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Higher education on a real low

India’s current economic boom has lots of proximate causes the reforms of the early nineties, our high savings rate and the nation’s changing strategic position in the world, writes Kaushik Basu.

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 19:00 IST

India’s current economic boom has lots of proximate causes — the reforms of the early nineties, our high savings rate and the nation’s changing strategic position in the world. But all this would come to little, if it were not for one remarkable past achievement of India.

From the middle of the twentieth-century for several decades, when India was among the poorest nations in the world, one anomaly that stood out was the number of world-class scientists, mathematicians, economists and writers that this country produced. No other Third World nation and even most middle-income countries matched up to India on this score. This created our remarkable civil society, strengthened the nation’s democratic roots and, when the IT boom occurred in Silicon Valley, enabled India to cash in on it.

Every indicator suggests that this is an advantage that we are now squandering. While we continue to produce large numbers of engineers and managers, in the more abstract fields of higher education — mathematics, physics, literature, the social sciences and economic theory — we are losing steam.

Some years ago a prominent Chinese economist told me that his aim was to take his newly-created research institute in Beijing to the level of the top institutes in India. I told him that he would not have to work too hard because Indian institutes were making effort to meet him halfway. I had said this jokingly, but if you look at global charts now, you will find that several Chinese research institutes that were nowhere in the scene two decades ago are now rated well above their Indian counterparts.

All this may seem puzzling since our universities function the same way they did in the past. But that is precisely the problem. While there have been changes in the organisation of universities and systems of learning the world over, and especially in China, we continue to resist change. There are plans afoot now to set up new universities. While this is welcome, our main problem is not that of numbers but of quality.

If we leave our objective at this level of generality, the chances are that everybody will agree and nothing will happen. So I want to suggest a well-defined target. India should aim to become a provider of higher education to the world. More than a thousand years ago we had centres of learning, the most notable being Nalanda, where students and scholars came from afar. It is possible to reclaim that past.

It may be true that not too many people will come from poor nations because they go to the US and Europe partly for the education, and more to find jobs. But for Americans and Europeans who are assured of return to their nation, India could be an attractive destination for ‘educational tourism’. For this we should create a university which aims to fill 25 per cent of its seats with foreign students, who are charged an annual tuition fee of $12,000. If we have top-class research scholars and good teachers, and provide modern residence facilities (for which students will be charged market rates), it will be possible to attract students. For them this will mean a cheaper education than what they could get in their country, and for us it will mean earning a surplus, which can be used to support poor Indian students.

Creating universities like this will require other changes. The current salary lid for top researchers and teachers will have to go. Pay-scale uniformity was, I believe, a nice practice when all salaries were flat. But with corporate salaries in India scaling new heights, and industrialised nations and recently China creating centres of research excellence, where salaries nearly match the corporate sector, India has no choice if it wishes to compete. It will also require raising student tuition fees (with scholarships for poor students) and fund-raising from the private sector. And once we shake these up in a small segment, there will be a domino effect that can spread through the nation, reviving our heritage of outstanding higher education and research.

(The author is Professor of Economics and Director, Center for Analytic Economics, Cornell University)