Education dispute is threat to India's future

NEW DELHI // An ambitious plan to open up India's education system to foreign universities has ground to a halt inside the cabinet amid arguments over how the institutions would operate on Indian soil.

India's National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government last summer hailed the Foreign Education Providers Bill - which would allow foreign universities to open campuses in India - as a solution to the country's critical shortage of university places. "Most of the educationists are against it and there is no consensus as of now in the cabinet," said Madhav Chavan, an education activist with the School Choice Campaign in Delhi.

Only seven per cent of Indians attend university, creating a shortage of skilled labour that ultimately threatens India's growth prospects. The human resource development minister, Kapil Sibal, said he hoped such top tier US universities as Stanford, Harvard and Yale would be setting up subisidiary campuses here by July this year. "World class institutions can't be built overnight, but that doesn't mean we can't lay the foundations for world class universities over the next five to 10 years," Mr Sibal told the Indian Economic Forum late last year.

"We have no time. This should have happened 15 years ago." Observers said the bill was still expected to be tabled when the next parliamentary session starts in a couple of weeks, but Mr Chavan warned that "they will dilute some of the provisions, keep some things open-ended and not decided in the bill itself". Lack of education is a critical issue for India. Some say the country needs 1,500 new universities within five years to sustain its current growth rate, yet many existing colleges and universities are being closed because of low standards and a severe teacher shortage.

Many Indians choose to study overseas instead - creating a brain drain - and most Indian workers now learn skills on the job, which is inefficient and expensive. "In every aspect of our lives we need skilled people, knowledgeable people, and we just don't have enough," said Parth Shah, director of the Centre for Civil Society, a think tank in Delhi. The country's demographics also seem to support the argument for a radical overhaul: 80 per cent of teenagers do not attend school and more than one third of the population is between the ages of 20 and 25.

"If people in the rural areas do not acquire skills, and our economy does not grow fast enough, then the disparity between those who have and those who do not have will be huge, and that will cause political and social strife," said Mr Shah. Opening up the tertiary sector to foreigners could be a quick and easy solution, but a 27-member panel last year slammed the government's plan as "chaotic" and "hurried", and called instead for better funding to lift standards at state universities.

Mr Chavan said the bill is now opposed by both sides in the debate. The foreign universities want independent campuses that will protect their brands while allowing them to repatriate profits overseas, while many cabinet ministers want foreign joint ventures that operate as non-profit institutions. India has only just started funding a major buildout of education services. The government spent more than US$3 billion (Dh11bn) over its last term, and poor states such as Bihar showed a 15 per cent enrollment increase over the period, Mr Shah said. But attendance is still poor, both among students and teachers.

This has created intense competition among wealthier families for private school places. Shri Ram, considered the best school in south Delhi, has an acceptance rate of just 4.7 per cent for three-year-olds - making it twice as difficult to get into as Harvard. "There is such an imbalance of supply and demand that the schools don't need to open their doors," said Kate Darnton, a Delhi-based expat who struggled for a year to find a local space for her five-year-old daughter. "There is no way to get information, it's all anecdote and information ... an awful lot of it is who you know."

Overwhelming demand makes private education a lucrative business. In Delhi, each private school requires 14 licences to operate, so most are unlicensed and politically well-connected. Mr Chavan's group advocates directing all government funding direct to parents via a voucher system. This would allow the private education market to flourish without political interference; new schools would open up to meet demand and prices would adjust accordingly. Private equity and venture capital funds are waiting to invest $500 million in the sector once appropriate reforms are implemented, the Business Standard daily newspaper reported recently.

Critics argue that a voucher system has been tried without success elsewhere, including the United States. India's biggest hurdles to better education are a lack of physical infrastructure and discrimination, and vouchers would solve neither. "There is confirmation of this from the spate of legal judgments condemning private schools in the major metros for not conforming to the required criteria of admission so as to exclude children from disadvantaged backgrounds," the columnist Jayati Ghosh wrote in Frontline magazine.

Mr Shah said India is now significantly behind China, which created a universal elementary system at least a couple of decades ago. "If you were to compare us with Britain in the 1850s you'd be just about there," he said. "I'm just giving you the situation as it is. I work in this field."

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