INDIA: Improvements key for collaboration to work

Lady Sri Ram College in New Delhi, a top humanities institution, has student exchange programmes with overseas institutions including the National University of Singapore, La Trobe University in Australia and the London School of Economics. International collaboration projects such as the Singh-Obama 21st Century Knowledge Initiative would enable the college to expand and improve its exchanges. But there are obstacles.

On a practical level, students of Lady Sri Ram (LSR) and other colleges that are part of Delhi University receive no credits while on exchanges. Delhi University, like most government-funded state and central universities in India, has no credit transfer system in place.

"Foreign students who come to our college get credits according to the [number of] hours of class and practical work done. But for our students, this is extra study and does not count towards the course work," said Kanika Khandelwal, an associate professor of psychology at LSR.

Meanwhile, Indian universities are battling a severe funding crunch, faculty shortages, outdated curricula, administrative delays, dilapidated infrastructure and an inflexible education system.

Except for the Indian institutes of technology (IITs) and the Indian institutes of management (IIMs), the country's premier engineering and management institutions, only a handful of private and public Indian universities have the finances and facilities to take advantage of international collaboration.

"Before we can think of expanding and encouraging foreign collaborations, exchange programmes and research initiatives we need to improve our universities and match the standards of leading American and European universities," said PC Jain, principal of Sri Ram College of Commerce in New Delhi.

Inflexibility and quality

The 'compartmentalisation' of subjects and lack of choice for students - a humanities student cannot take business or science courses - also hinders exchanges and welcoming foreign students to 'pick and taste' classes.

"American and UK universities give undergraduates a wide choice of subjects. You can also do music and fine art with a serious major like physics and get credits for that," said Sachin Joglekar, a first year student at Hindu College in Delhi. "We are several years behind."

The exam-based teaching and learning system makes it difficult to accommodate students who have not been through the system.

"In my undergraduate days we got marked on how long the answer to the question was. There was no critical analysis of text," said Sakshi Ahuja, an advertising professional. This was very different from having to write critical essays while studying for a masters degree in London, she said.

"We don't have open discussions in the classrooms, or peer interactions and presentations. Teaching in colleges in India has to change radically," Ahuja added.

Funding crunch

But the biggest gap between institutions in India and those in Europe, the UK and North America is in facilities and funding.

A majority of state universities and their affiliated colleges that account for more than 90% of India's university enrolment are suffering from severe funding constraints and poor governance leading to low quality higher education in many cases.

"The willingness of families to spend on education is increasing, but the willingness on the part of the government [to raise funding] is declining," said Jandhyala BG Tilak, head of the department of educational finance at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi.

"While the union government is in a relatively better position and accordingly increases its allocation to central universities, many state governments are in a fiscal crisis and are unable to find adequate resources for higher education," he said.

This means several state universities have inadequate libraries, laboratories and little money for infrastructure maintenance. The University Grants Commission finances only a part of the development expenditure of state universities, and the huge maintenance expenditure is met by the states.

Private funding from overseas institutions, for example, could improve the situation. But many academics and policy-makers are sceptical that it can help 'renovate' anything but the top institutions.

Foreign universities

Overseas institutions are looking to set up joint institutions and branch campuses, as part of their collaboration.

At the US-India higher education summit at Georgetown University on 13 October, Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal said India could not build the 1,000 new universities that it needs to increase its enrolment ratio on its own.

Rather, it would have to "create an environment in which private sector investment, FDI (foreign direct investment) and public-private partnerships will be channeled into the education sector".

"The nature of private participation has also changed over the years. Today few speak about private participation, which is based on the principle of philanthropy, charity and educational development of the poor...the greedy new institutions that have come up during the last two decades, I am afraid, will not help in developing a strong higher education system," said Tilak.

And some universities, academics and politicians oppose the pending bill to allow foreign educational institutions into India, which is being pushed by Sibal, citing teacher shortages as the primary reason and fears that this problem will be exacerbated by an exodus of lecturers to foreign-backed institutions.

The elite IIMs face a faculty crunch, with some 25% of faculty positions currently vacant. The 15 IITs together will need 12,000 teachers over the next 10 to 12 years.

Meanwhile, mushrooming engineering and management institutes across the country have had to lower the bar to enable recruitment. Many of the 2,300 engineering colleges and 1,500 management institutes have hired faculty without a PhD or research and teaching experience.

Equity in higher education

There is also the worry that international collaboration and exchange will only benefit elite institutions and those in the main cities, while one of the main priorities in the country is to improve equity in higher education.

"We need to find ways to enable the poorest to access higher education and get employed. That means [higher education] expansion with equity," said Professor Pradeep N Ghosh, vice-chancellor of Jadavpur University in Kolkata and chairman of the committee on equity preparing the draft 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17).

"The government has to build more universities to cater to areas that private players will not go to. Secondly, [many] women are unable to attend university for social reasons. We have to address these issues."

While India's overall gross enrolment ratio has improved, so far it has mainly benefited students from upper socio-economic groups, while disadvantaged groups such as Muslims and scheduled castes and tribes have an enrolment rate of just 7% to 8%, said Ghosh.

Higher education in India has expanded in a policy vacuum, with no control over the quality of education being provided in either government or private universities and institutions.

The government has come up with several bills to accredit all higher educational institutions, a tribunal bill to take care of educational disputes, another that makes taking money for giving admission to students illegal and a bill to constitute a higher education regulatory authority.

However, until changes are implemented to improve the quality of higher education of domestic institutions, foreign institutions may not be interested in collaboration, while collaboration with the best institutions will do little to help the majority of Indian students.

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