Does India really want foreign universities?

India's New Education Policy makes the clearest statement yet about India's intent to attract foreign universities to set up campus in the country. It recognises the need and makes a promise to introduce legislation allowing the foreign universities to set up campus in India in near future.

But, at the same time, it betrays a lack of understanding about international education and branch campus dynamic. The barely concealed assumption that all universities must be very interested about Indian 'market' for demographic reasons and the country holds all the cards on who to allow is completely off the mark. 

For starters, this offer is for top 100 universities in the world, the policy states, without specifying how this ranking would be determined. The easiest way to do this would be to take one of the global rankings, but choosing one over the other going to be contentious. Besides, rankings have now moved on from simply ranking the world's best universities to all kinds of ranking, by impact, by age of the university, by degrees of internationalisation etc., indicating that the value that a good university brings to table is greater than just prestige and name recognition.

However, whatever kind of ranking India eventually chooses to follow, limiting the policy to the rankings  to define the suitablity of the universities to India is also a mistake, particularly as selectivity in student adnissions is often a precondition for getting higher ranking on many of these tables: In effect, the policy is offering to allow only those universities to set up campuses in India which will be open to a tiny minority of Indian students. Right now, India's challenge is to train as many of its young people as possible to a certain standard to kickstart its economy and to give its industry the access to talent it needs. Instead, by obsessing over rankings, it is still treating the Indian students as a 'captive' market for Indian education institutions, which have already failed in the task (as the NEP clearly admits).

Then there is the question of feasibility. If we are talking about 100 best known, best endowed universities in the world (presumably excluding the Chinese ones) who receive more applications than their capacity and usually treat research as a more important activity than undergraduate teaching. Apart from the cases where the host governments invited them in with great facilities and presumably a lot of money (which the Indian government will be unlikely to do), these universities are usually not chasing risky capital intensive projects. The Indian students, who qualify to go to the top universities, would anyway prefer to travel to home campuses than studying at Indian outfits which will invariably be limited in scope and ambition. Therefore, a legislation that aims for this select group may be a complete waste of time. Besides, India, of course, does not have a ready pool of qualified university teachers who will be readily absorbed by the top universities, so the branch campus formula has to depend on a combination of flying in expatriate Indians, which will make the whole proposition doubly expensive.

Other countries that pursued an international branch campus policy seriously in the past did not obsess over rankings. They did not make it free for all either. These countries followed a simple rule that the universities looking to set up branch campuses must hold a clear university status in their own home countries (a provisional status or a status under review will not qualify), must have permission from its home country regulator to set up branches abroad and must fully submit to the host country quality assurance regulations. If India is particularly afraid of the American For-Profit players who get their accreditation from a less rigorous 'National' accreditor (such as DEAC, a Distance Education regulator), these things can be easily written in the legislation. It can also stipulate that university looking to set up a branch campus must be a campus-based university (and not an online one) and must have certain number of years of track record (for example, if one sets the bar at 20 years, most dodgy players will be disqualified). This kind of policy would really attract the universities who may be serious about Indian students and would want to leapfrog its bigger and better known rivals by setting up campuses in India. 

 Of course, I am aware that all of this is wishful thinking and Indian policy makers are unlikely to approach this seriously. The prevailing attitude in India is that higher education is a source of money reserved for those who would make under-the-table political contributions: Whether entire generations are getting wasted with bad education, isn't a question that reigns the Indian policy-makers' mind.

 But then one question remains: Why talk about foreign universities and rankings at all? It's unclear who this kind of a policy might help. Except, of course, if we count those who were writing the policy, a select group of well-educated individuals who will be able to lead such campuses, if they really come. That's not surprising, but it's perhaps a bit too openly self-serving.

One hopes that the thinking evolves between the policy and the legislation, but I shall remain pessimistic. India has instituted one of the most uncritical, unthinking meritocracy in the world, which layered on its existing caste prejudices (Ajantha Subramanian's excellent Caste of Merit, a critical examination of IIT Chennai, is an eye-opener) and created a largely undeserving, self-interested elite that control the state's resources and corner all the privileges. While many Western societies are now questioning the ideas of meritocracy, there is very little discussion about this in India. In many ways, NEP cites many of the problems that have arisen out of this rigged system, but it suggested solutions which entrench the IIT-IIM vested interests even further. The apparently welcoming mention of foreign universities with impractical policy suggestions is just another example of how this is supposed to work: Foreigners are invited to bring in the dough to lavish it on the Babus, all over again. 

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