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Graduating to a real soft power

Students from rich countries, who have the right to return to and work in their own nations, would find it attractive to get good university education at one-fourth of what they would spend in their home countries, writes Kaushik Basu.

india Updated: Jul 31, 2009 23:10 IST

India’s higher education system is floundering. We are doing badly in terms of both quality and quantity. Indian universities and institutes have all but vanished from serious international rankings. The percentage of Indians aged 18 to 23 years, enrolled in colleges and universities (the ‘gross enrollment ratio’) is 11. China, which trailed India till recently, now has a gross enrollment ratio of 22 per cent. For developed nations the average figure is 66 per cent. If India is to retain global competitiveness, it needs to expand its higher education sector massively — arguably by one or two hundred per cent — and also raise the quality of education.

The core of the problem is our fixation with standardisation and control — the belief that, through centralised bureaucratic control, we can improve quality. It was the notorious ‘licensing system’ that had brought India’s manufacturing sector to a halt, and the same is now happening to higher education. Instead of working to encourage good universities to come into existence and flourish, our controllers have been fixated on setting up entry barriers. And it is not as if this has put an end to corrupt and fraudulent universities. The University Grants Commission runs a web list of ‘Fake Universities,’ which consists of gems like the National University of Electro Complex Homeopathy, Kanpur. (I have not been able to determine whether one learns about electricity or Nux Vomica at this institute.)

To understand the corrosive effect of excessive control, consider India’s film industry. It is not only the largest in the world but, by a wide measure, the most productive. India’s film industry employs a huge number of people, generates enormous revenues, earns foreign exchange and produces a couple of excellent movies each year. If the government had set up a quality-control department to improve the standard of our films by requiring that anyone planning to make a movie would first have to get government clearance by submitting the script and production plan for scrutiny, we can all guess what would happen. If the number of poor-quality films went down that would only be because there would be virtually no film industry. It would have been quality-controlled out of existence.

All this is a shame because, with the right policies, India can be one of the world’s major hubs for university education. We have three natural advantages: relative comfort with the English language, historical (though fast eroding) strength and reputation in higher education, and low cost of living. In the US, annual tuition fees exceed $30,000 in most good universities. If India charges a tuition fee of $10,000 from foreign students, then, with the added advantage of lower cost of living, it is possible for students to get comparable education at one-fourth of what it would cost in an American university.

Many students from poor countries go to the US or Britain to study in order to get jobs and settle down there. Such students will not be attracted to India; but even excluding them, the catchment is large, consisting of students from Africa, Asia and even the industrialised nations. Students from America and other rich countries, who anyway have the right to return to and work in their own nations, would find it attractive to get good university education at one-fourth of what they would spend in their home countries.

Despite these natural advantages, we will have to work hard to put the house in order if we are to make a success of establishing India as the world’s major higher education destination. For one, many other nations are already on track with similar plans. While India has around 15,000 foreign students enrolled in her colleges and universities, Malaysia has close to 100,000 students and China has set itself a target of 300,000 foreign students by 2020. If India is to compete with these nations, it will need a bold and dynamic plan. We will have to build quality hostels and attractive classrooms equipped with modern technology, and make arrangements for long-term visas to be granted to students so that they do not have to worry about their visa running out before the course is over.

These set-up costs can, fortunately, have beneficial side-effects. Trying to achieve all this can have an energising effect on the entire economy and teach us how to be efficient and effective, just as our software sector success helped build overall corporate culture and efficiency.

Some may wonder whether aiming to be a global hub is in India’s interest. I personally believe that providing good education to a poor person from Africa is no less worthwhile a mission than doing so for an Indian. But even without such value judgments, it is safe to say that from the standpoint of India’s narrow self-interest this is a worthwhile aim. This would help improve the quality of Indian universities, be a major source of revenue and foreign exchange and enable us to extend university education to many more Indians than is happening now.

Being a centre for higher education can also be a source of global influence and soft power. It was not charity that led early 20th century Britain and late 20th century America to open their doors to foreign students.

Kaushik Basu is Professor of Economics and Chairman, Department of Economics, Cornell UniversityThe views expressed by the author are personal.