition of medical virologists based in Baltimore,United States.

Focus on human capital development

A UNESCO study conducted by N.V. Varghese on institutional restructuring in higher education some years ago had highlighted the linkages between the quality of professionally trained human resources and international competitiveness. Kerala’s aspirations to establish a new ‘education city’ could be situated in this broader context. The State’s strategy may be to focus on building domestic capacity along with attracting international students.

The State has been facing unique challenges in developing human resources over the past few decades. It is estimated that around 10 per cent of the State’s population are working outside the State and the country, including a large number of highly qualified professionals.

Although Kerala has a good network of public schools, most higher education institutions in the State are ill-equipped to address the skill requirements of the future workplaces and are slow to respond to address the issue of graduate readiness for the emerging employment market. A large number of students go outside the State for higher studies every year. The fact that many private professional colleges in the State have been running with less than 50% of the intake capacity for many of their courses underlines the relationship between students’ choice and employment opportunities.

The government’s intent should not be limited to reduce the flow of students from the State, but also to attract greater number of students and faculty from other States and countries to promote campus diversity. There is no doubt that Kerala — with its reputation as a State with unique cultural, economic and political characteristics along with relatively better infrastructure — is well placed to gain a portion of foreign students coming to India. However, the location of the proposed ‘hub’, infrastructure and service conditions of staffers will have a major role in attracting students, faculty and partner institutions.

This is important because, of the 47,427 foreign students attended Indian institutions during 2018-19, only 217 joined institutions in Kerala. Neighbouring Karnataka attracted 10,023 students during the same period. It is also important to note that Manipal University (MAHE), which is located not very far from the northern border of Kerala, had around 2,500 foreign students for its full-time programmes during the last academic last year.

Identifying and overcoming challenges

Globally, whether in the Education City of Qatar or the Dubai International Academic City, ’education hubs’ are examples of neo-liberal market model in education. Therefore, the State’s involvement is of utmost important from the stage of identifying a suitable location to addressing issues related to equity and equality.

The government should take measures to avoid competition between institutions, since many will be housed in the same ‘hub’. This can be achieved by limiting the number of similar academic programmes offered by different institutions and by allowing students to take courses from different institutions through cross-registration. Also, the proposed ‘education hubs’ should not end up as another dodgy teaching shops of fly-by-night providers. Along with foreign institutions, the proposed ‘hub’ should have space for reputed Indian institutions as well. Many private institutions in India have already started operating out of their headquarters within the existing framework. For instance, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Coimbatore and Jain University in Bengaluru have satellite campuses in Kerala

There is no doubt that ‘education hubs’ with international partnerships are useful in addressing the skill requirements of the future. However, they should be integrated with the country’s existing higher education system to avoid potential clashes at various levels. Along with generous funding, the government should try to rope in the huge Kerala diaspora and prominent institutions connected to Kerala in some way such as Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Christ University, GEMS Education, edtech company BYJU’s, among others. The success of the initiative in a State like Kerala will, however, largely depend upon on the ability of the government to attract philanthropists focussed on education rather than commercially oriented actors who view education as a commodity.

The writer is a researcher in higher education based in New Delhi.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2020 9:21:03 PM |

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