“All over India, there is a vague feeling of discontent in the air about our prevalent system of education. Signs have lately been numerous of a desire for a change ~ there seems to be an urgent of life in the subsoil of our national mind, sending forth new institutions and giving rise to new experiments.” These words might sound very contemporary but were actually spoken by Tagore in a lecture titled, “The Centre of Indian Culture,” delivered in 1919. Since then, much water has flown under the Ganges. But still the ‘vague feeling of discontent’ has not disappeared and the country, by adopting the New Educational Policy, is on the threshold of a new era of higher education. The feeling of discontent about the present system has initiated new experiments in higher education, the latest being UGC’s declaration about creating 25 per cent additional seats for foreign students in the colleges and universities across the country.
The Chairperson of the UGC has stated that the initiative has been taken to internationalise UG and PG programmes in India. “Internationalisation of higher education,” he has added, “is an essential aspect of the National Education Policy 2020 and helps in integrating the international and intercultural dimensions in higher education.” Interestingly, at the beginning of his lecture, “The Centre of Indian Culture,” which is considered to contain Tagore’s ideas about an ideal Indian University and the ideological foundation of Visva-Bharati as well, Tagore also underlined the need for internationalising Indian higher education, though not at the cost of its own needs and uniqueness. He said, “On each race is the duty laid to keep alight its own lamp of mind as its part in the illumination of the world.” The metaphor of the lamp as used by Tagore clearly suggests that Indian higher education system can afford neither a disconnect from the world (visva) nor from the country (Bharat). In fact, the choice of ‘VisvaBharati’ as the name of his own university is evidence enough to prove Tagore’s take on what should be an ideal university in India.
Even now, VisvaBharati is one of those few Indian universities where a significant number of foreign students are enrolled each year. But then, UGC’s new initiative cannot be considered an extension of Tagore’s vision. The UGC Chairperson has clearly stated that these additional seats will be created over and above the total sanctioned strength of a programme/course in a higher education institute and such a seat, if it remains vacant, has to be allocated to an international student only. These seats will also not include those international students who are pursuing their studies in India under an exchange programme, or a MOU. There will be no admission tests for these students; in fact, the higher education institutes will be allowed to admit them through a transparent admission process as is followed in ‘foreign’ universities. Furthermore, higher education institutes must have an ‘office for international affairs’ which will coordinate all matters related to foreign students and build the ‘brand’ of such an institute outside the country.
However, the decision to create seats will be taken by the HEIs according to specific guidelines and regulations issued by the regulatory bodies considering the infrastructure, faculty and other requirements. Though UGC seems to give autonomy in this regard to the HEIs, in our country a notice or a circular of UGC is often considered a mandate, even slight deviation from which some educationists consider an offence. Since enrolment of foreign students implies the flow of money, this new move of UGC might tempt some institutes to opt for the provision ignoring many constraints under which they operate. UGC’s insistence on the need for ‘branding’ Indian higher education abroad also suggests that UGC, too, like so many private education institutes, considers education a commodity. In fact, at present, in some higher education institutes, foreign students get admission through entrance tests. Complete abolition of this system might be a huge compromise with quality.
Tagore’s ideal of free exchange of knowledge and expertise between India and other foreign countries has definitely not triggered this move of UGC. UGC, in recent times, unfortunately, has often been guided by the desire to imitate the higher education system of the USA. In the lecture mentioned above, almost one hundred years ago, Tagore lamented, “The mischief is that as soon as the idea of a University enters our mind, the idea of a Cambridge University, Oxford University, and a host of other European Universities, rushes in at the same time and fills the whole space.” With time, Oxford and Cambridge have been replaced by Harvard and Stanford. The way the semester system has been introduced in the country bulldozing regional specificities and needs clearly indicates that (unlike what Tagore dreamt of) India, instead of assessing its own requirements, loves to imitate the West in taking major decisions in higher education. The British model, that is why, gets substituted by the American model.
In executing the admission process of the foreign students, interestingly, the HEIs are also asked to follow a ‘foreign’ model. Whereas internationalisation of higher education in India is a dire necessity, one is tempted to question how much of this is dependent on the enrolment of the foreign students in Indian higher education institutes? Should it top the list of priorities in this regard? What about the improvement of infrastructure? What about the student-teacher ratio? What about the drastic cuts in research (especially in humanities) and other grants? What about ensuring and sustaining expansion, excellence and equity in higher education? In fact, there are many good colleges in India which in an Honours class even have more than one hundred students.
Students of these colleges save the prestige of the college and the energy of a teacher by bunking general classes like compulsory English en masse. A PG class of a university sometimes even has more than two hundred students in a section. On the other hand, in some colleges Honours courses are being run with only one qualified teacher. Internationalisation of higher education in India cannot be realised by imitation. For illuminating the world, higher education in India should keep alight its own lamp first. It should not become a cash cow
A version of this story appears in the print edition of the August 29, 2022, issue.