HIGHER education is big business now, world over. And India is a major contributor to this burgeoning corporatisation of knowledge. We send the maximum number of students abroad for studies, beaten by China in a few destinations. This has led to a booming exchange of students across the continents.
The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World by Ben Wildavsky explores this new and growing phenomena of higher education where students travel from east to west and from north to south in pursuit of better degrees and thereby by greater work opportunities. The author views this as “the rise of a new kind of free trade: free trade in minds.” He conducted more than 100 interviews in India, in West Asia, Western Europe and China for writing this book.
Nearly three million students now study outside their home countries. A large number of them go to the US, its share being 22 per cent, nearly one-fourth. The UK and Australia follow far behind with 12 and 11 per cent respectively. And half the number of students coming to the US is from Asia (India, China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan). According to the book, Germany is the pioneer in the concept of modern university system, which other countries replicated with more success, especially America.
The author analyses the reasons for this global phenomena of brain race. He says that urbanologists use the term FIRE when describing the force behind the 20th c developments of cities such as New York and London. FIRE stands for finance, insurance, and real estate. Today FIRE is not enough. What FIRE needs is ICE, i.e the intellectual, cultural and educational assets that turn a metropolis into a centre of ideas. For instance, the United Arab Emirates is investing hugely for a campus of the New York University in Abu Dhabi. NYU received a gift of $ 50 million to show the commitment of UAE to the project.
India receives substantial attention in the book. “Another massive market for university education can be found in India whose extraordinary economic growth has created a significant middle class and a hunger for higher learning. With the exception of a relatively handful of elite institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, Indian universities are generally of middling to poor quality… Little surprise, then, that India is the world’s second-largest sender of students to overseas universities after China.”
There is more on India “… none of India’s 348 universities ranks among the top 100 in the world. What’s more, India educates just half as many university-aged students as China. It also falls behind most Latin American and other middle-income nations in college access.” (Quoted from an article by Boston College’s Altbach and N Jayaram of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai).
Making a strong pitch for opening the doors for foreign universities into India, the book says that the Indian universities are plagued by “a culture of mediocrity” and lack good quality faculty.
International education now provides a significant source of revenues for companies better known for other activities. The book has given several examples like Kaplan (Parent Firm Washington Post), Apollo (parent firm of University of Phoenix) and Laureate. Several of these for-profits universities have attempted to enter India. While the “neoliberals” have been eager, the powerful socialists vetoed the plan, the book says. The author argues against looking at education as a social welfare. Instead, he says, “The higher education has become a form of international trade. … Like business that are able, through the forces of globalization, to find the best goods or services at the lowest prices throughout the world, those seeking to teach, study, conduct research, and publish are able to take advantage of a massive worldwide market.”
There are apprehensions of allowing higher education as a free trade as it would create a class of their own. As the author says, “Some analysts fret that these global citizens could become student versions of the late political scientist Samuel Huntington’s “Davos Man,” having more in common with one another than with their compatriots and losing valuable ties-intellectual, social, emotional-to their home countries.” But those who are in the business of education argue that when the national universities are unable to satisfy the need and demand of the growing population for better education, they should open the doors to outsiders.
The tenor of the books is for allowing greater mobility and access for foreign universities from developed countries into the developing world from where the customers are coming. But in India, where education is still in the social sector and knowledge is still considered a blessing, can an atmosphere be allowed where admissions into universities are auctioned to the rich and affordable class, which would inevitably create another section of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots?’ According to the book, the foreign university players have pinned their hope on Kapil Sibal, the present HRD Minister, who it says is favourably disposed to the move and in fact is pushing for it.
The book is a thorough work on the higher education scenario globally. It discusses the issue at micro level, detailing both sides of the story. It is undoubtedly a valuable source book on the education sector. Ben Wildavsky is Senior Fellow in Research and Policy at Kauffman Foundation and is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.
(Princeton University Press, 41, William Street, Princeton New Jersey 08540)