Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision for India to be a global economic leader resonates well with his domestic and foreign policy. While his articulation of that vision has translated into various flagship initiatives such as Make-in-India, Digital India, Skill India, Swachh Bharat, Swasth Bharat, etc, he has given equal importance to making India’s presence felt across the world through his strategic foreign sojourns. Strategies similar to those adopted for bilateral negotiations for attracting FDI and easing of trade barriers for Indian businesses need to be applied for Indian education and research to make it globally-relevant and competitive.
Unfortunately, for more than six-and-a-half decades, we have been guided by an inward and protectionist, control-oriented approach towards education with best of the intentions. The outcome is the largest education system in terms of institutions and the second-largest in student enrolment, but of poor quality, largely unknown to the world, barring the IISc, IITs and IIMs. Paradoxically, our top talent goes to developed countries for studying, research and contributing intellectual capital as well as economic value to other countries. An estimated 300,000 Indian students are studying abroad, spending over $10 billion, while our institutions are starved for funds.
Ironically, we have been averse to foreign students coming to India. We not only need a strategy to have lakhs of overseas students study here but also to gear up our education institutions to go overseas in good numbers.
By 2035, India is expected to be a $10-trillion economy with about 650 million working age population. To reap results from this demographic windfall, we need transformational and innovative interventions across all levels of education. Growth in manufacturing and services sector will create a demand for sophisticated workers, innovators and thinkers in a global economic environment. Countries such as China, Korea and Singapore have all transformed in the short span of a decade through strategic planning and a forward-looking vision by correlating economic development to reforms in the education sector as well. While we acknowledge that the government has proposed and is also taking several measures to improve the system, there are many facilitating steps it could take to make the Indian higher education system better.
The Ficci Vision 2030 envisages the higher education sector into three tiers—foundation institutions imparting a wide range of courses and skills relevant to local industry/community; career-focused institutions offering industry-relevant professional/technology courses; and research-focused institutions producing cutting-edge research and knowledge.
The key to success here is to have a flexible regulatory framework to enable each type of institution to excel in its area of expertise, allowing them to innovate while transforming themselves into international brands as long as they follow the norms. In fact, to position India prominently on the global education map, several steps are needed.
n Identify 100 public and private institutions and facilitate them to work towards attaining global standards with a target of 20-plus institutions featured among global 200 by 2030. The National Framework of Ranking of Universities and Colleges suited to local conditions, circumstances and requirements in process should be fast-tracked and implemented to have the first ranking result by 2017. Simultaneously, Indian institutions, while working towards building research capabilities and reputation, need to also focus on improving infrastructure and employability of graduates in short- to medium-term to move up the rankings.
n The plan to have 15% international students in Indian universities is welcome but needs to be supported by opening representative offshore offices, equivalent to British Council, Education New Zealand, Education USA, etc, by 2016-17. Indian higher education institutions also need to align themselves with global accreditation systems, accepting international test scores such as SAT, ACT and IELTS. Robust marketing initiatives would also help Indian higher education institutions rub shoulders with the leaders by participating in international fairs.
n The government’s plan to rope in 1,000 American academicians to teach in Indian universities is a welcome move. However, such treaties should be signed with other developed countries also with urgency. Supported by easing visa and regulatory norms, best-in-class compensation, quality research and infrastructure facilities along with academic freedom will help in attracting top-notch international faculty to Indian universities/institutions. Indian institutions will have to inculcate better professional capabilities to manage international collaborations and ensuring adherence to global standards of governance.
n To transform India into a global education hub, the entry barriers for foreign education institutions to set up campuses in India should be removed with single-window facilitation and fast-track regulatory clearances. Likewise, premium Indian institutions should be encouraged to set up offshore campuses to improve quality perceptions and gain greater global mindshare.
n The government needs to build an environment of healthy competition, facilitate quality and meritocratic institutions without discrimination towards public or private entities. The aim should be to place India among the top 5 countries in terms of the number of PhD scholars generated by 2030. Incentivising corporates through tax breaks for setting up R&D facilities in universities and giving 200% weighted deduction to all research-related grants to universities will be a great move.
n It is critical to facilitate industry-academia engagements by leveraging the networking and mobilising capabilities of industry chambers. For example, Ficci’s proposed hub-and-spoke model called the National Knowledge Functional Hubs (NKFH) that endeavours to create an ecosystem for collaboration and innovation in universities can be supported and recognised by the government. The Council for Industry and Higher Education Collaboration (CIHEC) to channelise funds into such engagements under discussion should be set up on a fast-track mode as a national priority.
n The recently amended Apprenticeship Act should reflect the new realities and make apprenticeship mandatory not just at ITIs but also at higher education institutions while integrating it tightly with pedagogy.
n Lastly, to address the slow pace of job creation, there is a need to convert our universities into incubation and experimentation fields for start-ups. Industry should be encouraged and incentivised for setting up entrepreneurship incubation centres in universities to encourage students to take up entrepreneurship. Institutions should offer them flexibility to opt for jobs after two years of graduation, giving them time for experimentation. The R10,000-crore fund proposed by the government to act as a catalyst to attract private capital is an encouraging step.
While India is well-positioned to cater to the changes in labour market requirements—given its large workforce and projected labour surplus—it would not realise the benefits of its demographic advantage unless it hones the competence and skill standards of its graduates and workforce to arrive at global standards. For this to happen, our higher education institutions need freedom to act, innovate, need adequate funding, with regulations being output-based, away from the mindset to control them.
Mohandas Pai is chair, Ficci Higher Education Committee, and chairman, Manipal Global Education. Shobha Mishra Ghosh is senior director, Ficci.