Keep the focus on education

Gettyy Images/Istock

Gettyy Images/Istock  

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 had its genesis in the government-supported Loka Kerala Sabha Conference — a platform for the cultural, socio-political and economic integration of non-resident Keralites — held in Thiruvananthapuram, a few months ago.

Although Kerala may be able to offer a good environment for an ‘education hub,’ the government’s decision has surprised many for 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 then in opposition, 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 internationalisation of higher education.

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 on higher education, including the National Education Policy (NEP), approved by the Union Cabinet last week.

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.

Another important development is the growth of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the Indian education sector. It is important to note that the last Union budget had proposed to encourage External Commercial Borrowings and Foreign Direct Investments (FDI).

Shifting priorities

In India, many States had 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 legal framework. In Kerala, the Start-up Mission under the government 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 in Thiruvananthapuram with the support of Global Virus Network, an international coalition of medical virologists based in Baltimore, the United States.

Focus on human capital development

A UNESCO study conducted by N.V. Varghese on institutional restructuring in higher education had highlighted the links between the quality of professionally trained human resources in achieving international competitiveness. Kerala’s aspirations to establish a new ‘education city’ can be situated in this broader context.

Kerala has been facing unique challenges in developing human resources over the past few decades. Although the State has a good network of public schools, most higher education institutions are ill-equipped to address the skill requirements of the future workplaces. 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.

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 challenges related to equity and equality.

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 in this way within the existing framework. For instance, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Coimbatore and Jain University in Bengaluru have satellite campuses in Kerala.

Along with generous funding, the government should try to rope in the huge Kerala diaspora and institutions connected to the state in some way. The success of the initiative in a State like Kerala will, however, largely depend upon on the government’s ability 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

Although Kerala has a good network of public schools, most higher education institutions are ill-equipped to address the skill requirements of the future workplaces

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