The Politics of Foreign Education Providers Bill in India

The Foreign Education Providers bill has been approved by Indian Cabinet recently and will now be presented to the Parliament. Though it faces some stiff challenges in the Parliament, as two main opposition blocks, who do not seem to agree on anything else, are united in their opposition to the bill, the Indian media is already presenting this as a done deal. There is public support for the bill, partly because of the media support and partly because the government has sold this well. One can reasonably hope that such public sentiments will mellow down the opposition to the bill eventually, and the opposition parties will make sure that while they make the right noises of disapproval, they don't end up wrecking the initiative.

It is interesting that the bill has been commonly referred to as Foreign Universities bill. The selling pitch of the government has been that this bill will bring top universities in the world to India, and will save the country a lot of foreign exchange which Indian students end up spending by travelling to study abroad. The market has been rife with stories of Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and other top institutions of the world lobbying up to open campuses in India. The real estate developers added to this story-making in good measure, and promoted their various greenfield sites with promises of soon-to-be-opened campus of a top school. The middle class parents in Indian cities have been enthusiastically talking about the new initiative with approval and started dreaming about sending their children to Cambridge-in-Bangalore. The widespread sentiment is that the higher education landscape in India will change completely as a consequence of this bill.

This is most likely to happen, though in different ways than currently imagined. Those hoping for top universities in the world lining up to open campuses in India are most likely to be disappointed. There are a number of reasons why this may not happen. First, the top schools are usually very careful about expansion, especially cross-border, because they are so conscious about their 'brand'. It is unlikely that they will jump into India the moment the doors open. Besides, it is not going to be cheap. The Indian real estate prices are prohibitively high, and a campus will not come cheap. The foreign education providers, particularly the publicly funded ones, are not exactly in an expansionist phase right now, with their endowments shrinking and future funding outlook appearing uncertain. And, finally, the top schools are top schools, they get Indian students come to them anyway. So, the changes that this bill will bring are not about Harvard and Yale opening campuses, but a different dynamic towards deregulation and increasing choices in the Indian education itself.

It is easy to see where the Indian government is heading with its education policy if one considers this particular bill not in isolation, but in the perspective of all the reform programmes taken together.

First, this bill, among other measures, is an express signal that the Indian government recognizes that there has been a rapid deterioration of Indian higher education in the last two decades, primarily because of the government's inability to commit adequate public investment to back the educational aspirations of Indian Middle Class, and a complete abdication of responsibility in favour of private investors in certain states. This is being acknowledged as a crisis now: The growing Indian industry has started feeling the shortage of skilled workers, and at the same time, the mushrooming private colleges and universities are failing to deliver anything worthwhile to their thousands of students, leading to an army of 'educated' unemployed. This has led to a fundamental rethink of the government's earlier stance - privatize and regulate - to the new position - facilitate and deregulate.

Now, it seems that the government wants to act as a partner and stakeholder in the education process while, at the same time, removing the layers of bureaucracy and unnecessary regulation. The current Education minister has already made some progress. He has taken on vested interests with gusto and allowed corruption probes to proceed against top functionaries of All India Council of Technical Education [AICTE], which was the centre of corruption in educational licensing by common knowledge. The government has cancelled licenses of a number of colleges, some owned or blessed by powerful politicians, and talked about a fresh approach towards consideration of new institutions. The Foreign Education Providers Bill, seen in this context, is another attempt by the Government to bring a fresh approach in the mix, allow a choice of curricula and research programmes for Indian students, and carry forward the reform agenda.

The bill can also be viewed as another attempt by the Union Government to take over the education agenda from the hands of the state governments, which largely ran the affairs so far. Education is supposed to be an area of joint legislation in India, primarily due to the diverse nature of the country and the necessity to integrate local languages and sensibilities in education. This has always been a hotly debated issue. At one hand, commentators argued that such diversity must be preserved; on the other, a powerful group, led originally by Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, believed that efforts must be made to develop a common education framework. From time to time, efforts were made to develop or impose a common agenda; it has always been controversial and beaten back. The last great effort was made by Rajiv Gandhi, who wanted to use his greater than usual majority in the parliament to develop a set of model schools. However, his timing was wrong - despite the better than ever performance by Congress, this was the time when regionalism was in ascendancy - and such proposals never went anywhere beyond its first proof-of-concept schools. In that context, the central government is on better grounds this time; the regional leaders stand discredited and Indians, across the country, are aspiring for a strong united leadership after two decades of fragmentation and mismanagement.

From that perspective, Foreign Education Providers Bill is a sort of tester, a pilot effort by the government to gauge the depth of opposition from the states. Even though the Education Minister affirmed that the state's rights will not be undermined, it will be - no foreign education provider will ever want to operate within the current system where a state committee, headed by a retired judge, tells them how much they can charge for their courses, and they have to offer at least 75% of seats to the candidates who come through a state selection system. Inevitably, once the government allows the foreign providers to come in, there will be a competition from the states to get these institutions, and concessions will be made; Kapil Sibal could have said - the states will eventually undermine their rights themselves.

The current opposition in the Parliament is primarily coming from this consideration. Take, for example, the Left parties, led by CPIM. They have already made a name for themselves as a naysayer, and in most cases, they say No because they don't know what they stand for. In this case, they are saying no and citing further stratification of Indian students, that rich will be able to afford these foreign courses whereas the poor will be left to rot; precisely the wrong reasons to give. The reasoning that India is a poor country and therefore everyone should receive bad education will not fly, particularly not in this day and age when aspirational middle class dominate the agenda. Their real reasons though is the fear of being undermined at the state level, particularly in West Bengal, which is educationally backward and will become further so once the foreign investment comes in education.

The other reason for their opposition is somewhat similar to the reasons given by BJP, the main opposition party. BJP, like the leftists, use education as a political strategy, imbibing students with ideology-laden education and enrol them into various sister organizations as they go through the college. They will have a far lesser clout on curricula and delivery once the education licensing slips out of state's control, which will happen once foreign providers start coming in.

So, in summary, the Foreign Education Providers Bill has the potential to change the political landscape of Indian Education. There are many dangers too. The whole thing can surely go horribly wrong if this becomes lessaiz faire for various dubious interests [does anyone remember Zap or Wintech, which raided the Indian franchise market in 2001, mopped up millions of dollars and disappeared?], among them the empire of Dawood Ibrahim based in the gulf, which may be looking at the opportunity with great interest.

The government has to realize their job actually begins, and does not end, with the passing of the bill. They must have a game plan then to offer incentives to foreign education providers to come to India and set up shop. Giving special incentives like tax-free status and cheap land to top schools may not be out of order, as is offering priority sector status to those who invest in areas who need them most, north-east anyone?, and in bringing new subjects and disciplines. For example, I would argue in favour of allowing special status to vocational training providers, an area of great need in India, and allowing them to offer various internationally bench-marked qualifications in India. In summary, the bill is just the beginning; it will be interesting to watch what happens next in policy and politics of education in India.


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