Recently there were media reports pointing out that the top ranker in JEE Advanced has joined MIT (though still in India due to online classes). Stories have also come out that 4th ranker has joined UCLA. This caused the social media to react. Some of them criticizing them to leave India for US. I too poked my nose into it, and wrote on FaceBook that it was their personal choice and instead of worrying about 2 of them studying abroad, we should worry about more than 100,000 going abroad every year for under-graduate alone. Yes, every year, 100,000 students are going abroad for higher education, and the number is increasing every year.
I suggested that we can retain a lot of them in India if we could have high quality educational institutions in India. Since high quality institutions require a lot of expenditure, it is unrealistic to expect government to put in that kind of money. And, let us not forget, they have expanded IIT, NIT, AIIMS, IISER and other high quality institutions in the last decade, but government will have its limits. So, one will have to set these up in private sector, and that will happen only if the private sector can charge high tuition. And therefore, we must allow private sector to charge high tuition particularly when they have invested initial money and proven themselves to be of high quality. In particular, I suggested that a private institution with a similar NIRF rank as an average NIT should be able to charge about Rs. 5 lakhs per student per year, which is similar to the cost that is incurred at an NIT. (May be slightly less than that since it is assumed that private sector will be more efficient than government sector in managing expenses.) And a private sector institution having an NIRF ranking similar to an IIT, could charge Rs. 10 lakhs per student per year.
Why the number of students seeking foreign degrees increasing at a fast pace. I think as we integrate with global economy and more of us travel around, our aspirations are going up. As our economy becomes larger (ignoring covid related downturn in this trend), the ability to afford foreign education is going up. With ease of travel, ease of connectivity through video calls, and increasing numbers of Indian students on various campuses globally, the resistance to sending an 18 year old in foreign land is reducing. And as online education becomes mainstream, I suspect that many students in India will go for programs which allow him/her to spend may be 2 years in India at lower cost and 2 years on the campus abroad as that becomes easily affordable. So my prediction is that within 2 years of post-Covid times (say, 2023 Fall admission), there will be 200,000 Indians enrolled in foreign degrees (including those online from India).
Is this a good thing for India. An exodus because of poor quality of education cannot be a good thing for any country. Spending a massive 15 billion USD in foreign destinations instead of Indian campuses is depriving our economy of that much boost. Our economy desperately needs to reduce import and increase exports. And this is an avoidable import of service. Having high quality educational institutions in India would also attract foreign students (so we not only decrease import of service, but increase export of service). As these high quality institutions will not just be for these 1-2 lakh students, but for everyone else, we will also have a better trained manpower which is desperately needed by our industry. Many high tech companies are finding it difficult to recruit high quality personnel and the growth is slow because of that.
Seems like a win-win situation for everyone. And, of course, government has been talking about greater autonomy, including in setting up fees, attracting foreign students, becoming Vishwa Guru. The system of "Institutes of Excellence" and "Graded Autonomy" were started with these goals in mind.
But surprisingly, I found a lot of opposition to the idea. The arguments were primarily these:
1. These 100,000 are mostly going out because they want to emigrate and setting up high quality institutions in India would not stop them. A lot of them are any way low merit students (couldn't get high rank in JEE), and going to low quality institutions abroad. We shouldn't worry about them.
2. Even if somehow we can retain these 100,000 in India for the UG education, they will leave for jobs/higher education abroad. So our industry/society will not benefit from them. It is best they leave early, particularly the few meritorious ones in this group, because they would waste a good seat in India by leaving India after graduation.
3. High tuition will cause inequity. It is better to have everyone get poor quality education (except a few colleges like IITs which the government can afford to subsidize), than to have some colleges with poor quality education and some colleges with high quality education. The assumption here is that there can be no model of financing a high quality education in private sector, and hence private sector cannot be allowed to set up a high quality educational institution.
Let me answer these objections. The 2nd one is the easiest to handle. Would you want to have a car component factory in India if they are only exporting their products to a car manufacturer outside India. Of course, yes. Whatever economic activity we can do in India helps out economy. If a substantial portion of that 15 billion dollar can be spent in India, it is good for our economy.
As far as 1st objection is concerned, there is really no data. Everyone has different anecdotal experience. The argument that hardly anyone will stay back if there were high quality private institutions in India does not sound right because of my anecdotal experiences. When I talk to students at Ashoka University, for example, I do find many of them saying that they were considering universities abroad. Not only that, once we have something like Ashoka, we are able to attract a lot of foreign students. So even if only a few of these 100,000 will stay back in India, the high quality institutions will be good for economy by bringing in foreign students.
How about equity. I strongly believe that it is possible to come up with a model which allows people from financially weak families to study in expensive universities. For example, why can't and why shouldn't government say that anyone from a weak background will get a voucher to study and they can take that voucher to any of the good quality institutions, whether government or private. Already many of the schemes for SC/ST students allow studying in private institutions, we could extend that for EWS as well. So that pays for a significant part of the cost. The universities can get philanthropic funds to provide some scholarships. Some part of the cost can be taken care of through bank loans. There could be newer models like income sharing agreements. When we compare 100% poor quality versus 90% poor quality and 10% good quality, the latter is bad only if these 10% are all from privileged backgrounds and would cause the gap to only expand. But if we can find ways to ensure that there is representation of under-privileges students in this 10%, then it is definitely better for the country to have more well educated citizens.
Thankfully, despite the objections listed above, the government is going ahead with its policy to attract good quality private institutions even by allowing higher tuition. Some states have started allowing high quality institutions to charge high fees. And states which are rigid on this issue will not attract quality institutions and their residents will suffer. Remember quality institutions not only provide high quality education, but also do research, their alums tend to setup companies in the neighborhood of the college.