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We don’t want fly-by-night operators: Kapil Sibal on US varsities

Minister of Human Resources and Development Kapil Sibal and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the US-India Higher Education Summit at the Georgetown University in Washington, DC, on Thursday.. (Photo: Balachandran Erattapana)

WASHINGTON, DC: Union Minister of Human Resources and Development Kapil Sibal was in Washington, DC, last week to attend the first US-India Higher Education Summit, which was held on October 13th. Chaired by the minister and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the education dialogue is part of a series of cabinet-level engagements between the two countries in a number of different areas. Before returning to India on Saturday, Sibal spoke to Asif Ismail.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q: What was your goal for the US-India Education Summit? What are the takeaways?

A: First of all, this is the first of its kind. I don’t think we have had a summit like this with any other country, and, obviously, the outcomes cannot be thought of immediately upon the summit happening. So there are long-term outcomes, which will happen. But we have to lay the foundation for that. At the moment, I think the takeaways are that we found a level of enthusiasm and commitment on both sides. The industry and academia had a very useful dialogue with each other, and a team is coming [to India] now from the United States of America — from the State Department — which will be looking at what thematic areas we should collaborate in and what we can have in place by next year before the [US] presidential election so that we can actually forge some alliances before that date and look at the road map of the future. So the takeaway is the work has already begun.

Q: Will the summit be an annual event?

A: Yes, it is an annual event, and we will be setting some kind of a platform — may be a
portfolio — or may be another kind of platform at the Indian end because you want to organize this in a way that we get outcomes as quickly as possible.

Q: Are you considering such partnerships with other countries?

A: At the moment, let’s see [how] this [works]. We have very strong partnerships with many other countries through different mechanisms. We have a very strong partnership … with England, we have a strong partnership with Australia, with the Scandinavian countries, with Germany. They are ongoing partnerships, but this is a very different kind of roadmap we have adopted with the United States because [we have] a million graduates over the years in the United States itself, who graduated from universities here. There are a lot of faculty people, who are of Indian origin, who are living here. There are a lot of people who contributed to the economy. And as the center of gravity of economic activity shifts towards our part of the world, obviously there are gains for both sides to be had. That’s what we are trying to look at.

Q: In various meetings here, you have argued that the India-United States partnership on education is good not just for the two countries, but for the entire world. Could you elaborate on that?

A: Well, we are two of the largest democracies in the world, and with our levels of diversity, multi-ethnicity, we, I think, will be able to demonstrate to the world that collaboration between the two largest democracies at the student-to-student level can produce phenomenal results for the good of the world, both in terms of, through research, as well as producing very high quality graduates, who, in turn, then contribute to national wealth, which then gets translated through goods and services into the market.

Q: Specifically, what kind of a role you envision for foreign institutions?

A: Well, you know, I can’t predicate as to what role of foreign universities is going to have. What we are trying to do is serve certain objectives from the Indian standpoint. And those are: we want very high-quality institutions to come to India, that’s number one. We don’t want fly-by-night operators, we don’t want the kind of Tri-Valley situation to happen in India. Number two, we need committed players in India — institutions who have served the United States not less than 20 years. That’s the other thing. Number three, we need investments at various levels. Multi-layered investment is what we want, both in the area of research, the area of higher education, undergraduate education, as well as skills.

So these are multi-layered collaboration we are looking at. We are talking about community colleges. In fact, one of the immediate outcomes was that IIT Mumbai was willing to collaborate with some institution at this end. And there’d be a community college set up here and we’d be educating children in mathematics at the other end. So that was an instant collaboration. Some of the other institutions decided to set up a minimum of 10 community colleges as we go ahead.

So there is tremendous enthusiasm there. Research institutions are already collaborating with India, but we want to rev that up. And of course, there is the issue of bringing other institutions, whether stand-alone, or through other arrangements to collaborate with institutions in India for improving quality, and of course, ensuring that we get the best practices from this system and embrace and adopt it in a way that serves the Indian community.

Q: The foreign universities bill is being delayed. One of the concerns about the bill is the tuition fees — that American universities are going to charge exorbitant fees. How would you address that?

A: I don’t know — that is, again, a speculation that’s always put to me, but those American institutions or institutions from outside of India who are operating in India, are not charging American fees, even at this point in time. There is the Indian Business School, which is a management institution — which doesn’t grant degrees because there’s no power to grant degrees — but it’s not charging American fees though most of the faculty has come from the United States of America. The reason why American fees is a misnomer in India is because the ecosystem in India is much different in the sense that the cost of infrastructure and the cost of service in India is much less. And, therefore, to even ask that question [whether] they would be charging American fees is really begging the question because they cannot. They charge the kind of fees they charge at this end because of the high cost of faculty, the high cost of infrastructure, the high cost of services, which is not a given in India. And, of course, all of them understand that, if they were to charge that kind of fees, they will not get the student community, apart from the opposition they will get from the political class. So I think they understand that, and whoever is functioning in India even now, because there is 100 percent FDI in India, is not charging the kind of fees that you are talking about. So I don’t think that’s an issue.

Q: One of your goals is to multiply the enrollment in higher education in 10 years. Can the Indian economy absorb all the potential graduates?

A: You ask the industry, and ask those who are functioning in India, doing business in India, they say we have the jobs, but we don’t have the human resource, and you are asking the opposite question that, “You will have the human resources, where are the jobs?” The jobs are there, there is no human resource… If we’re going to grow at 8 percent for the next 10 to 15 years, 8 to 10 percent, the jobs will go a begging. And if we don’t educate our people and increase the gross enrollment ratio, we will have the jobs, and we will not have people to fuel the economy. In fact, the danger is the other way around.

Q: The parliament passed Right to Education bill last year, making primary education compulsory. There are a lot of inequalities and inadequacies in primary education…

A: That’s precisely why the Right to Education bill was passed. There are roadmaps within the bill itself. People who are running elementary institutions, they have to comply with the infrastructure requirements and other requirements described in the act itself, in terms of qualifications of teachers, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of pupil-teacher ratio and other attributes of a quality institution. And we have given three years’ time for all existing institutions to comply with those conditions. The act is just one year old, and, therefore, you don’t expect things to happen overnight. As far as qualifications of teachers are concerned, we have given a window of five years. So obviously, when an act is passed, it takes a year for the act to be fully understood and the beginning of the vision in the act to be realized. But I think it will take a period of time before it is fully realized.

Q: India recently launched Akash, the $35 laptop for children. You also have a very ambitious e-learning agenda, connecting nearly all colleges and universities in the country. When do you expect the bandwidth to be ready?

A: That’s not an issue at all because the bandwidth will be there. The connectivity will be 1 gigabit [which will be provided] under the National Knowledge Network — that’s a commitment. And of the 604 universities, I think more than 200 universities have already been connected. This is not something that is going to happen in the future. It is happening now. And 5,000 to 7,000 colleges have also been connected, of the 31,000 colleges. So these things are happening already, as we talk. This is all a work in progress and we intend to complete it as soon as possible, hopefully, in the next two years. (Global India Newswire)

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