The front page news that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has personally directed that the feasibility of foreign universities entering the education space in India be urgently examined has come as good news for the higher education sector, which is currently reeling under burgeoning demand, limited supply and the mushrooming of poor quality educational institutions.
There is hope that the BJP, which had opposed the bill on the subject when UPA-II moved it, would support it now if the prime minister endorses it.
This might well turn out to be the game changer that would transform the education landscape in India. It is an accepted fact that many graduates, including those with engineering degrees, are unable to find employment because they do not possess the knowledge or skills that make them market-worthy. This is a consequence when sloppy education vendors flood the market simply to take advantage of demand. Quality education suffers as a consequence.
The passage of the long-pending Foreign Educational Institutions Bill is, consequently, viewed by many as the solution. It would make high quality education widely available in India, apart from improving the quality of existing education providers through direct competition. Many unreliable vendors would be rendered redundant by market forces. This would further contribute to improving the education delivery system.
Apart from savings in foreign exchange by providing Indian students an opportunity to study in India rather than going abroad, the entry of foreign education providers is expected to see increased investment in and encouragement of R&D, which has been a long-neglected sector. Additionally, a significant boost is expected to be given to the online platform, which is likely to emerge as a lucrative product in a rapidly growing demand-driven market, such as India.
Speculation that with the opening up of the education space, India could be positioned as an Asian education hub will also have positive implications on infrastructure, streamlining administrative procedures with regard to mutual recognition and accreditation, and the dismantling of abrasive visa regulations, particularly for those wishing to come to India for research projects. Collaboration with foreign universities would, most certainly, see the exchange of faculty and students, including credit transfer, and consequently impact positively not only on joint research but also on tourism.
In other words, this has the potential of emerging as a powerful public diplomacy tool in foreign affairs by opening its doors to international students and international faculty. When learning is experiential, it has the ability of becoming second nature and thus, influencing perceptions and behaviour. In short, the studying-in-India experience would enable students to make Indian friends, travel within India, and receive an experiential exposure to India’s diverse cultural heritage. Consequently, when they return to their countries, they would have a more informed, first-hand and long-lasting perception of India. This lies at the core of any public diplomacy intervention because it helps create life-time friends.
Equally important is the fact that the liberalization of India’s education sector would send a strong signal to the global community of India’s openness to engage with international partners. This would be in keeping with the prime minister’s message that his government’s priority would lie in ensuring the ease of doing business and in the dismantling of protectionist barriers. However, this requires firm advocacy by none other than the prime minister himself, who needs to not only make his intent clear but insist on time-bound implementation. It is expected that vested interests and strong lobbies, many of whom enjoy considerable political patronage, would oppose the passage of the bill, as it would, most certainly, threaten their existence and impact their bank balances.
How strongly the prime minister asserts his position would be watched. The prevalent perception is that promises are made but not kept. Indeed, the bureaucracy, especially in the visa-on-arrival issue, has unambiguously “overruled” a public prime ministerial public announcement, at huge cost and harassment to foreign visitors. This can create serious perception and credibility issues that the Prime Minister’s Office needs to be cognizant of. It is hoped that lessons have been learnt and that the bureaucracy appreciates the damage it causes when it undermines the prime minister’s perceived directives.
A positive signal was conveyed by Modi when he directed that the foreign education bill needs to be revisited. If he is able to transform the education landscape in India, he would be remembered as a man of vision. After all, it is only nations that recognize the primacy of education are able to achieve sustainable economic growth and social justice.