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Indian academics attack plan to allow foreign universities into India

India suffers from a shortage of skilled professionals, but existing universities are fighting the proposed introduction of international rivals.

A student group protests against the plan to allow foreign universities to operate in India.
A student group protests against the plan to allow foreign universities to operate in India.

NEW DELHI // A proposed law that would allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India has been condemned as a threat to India's education system by teaching experts and academics, in a country where tens of thousands of students travel overseas to study every year. The cabinet approved the controversial bill on March 15 and it is likely to be introduced in parliament within the next few weeks.

The government of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and others argue that foreign campuses will bring a much-needed boost to the standards of higher education. But "the privileges proposed to be given to foreign education providers in the bill will kill our own educational system," said Pushpa M Bhargava, a scientist and former vice chairman of the National Knowledge Commission. "Knowing the lure of a foreign label for most Indians - especially the rich and the powerful - our own universities will become like today's government schools, where only the children of the poor and the deprived go to receive no education."

Mr Bhargava said foreign universities will come to India "not for any altruistic reasons" but for business. The vice chancellor at the University of Madras, G Thiruvasagam, said the arrival of foreign universities would be "very dangerous for the nation" and that "social justice would become a casualty" in the country's higher education sector. "Those foreign universities will not ? admit students from economically backward backgrounds - which is quite contrary to the purpose of inviting the foreign universities to India," Mr Thiruvasagam said. "Should we give our land and resources to foreign institutions to take care of the interests of the rich alone?"

For decades, the brightest and most privileged Indian students have sought higher education in different developed countries. This has accelerated in recent years as increasing numbers of Indians seek jobs with international companies both in India and abroad. According to the National Knowledge Commission, which advises the prime minister, about 160,000 students leave India every year to study in foreign universities, spending US$4 billion (Dh15bn).

In a report, the global investment banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs recently counted the lack of quality education as one of the 10 factors that could hold India back from reaching its economic potential. International employers have long complained that in the absence of quality higher education, India is suffering from a massive shortage of skilled professionals and, according to various industry estimates, up to 75 per cent of all Indian university graduates are not employable.

Some in the information technology industry say that only one in 10 graduates are worth hiring, according to press reports. Kapil Sibal, a minister at the human resource development ministry, which is behind the bill, described it as a "milestone which will enhance choices, increase competition and benchmark quality". The government hopes to push the number of students going on to higher education to 30 per cent by the year 2020 from the current level of 12.4 per cent. To meet the target, foreign university campuses in India would extend crucial help by providing infrastructure, Mr Sibal said.

"Nearly one among three Indians is under 14. Over the next 10 years we are going to have more than 40 million children going to college [for bachelor's degrees] and to meet this demand, we would need up to 40,000 colleges and 1,000 new universities during this period. "India has about 480 universities and around 22,000 colleges ? but we are still 40 per cent less than the required numbers, which I think is critical."

Mr Sibal said the government alone could not build the planned infrastructure of universities and colleges, so it decided to open up the sector to overseas institutions. "No foreign investor can repatriate money abroad but has to put it back into the educational sector in India. We have already discussed the issue with foreign investors and they have agreed to it," Mr Sibal said. Many foreign universities already have links with Indian business schools or engineering colleges. Analysts estimate that recruiters will hire at least 13.8 million Indian graduates over the next five years to meet the demand of the employers.

Karan Khemka, an education consultant with Parthenon Group in Mumbai said foreign universities could also help raise the standard of Indian universities. "Just as deregulation of health care or telecom has given Indian consumers choice and quality, the same applies to education. Today the Indian student must struggle to get into what by western standards are shoddy and sub-par colleges because they have no choice. Competition will clean up the industry," he said.

But D Revathi, a student at the University of Madras said the bill had no provision for quotas for the poor or disadvantaged students. "Quality higher education will become the exclusive privilege of the rich in the new scenario," he said. "What purpose will the new universities serve if they aren't socially inclusive?" Abhishek Gupta, a student in Kolkata's South Point School, said he would consider himself lucky if he got a chance to study in a good foreign university campus in India.

"I always thought that my father would never be able to pay as much as $70,000 to $100,000 to send me to the US, UK, Canada or Australia for higher studies and I would have to settle for a degree in an Indian university. But now paying as [little] as $20,000 I can get to study in a foreign university and it is within my reach," he said. "Previously children only from upper-class family could flaunt a foreign degree. Now students from many middle class families will also be able to hold a foreign degree."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae