DC debate: Opening up higher education

Does the Kovalam Declaration, a product of Global Education Meet, offer a roadmap for Kerala?

More Indian students are going out seeking better education

Enhancing international contacts of higher education institutions was one of the measures that the Kerala State Higher Education Council had envisaged in 2011 as part of its effort to increase quality of higher education in Kerala.

An International Relations Group was established and universities were funded to create courses for foreign students and to produce special brochures. An international meet on transnational education, held in 2014, issued a Thiruvananthapuram Decla-ration on various aspects of internationalisation and the government, the Council and the universities initiated several steps.

The Global Education Meet 2016 was held on January 29-30 to take the process of enhancing international linkages to a higher level to make Kerala a hub for international education. In addition to traditional activities like twinning, academic exchanges etc, the proposals of the government of Kerala to establish an Academic City and International Higher Academic Zones were added to the agenda of GEM. All these were within the existing regulations of the Centre and the State and no change in policy was envisaged.

The agenda of GEM did not include either introduction of foreign universities into India, which is under the purview of the Union government or permission to set up private universities in Kerala, which is within the competence of the government of Kerala.

The outcome of the GEM is contained in the Kovalam Declaration, which has 32 recommendations, dealing with all aspects of internationalisation. It reflects the collective view of the meet that the government of India should pass the Education Bill pending in Parliament and that the government of Kerala should implement the report on private universities.

For the rest, the recommendations deal with academic travel, the visa regime, training of faculty etc. It makes the point that an increasing number of Indian students are going out of Kerala and out of India seeking better education facilities and they will stay back if equivalent education is available here.

Moreover, with the new scholarship programme, even poorer sections of the community can enjoy better education in the new institutions. The most important benefit from the meet was the opportunity it gave our academicians to meet a cross section of the scholars from foreign universities. Our experts were able to acquire information first hand to see the potentials of cooperation with them.

The exchanges at the GEM on the Academic City and International Higher Academic Zones with experienced educationists from India and abroad resulted in new perspectives for our planners.

The recommendations of the meet are like the other reports the Council has submitted to the government on the other aspects of modernization of higher education. The government will take appropriate decisions on the recommendations meet after wide consultations.

India's demographic dividend dictates that we equip our young people with skills to do jobs that do not exist now. A new system of education needs to be evolved through collaboration with private and foreign partners if we have to keep pace with the world and provide the intellectual support to the coming fourth industrial revolution. The GEM was a modest beginning to start thinking of strengthening such collaboration.

T P Sreenivasan (The writer is a formar diplomat and vice-chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council)

GEM has eerie similarities with failed models of US and UK

It is a no-brainer that Kerala has an acute problem in its higher education system, and needs urgent redressal. However, in my view, the official declaration of the Global Education Meet 2016 (GEM 2016) gets both its diagnosis and prescription wrong. Its implementation would only increase the choas in Kerala's higher education; it threatens to transform higher education into an exclusionary sphere, even into an "enclave economy".

“The state should not subsidise intellectual curiosity,” Ronald Reagen had said before dismantling public higher education in the United States (U.S.). Reagen cut by half the share of federal budget spent on education. Today, higher education in the US is increasingly beyond access for the middle class and poor. If tuition was free at the University of California at Berkeley in 1960, the tuition fee in 2014 was $12,872, excluding the $14,414 charges for room and board.

Similar was the experience in the United Kingdom (UK) under Margaret Thatcher. The golden age of universities in the UK, initiated by the Robbins report, was cut short after 1979. Government funding for universities was cut by 20 per cent; and tuition fees shot up with no proportionate rise in quality.

It is no surprise that both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn owe their popularity largely to their pledges to abolish tuition fess in the universities. The GEM 2016 declaration has eerie similarities with the failed privatisation models of U.S and U.K. Its striking feature is that the central role of public universities is consciously undermined and sidelined.

It looks at new private universities as the harbingers of quality and exhorts the government to legalise private universities. It emphasises on “internationalisation” of higher education. Internationalisation refers to three aspects: international collaborations; establishment of an Academic City and allowing International Higher Academic Zones.

These steps are supposed to retain students in Kerala who would otherwise study abroad, increase employability and create world-class entreprenuers. The Academic City and Zones are supposed to make Kerala an attractive destination for foreign investment and international students (as in Dubai).

The problems with such an approach are obvious. Education is not seen as an instrument of national development but as a commodity. This approach has its genesis in the WTO negotiations. The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) in WTO considers education as a globally tradeable service; under GATS, the opening of a WALMART store is no different from opening a university.

On the one hand, the Nairobi ministerial agreement of WTO would force India to open doors to higher foreign investment in education. On the other, expenditures on higher education have been sharply cut in India to achieve fiscal compression targets under neo-liberalism.

Nowhere in the world has such a policy raised the quality of higher education in any substantive way. It is a myth that foreign universities bring in improved quality. Educational institutions in developed countries are, thanks to scarcity of funds, forced to move into greener pastures to shore up revenues.

They are enticed by the vast and unmet higher education market in countries like India. Given the inevitability of expenditure compression, countries like India end up opening up higher education to foreign investment. An Academic City or an Academic Zone, as envisaged in GEM 2016, will thus be no different from a cement factory in a Special Economic Zone (SEZ): a proposition to make quick and large profits.

A casualty here would be students. A business proposition has to be profitable. Fees rise would become unbearable. Students find higher education increasingly difficult to finance. Neo-liberalism has an answer to this too: educational loans. Global experience shows that student debt cycles are vicious; within educational loans in India, a good proportion are already classified as bad debts.

Policies as advocated by GEM 2016 would only exacerbate such burdens on students. A university is a site of critical thinking. But under the dominance of commerce, it ceases to be one. GEM offers us this grim prospect.

(R. Ramakumar is Professor and Dean at the School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai).

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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