The Moving Finger Writes
Do we need foreign universities?
By MV Kamath
Oxford can be Oxford only in Oxford, and not in Noida. Tip to Kapil Sibal: Help our universities and colleges to upgrade themselves on a regular basis and await results. Think it over, Mr Minister. This is a nation that once produced Nalanda.
INDIA, by one account, has about 480 universities and about 22,000 colleges as of now. According to HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, India will need at least 800 more universities and another 35,000 colleges in the next ten years to help meet the percentage of students moving into the university system. Currently the percentage in India is 12.4 against global average of 23. In developed countries the percentage is above 40 and in some developed countries the figure is around 53. It only shows how much progress needs to be made in India to be competitive in the educational sphere.
The United States has 73 among the top 200 universities in the world. The United Kingdom has nine, including the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, London and the Universities of Edinburg and Manchester. China has eight, but four of them are among the first fourteen. India has five. The IIT Mumbai ranks 24th, the IIT Kanpur ranks 29th, the Delhi University ranks the 130th and the IIT Chennai, 132nd. Anna University comes last among the first 200. For a country just 63 years old. India’s record is not as bad as it is made out, but obviously, it has a long way to go. Those students aspiring for better and higher education go abroad. According to available information, as many as 1,60,000 students leave the country annually to study abroad, costing the treasury as much as $ 7.5 billion (about Rs 34,500 crore) annually. That is a huge amount by any reckoning, which India can ill afford to spend. For one thing, a small percentage of Indians going abroad for studies do so not so much out of a deep desire to acquire knowledge, as much as it is a fashionable thing to do. Flaunting a foreign degree is supposed to indicate one’s social status, as much as a natural right to get top jobs.
Another percentage of students have as their aim the desire to acquire status as NRIs and consequently, alien citizenship. One understands that it is only a small percentage of students who really intend to return to their motherland to serve it. China sends several thousands of its scholars to western universities with a single-minded purpose to acquire knowledge for transmission, back home, to others. The result is that China is rapidly catching up with the United States in scientific and technological studies.
According to Thomson Reuters’ Golden Research Report 2009, in China “if it continues in the current trajectory, it will overtake the US before 2020”. China’s educational policy is two-fold; capacity building and liberal funding, both of which, given its foreign exchange reserves, it can afford. Thus, China’s gross spending in R & D grew at 18 per cent a year during the 10-year period from 1995 to 2006. Its R & D budget for 2009 was $ 25.7 billion, an increase of 25 per cent over 2008. Understandably, since 2000, China has been the second largest producer of scientific knowledge. China is single-minded in its pursuit of knowledge and training of its young graduates to take on teaching. Reports from the United States, British and Australian universities are full of praise for the discipline with which Chinese students pursue their studies. Indian students do not share that deserved reputation.
The HRD Minister obviously means well when he states that to meet the growing demand of the young and the educationally ambitious, we will need to set up 80 universities every year, besides 3,500 colleges under various classifications. Do we have the required trained staff to meet their needs? Again, foreign universities will inevitably turn out to be the preserve of the rich because of the high fees they will charge. The Government will have to face the obvious criticism that, in effect, it is merely meeting the needs of the rich and the affluent while being disdainful of the poor, a charge it will find it difficult to deny.
Two questions arise in this connection. We annually spend $ 7.5 billion to enable our students to study abroad. Fancy how much currently cash-starved colleges can achieve given even a fraction of the amount to upgrade themselves. Actually, we should strain to raise our present universities to international standards by developing what Nobel Laureate Venkataraman Ramakrishnan says is “a culture that would produce more cutting-edge research in science” thus providing “role models” for India’s young scientists of whom, he says, there are many in India.
Prof Ramakrishnan takes a dim view of the rush among foreign universities to set up campuses in India, saying that they are motivated purely “for business reasons”. Indeed, which of the foreign universities would really be anxious to establish their presence in India? Surely not Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, CalTech, Cornell, Princeton, Michigan or even Canada’s McGill? Some twenty foreign universities have apparently expressed their desire to set up their branches in India. In what fields of scientific knowledge have they shown class?
We don’t need universities to teach us law or literature. We need excellence in science, engineering, technology, medicine and management. Foreign universities should be judged by the quality of research papers they get published in reputed journals of international standing. In this realm, China again stands out. Apparently the number of papers published by Chinese scholars in international journals of note has risen from 20,000 in 1998 to 112,000 in 2008. That is some achievement. What India needs is not a dubious foreign university but trained teachers such as what the Fulbright Fellowship helps to provide. We should send people abroad to get training as teachers. That should suffice. We have all the talent needed and we don’t have to suffer from an inferiority complex.
According to Dr Ramakrishna, “whenever outstanding universities set up campuses, be it in Singapore or other places, they have not been able to reproduce the culture of the original place.” Oxford can be Oxford only in Oxford, and not in Noida. Tip to Kapil Sibal: Help our universities and colleges to upgrade themselves on a regular basis and await results. Dr. Ramakrishnan says : “There are some very good scientists in India who are doing work that is world class and internationally recognised. What India needs is more role models.” And support to its universities and colleges in every possible way. Think it over, Mr Minister. This is a nation that once produced Nalanda.