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[NEW DELHI] The vice-chair of India's National Knowledge Commission has reacted strongly to the World Bank's call for India to allow greater privatisation of higher education and to set up information and communication technology (ICT) 'centres of excellence'.

In a 28 June report, the bank said that to build the workforce needed to sustain a knowledge-based economy and to keep highly qualified people in the country, India should make its education system more "demand driven".

India should relax bureaucratic hurdles and create better systems for accrediting private providers of education, said the report. This would allow the private sector to help meet the growing demand for higher education in India, it said.

The bank also recommends that India increase the role that ICTs play in its economy. The country should improve access to telecommunications and computers, increase ICT literacy and develop applications of ICTs in social, economic and government services to the citizens.

India, buoyed by its successes in the ICT and biotechnology industries, is keen to develop a knowledge-based economy.

On 2 June, prime minister Manmohan Singh set up the National Knowledge Commission to advise him on issues relating to knowledge production, use and dissemination. 

But reacting to the World Bank recommendations, Pushpa Bhargava, the commission's vice-chair, told SciDev.Net that knowledge should not be seen solely as an instrument of economic growth.

"A true knowledge economy is one where the entire population is knowledgeable and not exploited by anybody, and uses its knowledge to improve its wealth," he said.

Bhargava, former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, stressed that his views are his own and not those of the commission.

"Education should be excellence-driven, not market-driven," he added.

An example of tailoring higher education to market trends in India, was the introduction of undergraduate courses in biotechnology a decade ago.

But according to M. K. Bhan, who took over as secretary of the government's Department of Biotechnology in 2004, India is producing biotechnology students without a sound base in life sciences as a result of this decision.

"Introducing the undergraduate course in biotechnology was a mistake," says Bhargava.

Privatisation of higher education is controversial in India. In February 2205, the Supreme Court declared illegal 112 private universities created in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh in the last two years with the state government's approval. 

A petition filed by Yash Pal, former chairman of the University Grants Commission, which oversees university education in India, prompted the court's ruling.

Pal said the private universities in Chhattisgarh were no more than teaching 'shops' held in shopping complexes, without basic infrastructure, staff or finances.

In January, Prathap Narain Srivastava, former vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, told the Indian Science Congress in Ahmedabad that "unfortunately a good percentage of private institutions [in India] provide only low quality education while charging very high fees."

Bhargava said India's private universities must be strictly regulated.

He is also concerned that following the World Bank's recommendation to increase the emphasis on ICTs could compound the trend for students to favour computer courses over degrees in pure sciences.

"ICTs are powerful tools, but we must know how and where to use it," he said. "It should be integrated into education but not singled out as a separate sector. ICTs do not solve all problems or alone reduce poverty — for example, they does not generate water and seeds for farmers."