Debate on potential to host several higher education hubs

With Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia and, more recently, Sri Lanka and Bhutan aspiring to become global education hubs in Asia, India’s potential to host several hubs – and the challenges it would face in doing this – has become a point of recent debate.

With more than 600 universities and 31,000 colleges, and the third largest student enrolment after China and the United States, India has what it takes to become a global education hub, argue experts.

But lack of a comprehensive national policy, bureaucratic red tape and the slow pace of higher education reform may prevent India from achieving this.

Defining a country strategy

India has several cities that have been tagged as potential higher education hubs, including Bangalore, Pune, Noida and Chandigarh – not because of planned expansion but by default, as they are locations of higher education and research institutions.

Bangalore, for example, is home to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Indian Institute of Management and several research hubs supported by the corporate sector.

Recently, the government of Karnataka allotted 5,666 hectares (14,000 acres) of land in Chitradurga district, 200 kilometres north of Bangalore, to the country’s four leading R&D institutions: the IISc, Indian Space Research Organisation, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Defence Research Development Organisation.

Vidya Yeravdekar, executive director of Symbiosis Centre for International Education, feels that these are individual initiatives taken by the respective institutions.

Referring to Professor Jane Knight’s discourse on education hubs, Yeravedkar said the purpose of setting up education hubs should be defined clearly.

“India needs a national vision and a strategy that will enable it to become an education hub. What should be the purpose of an education hub? Is it to build an international profile and increase global competitiveness, attract foreign investment or educate and train our workforce?” she asked.

Yeravdekar said India was the natural choice for students from South and South East Asia, the Middle East and African countries since it had the potential to provide quality education at comparatively low cost.

RCM Reddy, managing director of IL&FS Education and Technology Services Ltd, said setting up education hubs could not take off without active involvement of the government, both at the centre and in states.

“How does anyone set up an education hub? Will it be a for-profit model or not-for-profit? Who will provide land, which is becoming a premium commodity?” asked Reddy.

Identifying suitable locations across the country and partnering with the government to develop these into education hubs around themes such as skill development, or research hubs or teaching hubs, could be a way forward, he told University World News.

Role of foreign universities

While most countries have invited foreign universities to set up branch campuses to internationalise education hubs, in India a bill to allow foreign universities to set up campuses has faced obstacles from opposition parties, members of the current ruling coalition, academics and educationists, who have called it an elite move that would serve only those who can afford to pay the fees. The bill has been pending in parliament for over a year now.

But passing a law may not help get foreign universities to come to India, said Megan Clifford, a doctoral fellow at Pardee RAND Graduate School in California.

“Attracting and retaining foreign faculty has been one of the biggest challenges for American universities that have set up foreign campuses. Limited academic freedom and lack of research opportunities means that teachers prefer to stay in the home university rather than go to a branch campus,” Clifford said.

She argued that the feasibility of a branch campus must be studied carefully before developing education hubs that rely mostly on foreign players.

“A mismatch between a parent institution’s programmes and the requirements of the host country is a problem. India needs to be clear on what it wants and whether the foreign institutions willing to come will be able to fulfil that requirement,” Clifford said.

Home-gown education hubs

While the challenges of inviting foreign players into the country are many, experts felt that India, with its large higher education system, could develop education hubs by encouraging domestic institutions to expand and improve quality.

Several private institutions in India are opening branches and need to be encouraged in a planned manner.

“Unplanned growth means each institution is spending money on resources that can be shared in an education hub, such as land, roads, auditoriums, gymnasiums, playgrounds, guest houses and recreational centres,” said Bhavin Shah, senior vice-president in the infrastructure division at Bharat Forge Limited.

Shah is involved in the planning and establishment of an education hub in Khed City, spread over 40 square kilometres on the outskirts of Pune.

“Domestic institutions should be given incentives such as land with clear titles, roads and drainage systems, and housing in a planned manner. These facilities will not only attract private players but also help in getting quality faculty and students,” said Shah.

Apart from incentives, government also needs to move quickly in implementing education reform.

While Indian higher education and research institutions have several international collaborations, and student and faculty exchange programmes, these are often limited to a handful of top institutions and do not cover the majority of universities and colleges.

“There are big differences in curriculum and pedagogy between Indian and international institutions. Most institutions do not follow semester and credit-based systems so exchange of students becomes a cumbersome process. Evaluation methods also differ a lot,” said Yeravdekar.

For domestic higher education institutions to partner or compete with global counterparts, these systemic changes were needed as soon as possible, she said.

Equitable access

According to a 2012 report, Indian Higher Education: The Twelfth Plan and beyond, even an 11% increase in student enrolment in higher education and 9% growth in the number of institutions in the past decade have not helped to improve India’s higher education scenario.

Nearly 26 million students are enrolled in various degree and diploma institutions in India but that constitutes only 18% of the population eligible to enter higher education, says the report, prepared by the Planning Commission, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and professional services firm Ernst & Young.

“India needs to educate a large number of students and this should be kept in mind while designing education hubs,” said Rachel Davis, dean of the Delhi School of Business.

“You don’t want Ivy League colleges with unaffordable education. You want teaching colleges. You also want vocational training institutions to give skills training to a large section of youth.” Davis said that choosing the right partners could be key to creating successful and equitable education hubs in India.