A strong case for foreign universities

The recent statement made by the minister of state for human resources development Shashi Tharoor that to improve the education system in India we have to allow foreign universities to operate in India has resulted in  renewed interest in the pending Foreign Education Institution (Regulation and Operation) Bill.

As the minister rightly pointed out, “Whereas countries in the Middle-East and China are going out of their way to woo foreign universities to set up campuses in their countries, India turned away many academic suiters,who have come calling in recent years.”

Tharoor’s statement assumes greater significance in the context of India finding no place in the most recent Times Higher Education rankings of the world’s 200 best universities. The same survey finds 15 Asian universities from China, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong procuring respectable places. Most of these universities are competing to woo international talent, open up channels of international cooperation and to welcome foreign universities to establish universities in their land.

Nationwide debate

Foreign Education Institution (Regulation and Operation) Bill was passed by the Union Cabinet  in 2010.The bill was subjected to nationwide debate and could not be tabled in Parliament mainly due to opposition from the Left parties. It was expected that the process of making it an Act would be completed in eight months from the day of the cabinet nod. The controversial bill seeks to regulate and monitor the entry and functioning of Foreign Education Providers (FEPs) in India.

The Bill is very significant for the higher education sector. With a severe shortage of higher education institutions, India has to face the challenge of providing education to nearly 30 per cent of its 1.1 billion people. Certainly India requires several more institutions of higher learning since nearly 100 million students are going to enter the higher education market in the next 10 years. Since the domestic resources and expertise are limited, we definitely need help from foreign institutions in developing curriculum of international standards and educational infrastructure.

The Yashpal panel set up by the government to draw up a reform road map for the higher education sector recommended  on June 28, 2009 that only the top 200 foreign universities should be allowed to enter the country. If the government is serious about the recommendations of this panel and decides to prevent the entry of fly-by-night operators to set up offshore campuses in India, the apprehensions of many learned critics in India will be assuaged.

The Bill if passed is definitely going to be a threat to the sub-standard Indian higher education institutions which have mushroomed in the name of providing education. Most of the so called ‘educational entrepreneurs’ have invested in this sector due to the high rate of return in this sector. Recent studies have reported that the returns in most investments in the education sector are to the tune of 300 per cent. Also, this sector is a safe haven for risk averse entrepreneurs The entry of FEPs will increase competition and under performers will have to make an exit from the scene.

The presence of reputed foreign universities will benefit the student community in many ways. Since these FEPs are expected not to compromise on academic standards, transparency and accountability the students will have an incentive for hard work and sincerity. It is also possible that India can turn out to be a preferred destination for students from other countries due to the relative low cost of living here. Many campuses in India will really become cosmopolitan and Indian students will get an opportunity to associate with an international peer group.

The Bill would also help the teaching community. High performers among teachers will attract better pay packages. Teachers will be exposed to the best practices being followed in some of the top most universities in the world. One must also consider the various linkage and multiplier effects the investments by FEPs will bring forth. The infrastructural additions will be enormous. These investments will have employment generation capacities that will definitely be a blessing for India.

What is required now is to pass the Bill in Parliament without much delay. The entry of foreign universities should be encouraged on an emergency basis in an environment where 73 per cent of the colleges and 68 per cent of the universities are found to be of medium or low quality.

(The writer is professor of economics at Christ University, Bangalore)

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