Politics of Foreign Education: An Education for Indians

In the debate about Foreign Education in India, one question is left unmentioned: Why does India need foreign Higher Education? There is an educational response, or several possible different responses, ranging from it is desirable to have a global view of education (or that one can't have a modern education system without a global perspective) to various specific responses, such as the rote learning currently practised in the Indian system isn't good enough, and more must be done, arguably through foreign collaborations, to enhance skills such as critical thinking etc.

However, whichever end of the argument one starts with, there is a political case to be answered. Globalisation is a contested field, and its benefits may be more obvious to the readers of The Economist (and other Western periodicals) than those living in villages and small towns of India. Besides, the question of globalisation - and globalisation of education - is intertwined with the colonial memory in India, as the British Raj was more a Raj of the mind, rather than of machine gun. From a political perspective, therefore, it is a hard argument to win.

What this leaves us with is the educational reform argument: That Indian Higher Education has to raise its game beyond the culture of Rote Learning, and imbibe abilities of creativity, innovation and critical thinking. The major employers regularly state that they are not getting the graduates with right skills and abilities. This is seen as a clear case for induction of Foreign, primarily Western, ideas into the education system. 

However, this argument may not be as solid as it appears at the outset. To understand this, one may start with the business model of large Indian companies, particularly in the service sector where most of the new jobs have been created. One would see that most companies are engaged in the business of cheap labour, taking on unimaginative work from Western corporations and throwing lots of cheap Indian labour at it. This is not just the story of the Business Process Outsourcing sector, but also of the Information Technology companies, including the global ones which employs a lot of people in India. So, despite all the vaunted names and fancy salaries (in Indian terms), the business model of Indian Service industry has actually been hiring lots of people at cheap salaries, and keeping them at it at a low cost. Surely, they don't want an education which makes this workforce suddenly start asking questions about whether they should be doing these dead-end jobs!

When one talks to Indian employers, this impression is usually substantiated. While they moan about education, what they want is not critical thinking or innovation, but rather 'confidence', 'smartness' and 'presentation skills'. So, in a way, the job market is not requiring the students to imagine, but just to become better sales people than they are currently, having better 'work ethic' (another nebulous term which has a special meaning in India) etc. And, this is common sense: Why would the industry want a student who questions authority when their own business models and work practises are structured around unquestioning submission? The employers in India often wants not just their employee's work, but also their gratitude: A truly foreign education can really be quite disruptive.

Now, the other part of the education reform argument is that once the educational institutions produce enough imaginative graduates, the industry (or industries) will gradually move up the value chain. But this is perhaps a fairly naive assumption (one I am guilty of making myself, in some of my earlier posts). The education system, unless driven and funded by deliberate national policy, will be driven by the realities of the labour market, which is, in turn, shaped by the global economic hierarchy. Indian education system, currently, is driven by self-funded students and privately operated colleges, a structure which is unlikely to buck the trend and try creating capacity without a corresponding demand for graduates. 

Hence, the education system of India, in a sense, is already global: It is reinforcing the position of Indian labour market in the global economic system. Seen this way, the role of foreign education in India can only be limited: This could work as a marker of prestige, but can make little meaningful difference otherwise. There is indeed a case for improving the local institutions, and do something so that their graduates become more 'presentable', but this is not about thinking for themselves or the other exalted liberal education propositions that the Foreign Educators make their case with. 

In summary, I shall argue that the discussion about foreign universities in India often gets too narrowly focused on what the government is doing or not doing. However, the realities of the labour market remain largely outside the discussion, perhaps intentionally so. The Western universities, which are themselves becoming more market driven (and, therefore growth is becoming important to them more than ever, as markets reward growth above all else), somehow fail to appreciate this aspect of Indian Higher Education: The Indian Labour Market is not what they really know and can service, and therefore, their scope of work is rather limited to the privileged classes rather than the multitude that gets talked about in the conferences.


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