Roping in Foreign Academics to Prepare Course Content for Indian Universities Makes No Sense

Why does the government not utilise the services of academics returning to India after studying or working abroad for designing and internationalising the courses?

Outside IIT Kharagpur. Credit: aakashb/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Outside IIT Kharagpur. Credit: aakashb/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

It was recently revealed that the human resource development (HRD) ministry has roped in experts from leading global universities, including the University of Edinburgh, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge University and the University of Pennsylvania, to help design and internationalise the syllabuses at higher education institutions in the country.

There is nothing unusual in seeking assistance from experts and/or academic institutions abroad for higher education. However, one does have to consider if such assistance, whether paid for or not, is needed in the first place. In many cases, a big deal is made of foreign assistance when it is actually for the most trivial of reasons and serves no particular objective. The larger issue is whether international assistance can play a role in improving the quality of higher education and, if yes, what kind of help from abroad could make a difference for the better.

The truth is that roping in foreign academics to prepare the course content for our universities makes no sense at all. It is completely unnecessary.

Why foreign assistance?

Over the past decade or so, foreign assistance, broadly defined, has acquired growing relevance for India’s higher education. Part of the reason seems to lie in the failure of our universities to break into the ranks of the top 100-200 institutions in the world and, more generally, the persistence of mediocrity across the higher education sector. There seems to be an implicit acknowledgement, on the part of the government as well, that Western assistance, or at least some kind of borrowing or inspiration from Western models, will help improve the overall quality of higher education and perhaps even propel our best institutions into high world rankings.

It is useful to recall that international assistance of various kinds played a key and direct role in developing some of the first IITs, notably those at Mumbai and Kanpur. IIT-Bombay in fact received direct assistance from the USSR in the form of Russian roubles via UNESCO. More recently, US assistance has been sought for the newer IITs. In fact, foreign help is also being sought for other kinds of higher education institutions, in a variety of ways. Unlike the 1950s and the 1960s, however, when this sort of assistance was absolutely critical for newly-independent, poor and technologically-backward India that was woefully short on trained scientists, engineers, etc., it is not always clear why such assistance is necessary in the 2010s.

Seeking help

In recent years, the Indian government has been seeking help from abroad in a variety of ways. For example, since at least the 2000s, the government has been contemplating opening up the higher education sector to foreign universities. The NITI Aayog recently proposed the same. While this initiative does not count as ‘foreign assistance’ as properly understood, the logic behind it is common: that the ‘foreign’ component will be beneficial to India. Foreign universities are not only expected to bring world-class education to India but also have a positive impact on the quality of education at other academic institutions.

Take another example. The Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN) has been launched to bring some of the best known academics in the west to India for short periods, both to teach and to explore common areas for research with Indian academics. GIAN promises to connect recognised institutions, notably central universities, IITs and IIMs with the best scholars and institutions in the US. The government’s expectation is that, among other things, GIAN will be beneficial for the adoption of new methods of pedagogy, boosting research in cutting-edge technologies and building stronger academic networks between both countries.

The government has also encouraged, through financial assistance and other means, collaborations between our universities with those abroad so that our academics benefit from such interaction and begin to contribute more significantly to knowledge production. Again, while the term ‘assistance’ does not seem to apply in such collaborative endeavours, the fact is that we are expected to gain more from them.

Even before Narendra Modi came to power, the government had started to give serious consideration to implementing the American model of community colleges in order to improve the skills of hundreds of millions of young Indians. Continuing on the same path, earlier this April, the current government approved 157 colleges and universities for running community colleges.

Justifying the need for help

The examples given above do not exhaust the broad range of foreign assistance initiatives that the government has taken up or extended in the recent past. As noted earlier, it has been reported that we are seeking assistance from some leading universities to design and internationalise the syllabuses at our universities. According to HRD minister Smriti Irani:

The government of India has been in touch with some international faculty and academicians and institutions who shall through RUSA, a national higher education mission, help states internationalise their curriculum in order to benefit their students.

On the face of it, headlines such as ‘Cambridge, MIT experts to help design syllabuses of Indian institutions‘  appear to be a worthy initiative, marking a big step forward in improving the quality of higher education. It is not a secret that the course syllabuses at most of our academic institutions are dated and revisions are carried out rather infrequently. The thinking seems to be that if foreign experts revise and update course content, this will independently and perhaps even immediately benefit our students in very tangible ways.

The truth is that roping in foreign academics to prepare the course content for our universities makes no sense at all. It is completely unnecessary.

Over the decades, hundreds of thousands of Indian students have headed abroad to some of the best universities in the UK, US and elsewhere for undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. While many of them have not returned, and most have not taken up the academic profession, scores of them have returned. Many have been mentored by some of the biggest names in their respective disciplines. A good number of them have made or are making a name for themselves on their own. Such foreign-trained academics can be found all across the country at different kinds of academic institutions, including research centres and think tanks.

One wonders why there is so little mention of brain-gain, even if it is quite small in comparison to the brain-drain that is taking place, and why the government does not utilise the services of these academics for designing and internationalising courses. Is it because government officials believe, as many others do, that those who have returned have done so because they are not good enough? Surely, at least some of those who have returned are competent enough to draft course outlines and such! But it is also the case that newspaper headlines on MIT or Oxford faculty lending a hand in updating course syllabuses sounds cooler than quietly seeking the help of India-based MIT-, Oxford- or CalTech-trained academics.

The other bothersome thing about using the services of MIT or Stanford academics for preparing course content for our universities is that in most cases, the syllabuses used by these experts is often easily available online and, when not, can be obtained quite conveniently. Surely, India-trained academics are at least capable enough to download and adapt the syllabuses at Harvard or Oxford for our universities.

The most damning case against seeking the help of foreign experts in this matter is that updating the syllabuses will have zero impact on the quality of education. Think about it. In the end, we need qualified faculty to teach the subject matter and we do not seem to have sufficient numbers of suitably-qualified faculty – even for the IITs and central universities. Perhaps more than other issues, the problem of faculty shortages and/or the reluctance of our academic institutions to hire qualified people needs to be addressed first. Indeed, there are scores of examples where qualified faculty are chased away from their respective universities or research centres because they are competent and do their job well.

Selective foreign assistance

At the same time, there is no doubt that we need foreign assistance, especially to improve the quality of higher education. However, in many cases, we seem to be seeking assistance in a way that is not needed. We are also underutilising our existing human resources, including scores of people who have studied abroad at some of the best institutions in the world. Yes, initiatives like GIAN will be beneficial for our higher education in the long run but why should we not be making better use of already-available human resources?

Seeking foreign assistance as keenly as we are doing, at least on paper, is also a denial of the real problems in higher education which are homegrown and will not be resolved in the least through foreign assistance of any kind. Initiatives such as using foreign experts to upgrade course content are purely cosmetic and will not do much to improve the quality of education. Instead, the government should really be pushing universities to hire qualified faculty and retain them. The government must also upgrade the infrastructure at those institutions which are capable and interested in increasing their faculty strength. Until that time, whatever help we get from abroad will have at best a limited impact on higher education.

Pushkar is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.