Indian Higher Education: Nationalism Redux?

The context is the apparent demise of the 'Foreign Education Providers' Bill' in India, an event causing much anguish among certain sections of International Higher Education community. It is difficult to mourn for this bill, as this was an useless piece of legislation in the first place. The bill was initially designed for the Top 500 universities in the world, and the purpose of the legislation was to allow these universities to set up campuses in India and teach students and not take any profits away ever from India. In short, the purpose of the bill was to make India's educational improvement a responsibility of the Top 500 universities in the world.

Despite the bill being an exercise in futility, this could still be considered an important artifact in Higher Education policy: Its insistence on the requirement that the university applying under it has to be in the Top 500 list on Times Higher Education or Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, a provision that was dropped eventually, and on no money ever being taken out of India, which possibly contributed to its eventual demise, did not just demonstrate the Indian government's lack of understanding of what the top universities in the world do, but also how nationalist rhetoric was used to hide the entrenched interests in policy making. I shall argue that to view its demise as just a nationalist throwback would only be a partial explanation, and instead, a closer examination would also expose how the politics of Indian middle class is playing out.

I shall claim that the bill was a nationalist creation in the first place. It is worthwhile to pause and think about the conversations leading up to the bill, which was not about enhancing the standards of education in India at all. The underlying assumption was perhaps that all was well with Indian Higher Ed, and nothing really needed fixing. The Bill was justified, from the start, as a mechanism to stop the outflow of $4 billion a year that Indian students spent studying abroad: An apparent protectionist motive, perhaps misplaced, was behind the creation of the bill.

This was, however, not about drawing investment into Indian Education - if so, why attempt to limit who could invest, and preclude those who are most likely to invest, the global For Profit providers such as Pearson and Apollo Group. This bill was instead a sop that the government was giving to the new urban middle classes, just as they were being pampered with easy credit and foreign liquor; this was about making foreign education, just like foreign cars and perfumes available in India. This was part of the great Indian Dream, somewhat poorly constructed, which was about making India the next great power, trying to jump the queue somewhat. Such great power existence, as constructed in India, is seen in terms of global consumption habits, and Foreign University campuses would have been another set of monuments to be constructed for the same purpose (alongside shopping malls and amusement parks).

Understandably, from this viewpoint, it is only reasonable to limit the scope of the legislation to the Top 500 universities of the world, as It was the 'brands' the Indian consumers were after. This bill had nothing to do with expanding India's Education capacity to include those who can't afford Higher Education. Conceived in the days of shining India in its original form, this was about expanding access for those middle classes who can now buy foreign brand cars and take holidays abroad. This was about getting those students to Harvard and Oxford - and indeed about bringing those universities into the gated communities and luxury townships such as Lavasa - an element of the great Indian Shopping Festival, rather than an exercise into nation-building or enhancing educational abilities. Indeed, there was this rhetoric about protecting Indian students from unscrupulous foreign players - but this only meant the government sacrificing those unsuspecting students to unscrupulous Indian providers instead.

Indeed, the other side of this Foreign Education Providers' Bill was an excitable projection of the size of Indian Higher Education system: It is the second largest higher education system in the world in terms of student numbers and with its larger young population pool (than China), India's Higher Education system is tipped to grow faster. All kinds of exciting student numbers are usually rattled off at this point to substantiate that it is indeed an exciting opportunity to offer Higher Education in India, if not the most exciting opportunity. This, however, is quite unsupported by the experiences on the ground: For most of India's 33,000 colleges, the mood is of panic rather than excitement, as the student numbers have failed to materialise. For older colleges, it is somewhat a reversal, as they clearly have seen better days; for newer ones, it appears an unmitigated disaster. The Engineering Colleges, which funded themselves as students lined up to pay huge donations for the few free-market 'management quota' seats outside the state-mandated admissions and fees regime, are in full crisis mode as the students seemed to have decided that 4 years of Engineering study is not worth it anymore. The Business Schools are worse off, with closures, mergers and voluntary de-accreditations, with their MBA programmes seen mostly as a joke.

The student number projections and the empty seats are, however, not incompatible, but two sides of the same coin. Integration with global markets in many sectors positions India at a certain level in the Global value chain: This is about feeding lower order knowledge labour rather than defining the agenda. Indeed, the middle classes are all rushing to do Engineering and MBA, but in the end, they are all fed into sales, with the job to sell, for example, financial products designed in first world financial institutions to the rural Indian consumers. The function the Indian education system is designed to serve is to give the students a pretension of modernity, an exposure to global consumer habits, so that they can happily take up their position as the foot soldiers of globalisation in India. Indian students are therefore questioning the value of their Engineering degrees, as they see them leading to the same sales jobs that a good Bachelor of Commerce degree may lead to. The oversupply of Engineering seats is just poor business planning, arising out of the hubris of the Indian government policy.

Given the initial rhetoric about saving money on foreign education, one would think at this troubled time for the Rupee, when the Government is taxing Gold imports and talking about closing Petrol Pumps at night to limit consumption in order to save foreign exchange, the bill would be back on the table and look more relevant than ever. But, even such emergencies didn't save this bill, perhaps due to interplay of three interconnected factors:

First, because everyone involved just know that this is just a false hope that the bill will deter anyone from going abroad for studies: Those students who were planning to go abroad for an education (particularly those looking to go to the top 500 universities) were always going to abroad, and would have had the necessary financial and social capital to do so. It is most likely, however, that entry of any foreign provider will push the academic salaries up, causing an exodus from India's top Government-run institutions, where academics are poorly paid.

Second, Indian government may be in a full state of panic because of the state of India's private sector colleges, particularly due to low enrollment, and they are afraid that a real estate price collapse is around the corner, which will expose most of these ventures, as banks start calling in the loans. This is the least the government could do to retain the protected status of the sector, and save at least some colleges from closing immediately.

Finally, the Middle Class, for those the bill was originally conceived, are no longer a legislative priority. The middle class job creation has already stopped, the salaries have stagnated. The Indian companies, faced with rising costs and political uncertainties, have started shifting abroad, rather than creating jobs back at home. There are greater priorities on the table - the rural masses - something that the current government needs to focus on to remain in power.

Being an ardent supporter of measures focused on reduction on rural poverty, and having a very low opinion about the practicability of the Foreign Education Providers' Bill, this should be easy for me: But I still see a huge problem in the way the priorities are stacked. I do not think this is an either-or choice: The rural prosperity, towards which some imperfect efforts have gone in the last decade, must be matched with urban mobility. India's big problem, to me, isn't its efforts of 're-distribution', which is an absolute priority, but its failure to ease out infrastructure inefficiencies and productivity growth, the levers which would have translated the poverty irradication measures to general overall prosperity. Indeed, this were difficult things to do: This would have not only required curbing corruption (which dogs infrastructure projects), but also challenging social privileges. However, in the absence of such efforts, government's efforts to address rural poverty have become vote-buying handouts, and worse, because this is now creating disenchantment in the villages as the privileges have unequally distributed and social and economic mobility have reduced.

The bill in question, then, is just a symptom of the travails of post-liberalisation India, not just of middle class dreams shattered, but of misplaced priorities and political myopia. What happens next is anybody's guess: Without a framework, the chaos and anarchy are likely to continue, resulting in further impoverishment of the Indian system of education. This may again be left to those private citizens who have to make do without much from the governing classes,and perhaps, some good and some bad solutions will emerge from the same.


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