Will foreign universities succeed in India?

India has given the green light for foreign universities to set up campuses across the Asian nation. Educators have cautiously welcomed the Indian government's decision, but reservations remain

Will foreign universities succeed in India?
Will foreign universities succeed in India?


The Indian government is set to welcome foreign universities — such as Harvard, Oxford and Yale — to India.

Foreign universities ranked in the Top 500 globally, as well as other "reputed" foreign higher education institutions, can set up campus in India — as outlined in the country's National Education Policy (NEP), which was adopted in 2020.

Boon or bane?

Unveiling the plans last week, University Grants Commission (UGC) chairman Jagadesh Kumar pointed out that foreign universities with Indian campuses can only offer full-time programs in "offline" mode — and not online or through distance learning.

"A panel shall assess each application on merits, including the credibility of the educational institutions, the programs to be offered, their potential to strengthen educational opportunities in India, and the proposed academic infrastructure, and make recommendations," said Kumar.

Foreign universities will also be able to control the admissions procedure, the cost of attendance and the repatriation of their cash. However, they will need to ensure the quality of education taught at their Indian campuses is on par with the standard of teaching at their main foreign locations, according to the UGC.

Will Indian students stay in India?

Officials in the UGC said that some universities from Europe had already expressed an interest in establishing Indian campuses and that the government was holding exploritory talks with other embassies and foreign delegates.

India has more than 1,000 universities and 42,000 colleges. But despite having one of the world's largest higher education systems, India's gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education is just 27.1% — among the world's lowest.

The outflow of students to universities abroad has skyrocketed in recent years. Better better educational quality and outcomes abroad have driven the increase, as well as factors such as higher standards of living, gaps in the Indian education system leading to a supply-demand imbalance, and upward income mobility of Indian households.

A report by consulting firm Redseer on higher education abroad estimates that the number of Indian students opting for higher education abroad grew from 440,000 in 2016 to 770,000 in 2019. That is set to grow to around 1.8 million by 2024.

Overseas spending was poised to grow from current annual $28 billion to $80 billion (€18.5 billion to €74 billion) annually by 2024.

Mixed reactions

However, some educators are not sure how much of an impact the move will have and believe the more immediate need is to reform the current university system where individuality is suppressed.

"It isn't clear that the top foreign institutions that are being targeted by this scheme would have any interest in coming to India nor that the current political situation is conducive to their doing so," Gautam Menon, dean at India's prestigious Ashoka University, focusing on liberal education in humanities and social sciences, told DW.

"Currently, the space for any independent, critical analysis has been considerably restricted," Menon added. "This would certainly be on the minds of those who lead the foreign universities that are being invited here."

'Free reign' for foreign universities

Establishing universities and campuses is a challenging proposition, not to mention developing courses, creating research facilities, hiring faculty workers and relocating international workers, among other considerations.

"The new regulation allows the foreign institution a free play and they are given more freedom, which is not given to the Indian institution," a senior academic from Chennai told DW."

For instance, they can fix their fees, the admission norms, and have full freedom in faculty appointments. Will there be a level playing field?"

'Destroying' the system

The Communist Party of India said that the decision by the UGC to permit foreign universities to establish branches in India will "harm" the nation's higher education system.

"The policy will harm, dilute and destroy the Indian higher education system, leading to commercialization. This decision will make education expensive and Dalits, minorities and the poor will be adversely affected. The decision is a reflection of the government's pro-rich approach," it said.

However, Amitabh Mattoo, professor at the School of International Studies of Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes it is an idea whose time has come.

"Setting up of foreign universities here was unavoidable in the age of globalization and given that the barriers for exchange of goods, services and ideas is happening … it was inevitable that education would be the last frontier where all barriers would be dismantled," Mattoo told DW.

Overseas experience

Mattoo, who also serves as honorary professor at the University of Melbourne's arts faculty, admitted that it would be difficult to fathom whether it is a workable as a business model.

"It is difficult to tell because when anyone enrols for a foreign university, the experience of being in a campus overseas and benefitting from that is often more important in decision making," Mattoo said. "Education is more than just class room teaching and acquiring skillsets to deal with reality."

Many students opt to go abroad for the experience and for the income opportunity overseas which is not available in India.

This is not the first time a proposal has been made to allow foreign universities into India.

In 2010, a bill to this effect — prepared by the then Congress-led government — generated a lively debate. The bill had prohibited the repatriation of surplus earnings, but could not be passed bacause of a lack of consensus among political parties.

Others like C Raj Kumar, the founding vice chancellor of Jindal Global University, believes that India should be a leader in international education by tapping into its reserves instead of asking foreign universities to raise the bar.

"Instead of enabling the creation of international campuses of universities from developed countries, we need to focus on becoming a global higher education destination in our own right," Kumar told DW.

"We will not realize the world leader aspiration by inviting prestigious foreign universities to locate campuses, added Kumar. "In any case, I do not think any top ranked universities would set up campuses in India, and for good reasons."

Edited by: Keith Walker

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