What price ‘foreign providers'?

The proposal to permit foreign educational providers to function in India will do considerable harm to the independent development of Indian education.

Updated - October 04, 2016 07:09 pm IST

Published - April 07, 2011 02:07 am IST

New Delhi, 15/04/2010: Members of All India Democretic Students Organisation staging a protest against Foreign Educational Providers Bill, National Council for Higher Education and Research Bill and Private University Bill, at Parliament Street,  in New Delhi on April 15, 2010.  Photo: V_Sudershan

New Delhi, 15/04/2010: Members of All India Democretic Students Organisation staging a protest against Foreign Educational Providers Bill, National Council for Higher Education and Research Bill and Private University Bill, at Parliament Street, in New Delhi on April 15, 2010. Photo: V_Sudershan

The steps to regulate the operation of foreign educational institutions in India, as contained in a Bill under Parliament's consideration, are welcome initiatives. As the Minister for Human Resource Development pointed out while introducing the Foreign Educational Institution (Regulation of Entry and Operation) Bill, “a large number of foreign educational institutions have been operating in the country and some of them may be resorting to various malpractices to allure and attract students.” The absence of a “regulatory regime,” he said, has “given rise to chances of adoption of various unfair practices, besides commercialisation.” These institutions function under several disguises, exploiting the obsession of the Indian middle class for certification from foreign institutions. The proposed legislation is intended to restrain such institutions and their malpractices, through administrative, academic and financial regulation.

These steps will have universal approval, except from those who are the beneficiaries of such practices. The implications of the Bill, however, go beyond the stated objectives. It will give official approval to what is currently being done surreptitiously, by enabling foreign ‘educational providers' to set up campuses in India. It is possible that this may not attract a large number of quality institutions to invest money and set up campuses. Yet, in the event of even a limited entry of foreign institutions, India's educational system will face certain challenges.

The general assumption is that it would improve in quality through competition, and increase access due to the availability of a larger number of institutions. Both these possibilities are attractive to the members of the upper crust of the middle class who have reached positions of power from the colonial times through education in good foreign universities. Even a cursory survey of India's power elite during the last century will indicate that their dominance is primarily rooted in such educational opportunities. The ‘open doors' policy of the government will make foreign education available at the doorsteps, which accounts for the popular support from the intelligentsia and the English- educated middle class.

An apprehension among the intelligentsia is about the possibility of the misuse of liberalisation by ‘fly-by-night operators' by using the investment opportunity for quick returns. The Bill seeks to allay this genuine fear by providing for administrative control, financial safeguards and academic vigil. To qualify for registration as an educational provider, an institution should have been in the field of educational services for 20 years and have a corpus fund of not less than Rs. 50 crore.

Secondly, any surplus revenue can be invested only for the growth and development of educational institutions established in India. The Bill stipulates that the quality of education should be comparable to that imparted on the institution's main campus. It is assumed that these stipulations, along with the administrative formalities to ensure the fitness of the institution to provide quality education, will make the participation of ‘foreign providers' a positive asset to the nation.

On the contrary, the Bill, if it is passed by Parliament, is likely to have a long-lasting adverse impact on the national character of education, which has not yet fully emancipated itself from the intellectual influences of colonialism. Nobody expects the foreign education providers to swamp the scene. It is also true that they will not provide mass education. Their operations will by and large be confined to specialised areas. Yet, the open policy will introduce a new stream in Indian educational system. Philip Altbach has brought to our notice that in a couple of countries where branch campuses exist, they “are fairly small and almost always specialized in fields that are inexpensive and have a ready clientele.” It will be unrealistic to expect these campuses to train undergraduate students in the social sciences or the humanities. Understandably, they are not going to make any substantial improvement in the matter of access to higher education.

There is greater expectation in the matter of improvement in the quality of education, as the main rationale for ‘importing' these institutions could only be their superior academic credentials. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect them to help improve the standard of instruction. With this in view, the Bill lays down the following: “A foreign education provider shall ensure that a course or programme of study offered and imparted by it in India is in conformity with the standards laid down by the statutory authority and is of quality comparable, as to the curriculum, methods of imparting education, to those offered by it to students enrolled in its main campus in the country in which such institution is established or incorporated.” The conditions and quality of education of the ‘mother' institution being replicated on the new campuses is a doubtful proposition. Yet, their presence itself, in however clipped a manner, will have serious cultural and academic implications.

The idea of transplanting the curriculum and pedagogy of foreign institutions, as envisioned in the Bill, attributes a universal character and purpose to education. Even when fundamental principles of education are commonly shared, the fact remains that the development of education is integrally linked with the demands of specific societies, and it plays a crucial role in development and nation-building. More important, education is a defining factor in moulding a nation's identity. No country can, therefore, entrust the responsibility of educating its citizens, even a part of it, to external agencies that have no stake in the nation except their own self-interest.

That foreign educational providers will be required to follow the same curriculum and pedagogy is claimed as a positive factor. In fact, that is the most undesirable part of the scheme, as the cultural assumptions of curriculum and pedagogy differ from nation to nation. The borrowed contents and practice of education may not lead to a ‘cultural invasion', as feared by some critics and dismissed by its defenders. But they will certainly be affected by cultural incompatibility, which in turn will defeat the creative and innovative possibilities inherent in education. Education is an organic process that cannot be borrowed or super-imposed on a society. The main weakness of the new scheme is its externality; this is suggested even in the term ‘education provider.'

This is not to suggest that Indian academia need no exposure to the global community or relationships with institutions abroad. On the other hand, there is a case for greater professional exposure and institutional collaboration. Before the Bill is passed, the different possibilities for achieving them deserve to be debated.

Among the many ways in which international academic linkages can be established, two deserve attention. The first is, as provided in the Bill, to permit foreign universities to start campuses. The second is to establish collaborative arrangements with specialised institutions for the exchange of teachers and students. The first is an easier option and is in consonance with overall state policy. Even if it is successfully implemented, it will only create a few more islands of excellence. It will also deplete the already weak academic resources of the existing institutions.

An alternative paradigm is being pursued by Kerala and it has been successfully implemented during the last five years. It is based on a principle of sharing knowledge generated by scholars all over the world. In pursuance of this, a large number of outstanding scholars, including Nobel laureates, have been brought to the State for interaction with teachers and research scholars. Combined with collaborative arrangements with reputed universities and substantial increase in the allocation of funds to universities, higher education in the State is poised for a leap. The perspective is long-term growth from within by invigorating the State's academic resources.

In this respect, the manner in which U.S. and European universities have organised their Indian studies programmes is worth emulating. They did not persuade Indian universities to organise their mini-campuses, however competent and reputed they are in Indian studies. Instead, they invited scholars from India to work in these centres to help organise academic programmes. Some of these centres have become reputed institutions of research in Indian studies. So much so that the Government of India has found it necessary to institute endowments in them for the study of Indian civilisation.

The proposal to permit foreign educational providers to function in India will do considerable harm to the independent development of Indian education. Instead of contributing to the making of the national identity, it is likely to create a social stratum that is intellectually far removed from the nations' concerns.

The immediate response to the Bill generally would have been to scrap it — but for the provision to regulate the operation of foreign educational providers.

In the circumstances, the best solution will be to refashion the Bill with provision to prevent the operation of foreign educational providers and introduce sufficient space to promote independent interaction and collaboration with global academia.

(Dr. Panikkar is Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council: knpanikkar@gmail.com)

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