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December 28, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

A Fairy Tale Export Item

If the shoe had not been on the other foot, Bill Clinton would surely have howled about an acute pinch. In the event, the wily president of the USA, who otherwise never misses a trick, chose to be silent at the recent WTO proceedings in Seattle with regard to a unique export business of his country. By the latest count, Uncle Sam, you see, quietly earned a cool $ 13 billion last year from what is truly a fairy tale trade: education, which, we have been told recently, has become the USA's fifth largest export earner.

What that figure of $ 13 billion represents is the estimated amount spent on tuition, living expenses and related cost by 491,000 foreign students attending 2,700-odd colleges and universities in the US. At the current average exchange rate, $ 13 billion worth of export totals about twice of India's largest single export item, textiles, in 1996-97, and is more than one-and-a-half times Life Insurance Corporation of India's total income for the year ending March 31, 1999.

The rise in the value of the USA's export of education in 1998-99 -- as revealed in a recently released report of the New York-based Institute of International Education -- is almost meteoric considering that in the previous year the contribution of foreign students to the US economy was estimated at $ 8.3 billion by the United States Educational Foundation in India. The spurt is also significant considering that, despite the lingering effects of its financial crisis, east Asia accounted for just over half of all foreign students in the USA in 1998-99, with India occupying the fourth position (behind China, Japan and South Korea) with 31,500 students.

To be fair, there is no evidence yet that Clinton country's export of education is based on State subsidies or anti-dumping duties or any such protective device of modern trade as sought to be controlled by the western countries in the WTO forum. In fact, in the academic year 1998-99, the IIE report says that 114,00 US students pursued studies for credit at foreign universities thereby indicating that the USA puts no embargo on them. At the same time, the rise in tuition fees of US colleges and universities made it difficult for foreign students to afford an American education.

Simultaneously, too, admission tests for students have been made continuously more rigorous over the years, especially in the prestigious and largely private universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Stanford. These universities, moreover, have had to face competition for international students from overseas universities, particularly those in Australia, Canada, Western Europe and Latin America.

If foreign students still choose the USA for higher education, the reasons are several. According to those who know from personal experience, American education sets high standards, especially in courses on business management, engineering and computer sciences. Rare disciplines like robotics and space are available and attract those who are keen about them. Flexibility, it is believed, is the hallmark. A science student can opt for a course in economics and international relations as well, subject to fulfillment of certain study requirements.

According to the recently retired executive director of the USEFI (note the designation) America takes great pride in the rigour with which its educational institutions are professionally accredited so that quality is maintained at all cost. He says he will not be surprised if, soon enough, an ISO type standard is evolved for this unique commodity produced by Uncle Sam.

There is, of course, the marketing tool like the USEFI itself, supported by government funding. USEFI's sprawling complex in New Delhi is a storehouse of information for those Indians who want to know almost anything about education in the US. Branches of the US information centres in major cities co-ordinate this activity with the headquarters in the capital.

An undoubted and powerful attraction of an education degree in the US is the job opportunities available to qualified talent. Young chartered accountants working on fat salaries with MNCs in India are known to have resigned their jobs for pursuing business management courses in the US, confident that the summer jobs they get will not only cover their course expenses but also leave over some extra; there is, moreover, always the bright prospect of securing permanent employment and the green card in the US or be able to return to well paid jobs in the liberalised Indian economy. Ditto with graduates of the five Indian Institute of Technology establishments.

Unknown to the majority of Indians, cowed down by a traditional inferiority complex, the IIT label is reportedly hot in US campuses. Last year, the information technology school of the George Mason University hatched a plan to go out to India and woo 60 IIT graduates each year with scholarships, a housing allowance and a paid internship at a sponsor's company. Objective? The Second Coming of Silicon Valley. This has happened because the best US universities, coast to coast, believe that our IITs have, over a period, produced such an abundance of academic excellence that the IIT tag has become a byword of brilliance even as there is a suspicion, however vague, that standards of American technical education are now declining.

It would seem an oddity then there should be talk here of the dire need to raise the IIT standards to those of institutions like the MIT in the US. But that is precisely the principal reason given by a group of ex-IIT alumni for offering to create a one billion dollar fund for privatization of the country's foremost technology institute.

