Some media reports emerged that the Indian Government has now quietly dropped the Foreign Education Provider Bill from its legislative agenda. This may not be surprising, given that this bill was around - in different forms - for more than 10 years now, but was never a priority; despite a late flourish during the first 100 days of the UPA government, this was never much talked about, debated or considered important enough.
Despite the disappointments this will bring, this may actually be good news. The bill, as it stood, was deeply flawed. It was conceived with the justification of stemming the flow of Indian students to universities abroad, worth $4 Billion of expenses a year: However, such mercantilism is out of step with the global world, and would have ended in a failure anyway. Given this limited goal, the bill was highly protectionist, focused on limiting any outflow that may happen from the Foreign Education providers' activities in India, and left little financial incentive for any foreign university to set up a campus in India. In its original form, the opportunity was only open to Top 500 universities in the world, another demonstration with India's obsession with prestigious education for its privileged, which demonstrated a poor understanding of how Higher Education institutions really operate [Most High Prestige institutions being concerned with limiting the access, rather than expanding]. Though a later amendment took this requirement (of being ranked in Top 500) away, overall the bill was impractical, disconnected from India's needs and requirements and little more than a political grandstanding.
That the political priorities have changed and the bill will be dropped is, therefore, completely unsurprising. The Indian middle class isn't the focus of the government anymore, and it was always unlikely that the government will spend its scarce political capital in pushing through a bill which would have still been highly unpopular, hitting the politicians where it really mattered, in their pockets. Though this may be disappointing for some foreign universities, most have already come to accept that Indian market will never open up (any residue optimism wiped out after a close reading of the proposed bill in question), and this should hardly change their approach to India.
The only question worth exploring, therefore, whether the demise of the bill will leave Indian students disadvantaged, and the answer, reassuringly, is negative. Indian students need education, not foreign education: Whether foreign campuses are set up in India or not, has no impact on an average student's life prospects. It matters much more whether India can help develop a better Higher Education system on its own, and this is where minds and hearts need to be focused.
The current government's agenda is defined by a focus on eradicating poverty, and India can boast some serious achievements on that count. The rural poverty is noticeably down and literacy has improved across the board. Indeed, these achievements have not translated into overall prosperity and rather caused runaway price increases and consequent sluggishness of the economy (and a noticeable flight of capital) because the government failed to create conditions of productivity increases and achieve reduction of transaction costs. If anything, productivity growth has stalled, as bad education crowded out the diffusion of expertise through global exposure; the transaction costs have gone up with massive corruption, which usually accompany privatisation efforts of any state with weak institutions, and poor infrastructure. If Higher Education was one of the priority areas for the current government, for the next one, due after election of May 2014, it will be one of the life-or-disaster issues, as the relative rural prosperity must find a sustainable path to general prosperity and progress. Neither the productivity growth, nor enabling institutions, can really be achieved without a functioning Higher Education sector, which India somewhat lacks (outside a few elite institutions).
Foreign education providers, as planned in the now irrelevant bill, would not have solved any of these problems: They would have created more options for the already privileged 0.1% of the Indian students; they would have helped lure away the best researchers and teachers from Indian institutions, particularly the state funded ones, and would have created a further cycle of disadvantage at even the top end of the scholastic spectrum. However, enhancements through learning from established practices elsewhere would be of critical importance, and hopefully the demise of this high profile bill will now allow practical, grassroots conversations about academic collaboration, exchange and pathway programmes to assume a new seriousness, which, in effect, will be better for the country.
So, this is hardly a time of mourning, another sign of retrograde direction of Indian policy: This may be, instead, much needed return to realism and the opportunity to re-imagine the educational needs of the country. This may also be the time to bring a twenty-first century update in educational policy thinking - isn't foreign campuses so passe already - and to create space for new conversations about open qualifications and credit systems, technologies of learning, and a new risk- and outcome-based approach to regulatory systems rather than clinging to the old, planned economy ones.
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