India is higher education’s wild west, so says The Economist.
That’s spot on. This is the macho territory, where none of the genteelness of the Higher Education world is in evidence. Those who survive need the mercenary spirit, whether they are on the right or the wrong side, and need, indeed, plenty of luck and firepower.
But, then, this is also the land of possibilities, as Wild West was supposed to be. This is a land of an emerging, aspiring middle class, a country of the fastest growing cities in the world, of millions of entrepreneurs, of some of the hungriest companies in the world. Besides, most of the people are young, unlike China’s, and a country poised at the threshold of a huge demographic boom. If someone thinks the El Dorado of education is in India, he won’t be too far off the mark.
However, despite all this, the Gold Rush moment is yet to come. Not too far, I shall argue, about six months’ away is the moment when everyone goes to India. The Indian cabinet is finalizing a bill allowing foreign providers of education in the country. This isn’t supposed to be a big deal, but this is going on forever, and once completed, this will mean greater transparency and professional competition in the Higher Ed industry in India. This is not just the point when the foreign companies will come to India, this will also be the moment when Indian institutions would up their game.
So, everyone’s poised – just that no one knows what will work in India. Particularly from the foreign providers point of view, it is a difficult call. They just don’t have to enter a huge market, which is usually 10 to 20 times of their home markets, but one that is exceptionally complicated in terms of languages, regions, cultures, practices and prejudices. This is said of China, but can equally be true for India: From outside, India looks like a huge multiplier effect, with so many times of Europe’s population and cities which have more people than some of the smaller European countries, but the moment you set foot in India, the endless series of divisions become. What does not help, in this setting, is any stereotype: Any of the colonial era presumptions, like Macaulay’s infamous statement that the entire Sanskrit and Farsi literature will possibly fill one shelf of an educated Englishman’s library.
When a foreign education provider sets up shop in India, it is not just about teaching Indian students and giving them a foreign degree, but also meeting the requirements of Indian employers. Indeed, they are looking for ‘global’ skills, but that seldom means as things are done in Europe or North America. Today’s global skills, more correctly, are about knowing how things are done in Africa or Latin America or Middle East, which the Northern Hemisphere universities are lately catching up with. Besides, it is also about equipping Indian students with forward-facing skills, going into cutting edge areas of technology and business administration. The assumption that curricula past its sell-by date in the west will work in India, is grossly incorrect. A culturally situated new thinking must drive any successful initiative in India, which must marry the best practices of Foreign education with what the Indian students and employers demand.
So, it is not just the empire building in the Wild West, but the phenomena of wild west breaking onto the World Stage. It is sad to see that none of the Indian universities make it to the global top league. Indeed, the league tables are hotly debated, but that none of the Indian institutions make it to any of the tables is instructive. One would think that the wave of education liberalization will change this, push the Indian institutions do better and compete and soon run for the global top table. Certainly, they are not short of resources: They have so far been denied the high benchmarks of global competition and they are soon going to get it.
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