India education faces overhaul

India’s Congress-led government is undertaking a radical overhaul of the country’s higher education system that will include legislation allowing foreign universities to operate in the country, the human resource development minister said on Monday.

Kapil Sibal, one of the most energetic reformers in the cabinet assembled after May’s parliamentary election, said the administration intends to establish a new legal framework to unshackle India’s universities, currently controlled by a huge, rigid and highly centralised bureaucracy in New Delhi.

“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 executives at the Indian Economic Forum. “We have no time. This should have happened 15 years ago.”

Mr Sibal said the government plans to introduce the foreign education bill, which would open the higher education sector to foreign participation, in the upcoming parliament session.

The minister also said private companies should give generously to fund the creation of new institutions to help fill the huge shortage of higher education opportunities for the approximately 20m young Indians who reach college age each year.

“We are asking entrepreneurs to follow the route of philanthropy that formed the basis of so many institutions in the US,” he said. “Unless the corporate sector and individuals move more forward, we are not going to get to where we want to be.”

India’s higher education system has long been seen as one of its biggest economic assets, generating executives that have risen to head large global companies, and millions of engineers who form the basis for the successful software outsourcing industry.

But in reality, India’s higher education system faces an acute shortage of quality higher education, which has prompted a massive exodus of young Indians who go abroad seeking educational opportunities unavailable to them at home.

Currently, just 12.6 per cent of Indian high school graduates enter tertiary education, far below the approximately 60 per cent in the developed world, or even the roughly 23 per cent in neighbouring China.

India’s universities also face major constraints in meeting the fast-changing needs of the global economy, including restrictions on the pay of professors and a rarely revised curriculum set years ago by government bureaucrats. They also face restrictions on their ability to raise outside funds for research, or upgrade dilapidated facilities.

Legislation to set up a higher education accreditation agency to oversee universities and define educational malpractice will likely be introduced before the end of March, Mr Sibal said. “We must move the government away from regulation,” he added.

Many Indians expect top western universities to move to set up campuses in India. Richard Levin, Yale University president, said, however, “great universities are unlikely to dilute their brand by trying to set up institutions here,” but would instead try to form partnerships with local campuses.

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