Do What We Did At School: Read between the lines

Posted on March 19, 2010 in Education

(Foreign Educational Institutions Bill.)

Shruthi Venukumar:

Move over phony fake foreign universities cashing in on India’s attraction for overseas education. With the clearing of the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill, the decks have been cleared for foreign universities to set up campuses on Indian land, complete with their own fee structures and terms. With the Bill treating them as private institutes, the incoming varsities are excused from reserving seats for the backwards classes. After the initial gushing and cheering, the subsequent lull hosted a mixed reaction. Mostly positive, it seems to have found favour with the Indian upper and middle-classes, the major propellers of swift international business in off-shore educational institutions. The same degree at much lower a price and much lower a threat (in other words curry bashing reduced to none)! Irresistible indeed. There are nods all the way at the prospect of indigenous universities buckling down to improve existing standards in the face of stiff competition from foreign counterparts on their own land! But is all the glitter really gold? Or is it a tailor-made alliance to facilitate foreign varsities to cop huge profits while we cough up huge fees? Oh no! The terms against repatriation of funds to the mother country take care of that, do they not? The first query to pop up in the mind of a layman — why invest where there is no profit?

Will these foreign varsities keep good on their promise of unrivalled quality education in their offshore colleges? One might say “why not”! After all they have an international reputation to maintain from getting mired. But with not even a handful of major foreign universities showing thumping interest in setting up business here at the moment, would we be right in smelling their fear about a possible dilution of quality? In the absence of proper regulation and supervision, are we at the risk of minor foreign varsities ending up the way some of our private institutions have, at the brink of losing their deemed status, thus jeopardizing the future of unwitting ambitious students? Can we confidently state that the proposed reform is cent per cent immune to corruption-fuelled malpractices that we are familiar with?

Probing deeper, one might just agree that enrolling at a foreign varsity is not only about bagging that coveted degree. It is about the entire experience of living in, studying in and attuning oneself to an alien culture and country. What fun would it be to be a proud laureate of a Harvard Law School degree without ever having had a sweeping glimpse of the picturesque Austin Hall, let alone a class in it?

In the absence of regulations on fee structures, foreign institutes will be free to keep their worth great notches above the reach of the common man’s pocket, thus making them the forte of the elite. Education, which is already cake and not bread for a majority of Indian masses, will further drift away into an elusive (even illusive) dream for them. With possible defections of faculty from Indian institutes to these high paying alien varsities, the quality of our own establishments may come down till the gaps are filled, holding their students liable to diluted standards. It makes me reminiscent of our indigenous soap industry’s relegation into the background and final vanishing act; the result of free influx of foreign luxury soaps with the ushering in of the era of liberalization.

In the event of only third-rate institutes making an inflow, the benefit of acquiring low cost foreign education on Indian soil will be lost, as moneyed elites will most definitely opt to sail out abroad to the original institutions rather than settle for a cheaper substandard substitute. An overwhelming majority of students shipping offshore for an education have plans to settle abroad. For this class of students, a foreign university on Indian soil will never be the more attractive option, given the alternative.

In a nutshell, the proposed Bill looks all set to spell havoc with our education system. Foreign universities do not make up for the much needed breath of competition to make lax private colleges fall into line. Going half a mile extra to regulate underperforming private colleges can make them race towards milestones without resorting to much gimmickry. And the solution to dwindling number of seats in Indian colleges can very well be mitigated by opening up evening shifts in single shift colleges. Not only will this narrow down the student to vacancy ratio, it will also entail optimum untilisation of available resources and infrastructure.

At the onset and till the end, the basic function of a varsity should be to educate. And education always begins with elementary training. In a developing country like India, where socio-economic conditions forbid a gaping majority from accessing a basic slate and abacus, it is unlikely that introduction of foreign universities with hefty price tags will bring about an educational revolution. The need of the hour is to set up an efficient system of education in the country and erect enough institutes offering affordable schooling to our teeming millions, our most important resource that we seldom invest in, rather than renting surrogacy to inflated futility. Promote inexpensive education rather than use it as a profit-minting enterprise. The “products” will prosper to bring in profits unimaginable in today’s context.

The writer is an editor at Youth Ki Awaaz.