While the spokesman of the group said recently that the Vajpayee government has agreed in principle to the proposal, which in effect means an industry take-over of the IITs, some sensitive people have begun raising a voice of protest against the concept, fearing that it would result in private entrepreneurs manipulating admissions to the IITs which have, till now, maintained an impeccable record in this regard.

The fact is that if our IITs and IIMs (Indian Institute of Management) can be made self-sustaining, non-dependent on government's financial assistance, then the total kitty available to government for elementary primary education would increase.

Look at some figures from the Government of India's Expenditure Budget, 1999-2000, Volume 2. From Rs 3.1 billion in the 1998-99 budget, the provision for IITs for 1999-2000 went up to Rs 4.25 billion; for the IIMs, the allocation for the same period rose from Rs 406 million to Rs. 681 million. In respect of the 17 Regional Engineering Colleges, established as joint ventures between the union and state governments, the allocation for 1999-2000 is Rs 1.2 billion as against Rs 976 million in the 1998-99 budget.

There are nearly 20 other such technical education organisations which are receive government aid totalling Rs 11.06 billion in the current financial year. That figure is more than one-third of the Union government's total financial provision for elementary education in the country in the same period. Clearly, our government-aided educated programmes have become skewed and top-heavy considering the country's abnormally high illiteracy, especially in the rural areas.

Apart from the easy route of significantly raising tuition fees, despite its impact on the middle class family, one suggestion for reducing our technical education's dependence on government funding is to "export" a large chunk of our education, just as the US does. One senior educationist in Mumbai, Y B Bhide, believes that is high time our colleges and universities learn to market Indian education abroad effectively and aggressively -- the way it is being done through education fairs and other means by Britain, France, Canada, Australia and, of course, the USA.

Bhide believes that, despite its limitations, the size and spread of Indian education mind-boggling. It is his view that our IITs, IIMs, institutes like the University Department of Chemical Technology in Mumbai, the science institute in Bangalore, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, Nirmala Niketan, the SNDT University for Women, and schools of Indian religions and culture --- all these are unique and give value for money. In short, says Bhide, a lot in our education is worthy of globalisation.

The hurdles in attaining that goal are manifold. First, as far as our technical institutions are concerned, the number of seats is far too few to satisfy the needs of the bright indigenous universe that aspires for admission to them. The screening standards are so high at the five IITs and four IIMs that some of our best young brains are left languishing, forced to remain content with lower-rung institutes in India or abroad -- yes, there are the black sheep abroad, including the US.

There is no question then of persuading overseas students to come and join our IIMs or IITs unless the number of such quality of establishments is increased sizably. And this is where Indian private enterprise has a role to play with their one billion-dollar type offers. The upcoming International Business School in Hyderabad could thus be the forerunner of the Indian export of education.

Secondly, the deans and vice-chancellors of a large bulk of our educational institutions do not have the mindset for exporting education. Most of these highly qualified ladies and gentlemen are pure academicians rather than professional managers, market savvy et al. You can trust them to wangle trips to conferences here or abroad, but they cannot even quite motivate the lecturers and professors under them to improve teaching standards or innovate teaching methods.

Developing research ideas that would interest foreigners is quite beyond their pale of thinking; undertaking such research studies for overseas clients is even further beyond their mental make-up or training. Over the years, the influence of our academic classes over government education policies has tended to erode because, in the main, they have been quite content with their secure jobs so as to be willing to suck up to the politicians -- excepting for salary hikes. And our politicians's vision of education is itself a sad, and oft sordid, story by itself.

Yes, the political control over our education system as a whole is a major reason why it's only now that our IITs, IIMs and sundry have not merited the nation's honour they have deserved.

The immediate hope of export from our education field therefore seems to lie in institutions offering short-term courses in ancient Indian civilisation, the study of Sanskrit and our scriptures, classical music and dancing, yoga and ayurveda. But nothing would be possible even in these areas unless these institutions and the government apply their mind and soul to the issue, with an unabashed willingness to engage marketing specialists in the task.

The large population of Indians overseas, who have all along been so keen to help their motherland, must also be harnessed for creating a unique triveni sangam for the sake of Saraswati and Lakshmi.

In any case, if India is to emulate the USA's fairy-tale export of education, a new awakening is a must all round -- from academicians and artistes to politicians and private enterprise.

Arvind Lavakare

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