News

A chunk of change

(As Published in India Today on Saturday, May 22nd 2010)

By Rajeev Gowda

Kapil Sibal is clearly a man on a mission. He aims to rid Indian higher education of its ills, while drawing more students into its net. He has unleashed a quartet of education reform bills in Parliament, with one more in the works.

Without better salaries and academic freedom, we can hardly expect to create the large numbers of high quality academics that we need to transform Indian higher education.

Clearly, having a sharp Supreme Court lawyer as human resource development minister has some advantages. Sibal knows how to design laws to close loopholes and to counter education racketeers. He knows how to craft alternative institutional structures to ensure that his reforms accomplish their goals.

A key strength of the education bills is their crackdown on rapacious private managements. Sibal has ushered in transparency in their functioning and made extracting of capitation fees and exploitation of students punishable as crimes. He has eliminated corruptible regulatory institutions and established accreditation systems in their place. He has put in place tribunals to resolve disputes that affect higher education.

These are good starts to attack the rot that affects higher education. But other covert ills, like rigging of exams, cash donations, and caste politics, continue to degrade our campuses. How does one tackle them? There are concerns about whether the new controls will stifle the innovations needed in higher education. Is it right to assume that everyone is out to beat the system? Understandably, states are concerned about whether the Centre is encroaching on their turf.

Sibal’s reforms are also aimed at making education an enterprise to enable a quantum increase in the number of colleges and universities. But quantity is just one issue. It’s what happens in our universities, between them and beyond them that makes all the difference.

Our students focus on earning degrees and cracking exams, and view education merely as a box to tick off to qualify for a job. The concepts of mastering knowledge, engaging with ideas, thinking critically, testing learning in practice and reflecting on relevance just do not resonate. For Indian education to be meaningful and worthwhile, this culture has to change.

Our teachers are assaulted by financial pressures and asphyxiating administrations. Overloaded with teaching, they rarely get the chance to pursue research or upgrade their skills. Our educational ecosystem does not have enough high-quality conferences, journals, associations and funding agencies to enable scholars to flower intellectually. Without better salaries and academic freedom, we can hardly expect to create the large numbers of high quality academics that we need to transform Indian higher education.

Sibal figures that one way to revolutionise India’s education ecosystem is to open the door to reputed foreign universities. By promoting competition, bringing in best practices and stemming the outflow of Indian students and their education expenditures, he hopes to make India a Vishwa Vidyalaya, a global education hub.

Sibal argues that he is ushering in the equivalent of economic liberalisation in the education sector. But the Foreign Universities Bill, in its current form, has a very licence-permit Raj flavour. Provisions like stringent capital requirements, non-repatriability of “profits” and a prohibition on appointing their own vice-chancellors are likely to keep Foreign universities firmly on foreign shores. But the value of this bill is that it theoretically opens the door to foreign competition. The bill’s provisions will surely be amended after seeing how it actually performs.

Another criticism of the Foreign Universities Bill is that it creates an un-level playing field. Domestic centres of excellence, such as the various Indian institutes, will remain subject to a variety of restrictions and will have to compete with foreign institutions with their hands tied tight. If there is a flight of faculty to “foreign-local” campuses, our premier institutions will be crippled.

But Sibal also has a National Commission for Higher Education and Research up his sleeve. Hopefully, that institution will address our concerns and build a formidable Indian higher education sector. For the sake of half-a-billion youth and the demographic dividend we dream of, these reforms must succeed.

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