Foreign Universities in India: The Bill Sent Back

The Prime Minister's Office has sent back the bill allowing the Foreign Universities to operate in India for revisions.

Not again! This bill is jinxed, and have been in a state of flux for more than seven years now.

But, as I learnt why, I am truly surprised. My expectations were the obvious: The PMO has found that there are too many privileges being given out in the bill, and hence, held back its approval. Quite the opposite, in fact. The PMO realized that the bill does not make it attractive enough for foreign education providers to come to India. They want to get this thing right the first time and hence, appointed a set of people to review this.

That's more pragmatic than you would expect from our usually pragmatic Prime Minister. He is on a roll, truly.

My earlier enthusiasm about allowing foreign universities in India were variously put down by the readers. It is still too difficult to set up shop in India and do anything meaningful. Besides, there were questions about quota restrictions etc. One expected only the second rate colleges to open up shops in India. True, because the top ones can anyway attract Indian students at their home base anyway.

But it seems that the PMO knows those things too. The Prime Minister was talking about the importance of educational collaboration between US and India when he was in Washington recently and it seems that he meant it. He wants to make the bill attractive to foreign education providers. He seems to get the fact that there is more about this than just saving the money Indian students spend studying abroad. This is a question of our competitiveness about a nation.

I am now hoping that this pragmatism will also apply to Indian education providers too. There is a huge void there now. The Public universities are in a retreat, short of funds and resources, and they can not anyway handle the hugely expanded Indian labour force. So, private sector education is a rage. But the process is still too difficult and too arcane.

For example, if I am to set up a properly accredited college in India, the government will tell me how many students I can take, where I can take them from and what I can charge. Or, at least for most of them. I shall be given about 20% of my seats which I can auction in the open market [not literally, figuratively] and raise the money to run the institution. This model is so seriously flawed that this does not allow any serious business in Education. The only way people can make money is by selling the degrees and compromising seriously in terms of student intake for those 25% seats. It does not allow space for any subject which is less than obvious; so while we have an overcapacity for MBA studies, there is very little to study media or design. There is almost no effort on research, or very little.

The mess is not just chaotic, it is hurting our competitiveness. There is no dearth of private colleges, but it is usually a corrupt business. It is set up to be so: Too many regulations, too many restrictions. So, degrees are being auctioned and the labour market is becoming unfairly skewed. The government may argue that most of the colleges were run by charities and they were not supposed to make money anyway. But that itself is a problem, and the government should surely knew better that the charities are usually a front. There is a market opportunity in education in India: It is foolish to expect a non-market solution will ever solve it.

Foreign universities are a step in the right direction, but it is unlikely to solve India's problems. It has to be solved through augmentation of internal resources to bridge the infrastructure gap in education. A tough job, but it needs to be done, if India has to get anywhere near what it dreams to be - a superpower. One just hopes that the PMO will show the same understanding and activism when it comes to reforming India's education infrastructure.


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