Go easy on Ivy League dreams, please

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By Venkatesan Vembu

There is, of course,  much to commend about the Indian Cabinet decision on March 15, to permit  foreign universities to set up campuses  in India. It shows up, at one level, a Human Resource Develop-ment 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 conceptualized, 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 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 over laden shelves of higher-education super malls. 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.

It’s true, of course, those 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 these 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 those 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 be to blunder in.

Oxford officials have said outright, after the Indian cabinet decision, that they will not be setting up full degree programs 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 programs, where an Indian curriculum is ap-proved 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 UAE), the New York University’s School of Continuing and Profes-sional Studies offers a certificate program in real-estate finance (which probably underlies the current property boom in China!) and an executive program for publishing industry professionals. Who’s to say we won’t see offbeat courses in India, for instance, comedy writing for TV or philanthropy or grief counseling.

What  Sibal’s proposal will not do, though, is limit the number of faux students traveling to Australia for vocational courses —  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.

Courtesy: DNA India

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