Sunday, May 09, 2010

Are foreign universities the panacea?

Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal says that in the next 10 years, India will need 800 universities and 35,000 colleges as against the existing 480 and 22,000. It is not clear whether these new universities include foreign universities, or they are going to be wholly indigenous. His proposal to bring in foreign universities to provide the intellectual elixir that is missing in Indian universities has got the Cabinet nod and has been introduced in the Lok Sabha. This is more or less a confession that Indian universities are nowhere near their foreign counterparts, and that they need some kind of competition to raise their standards.

The truth is that the university products (graduates) have fewer takers in industry, unlike the consumer products that have teeming millions of buyers in the great Indian Middle Class. University education at present hardly provides students with employable skills and professional competency. The entry of foreign universities under the LPG model will undermine the status of Indian universities, which will let loose an army of unemployable, frustrated graduates fomenting lawlessness, anger and violence. In the absence of adequate absorption by industry and markets in India, the supply of graduates will exceed the demand. We need to factor in another crucial point — the disabling of local universities as they lack resources to compete with foreign universities. If Mr. Sibal and his advisers think that foreign universities will be a major solution to the country's educational crisis, it is misplaced optimism. No doubt, these universities have the money to set up good libraries, state-of-the-art laboratories and use new technology for innovative teaching. But will they be importing their top faculty to teach here or will they poach on the best of Indian faculty and lure them with a huge salary that may still be far less than what the western professors earn? Further, importing higher education is absolutely no guarantee that we import the intellectual climate of Oxford and Cambridge or Yale and Harvard to India.

The universities in the West are a meeting point of intellectuals belonging to different cultures and civilisations, different religious faiths and political ideologies. There is a healthy debate and discussion in these universities that galvanise the intellectual atmosphere. But in India, only a small number of money-powered Indians (not necessarily with intellectual power) can gain admission to these foreign universities.

Improvement in higher education cannot be achieved simply by adding 30 universities annually, but by focusing on quality improvement. Today, expansion of university education in India amounts to spreading it thin to accommodate students from diverse sections of society with varying intelligence and background. The only way this is being achieved now is by focusing on job-centric education. This leaves no room for higher learning that is essential for human development. Universities in India are no longer the preserve of higher human alternatives, and they fail to ignite young minds to explore greater realms of thought to develop in them citizenship, humaneness, objectivity and responsibility. Universities are no longer concerned with issues which are fundamentally important for young students to evolve into responsible citizens. The courses are uninspiring with no relevance to the life ahead of them. Can't the higher budget allocation be used to attract top NRI faculty to teach in Indian universities and give an impetus to high quality research? One wonders how importing foreign universities can alter the prevailing disconnect between life and education and provide everyone the rightful access to world class education? Is importing education another manifestation of the colonial hangover?

This article written by Hema Raghavan in The Hindu, May 9, 2010

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