Could democracy help India beat China in internationalisation?

Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford, wrote an article titled “C’mon India: Freedom must beat tyranny” in The Globe & Mail this January. In it, Garton Ash compares the performance of India and China and asks: “So is China bound to go on winning?”

To which he answers: “ No, because while the Indian system is a daily soap opera of small crises, the big crisis of China’s self-contradictory system of Leninist capitalism is yet to come. And no, again, because India is a free country…Surely that free expression of human individuality must win out in the end”.

Whether one agrees or not with Garton Ash’s conclusions, a comparison between the world’s two largest and fastest growing economies seems inevitable. And yet, barring the work of Professor Philip Altbach in what he describes as the two gigantic peripheries, a report by the Rand Corporation and a few sporadic articles, there is surprisingly little written comparing the higher education policy approaches of the two countries.

Both India and China have among the largest educational systems in the world. But what makes the comparison between the two countries particularly interesting is that both offer a common baseline 'year' for comparison: the 1940s, when both countries were formed and began developing their respective educational systems. Thereafter, each country took quite a different approach, with China by the 1990s outperforming India at all levels of education.


I will very briefly touch on two policy issues within the Indian context – the first being privatisation and the second internationalisation – and I do want to note that my perspective on India is that of an outsider looking in.

China ranks as the largest system in the world in enrolments in higher education but India is the largest system in terms of the number of higher education institutions. Despite phenomenal growth since independence, a major policy issue in India is that of higher education participation rates – or what is commonly referred to as the GER, the gross enrolment ratio.

China has outperformed India in GER, suggesting that while China has moved from an elite to mass to now a universal higher education system, India is still struggling to achieve mass higher education.

This focus on GER in India is reflected in the many planning reports and commissions as well as the 11th and 12th five-year plans, which have all outlined plans for massive expansion of the system. Undoubtedly this increase has meant larger government budget allocations to higher education; in fact, India is considered anomalous as it is one of the very few countries that has seen an increase in public resources for higher education.

In China, on the other hand, there has been a move to introduce student fees where tuition fees accounted for about 33.3% of higher education revenues in 2010. In India, tuition fees as a percentage of expenditures are still very low.

So in China there has been a move towards privatisation of the system. But what is peculiar and interesting about India is that although there has not been a similar policy shift towards privatisation, the increased need for higher education has been primarily met by a proliferation of private institutions.

The private sector has grown the fastest and now accounts for two-thirds of all colleges, four-fifths of all professional schools, and a third of general programme colleges.

What is troublesome is that this growth has occurred largely due to the “slip between the cracks” policy process in India where, at one level, the government has turned a blind eye to the growth of private institutions as they assist in meeting the demands of the market and, at another, has had stakes in its growth in the form of key political actors who have used their power within government either to set up their own private institutions or facilitate those of others known to them.

In spite of the actual mushrooming of private institutions, private higher education in India is a highly sensitive and volatile policy issue. There is a strong view that the growth of the private sector exacerbates issues of access and equity and that therefore provision of higher education should be the sole responsibility of the state. This sensitivity is clearly reflected in the expressed concerns over the internationalisation of Indian higher education.


One of the major concerns about internationalisation has to do with approval for foreign institutions to set up degree programmes or independent campuses in India. The related act, The Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill, was first introduced in 1995 and is still awaiting consideration by the parliament.

A number of arguments have been made both in favour of and in opposition to this policy direction. Those in favour see it as a way to improve competition and the quality of Indian higher education and a way to stimulate the growth of world-class universities in India.

Others oppose it because they see internationalisation as a move that would signal the complete commercialisation of the education sector and exacerbate existing cleavages of class, caste, gender and religion. Still others allude to the dangers of cultural imperialism. Given that China has more openly embraced the internationalisation of higher education perhaps India could benefit from understanding China’s experience with internationalisation.

In India, higher education as a policy issue has certainly been on the government’s radar over the past five or more years. The key issue within the Indian context has, however, been the many challenges to policy implementation. This is where perhaps India and China are dramatically different.

In China, the approach has been more of a no-debate policy approach to policy formation. However, in India we see an environment of open and often contentious debates on higher education policy to the point where sometimes change is not implemented at all! Certainly the kind of bold moves and major shifts seen in China are not possible in India.

So returning to Garton Ash’s question: “Is China bound to go on winning?”, one could certainly suggest that China is ahead of India when it comes to several indicators – that China’s policy approach is a lot more streamlined and efficient and India’s far more complex and slow.

But the larger question is what perhaps Garton Ash alludes to when he speaks of free expression – could it be there is a trade-off between democracy and efficiency, a price perhaps India should be willing to pay given China’s more arduous task of promoting innovation and academic freedom within its more controlled one-party state system?

Either way, in spite of the complexity of the higher education policy issues within the Indian socio-political context, policy reforms have been set in motion and there is recognition across the disparate stakeholder groups of its need and immediacy. What remains to be seen is the exact form and shape of these reforms, which will no doubt be characteristically Indian in their ethos and orientation.

* Roopa Desai Trilokekar is an assistant professor in the faculty of education at York University in Canada. She has worked previously with the US Fulbright Programme in India and has subsequently held administrative and academic positions focused on international education. Most recently, she has co-authored a chapter with Sheila Embleton titled, “The Complex Web of Policy Choices: Dilemmas facing Indian higher education reform”, forthcoming, in Simon Schwartzman, Pundy Pillay and Romulo Pinheiro (Eds), Higher Education in the BRIC countries. New York: Springer. This article is an edited version of a presentation she gave at the Worldviews conference in June.