The Globalization of Education
Dr. R. Nagarajan is the Alumni Community | the education magazine

The United States of America gave us the template. Gather the best teaching minds and learning minds in one place, mix together, and voila– great ideas, inventions, innovations, leadership in R & D, lion’s share of IP, market share to the max. While American graduate schools were the magnets in the past, now even their undergraduate programs are able to attract some of the top students from around the world. Ironically, this is happening even as the emphasis in American graduate schools is shifting from doctoral to masters’ programs, and the associated windfall in revenue.

The rest of the world is slowly starting to catch up, even as the U.S. starts to draw down the shutters. Canada has been an immediate beneficiary, with many opting for the safer refuge of the northern neighbor. For Indian parents, Singapore and Australia are starting to emerge as attractive educational destinations. Interestingly, India itself is now able to attract foreign students, fascinated in equal measure by the nation’s intellectual and cultural riches. Student exchange programs that used to be very one-sided have now become much better balanced as many foreign students opt for “study abroad” programs in India.

The Government of India has announced proactive measures to attract foreign faculty and students to Indian institutions. As quality of life improves, and salaries become competitive with the international market, India is increasingly starting to look like a place for education professionals and seekers to flock to. Many NRI’s who left during the heydays of ‘brain drain’ are finding their way back, for a variety of reasons. The number of IIT undergraduates opting for higher education now hovers around 10%, a far cry from earlier decades.

Web-based courses and certificate programs have also leveled the global playing field. Exposure to top-quality teaching is no more restricted to a few privileged individuals. A student can shop online for the best teacher for any subject, just as you would for the best laundry detergent in a supermarket. This has forced an upgrading of teaching standards at virtually every institution. NPTEL courses, for example, are now widely used as supplemental learning modules with the heavy-lifting still being done by the local faculty. MOOCs and live classrooms have learnt to not only coexist, but synergize and prosper.

School curricula up to 12th grade are now largely similar world over. This makes trans-location much less painful for students and parents alike. While international schools try to make expatriates feel at home, there is much to be said for deep immersion in the native schooling system. For those planning longer stays in a foreign country, the cultural assimilation experienced in such an environment is priceless. Public schools represent the core of a society, and therefore provide the best opportunity to observe and acclimatize.

“Educational tourism” is becoming the new buzzword. Unlike “medical tourism” which merely leverages low-cost medical care, the choice of foreign lands for pursuing education is rarely made for cost reasons. If anything, it is typically more expensive for parents to educate children abroad, unless they land a Fellowship or other forms of financial assistantship. Rather, it is the desire to do “what’s best” for one’s offspring that drives this instinct. As India’s middle class blooms, aspirations are high. Few want to “settle”. There is an implicit understanding that the best education enables the best jobs early on, and the best career long-term. The benchmarking to identify the “best” is now done on a global scale, and is based primarily on rankings.

Ah, rankings…. This is a sore subject for many Indian educational institutions which feel undervalued by global ranking agencies. IIT Madras, for example, is # 1 in India as per MHRD’s own NIRF rankings, but is barely in the Top 100 of engineering/ technology institutions (as per QS). Should IIT Madras then be viewed as India’s MIT, or would that be a scandalous viewpoint? While comparisons may be odious, for aspiring students, and their parents, they are the guiding light. Many a choice of school or college is made on the basis of how it stacks up versus the competition. But such rankings place inordinate importance on “perception”, which is a subjective measure that relies entirely upon recall value. Branding and marketing have now become as important for educational institutions as they are for…. laundry detergents. All the players recognize that this is a game, but one that they dare not gather their marbles and walk away from. The same agencies that rank also “consult with” institutions on how to improve their rank—as the Gershwin song goes, nice work if you can get it!

Employability after education is something that everyone worries about, as this could be the factor that decides whether India’s “demographic dividend” will be realized, or whether it will transform into “demographic despair”. Learning by rote methods may have latent benefits, such as strengthening some neural networks that may never get exercised otherwise. The skills that such learning imparts, however, are of little use to employers of the 21st century. Facts and figures are now available literally at our fingertips, and our only real contribution is connecting the dots to paint the full picture. Unless humans develop and refine this skill, AI will step in and do the job. Unlike real intelligence, AI can be schooled (i.e., programmed) in a matter of hours!

About the Author

Dr. R. Nagarajan is the Alumni Community Chair Professor & Head, Department of Chemical Engineering, IIT Madras. He is one of the senior most faculties of the institute and was the first Dean for international and alumni relations.

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