Monday, March 22, 2010

Foreign Educational Institutions Bill – Misplaced Priorities

If we are to go by the noise created in the media about the bill for foreign educational Institutions, one would tend to believe that the bill has been passed and that we would be deluged by the entry of foreign Universities. Let me state here that both these are not true.

Only the cabinet has approved this bill so that it can be placed before the Parliament. Even if it is passed by the Parliament and becomes an Act, it is definitely not going to result in any decent number of foreign universities coming into India in the near future. This bill was earlier proposed during Arjun Singh’s tenure in 2007, a copy of which I have, and it is now being pushed through after 3 years with modifications. At this time, no one seems to have a copy of the bill and it is definitely not available on the MHRD website. So, I doubt whether any of the reporters in the media who have written about this bill has read it and I am sure that authors who have written editorials in various papers have not read the bill in its entirety and have only gone by the various news media reports.

The current MHRD minister Kapil Sibal has already got one bill ready—the National Commission for Higher Education and Research Bill of 2010 – which seeks to coordinate all forms of higher education including University education, technical and professional education other than agricultural and medical education. As part of this bill, the existing regulatory bodies and their respective Acts such as the UGC, AICTE and the NCTE are sought to be repealed. Therefore, while the status of local educational Institutions is unclear (especially with the void in the leadership of the AICTE), and while the Ministry is seeking to regulate all forms of higher education, the question arises as to why the Foreign University bill is being pushed through before the NCHER bill.

Why should there be a separate bill for Foreign Universities instead of handling them under the NCHER bill itself? More importantly, the FEI bill states that foreign educational institutions will have to eventually register themselves under the NCHER bill. So, without the NCHER bill being passed into an Act, the FEI bill, even if passed as an Act will not result in foreign universities entering India.

Now, let us focus on other aspects of the FEI bill. The FEI bill stipulates that a Foreign Education Provider shall ensure that it takes into account the cultural and linguistic sensitivities of the people of India; it appears from this that the Government fears that foreign education providers may “adversely affect the integrity of India”. Then the question arises as to how the Government has thus far allowed colleges to be set up by the Society of Jesus (or the Jesuit Society) which is an institution of foreign origin that sets up higher educational institutions all over the world. The Jesuit Society has set up the Xavier colleges, the XLRI and some of the best colleges in India; in fact, I myself am an alumnus of XLRI. So, if the Government has already allowed such a foreign institution without any fear, then why fear foreign Universities now? More importantly, if our Government fears that a particular foreign University will adversely affect our integrity, how would the Government prevent some of our students from going abroad and studying in those very same Universities.

Let us be clear: educational institutions will influence the way students think about issues. The current macro economic policies around the world are a result of the thinking that the University of Chicago or the MIT fostered very deliberately over the last century. Such Universities are in the midst of the “battle of the minds”. Our current crop of senior political leaders are also products of such Universities.

The bill states that at least 51% of the investment needed should be brought in by the foreign university. By stipulating that the foreign university should compulsorily bring in financial resources and being silent about the intellectual resources that are needed to be brought by them, our Government has placed more importance on the financial investment. This is the bane of our educational system which does not focus on the quality of intellectual resources.

Reinforcing this argument, the bill also stipulates that the foreign university should deposit Rs.50 crores (US$10million) in a fund. Instead the Government can insist on these foreign Universities bringing their non-Indian professors to the Indian branch, thereby improving the quality of faculty. We can insist that these foreign providers have 1 foreign faculty for every 10 local faculty; each tenured professor is worth about $1 million. We can insist that for every 10 local students, they bring in 1 foreign student so that our student environment can be more diverse, and enable a global learning environment. We can insist that these foreign universities offer programs at the bachelors, masters and doctoral levels rather than just one level that is financially lucrative. We can insist that these FEIs create a comprehensive University rather than start a single school, such as business management, which may be lucrative. Instead, this bill makes the process an FDI in education rather than a means to enhance the quality of education.

Some of our more liberal social policy influencers also have been proposing ideas that are detrimental to our educational system. One author in an editorial piece has written that an “important weakness of the Bill lies in the fact that it does not in any way restrict our students going abroad” to study, since now with foreign educational institutions being allowed to set up in India, we can save on foreign exchange. If the bill indeed provides for this, it will be the biggest blunder that we could make.

Our legislators can take a close look at how large reputed universities fund their operations. A typical large US university with about 40,000 students has an annual budget of about $4 billion, out of which only about one-third comes from tuition fee revenue and another one-third comes from the state funding and federal government grants. The balance one-third comes from endowments (what we call donations) from private individuals. Even, the so called private universities get state funding. If such is the profile of university funding in the US, and if we want such universities to come to India, is our Government willing to fund them? More importantly, where are our philanthropists who are willing to give such funds to an entity that they do not control?

There is a worry among existing local institutions that once foreign universities are allowed to operate in India, many good professors will desert our local institutions and be lured by the higher income that these foreign universities may offer. Therefore I feel that the time has come for our regulators to stop stifling our institutions with restrictions on the number of students that they can admit or the fees that they can charge. AICTE actually charges a huge fee for approving an increase in the number of seats for every unit of 60 seats!! By restricting scale or limiting fees arbitrarily with no concern for the costs of delivering good education, we have made our institutions unviable and hence the lower salary levels for our professors locally. In the process, we have made teaching an unattractive profession.

So, two things need to happen: one, we must stop restricting the foreign universities with such stipulations on scale or arbitrarily fixed low fees. Two, we must free our local institutions from such scale and fee restrictions as well.

The other worry is that our good students will desert our local institutions such as IITs or IIMs and join these FEIs. If we gave our country the choice of telecom providers (remember the days of DOT monopoly) or the choice of TV channels including HBO or the CNN (remember the days of Doordarshan monopoly), or the choice of Kinley or Aquafina (remember the days of municipal water supply) then why shouldn’t our students have similar choices in education?

Before we worry about the entry of foreign institutions, let us focus on getting our act together first. Once the NCHER Bill is passed with liberalized regulations, then we can apply the same to the foreign universities. Let us not discriminate. There is no need for a separate bill for FEIs.

However, before we provide for the entry of FEIs, our Government should clearly state what their objectives are for allowing FEIs into India and also ascertain what these FEIs intend achieving by entering India.

Finally, let me pose a challenge to the MHRD Minister. Show us at least half-a-dozen reputed foreign universities who are willing to enter India under the conditions that are proposed in the bill and then let us pass the Act. Otherwise, let us not waste the nation’s time.