INDIA: Higher education summit with US reveals gaps

The first India-US higher education summit, between India's Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week, was aimed at strengthening collaboration between the two countries. It provided symbolic recognition of the importance of India's university and research sectors for international interaction. But in India academics and students were expressed scepticism that it would yield any real change in education outcomes, with a wide gap between India's needs and what US institutions might provide.

The summit, hosted by Georgetown University in Washington DC, was attended by more than 300 academics, business leaders and government officials from both countries. In a joint statement issued at the end of the one-day event on 13 October, the US and India agreed to hold a Higher Education Dialogue as an annual event alternating between the two countries.

"The dialogue should identify areas for mutually beneficial exchanges and provide a platform for intense and meaningful collaboration among academia, the private sector and government on both sides," the statement said.

Priority areas for strengthening collaboration include science and engineering, social sciences and humanities, and "addressing societal challenges in areas such as cyber security, energy, environment, health and agriculture." These are all areas that the US state department had already earmarked for broader international research collaboration, according to analysts.

Sibal has said that higher education tie-ups between the two countries would yield strong economic returns, through innovation. He said it was time that US institutions realised that the "way to move forward in education is to come to India, to collaborate and set up institutions and reach out to people".

However, he said that for the time being for-profit companies would not be allowed to operate in India. "I don't think the time is right for that to happen."

"At the same time," Sibal said, "nobody is going to come to India to give to India without anything in return. Let us be clear on that. We have to provide them with the opportunities in which we believe that we can gain and there is something in it for them as well."

The summit was seen as a platform to give shape to the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative announced jointly by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama during Singh's visit to the US in November 2009. The initiative will provide US$10 million in combined funding to increase university linkages and support junior faculty development in US and Indian universities.

Excellent platform

While there is general agreement in India that the high-level meeting provided an excellent platform for the country to build links with the US higher education system and also sell India as the next destination for US universities, for many the most important aspect was that it occurred at all and that higher education and research in India was being recognised by the US as an important sector.

Still, the consensus on the ground in India was that the summit was long on rhetoric and short on concrete and time-bound actions. And it was clear that India's needs and US interests in the sector are very different.

Sibal noted that to increase the gross enrolment ratio in India from 15% now to 30% by 2020, India would need to build an additional 1,000 universities and 50,000 colleges. He pointed out that "the 'new' demand for higher education in India is emerging from three groups that traditionally did not have easy access to higher education: the disadvantaged and marginalised, women and a rising lower-middle class."

These may not be areas where many US private higher education institutions would invest.

Instead the spotlight at the summit was on more elite collaborations such as the India-Yale Higher Education Leadership Programme, which this year involved 26 vice-chancellors, institute directors, deans and other officials going to the US with Indian funding. Indian officials have acknowledged such initiatives as high quality but "extremely expensive" programmes for a select few.

Foreign providers bill

In India, academics and others in the higher education and research sectors were of the view that Sibal should have used the summit platform to clarify contentious clauses in the pending Foreign Education Providers Bill, in order to attract US universities to open campuses in India.

Rather than dispelling US confusion over the bill, the summit merely highlighted US universities' concern over provisions in the draft currently stalled in parliament. Analysts said it was hard to see how US universities could increase their presence in India in the short term without more clarity on the laws that would govern foreign institutions.

"The industry's expectations from the summit were high. There could have been some time-bound announcements on the Foreign Education Providers Bill such as when it is likely to be cleared," said Joyeeta Ghosh, a senior analyst with the consulting and advisory firm KPMG.

Issues such as whether US education providers in India would be able to repatriate profits needed to be "discussed and clarified at the summit," she said.

Instead, Sibal merely expressed the hope that the bill would become legislation by the end of the year. He said the draft Indian legislation was "very strong".

Not anybody and everybody would be able to open a branch campus in India. A foreign university would have to be an accredited institution and would have to have been in the higher education business for 20 years "before it even thinks of coming to India," he said.

US model too expensive

While Sibal made a strong case for American universities to go to India, Sam Pitroda, chair of the Indian government's policy think-tank the National Knowledge Commission, who has championed new forms of education delivery and expansion of the higher education system, argued that the US model of education was too expensive for the country

Professor BB Bhattacharya, former vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a professor of business environment at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur's Noida campus, agreed.

"US universities have private sources of funds, large endowments and charge high fees from students. If we want to provide education to the non-elite, especially the poor, this model would not work," said Bhattacharya.

"The Obama-Singh initiative has the potential to play an important role in shaping the 'innovation' and new central universities in terms of research capabilities and faculty training. But care should be taken [in adapting] the US way of functioning to the Indian context," he said.

Others said Indian universities were still grappling with more basic problems that needed to be resolved domestically.

"It is good if India wants to improve research in its universities. But that will happen only after we improve our labs and our curriculum. All our labs are in a sorry state and often the teachers are absent and lab [sessions] are cancelled," said Prakash Sahoo, an undergraduate at Raveshaw University in Orissa.

Moreover, except for the Indian institutes of technology and Indian institutes of management - India's premier engineering and management institutions - only a handful of private and public Indian universities are in a position to take advantage of US collaborations.

According to PC Jain, principal of Sri Ram College of Commerce in New Delhi, collaborations with the best US universities will not work if India does not improve its colleges and universities.

"While US institutions dominated, we don't have a single institution in the top 200 universities," said Jain, referring to the latest Times Higher Education rankings. "Delhi University has several collaborations with foreign universities. While foreign students come here our students are unable to go because we don't have a credit transfer system in place."

"The need of the hour is to strengthen our colleges and universities, and improve infrastructure and quality, not forge collaborations that exist only on paper," said Jain.

Meanwhile, with some 100,000 Indian students studying in the US but only 2,700 American students going to India, some felt the summit needed to address the imbalance.

Apart from the Passport to India initiative announced at the summit to enhance internship opportunities for US students in India, "the American government could have elaborated on steps to increase the flow of US students to India," said KPMG's Joyeeta Ghosh.

"The summit could also have been used to announce specific initiatives. For instance, several US universities are wary of coming to India because of the complicated regulations involving land and taxation schemes," Ghosh said.

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Indian higher education system is in a very poor state. No university is ready to provide good computing facilities for assistant and associate professors.

All the funds which are coming from the University Grants Committee to the state universities for teachers (assistant professors) are generally diverted to other schemes.

Our education system will improve if we broaden our thinking processes and start providing good financial support to assistant professors in the form of international travel support, good computing facilities and proper lab and office provision.

Dr. Amit Prakash Singh, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi