Foreign universities in India: An idea whose time has come

About 3.4 crore Indians are studying in higher educational institutions. For 757 universities, this makes around 45,000 students per university. Even a single university therefore, is a powerful intellectual pivot, cultivating thousands of young minds every year.

This means an uninspiring university can be the source of demotivated spirit of thousands of pupils. Mind at young age in a fast paced economy is often bubbling with energy and ideas; it needs to be nourished. This mind spends its most fertile years in a university. Each university must be creative; it must be inspiring.

One source of inspiration is the faculty members who train young minds on how to think. There are a little over 14 lakh teachers in India. This makes it almost 1,900 teachers per university. For a UGC recommended faculty-student ratio of 1:12, we should be having almost 3,800 teachers. Universities do not have half their teachers. And most of the other half are hardly proud of their jobs. This is a disappointing story, repeated every time you visit a regular (non-elite) college where teachers themselves are unmotivated (exceptions aside).

Another source of inspiration is fellow students. Students learn from their peers, discuss, debate and think big ideas that may change the world. Unfortunately, the exclusivity in Indian higher education means only a handful of colleges and institutions are considered to be worth going to. The total number of law colleges for instance, is more than 1,200, but aspirational colleges can be counted on fingers.

These colleges have limited resources compelling a Darwinian fight between competing aspirants. For a cut-off beyond 95% and acceptance rates of less than 2%, majority of intelligent students are forced to resign to poor quality education in other schools (those who can afford, go abroad). Many of these bright minds are dimmed before they can shine – there are neither good faculty nor good peers.

Both these sources feed on each other. If good quality faculty comes to an institution, it signals the good quality of the institution, encouraging intelligent students to join the college. But faculty recruitment is not a smooth ride. Universities – often fossilised in their colonial institutions – are quasi-political entities. Vice chancellors and other university officials are often politically appointed leading to an unclean faculty appointments and seats remain vacant due to bureaucracies.

A well-qualified applicant cannot wait for months to hear from selection committee, particularly when society already looks down upon her/him not having a job after years of education. People who could be good teachers choose other jobs, many go abroad.  Worst of all, people stop choosing teaching as their preferred profession. Students in these universities kill their aspirations to be university level professors, even before these aspirations sprout. Universities remain uninspiring. Students come out like products in a factory, often unemployable.

We have two options then; either reform our governance structure, both politically and institutionally or create new universities with lofty ambitions. Lack of political will impedes the first, and crushing oversight of regulatory bodies prevents the second. Inflating existing elite institutions by opening their replicas has not worked due to limited capacity and resources, politicisation and misplaced vision.

Research culture

Further, whatever private universities which have emerged, did not deliver (barring a handful of exceptions). The promoters of these universities are interested in making money rather than creating institutions. With the demand pull so great, any university in India can run without having a long term vision.

We are left with no other option then, but to invite reputed foreign universities. These universities are winning in the global reputational game and have a lot to lose by diluting quality. They will hire inspiring faculty, attract good students (who scored 89.9% and were unable to get into elite institutions) and build a research culture. Most of all, it will break the monopoly of the handful elite institutions in India, where quality of higher education is very poor if one benchmarks them globally.

With foreign universities in India, it will become easier for knowledge osmosis at the domestic level through the various collaborative engagements between Indian and India-based foreign universities. Indian universities will be forced to innovate, bright young minds will find a place to flourish in India rather than going abroad and in decades to come, a whole new wave of impressive young leaders will emerge.

We need an urgent discourse and an informed crystallisation of the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill. One of the many (resolvable) concerns in this respect is the inflow of not-so-prestigious universities in India, rather than the reputed ones. With the newly institutionalised National Institutional Ranking Framework, this problem could be addressed effectively. The Framework ranks Indian institutions based on fairly objective parameters which include teaching, research, graduation outcomes, outreach and perception.

Any university applying for entry could be assessed against these parameters (they will be happy to give the data for calculating their scores), and certain relative threshold can be used to grant them access to the Indian market. In other words, if the combined score of the applicant is better than the tenth best Indian institution in the Framework, they could be allowed.

We cannot expect to achieve much in human development without a meaningful higher education system. Our efforts for last 70 years in this regard have failed miserably. This is a powerful hope that must transcend political interests.

(The writer is Deputy Director, International Institute of Higher Education Research and Capacity Building, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana)

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