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Allowing foreign universities in India: Pros and cons

The UGC has invited responses to the draft guidelines. An honest deconstruction of it must reveal both the advantages and the disadvantages
Last Updated : 31 January 2023, 03:25 IST
Last Updated : 31 January 2023, 03:25 IST

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On January 5, 2023, the University Grants Commission (UGC) released the draft guidelines allowing foreign higher educational institutions (FHEIs) to set up campuses in India. The idea is not entirely new. At least three such attempts were made in 1995, 2006, and 2010. But owing to a lack of support, the proposal was shelved. Today, the idea has more takers and is almost reaching fruition because of its alignment with the National Education Policy 2020.

The UGC has invited responses to the draft guidelines. An honest deconstruction of it must reveal both the advantages and the disadvantages. Many believe the move will be a game-changer and provide a fillip to healthy competition among universities in India. But, will it be easy, given the complexities involved in the Indian higher educational ecosystem?

One must also admit that Indian universities must up their standards to compete globally. The absence of Indian universities in the top global rankings is a concern. So, will this move by the UGC help Indian students and nudge Indian universities to upgrade themselves? Or will it prove counterproductive?

Promises, a mixed bag

The draft proposes that only institutions which have secured a place within the top 500 of overall or subject-wise global rankings are eligible to apply. Given the Covid impact and loss on revenue generation, not many reputed foreign institutions may express interest unless offered a subsidy. For instance, Dubai, Qatar and Singapore governments provide substantial grants to foreign universities operating from their countries. The draft is entirely silent on this critical point.

The draft grants total freedom to FHEIs in student admission, decisions on fee structure, scholarship schemes, faculty recruitment and service conditions. The danger in granting complete freedom on fee fixation is that revenue generation could acquire undue prominence leading to more commercialisation and commodification of education which is against the tenets of NEP 2020. Indian universities are denied even half the autonomy granted to FHEIs. Without a level-playing field, strengthening Indian universities is unthinkable.

The proposal has fixed a 90-day limit for approval, perhaps to overcome the bureaucratic tangles. It is a positive step. The draft states that the approval is valid for ten years but extendable subject to fulfilling the required conditions. One such condition, for example, is to allow the Commission set up by the UGC to inspect, monitor, and review the institution’s progress. But will this Commission possess expertise and resources for an unbiased assessment and intervention wherever needed?

The draft demands that degrees awarded in India should have equivalence with those awarded in the country of origin. In addition, foreign faculty recruited shall stay on the Indian campus for a ‘reasonable’ period. Regarding imparting quality education or faculty qualification, there cannot be variation between the Indian campus and those in the country of origin. Many experts support these and say that FHEIs will offer world-class education at a lower cost, thereby reducing foreign exchange outflow.

Besides, through international curriculum and pedagogy, FHEIs can increase students’ global competencies and prepare them to face global challenges. The downside, however, is that such institutions will be exclusivist, a haven for the rich and the elite, further accentuating socioeconomic inequalities in the country.

Hence, the claim that foreign universities will increase access to higher education is tenuous. Yet another significant concern is the extent to which these institutions will focus on the local, regional, and national needs and cultures.

Impact on Indian universities

FHEIs will pose little challenge for public universities as students from disadvantaged sections would still flock to them. Adherence to the reservation system may not be a mandate for the FHEIs. However, ‘elite’ private universities will be hard-hit. The difference in tuition fees between private universities and FHEIs may not be huge. For instance, the fee for a BA programme in public universities is a few thousand rupees, while it runs into a few lakhs in private universities. Who wouldn’t want a foreign degree for the same fees or a little more?

In addition, the poaching of the best faculty talents is likely to increase. The lack of resources in Indian universities, poor infrastructure, unattractive pay perks, insufficient research facilities and the absence of conducive work culture may result in an exodus of capable faculty to FHEIs.

Thus, catering to the needs of a small minority of Indian students, FHEIs can further widen the educational disparity among students. The proposal acknowledges the failing standards of the current educational landscape in the country, which is essentially the government’s failure. The announcement of investing 6% of the GDP in higher education remains a non-starter.

FHEIs, on their own, cannot bridge the gap. The government and the UGC must explore avenues to invest more in new and existing universities to make them globally competent.

(The author is the dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Christ (Deemed-to-be) University, Bengaluru)

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Published 30 January 2023, 15:07 IST

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