A fascinating but frustrating mix

Private-sector leader explains why India remains a potent but elusive prize for the West

June 9, 2011

"Expectation has outstripped execution" when it comes to reform of the Indian higher education system, according to the head of one of the country's largest private providers.

In a speech at the Nafsa: Association of International Educators conference, Anand Sudarshan, chief executive of Manipal Education, said the country was running out of time to develop a system that kept up with the rest of the world.

Two-thirds of the Indian population are currently under the age of 35, and the government has announced plans to triple the number of students to about 40 million over the next few years.

However, Mr Sudarshan said that the opportunities this presented "could easily become a demographic disaster if the reforms process is not quickly ushered in".

"India stands at a crossroads," he said. "The higher education system continues to rest on a structure created by principles, many of which have become irrelevant."

One of the problems holding it back was the brain drain the country had suffered over the past 20 years, he explained.

"We can talk all we like about students, but who is there to teach them?" Mr Sudarshan asked. "We have a remarkable shortage of faculty. We have exported our finest minds or chased them to other professions because they were not being paid enough in academia."

In order to lure academics back, the government needed to adopt lighter-touch regulation, he argued.

"More than 95 per cent of the government-owned institutions are not Indian Institutes of Technology or institutions of excellence," he said. "The government needs to provide academic freedom and allow these institutions to operate successfully instead of attempting to micromanage through controls and regulations."

Acknowledging that Indian higher education could be "a cocktail in equal measure of fascination and frustration", Mr Sudarshan said that Western institutions that wanted to get involved must brace themselves for a "schizophrenic" experience.

He joked that the attitude of the Indian government to policies such as the Foreign Education Providers Bill, which has been stuck in parliamentary limbo for more than a year, could be compared to that of Jim Carrey's character in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, who tells his clients: "If I'm not back in five minutes, just wait longer."

But Mr Sudarshan added that Western universities had caused some of their own frustration through their "cookie-cutter" approach to international partners.

"For too long, universities have looked at India through the same prism as at other countries," he said. "Standard approaches to study abroad and exchange programmes are not enough. Look for a new approach for engaging with India. The shortest distance between two points isn't always the most obvious one; Western colleagues should consider a more indirect, nuanced approach."

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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