New Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal is strongly in favour of allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) in India's education sector and also plans to "synchronise" madrassa education with the mainstream.
"FDI must come into India. Entry into the education sector must neither be limited nor over-regulated. I want the system to be accessible from outside too," Sibal, 61, who is a practising lawyer, told IANS in an interview.
He says allowing private investment, including from abroad, in education "does not mean you have fly by night operators." But, Sibal says, the country should not prevent quality learning from coming.
"After all, 160,000 children go abroad from India at an overall cost of seven billion dollars. Before going they face all kinds of visa problems while after going abroad, there are issues like the attacks in Australia," Sibal, who studied at the Harvard Law School, pointed out.
"When the demand exists, why should we send our children out? Foreign universities can come at our doorstep; India has the potential to become a global provider of quality graduates."
The minister said he would take forward the Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations, Maintenance of Quality and Prevention of Commercialisation) Bill, which was cleared by the cabinet in February 2007 but has been hanging fire.
It seeks to regulate the entry, operation and maintenance of foreign education providers and protect students from receiving sub-standard education offered by institutions that view it as a lucrative business.
When told that the opposition, especially the Left parties, was against FDI, Sibal says: "The Left is not against foreign universities per se; they are concerned about fly by night operators. Everything has to be regulated and it will be."
He said this did not mean "you deny access to quality education to our children." The minister added: "Education is a socio-economic activity. Why should it have impediments in the form of bureaucratic red tape?"
"There will be a whole lot of structural reforms basically to free up the system; to end licence raj." He says it's been two weeks since the new government started work, so things will unfold now.
The minister who was re-elected as an MP from the Chandni Chowk constituency of Delhi is also looking at bringing madrassa education into the mainstream.
"There will be attempts to make education in madrassas relevant and equivalent to modern education. We will not touch the religious part; the point is their degrees should have equivalence with the others," says Sibal.
He said his directives to the University Grants Commission (UGC) to review the working of private institutions which have been given the status of deemed universities and to put a freeze on new applications for it were intended to ensure better quality education.
"My mantra is expansion, inclusion and excellence. Expansion means access to education to all; inclusion translates into equity for the Scheduled Castes, tribes, girl child, Muslims. And excellence means quality. When I say this I mean the entire spectrum from primary to higher education."
But he says the government cannot handle everything. "There will be multi-farious set of players, there will be corporate investment in school education, joint ventures, public-private partnerships, more Kendriya Vidyalayas," Sibal says.