Go easy on Ivy League dreams, please!

(This column, about the opening up of India’s education sector to foreign universities, was published in DNA edition dated March 17, 2010.)

Venky Vembu

There is, of course, much to commend about the Indian Cabinet decision on Monday to permit foreign universities to set up campuses in India. It shows up, at one level, a Human Resource Development Minister capable of thinking big on a project that can truly unlock human resource potential in India.

And even if Kapil Sibal’s reformist ideas aren’t always immaculately conceptualised, he at least has a forward-looking, progressive vision, unlike some of his predecessors who were either obsessed with rewriting history books from a Hindutva perspective or keen to drag down premium academic brands to the lowest common denominator and debase them in the name of social equity.

That said, however, the breathless media narrative about the imminent establishment of Ivy League campuses in India paints a wholly unrealistic picture of what we can expect from this initiative. The names of Yale, Harvard and Oxbridge have been bandied about cheerily as if they were branded goods we can pick up off the overladen shelves of higher-education supermalls. Reality, however, could be a lot more sobering: it’s unlikely we’ll see these Mega Brands of tertiary education set up shop in India anytime soon. Or ever.  

It’s true, of course, that foreign universities, including Ivy League schools, want to expand their global footprint; and India’s rise and its growing middle class investing in higher education offer a compelling narrative. Many Ivy League administrators have even made exploratory trips to India.

Yet, the dilemmas that Ivy League institutions face whenever they’ve contemplated establishing ‘branch campuses’ overseas, with institutional and program mobility, is of quality assurance on academic standards – and the financial sustainability of providing an education equivalent to what they offer back home. On those counts, it will take them years to be convinced of the policy regime they will operate under in India. The brand equity of Ivy League universities is built over generations, if not over centuries; the easiest way to squander it would to blunder in.

Oxford officials have said outright, after the Indian Cabinet decision on Monday, that they will not be setting up full degree programmes in India in the foreseeable future. And Yale president Richard Levin, for all his flattering words about India as a “leading power”, is on record that the institution won’t offer degrees overseas unless it could staff courses with a faculty and an educational ecosystem of the same quality and distinction as at home. So, let’s go easy on those Ivy League dreams, please!

All this is not to say that Sibal’s initiative will be fruitless. At the first level, we might see lesser order institutions keen to elevate their international profile – and make some money; we could see other kinds of collaborative efforts, including more twinning programmes, where an Indian curriculum is approved by a foreign university, with facility for transfer of academic credits.

Even more interesting are the opportunities that could open up in the continuing and ‘life-long’ education space, and the variety of courses that could be on offer. For instance, in China, which is the second biggest host of ‘branch campuses’ (after the United Arab Emirates), the New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies offers a certificate program in real-estate finance (which probably underlies the current property boom in China!) and an executive program tailored for publishing industry professionals. Who’s to say we won’t see offbeat courses being offered in India on, for instance, Comedy Writing for Television or Philanthropy or Grief Counselling. Down the line, we could even see more professionals making mid-career changes after reskilling themselves.

What Sibal’s proposal will not do, though, is limit the number of faux students travelling to Australia for vocational courses in hair-dressing or commercial cookery – and ending up getting bashed there. Many of them go Down Under for a shot at permanent residency, and that’s not something a foreign university setting up a campus in India can offer.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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