I just returned from a month in India working on a collaborative course in educational leadership with SNDT Women’s University. While I was there, I had an opportunity to experience how rankings and the narrative of world-class education, which tends to be constructed as the purview of the Global North emerged in India.
In an oft-told story and one that appears to be common sense, rankings are used as a central tool in determining worthy and unworthy universities for public funding.
And like most governments; the Indian government wants its institutions to be ranked as world class by overwhelmingly media and western generated rankings. The Catch-22 is that to do so requires taking on more international students despite a massive need for more higher-education places for Indian students.
I noticed a few things that on the surface seemed disconnected. First, the hotel I stayed at was a center for writing the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, test (co-owned by the British Council). The lobby many days was full of applicants waiting to take the tests in order to apply for university abroad, and on other days a British Council tour for mainly European students in Mumbai with day trips to nearby slums and markets.
The British Council was the soft power arm of the Foreign Service for the UK, but its public funding was cut, and to sustain itself it became a competitor in the market for English language education, testing and placement of students in UK universities. UK universities that want to be highlighted can buy prominent ads for British Council space. The British Council widely disseminates information about rankings to prospective students as well through its own publications. In turn, the IELTS is widely advertised on the Times Higher Education Ranking and other sites.
I also noticed the role of education agents. While I was there a waiter at the hotel I was staying asked me if I was in India to promote a university at the Canadian education fair. He told me about his friend who wanted to apply but could not afford the agent’s fees — yet had no idea how to apply without an agent. Education is a big business and India is seen as the next growth market for many foreign providers. An investigative report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Degrees of Deception – claimed that nearly $257 million in commission goes to education agents who bring universities students. Universities in many other countries also use agents often with little knowledge of the credentials or practices of agents bringing them students.
What brings these observations together is the transformation of education into a global commodity rather than a public good. Economic and social capital rather than ability has always played a role in who gets into which higher education institution.
But the importance of a student’s financial capital – whether in Canada or India – increases when education becomes an economic sector rather than public sector.
The result is a narrowing of universities to equating suitability for university to the ability to pay high tuition. The possibility for expanding knowledge and our abilities as academics to contribute to global dialogues that go beyond celebrating the marketization of education was the most intellectually stimulating part of my trip to India. Universities around the world are impacted by narrow definitions of world class education, but what my trip reminded me of is that institutions individually and through international collaborations can and do make choices that mitigate or increase inequity.
We need to question the common sense of education as nothing more than a product, and fight for a common sense that reclaims debates about education as a public good.