Foreign Higher Ed Institutions and India: Much Ado About Nothing?

There is widespread dismay among the British universities this week that the Indian government chose to delay the Foreign Education Providers' Bill yet again, as it failed to gain traction among the Indian MPs (see story). The disappointment is understandable: Despite the lure of 'Myanmar, Kurdistan, Vietnam and Brazil' (which John Fielden of Chems Consulting identified as more interesting markets, quoted in the Times Higher Education story), India remains the biggest and most accessible market for British universities, where they enjoy relative superiority over their American and Australian competitors in terms of affinity and cultural connections. Indeed, squeezed under twin pressures of changing funding regimes and impractical visa regulations, most British universities have lost their business models and staring into the abyss: De-regulation in India would have brought some cheer and optimism in this gloomy climate, which proved not to be. 

However, seen from an Indian Higher Education context, this is a disappointment too. I was  following the fortunes of the Foreign Education Providers bill for several years (see India: Education's Wild West, The Politics of Foreign Education Providers Bill in India and Does India need Foreign Education Providers?), and progressively discovered that the real crux of the matter is a struggle with current vested interests and a liberalization of the sector, rather than inviting Oxford and Harvard into India. It is important, therefore, to look closely at the issues involved in Indian Higher Education at the current time, as listed below:

1. India needs more Higher Education provision. At least three times as much as we have now, says the Minister of HR.

2. There is a significant expansion of India's Higher Education provision, with number of colleges up by as much as 150% over the last five years.

3. However, the quality of provision at most Indian universities and colleges remain suspect, and no Indian universities ever made to any global rankings. (except the elite Technical and Management schools featuring in Regional Tables)

4. India's Gross Enrolment Ratio, despite the expansion of provision, is stuck rather obdurately around 20%, totaling 16 million to 20 million students every year (depending on how higher education is defined). However, this may have other reasons than just the availability of college seats.

5. Indian political class remains deeply involved in Higher Education, with most national and regional politicians having something to do with education. This is less to do with love for education and more to do with the fact that education offers social status as well as a convenient way to launder money.

6. This has led to poor implementation of and endemic corruption in Education Regulatory regime, with some members of the national regulatory body being sent to jail a few years ago.

7. India risks wasting its 'demographic dividend', the peak in the number of young people coming to college-going age, if it does not fix the education question urgently. The college-going population goes up by 5 million between 2012 and 2015, and will peak some time between 2015 and 2025.

8. Due to the weakness of the Higher Education sector, India developed a large and competitive home-grown for-profit technical training industry, in different areas such as IT, Hospitality, Aviation etc. The government attempted to regulate these sectors from time to time, doing more harm than good.

9. Due to the poor quality of most Higher Ed provisions, Indian companies, which were growing rapidly for last two decades, have now created extensive provisions for in-company training. In some of the cases, new recruits have to undergo several months of training and only get confirmed after passing rigorous examinations at the end of this period. This has given rise to a phenomenon of 'Corporate Higher Education', which is an interesting and rather unique Indian phenomenon.

In the context of a challenge so large, it is perplexing that one area of higher education policy that generates maximum buzz is the question whether to allow foreign institutions to set up shop in India and on what terms. No matter how open the approach to foreign providers is, these institutions are likely to play only a very small role in the mix, will mostly service students, affluent and with good schooling, who are already spoiled for choice. These institutions, if allowed, are unlikely to improve the research output in India in any significant way, as the impetus for research must come from the government and the industry, as it does in every other country. And, however much the government may insist that the foreign providers should not make any profits in India, profits will be the primary motive why any foreign provider will be interested in India: It is hard to see what else can spur a foreign institution to take the trouble of setting up an offshore campus.

Despite this limited impact, the reason why the Foreign Education Providers Bill generates the sentiments it does is because it will signify opening up the sector and taking on the vested interests for the first time. Indeed, the stated reason for even pursuing the bill is that this will bring in foreign investment in education: However, most Indian companies are sitting on huge piles of cash and since they need the high quality Higher Education the most, India may not need any foreign investment at all. What it needs is a regulatory regime with right safeguards and incentives for 'professionalization' of the sector, and it is in co-opting the current model of Corporate Higher Education for the wider public the much-needed redemption of India's Higher Education sector lie. Foreign Education Providers Bill is only a bottle-opener of sorts, to let the genie out.


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