Foreign investment in higher education affects the 160,000 Indians who go abroad every year to study less than the 14 million who study at home. It affects even more those nine kids who don’t make it to college for every one that does. A typical Indian university caters to 2.3 million people, a typical college to 104,000. Every second college student is taught in a private institution, yet the country’s capacity to train what, in a decade from now, will be the world’s largest labour pool is niggardly. Planners hope to put 6 million more students through college in the five years to 2012, even then India’s enrolment ratio in higher education will be a third less than that of the rest of Asia.
Our public spending on higher education per student is $400. China spends $2,728, Russia $1,024 and Brazil $3,986. We are looking to the market to plug our skills gap — already private institutions make up 60 per cent of the country’s higher education capacity. A logical extension of this line of thinking is to allow foreign players in. The opportunity lost in the four years since the UPA tried to open higher education to foreign universities will not be in vain if it manages to push the legislation through now. A market approach to higher education, of course, runs the risk of being unregulated in the absence of government capacity. A decreasing share of State funding for higher studies can be targeted by private and often expensive providers. The trick is to ensure the value of qualifications offered and their acceptance by the labour market.
In the past, we have had fly-by-night operators coming here offering students foreign degrees at considerable cost. Many later turned out to be worthless. The fact that so many flocked to these substandard institutes is also a testimony to the paucity of seats in quality Indian institutions. The unrealistic cut-off levels restrict entry to many top drawer universities, something the entry of foreign ones could help remedy. Harvard may not be interested immediately, but lesser known universities could find a new area for inorganic growth in India. The 160,00 who by dint of their merit or the thickness of the fathers’ wallets go seeking a world-class education do not exhaust the supply of Indian students. The evolving role of the State as a regulator of higher education is more or less captured in the legislation that has been drafted, but as is the wont in India, policing issues remain.