Thursday, 10 November 2011

EduCable : Meeta Sengupta's blog-The Times Of India

t is conference season in Delhi again, and educationists in India have our National Education Day to celebrate – a day that marks the birthday of our first Education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. It is also the season when delegations from various countries congregate here to be updated on the country’s progress and readiness for partnerships across nations and institutions.  The annual cycle began last month with the Indo-American Education Summit in Washington, where much talk later, the limitations of cross border collaborations were recognized.

This is actually an important milestone in the journey to true international collaboration. So far public discourse on international collaboration has been singularly one sided with the private sector lauding the potential benefits of such collaborations and the government listening keenly and moving at a measured pace (read, slowly). And the Foreign Universities bill, among others, remains stuck in parliament, leaving the potential collaborators in regulatory limbo.

Over the years, a number of collaborations have fructified – the Monash sponsored laboratory at IIT Bombay, the student exchange program of Lady Sri Ram College, the long standing presence of the Wigan and Leigh College in India and the varied ‘joint degree’ programs that have prospered, amongst many others. It is equally true that a large proportion of MoUs (Memoranda of Understanding) that have been signed have not been implemented yet. The flow of interest is now a two way street, with both Amity University and IIT Bombay seeking to operate out of New York.

India is still an attractive market for educational institutions – the demographic dividend that needs upskilling is one of the larger education markets in the world. While the government acknowledges the scale of the demand and seeks to fund a large portion of this need, it also knows that it will need the private sector to join the battle. Now, here-in lies the rub. The government sees this as a mission, the private sector sees it as an opportunity to earn while doing some good. Many discussions later, the difference between profits and profiteering are still not clear creating a policy vacuum that stymies potential investors.

A larger number of educational institutions, including private and foreign participants can only be good for the sector. Firstly, it meets the latent demand. It is also fair to assume that greater competition amongst providers will foster a quality culture and give students more choices at better prices. The clincher is the improved access for more candidates. By increasing the options, a larger proportion of (potential) students will get access to better quality higher education options, including foreign universities. The rich may still send their children abroad, but the same curricula and quality of faculty (sometimes the same faculty) and facilities will be available to those who chose to or have to stay at home.

With the large number of Indians needing their education and training, many Universities see it as a natural part of their global ambitions. Also with current economic conditions leaving few unscarred, funding for research is less munificent than before, which is where collaborations and partnerships with lower cost establishments are very useful. The era of off shoring in research and development is here. Except that in the new world order, it will need to be a true partnership, carefully crafted and well matched.

The liberalization and reform of the education sector or the influx of foreign institutions is not likely to lead to a great influx of students to the country, at least at first. The current numbers of enrolments in our institutions of higher learning show a very small, almost insignificant, rise each year. Yet we see a very small but strong trend in the rise in international enrolments in secondary schools that offer International qualifications. Most of these are private enterprises and garner their support in the open market via international school fairs, recruitment agents and classic marketing efforts. India may yet become a destination for education, if we manage the process well in the next few years.

Many countries see education as an export – a source of revenue. Australia rates it as the third largest (till recently it was the second largest) export. The UK, for many periods in its history has used its excellent educational institutions not just as an income stream but also a way to spread its soft power, especially the English language across the world.

The Indian education journey in the international arena is like many things Indian – both ancient and constantly new. The solutions too lie with its people – those who can learn, and those who can teach.

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