Should India Allow Foreign Education?

The new Indian government, which has come to power promising development, wants to be friendly to foreign investment. After all, this is what Mr Modi, the new Prime Minister, had done previously in his home state, Gujrat, and this is what he has projected to the young, aspiring nation. Already in power for most of an year, expectations around him and his government are now focused on a budget due later this month. It is reasonable to think that it would do a few things to simplify doing business in India - which is one of the most difficult countries to start and run a business in - and offer some sweeteners to businesses wanting to set up shop in India. The question is, however, whether such openness would hold for education.

One can keep talking endlessly about the Foreign Education Providers Bill, which was there on the legislative agenda for more than 15 years now but never got passed. It is indeed unlikely, despite strong speculation on the contrary, that the Indian government will pick this fight when they have so much to do otherwise. However, it is worth asking - why does the foreign education providers bill is never a priority?

First and foremost is that the Indian government wants to create a water-tight bill so that no one can profit from education. This sounds right. However, this moralistic position sits somewhat uncomfortably with both the reason, why India needs to have a Foreign Education Providers Bill at all, and the on-the-ground realities of Indian education.

The reason India is even debating a Foreign Education Providers Bill because it is thought that India needs to expand its educational capacity quickly. All sorts of numbers have been discussed, and the Indian employers make it known that they are facing a serious talent shortage. And, the stated reason for introduction of the bill is to bring foreign investment - not knowledge or expertise, but investment - into Indian (Higher) Education. So, the Indian government has set itself a task of creating a legislation that encourages investment but discourages profit, a tough task indeed!

This peculiar position also has to be seen alongside the ground realities in India. While the government clings to the not-for-profit mantra, it has somewhat accepted a doctrine that the Government should concern itself only with the education of an elite population (most of whom, by the way, are sure to migrate) and therefore, invest only in the elite brand of institutions. The education for a vast number of others, a phenomena that one calls Mass Higher Education rather lovingly, must happen with private investment. Accordingly, a great number of institutions have been set up with private investment. With government insistence that they should all be not-for-profits, the over-the-table fees have remained quite modest, but consequently, India has achieved to build a great system of education underworld, where admissions are done for large sums of money, often in cash. 

One of the promises of the new government is Good Governance and indeed, returning to common sense is a good way to start. For-Profit Education has its inherent problems, but as the governments around the world are learning, if a country accepts the goal of Mass Higher Education and wants to achieve it through private investment in education, it is better off looking for appropriate ways of regulating it rather than denying the existence of the phenomenon altogether. It seems that the new government is quite willing to accept profit-making in education, which happens anyway, as long as the regulatory framework is respected. And, it also seems that it is willing to apply this principle to local players, but would exclude the foreign players from such consideration.

This brings the discussion to the second point - India's inherent discomfort with foreign education! In fact, even if the Foreign Education Providers Bill is passed, in its current form or a business-friendly form, the message is consistently that while India wants the foreign money, it does not want, or need, foreign ideas. Once this is understood, it becomes clear why Foreign Education Providers Bill may forever be languishing in legislative back-chamber. India does not really need foreign money - because capital is global and who would not give someone money to set up shop in one of the fastest growing markets in the world, which is underserved and protected from foreign competition - and therefore, a bill to encourage foreign investment is utterly redundant.

It is rather that India needs foreign ideas and expertise in education, and this no one, including the most ardent advocates of the bill, would dare to accept. Part of the reason is the colonial legacy, that an English Education system was imposed on India purely with the objective of creating an elite class which will collaborate with the rulers and repress others. It is a rather strange legacy. On one hand, Independent India accepted the colonial principle - that there should be an elite to govern the country for whom a different education system should be built - but rejected foreign education itself, which, despite the colonialists design, had helped in other things, including building a modern national ethos. And, such an approach has done two things to India - created an irresponsible and disconnected elite, and created a closed system of education, where mediocrity reigns supreme. 

So, in summary, I believe the debate about Foreign Education in India is misdirected, and conversations about Foreign Education Providers Bill only muddies the water further. A conversation about education, rather than investment, is needed in the context. India is an Open Society with a closed mind - Kishore Mahbubani says - and contrasts with China, which is a closed society with an open mind. It is opening of the Indian mind that is at stake here, and Foreign Education needs to be thought about from that perspective. So far, Indian government has treated it as another business sector, one where no profit should be made.



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