Sunday, July 14, 2024

Light Theesko : Internationalizing higher education- Map is not the territory

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The Government of India now has a map to make India Viswaguru literally in the field of education, though it is blind to pitfalls in the territory. The National Education Policy 2020 set the tone for it by envisioning ‘a complete overhaul and re-energizing of the higher education system’, along with a blueprint to promote India ‘as a global study destination providing premium education at affordable costs, thereby helping to restore its role as a Vishwaguru’. The University Grants Commission (Setting up and Operation of Campuses of Foreign Higher Educational Institutions in India) Regulations, 2023 notified recently have raised hopes on internationalization of Indian higher education.

Going by the situation in the higher education sector and certain structural changes on the cards, including the ominous recommendations of the Committee of Parliament on Official Language inter alia that the medium of instruction should mandatorily be Hindi and local languages in all technical as well as non-technical educational institutions, including central universities, it is indeed a tall order to make India Viswaguru.

The plans already unveiled to internationalize India’s higher education are flawed mainly because they are intended to make cosmetic changes, instead of fixing deep-rooted problems in the higher education sector.

The entire higher education ecosystem in India comprises around 1,000+ universities and 42,000+ colleges imparting education. Appreciably, the NEP 2020 has identified at least 10 major problems: a severely fragmented higher educational ecosystem; less emphasis on the development of cognitive skills and learning outcomes; a rigid separation of disciplines, with early specialization and streaming of students into narrow areas of study; limited access particularly in socio-economically disadvantaged areas, with few HEIs that teach in local languages; limited teacher and institutional autonomy; inadequate mechanisms for merit-based career management and progression of faculty and institutional leaders; lesser emphasis on research at most universities and colleges, and lack of competitive peer-reviewed research funding across disciplines; suboptimal governance and leadership of HEIs; an ineffective regulatory system; and large affiliating universities resulting in low standards of undergraduate education.

Most of the foregoing structural and institutional problems can be solved only with decades of hard work as well as harmonious political commitment considering that education is on the Concurrent List of the Constitution. We know how romantic the Centre-States relations are when it comes to the education sector per se. Taking the frosty ties of an impaired federal set-up for granted, and fast-forwarding 20-30 years, the NEP 2020 envisions eventual delivery of ‘high-quality higher education, with equity and inclusion’ by recourse to measures that are easier said than done.

They are: moving towards a higher educational system consisting of large, multidisciplinary universities and colleges, with at least one in or near every district, and with more HEIs across India that offer medium of instruction or programs in local/Indian languages; moving towards a more multidisciplinary undergraduate education; moving towards faculty and institutional autonomy; revamping curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and student support for enhanced student experiences; reaffirming the integrity of faculty and institutional leadership positions through merit-based appointments and career progression based on teaching, research, and service; establishment of a National Research Foundation to fund outstanding peer-reviewed research and to actively seed research in universities and colleges; governance of HEIs by high qualified independent boards having academic and administrative autonomy; ‘light but tight’ regulation by a single regulator for higher education; increased access, equity, and inclusion through a range of measures, including greater opportunities for outstanding public education; scholarships by private/philanthropic universities for disadvantaged and underprivileged students; online education, and open distance learning; and all infrastructure and learning materials accessible and available to learners with disabilities.

Central to the foregoing transitional arrangements is the thrust to be given ostensibly to end the fragmentation of higher education by transforming higher education institutions into large multidisciplinary universities, colleges, and HEI clusters/Knowledge Hubs, each of which will aim to have 3,000 or more students.

The rationale for moving to large multidisciplinary universities and HEI clusters lies in the dimly reflected glory of the success of ancient Indian universities at Takshashila, Nalanda, Vallabhi, and Vikramshila, where thousands of students from across ancient India and various part of the good old world studied in congenial, vibrant and multidisciplinary environment.

UGC chairman M Jagadesh Kumar has claimed that the world is now looking at India as an ‘ideal destination’ to establish campuses and invest in the higher education sector. The draft UGC regulations, by fixing a benchmark of allowing only the top 500 foreign universities in India, have an in-built mechanism to ensure the entry of only the highest-quality institutions, he avers. According to him, the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, following a recent study, has submitted a report, according to which several universities ranking in the top 200 have expressed their interest in considering India as a destination. The four lakh or so Indian students who head overseas each year for transnational education need to take it with a pinch of salt.

Media reports suggest that the UGC’s draft rules to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India may attract a clutch of international schools, though eminent institutions like Harvard Business School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are not likely to open branches in India due to their in-house policies. Likewise, top institutes such as INSEAD, Princeton, Chicago Booth, Yale University, Stanford University, Caltech, Monash University, Australian National University and Loughborough University in the UK have not yet evinced interest in setting up campuses in India. What if second-tier and mid-ranked ones come to India to operate freely in the country, grant Indian degrees, hire quality faculty, and engage in more research partnerships?

Global universities have established more than 250 branch campuses in different parts of the world like China, Dubai, Malaysia, and Singapore. India has just opened its doors with a lot of ifs and buts in its policy framework. Cosmetic changes cannot metamorphose a sector that has been crying for attention for ages.

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