Foreign universities must be allowed to operate in India

26 Jun

There are not enough number of good institutions in the country. That is why a large number of students who can afford the expenses shift abroad for studies

The need for more universities in India has been acknowledged, as has the need for quality education. We are unable to add universities fast enough to keep pace with the demand of our youth. Simply put, there is a role for foreign universities in India.

Many of those who can afford it have voted with their converted dollars and are sending their children abroad for a better education than the current Indian higher education system can deliver. Those who cannot afford it, and those who do not achieve the grand results that the best Indian universities require for admission into their portals, suffer in the myriad universities and colleges plagued by apathy, politics and poor funding. Standards across Indian universities are variable, and what is even worse is that they are not tracked.

Only a small proportion have registered with the National Assessment or Accreditation Council for institutions under the University Grants Commission or with the National Board of Accreditation for institutions under the All-India Council for Technical Education.

It was expected that, with the advent of foreign educational institutions in India, not only would Indian students be able to access better quality teaching at local prices, but also that the competitive pressures would vastly improve the quality of Indian universities.

The assumption here, which was stated but is still an assumption — was that the best universities in the world would want to open campuses in India. With our known graduate population with both the competence and aspiration for higher degrees, on paper this was an easy assumption to make, even if mistaken. All great universities in the world have been grappling with the question of global expansion for over a decade. Some have set up successful campuses in many places such as Singapore and Hong Kong and most have visited India to test for feasibility. Unfortunately, due to various reasons, including inefficiency and the poor infrastructure in India, the best have decided to stay away for the time being, or operate via collaborations.

The range of collaborations has been wide and deep, with both the best and the mediocre finding a way to access the Indian market and researchers. Joint degrees have been offered for years, and vocational institutions have been giving certificates of competence.

The foreign degree may not be valid in India, as the regulations do not allow it, but the degree by an Indian counterpart is valid. If the market accepts it and offers employment, the validity is established for all practical purposes.

The situation was to be resolved by the Foreign Education Institutions Bill that has been stuck in Parliament for years. The better institutions will not operate in a country where there is no explicit legislation and policy — and the stalling of the Bill has been a setback to such collaborations. Others, who will find a way through legal mazes, have entered the country.

In response to this, the UGC has decided to create a bottleneck for foreign collaborations through its new regulation. Now, these collaborations will be regulated and only those that have been rated highly will be allowed to collaborate. In India, the push is towards accreditation, so in killing two birds with one stone, only those with the highest rating from NAAC/NBA can work with those in the top 500 of the major university ranking sets of the world.

Creating bottle necks is not good policy, nor is using proxies of past performance a means to ensure good education or partnerships. This is a jugaad type response to a real need for good policy direction.

As before, a small short-term need for controlling a situation has received attention, and as before, institutions are expected to juggle and redefine themselves and their collaborations. Intent and practice have clashed here because policy lagged demand. While the policy was being delivered in tiny pieces — too little, too late for the grand surge that was required, the universities built with whatever pieces they had, and moved on.

India has seen a host of Lego-like structures in education built around micro-policy directives. Institutions have but two choices — wait for broad and consistent policies or build with whatever pieces they have. These Lego institutions have little choice but to plan for the short term — which does not work well for investing in quality. Now to ask them to demolish what they created (or ‘adjust’ in six months) unless they comply with regulations that did not exist when they were being set up is terribly unfair both to the collaborators and to the students and researchers.

While unable to control the quality in Indian institutions, the UGC has now created further hurdles in the path of nascent non-traditional growth and investment. This is not a quest for excellence, this is gate-keeping. India needs a system where growth and volumes are encouraged, and a transparent filtering system ensures that no student finds themselves in a situation where they did not have enough information to choose quality education for themselves.

The writer is an education strategy consultant who has lived, worked and taught in London for over a decade. She is now based in New Delhi.

This article was published in the Pioneer newspaper on Thursday, June 14, 2012 and is linked here.

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