In the late '90s and the early '00s, there was the trend of young Indians going abroad for work. The perks were obvious – better job opportunities, better pay and a better lifestyle. Not only were the career options better, but life abroad also held that elusive promise of a blissful family existence.
Today, the NRI dream begins earlier, as youngsters start flying the coop at an early age to attain quality education. While the trend was once tapered towards higher education, more and more students are now migrating abroad for undergrad courses too. India’s premium institutions like IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) and IIM (Indian Institute of Management) could do only so much, given the unforgiving admission system and limited admittance. The lack of similar institutions in the country is a glaring grievance. Migration is restricted to the small percentage of the economically capable population. Those who can afford better education, do get it. But, how do you make world- class education accessible to each and every Indian student?
The slew of education pacts signed by outgoing American President Barack Obama and current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 aimed to do precisely that. Salient features of the pact included launching agencies like Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN) and Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM) to provide a whole host of schemes and measures to boost education in the country. SWAYAM is a Web portal where Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs) will be made available on all kinds of subjects.
Also, setting up new IITs with specific resources from the US, a faculty exchange program and online courses provided by US universities were some of its promising provisions.
However, most of the features of the pact are yet to take off. When they do, they will certainly help convert many a dream into reality.
The fact that the establishment of new IITs came to a halt in the late 1950s, should also be highlighted here The Indian Institute of Technology (Amendment) Act added nine new IITs to the group. But, the number is still not enough to meet the growing demands of the Indian population. M S Ananth, former Director of IIT Madras, says, “Of course, at this juncture US help is welcome, but it’s not necessary. Instead, an IIT every two years would have made a wealth of difference to higher education in India. Since that didn’t happen, we have to make up - introduce 15 new IITs. However, where do we go for good faculty? That’s the biggest problem we have right now.”
The faculty exchange program, however, seems more promising. GIAN has slowly led to the entry of a sizeable number of professors from the majority of nearly 1,000, as promised, in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths from the US to teach at universities and research institutes in the country on an exchange basis. “While science is universal, the scientist is not,” says Ananth. “A scientist comes from a cultural background and, therefore, a bunch of prejudices. If you have people with different backgrounds meeting, some of these prejudices can be overcome easily. The reason US graduate schools have succeeded so much is that they have a mix of people from different places. This mixing of minds is where creativity occurs.”
The pact’s feature to make available college level online courses to the masses, could make a huge difference to improving the access to quality education that an average Indian student has. “The idea is to set up a virtual university from which you can get a degree,” says Ananth. “It should be set up in conjunction with the industry; the industry should help administer the virtual university. Eventually, this will benefit students from the rural population too.
The impending Foreign Universities Bill that aims to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India could, in future, complement the provisions of the GIAN pact. “Eventually, they’ll only provide competition,” opines Ananth. “They can’t provide undergraduate education immediately at this kind of a cost. We have to make sure that we don’t give them a non-level playing field. We’d end up giving them concessions that we deny the local institutions. You shouldn’t handicap Indian institutions and give foreign universities more freedom.”
Even as IIT remains the premier institution for science and technology in the country, it only caters for a very small population of students. However, shouldn't quality education be available to every student, irrespective of intellectual capacity? “The reason IITs have become so important is, the other colleges have become terrible; and the gap is enormous,” says Ananth. “That’s because the states have not invested in education as much as required. Also, one of the worst things in our education system is affiliation. A student from a good college and a mediocre college, both get a degree from Anna University and the degree is still worth a lot. So, if a student from a mediocre college that doesn’t teach at all gets the same degree, then what’s the difference?”
The idea is to prioritise not just the Right to Education (RTE), but the right to quality education. The idea behind these pacts was to make that an accessible reality. But, the actual implications of the measures can only be determined with time and timely implementation of the same. In the words of Ananth, “There are many initiatives (being taken), but I can only say that our potential is much more than our performance.”
Whether this slew of initiatives taken will transform the education system of our country into the desired model is yet to be seen but, for now, quality education is something that increasingly seems to be no longer the domain of a select few.