Higher education: Reviving a forgotten legacy
• From harbouring astronomers like Aryabhata & economists like Chanakya to being home to world famous universities including Nalanda & Taxila, India has served as a repository of knowledge since time immemorial.
• However, fast forward to 2019, India no longer is a globally sought after destination for higher education.
• Inadequate infrastructure, poor quality of teachers & lack of linkages with industry are major lacunae in the system. This is detrimental for the country as it takes a toll on its exchequer and prevents innovation through exchange of ideas & knowledge.
• As the Draft National Education Policy (2019) recommends, the government should consider setting up high quality institutions, especially in disadvantaged geographies. This can be done through active participation of the private sector.
From harboring astronomers like Aryabhata & economists like Chanakya to being home to world famous universities including Nalanda & Taxila, India has served as a repository of knowledge since time immemorial. In fact, so acclaimed was India as an educational destination, that it ended up attracting students like Hsuan Tsang, the famous pilgrim, from far & wide. However, fast forward to 2019 & you’ll see that India no longer is a globally sought after destination for higher education. According to the All-India Survey on Higher Education Report (2019), the total number of foreign national students enrolled in India is merely 47,427.
Foreign students come from 164 different countries across the globe, albeit a significant proportion of these belong to India’s neighbouring South Asian nations. Thus, Nepal (26.88%), followed by Afghanistan (9.8%), Bangladesh (4.38%), Sudan (4.02%), Bhutan (3.82%), Nigeria (3.4%), US (3.2%), Yemen (3.2%), Sri Lanka (2.64%) & Iran (2.38%) respectively constitute the top 10 sources of foreign students in India. Further, while a majority of them (73.4%) are enrolled in Undergraduate courses, only 16.15% enrolment have signed up for Post-Graduation.
For starters, a lack of foreign students prevents better exchange of novel skills & ideas, opportunities for cross-cultural exposure, creative problem-solving, innovation and adaptability; all of which are imperative for knowledge creation. At the same time, it will also undermine India’s foreign wealth. Further, having overseas students is also significant for augmenting India’s soft power as it opens a vista for the country to capitalize on its relations with other nations. Therefore, it is in India’s interest to become a leading player in the global higher education space.
However, India has a long way to achieve this goal. The recent QS World University Rankings revealed that Indian institutes have seen an average decline of 12 ranks. One of the factors responsible was poor international student ratios. Further, among the IITs, not a single one made it to the top 150. Similarly, although India has jumped significantly in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020, with 56 institutions making it to the list, not even a single one of them found a spot in the list of top 300 universities across the world. This happened for the first time since 2012.
The perils of Indian education system sabotage its reputation as a global hub for higher education. A major barrier to foreign entry according to some experts is the stringent criteria to get into Indian academic institutes. Another problem is the lack of proper infrastructure like hostels, dormitories, hygienic canteens, comfortable chairs, tables that are not rickety and audio-visual equipment. Some students also don’t necessarily have the financial means to relocate to India and study in Indian higher educational institutions.
The difficulty in obtaining an Indian work visa and finding employment in the county also poses a serious challenge to India’s vision of being a premier centre for higher education in the country. The lack of proper research avenues also dissuades many foreign students from pursuing education in India. While the Government of India does fund approximately 70% of the research in the country (compared to barely 10% in the US); an effective review system is necessary to minimise wastage or mismanagement of these grants.
One can also not rule out the fact that the quality of India’s higher education sector proves as a major detriment. According to the Draft National Education Policy submitted by the Dr K. Kasturirangan Committee, an estimated 40% of college teachers work on a non-permanent, ad hoc basis and are designated variously as temporary, contractual, ad hoc and guest faculty. This deters people with a good academic record to take such positions (as these are less attractive than permanent jobs). Further, even faculty who have been working for several years are under pressure to produce a certain number of papers to gain patronage. Not only could this mean publication of substandard journals but also attention being diverted from teaching to the publication of papers.
Realising the gravity of the situation, the Government of India’s “Study in India” initiative is a step in the right direction. Some of the positive measures that could augment India’s position as an international study junction include the budget announcements of establishing a National Research Foundation; allocating Rs 400 crore for setting up world-class education institutes; and setting up of a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). At the same time, the country should also focus on building its reputation and credibility as a leading study centre through aggressive marketing campaigns. Orchestrating student exchange programmes and organising student recruitment fairs in other countries can help build brand India. Bringing down the sky-rocketing cut off for foreign students slightly would also boost the number of foreign scores.
Building industry-academia linkages through flexible work permits or expanding industrial funding for research is another suggestion that could be useful. As the Draft National Education Policy (2019) recommends, the government should also consider setting up high quality institutions in disadvantaged geographies on a priority. This entails a substantial public investment; private players could also be a part of this process. The education system should be liberal with broad multidisciplinary exposure and multiple exit options. Regulatory mechanisms should be firm to ensure that fees are not exorbitantly expensive. There should also be an appropriately designed permanent employment (tenure) track system in all institutions by 2030. Last but not the least, the country should also battle challenges like deleterious environmentalism and xenophobia so as to become more lucrative for overseas students.