Will foreign universities establish campuses in India? This has been one of the recurring questions over the last few years. Unfortunately, not only the question but also the corresponding answers have been far from the reality of global higher education and its fit with the needs of India.
The proposal of allowing foreign universities through an executive order of the University Grants Commission, bypassing the pending Bill, is one such recent development. Like the Bill, the intention of the proposal to allow foreign universities is laudable. However, the execution is still questionable on at least three grounds: it lacks understanding of the segments of foreign institutions and creates impractical barriers to entry; does not recognise the diversity of needs of India, and misses a perspective of transparency for student decision-making.
Here are three suggestions to better facilitate engagement of foreign universities in India:
Understand segments of foreign universities and eliminate impractical barriers to entry: Global higher education systems are diverse and within each system there are a wide range of institutions with varying missions and quality. However, there are two primary motives for institutions seeking to enter India - prestige or profit/revenue. Between these two extremes, there are many foreign institutions with a different mix of prestige and profit motives that can be broadly classified as prestige-enhancing, prestige-seeking and profit-maximising.
Prestige-enhancing: This segment of top-ranked universities is not interested in India as a source of revenue and would not establish full-fledged campuses in India. However, they would be keen on establishing partnerships with universities in the form of student exchanges, faculty exchanges and collaborative research projects.
Prestige-seeking: This next tier of institutions seeks internationalisation to build their prestige and, at the same time, seeks opportunities to enhance revenue. They are more likely to engage in more extensive arrangements including joint degrees and twinning programmes and are still constrained by investments needed in establishing campuses.
Profit-maximising: These institutions are primarily looking for additional sources of revenue/profit through quicker increase in enrollments. This segment aims to address the mass market of students. Many are quite keen on coming to India; however, current policy directions indicate that for-profit institutions will not be allowed in India.
Current policy directions are attempting to attract only the prestige-enhancing segment by creating requirements such as requirement of a deposit of Rs 25 crore or a world ranking of being among the top 400 institutions or not-for-profit status. These requirements are not only impractical, but also fail to leverage the opportunities from other segments.
While it is imperative to ensure that quality is maintained and profiteering is contained, the requirements are missing the diversity of institutions across the world - what are their motivations to be in India and what role they can play? For example, there are many private liberal arts colleges in the US that are not listed in the top 400 but have a great potential to improve the quality of three-year degrees in India.
Encourage diversity of programmes and regions: As there are diverse segments of global higher education institutions, there are diverse needs of the Indian population. The current policy directions of engaging foreign institutions do not serve the complex needs of Indian higher education of balancing quality, cost and access. This could be better addressed by encouraging foreign universities to establish programmes in diverse locations and fields of study.
While there is interest from corporate houses and foreign players to engage with professional fields such as the Master of Business Administration, policy directions should also create incentives for institutions interested in engaging with fields such as agriculture or types of institutions such as community colleges, or location of institutions in non-metropolitan cities.
Here, the need is for ingenious incentive mechanisms that attract leading foreign universities to engage with the next tier of cities and contribute towards their regional development.
Establish and enforce highest standards of transparency: Much of the qualitative challenges in Indian higher education is due to the lack of transparency about information related to institutional quality to students. Many private institutions have taken advantage of students' fascination for "foreign" education by providing sub-par education. This could be better addressed by enforcing high standards of information availability to students. For example, a central database of all foreign approved programmes could be created for students and families to make decisions.
Students need better information about the options available to them and how they compare with each other. For example, although the Bill requires publishing an admissions prospectus, it does not aid students in easily comparing foreign institutions since the information is not available at a single portal in a common format.
If the government required the submission of data on institutional performance and academic offering through a common format and single website, then students would be able to compare their options better. This would help students in informed decision-making and create an accountability framework for institutions since their performance track record would be publicly available.
Engaging foreign universities is important to address some of the quality and access issues in India. However, it is important to create a policy framework which is better-synchronised with the reality of global higher education and the needs of Indian higher education.