Foreign universities in India? It could cut both ways

The UGC’s move will test of the government’s long-term vision for the higher education sector
Last Updated : 31 January 2023, 09:10 IST

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The decision by the University Grants Commission (UGC) to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India with the freedom to structure courses and fees could drastically alter the higher education ecosystem.

The intention of the policy is to stem the flow of foreign universities attracting Indian students and stop the flood of foreign exchange going offshore. In 2009, an estimated 770,000 Indian students spent a whopping $28 billion to peruse education abroad.

Should India succeed in attracting foreign universities, it will have a game-changing effect on the higher education sector. First, in areas such as technology and computer science, for example, a much wider pool of talent could be trained than the current small batch of IIT students. Second, the universities will also encourage an aspect of academics that are all but missing from higher education in India — research. University research is the undervalued prize that India could win. Some of the greatest inventions happened in seminar rooms and laboratories of universities. The E-book by Stanford, the ultrasound machine discovered at the University of Glasgow, and the contraceptive pill by the University of Manchester to name just three.

Third, it will be transformative for talented teachers’ salaries. As things stand, private universities in India already pay a higher grade of salaries, and since they can hire and fire unlike government universities where typically a job is for life, the quality of education in some Indian private universities is already at par with if not higher than government universities. Now the pay scale of foreign universities is of a different order.

In the United States, an ivy league professor's salary averages Rs 1.7 crore per year. Even in a second or third-tier university, the pay scale is likely to be Rs 60 lakh a year. This will make teaching for the best teacher very lucrative indeed. It will pressure private Indian universities to pay more. Teaching as a profession that has not been seen as a high-paying one could be transformed by the entry of foreign universities, and also dent the multibillion-dollar tuition teacher market in India.

While what this policy aims to achieve is laudable, it is unlikely to change the course of the Indian exodus overnight. Three principal problems stand in the way. The first is the fact that except for oil and gas-rich West Asian success stories, overseas campuses have rarely succeeded. The Emirates has leveraged bulging current account surpluses on the back of high fuel prices to create successful foreign universities. They have attracted these universities with subsidised campus land-generous scholarships for students along with part payment of salaries and perks by the government amounting to $5 billion. They are clearly looking into the future, and know that if the ecosystem takes off higher education will leapfrog two generations in 20 years, and create a leadership class sorely needed to run their economies.

Now it is not that the Government of India cannot spend $5 billion to attract an Oxford or a Princeton. While the money is there and it also makes eminent economic sense when you see the long-term trade-off of cutting the $30 billion per year expenditure on foreign studies (growing at about 15 per cent a year), the semantics do not sit well. India already spends far too much on higher education subsidies at the cost of basic education and will find more spending for foreigners difficult to defend politically.

The second major problem is that access to the majority of Indians to foreign universities will be difficult given their fee structure. However, a bigger problem is that these foreign universities will raid Indian government universities’ of their best teachers and over time leave them with two choices — a mediocre staffroom, or higher fees to attract better teachers. This deals a double whammy for many Indians who depend on the State-funded education system.

The third problem is the politics of teaching. Many universities, such as Yale and Berkley, are perceived as anti-India and supporting the fifth column by the government; but, the luxury of picking and choosing your university is not India’s.

Finally, there is the issue of India’s reservations for the Schedule Castes, Schedule Tribes and Other Backward Classes, and the economically weaker classes. In this respect, the autonomy offered to foreign universities may include an exception from reservations.

Thus, while throwing that graduation cap fully in the air at a Cambridge on Indian soil is an idea that Indian policymakers want their citizens to experience, getting there will test India.

(Ninad D Sheth is a senior journalist)

The views expressed are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Published 31 January 2023, 09:10 IST

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