What would be the purpose of, and response in academia of 100% foreign direct investment in higher education? The state of higher education in the country is pathetic. There is lack of basic facilities in colleges and universities even in metropolitan centres. Infrastructure and quality of research and teaching are directly co-related. Instead of devising means to upgrade the required amenities to attract and retain the best minds for cutting-edge research and imparting quality education, people in power frequently come up with outlandish ideas blindly imported from different contexts.

The situation within academia, which is ruled by patriarchal old men with feudal mind-set and with party politics as capital, is no less bleak. Democratically elected governments cannot certainly force things arbitrarily, but some soul searching is also required within on the terrible state of academics. It is an open secret that mediocrity is perpetuated with no or shoddy research and substandard teaching even in best of institutions. Not surprisingly, they are nowhere in international standing.

As generally known, state of both primary and secondary education in government schools is a matter of shame, with a few exceptions perhaps. Given this context, parents are justified in sending their children to private schools, even if that means paying exorbitant donations and astronomical fees, in the hope that teaching imparted there would be better than what is available in government schools. Certainly, in Delhi, well-to-do parents would not like to send their children to an MCD school; situation elsewhere might be worse.

Even if main aims of private schools are to earn profit, like in any other business, they do have better credibility. Unfortunately, private initiatives in higher education in India have not been able to build the trust and reputation enjoyed by many private schools. Possibly, this might change in the years to come, with a bunch of private universities coming up and attracting those who can afford to pay for good education. Some people will send their wards in droves, whatever the cost, if Harvard or Columbia were to open fully functioning branches anywhere in the country. Indeed, if private players can run the best of schools, they can achieve the same kind of success in higher education as well, for which the government will need to create an enabling environment.

Further, coming of big international players in higher education in India does not mean the government can wash its hands of its responsibility to provide education to those who cannot afford to purchase quality education from private universities. Providing education, healthcare and other social infrastructure such as roads, ensuring peace and security are essential duties of governments.

Let those who can afford to send their children to private institutions do so, but public ones will have to be taken care of by governments, with good intentions—and not merely as lip service, nor for ideological control of institutions for abusing them as sites for political battles. Academic institutions have to grow as spaces for intellectual discourse and contestations, with freedom. Why should the rich depend on government subsidies for mediocre education? Conversely, why should the government subsidise education of those who do not need it?

In any case, meagre annual budget outlays for education reveal the government’s skewed priorities. This is an outstanding problem in India. Medieval Muslim rulers supported intellectuals who kow-towed to their whims, patronised architects, sponsored karkhanas or studios of master artists, financed madrasas, etc., but they did not bother with building institutions of higher learning which could serve as centres of intellectual excellence. By contrast, universities founded in medieval Europe still survive and thrive as institutions of international repute; they reinvented themselves with time, even if some of them might have been originally inspired by Islamic seminaries of the Middle East, North Africa or Islamic Spain.

Since the early modern era, the West marched ahead with new intellectual impetus, with rational thinking clearing grounds for modernisation and secularisation of public life, whereas some eastern societies remained caught up in spirals of religious orthodoxy to the extent that even very powerful rulers needed legitimacy to rule from men of religion who dictated terms from their mosques and madrasas. Much-needed secularisation of public life did not occur.

In the present milieu, when governments continue to pander to whims of people who want to control educational institutions from their narrow religious or community prisms, centres of learning will be further affected, financially as well as in its autonomy. It is imperative that a modern progressive government should provide for and create conditions through non-interventionist institutional support for state-of-the-art research and liberal thinking. Foreign funding and private investment can also help combat the depressing situation of higher education and research in the country. There is nothing “anti-national” about such initiatives.


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