Politics of Foreign Education: Does India Need Foreign Universities?

India is Higher Education's El Dorado: Every university seem to want to get there, and no one knows how. The British Council's report on Transnational Higher Education puts things in perspective. India is firmly in amber territory in terms of friendliness to Transnational Education, it scores High in market attractiveness but low otherwise, because of the policy and regulatory confusion. It is one of those countries which everyone loves to talk about, but never does anything with. The Indian Government loves to play the game - it has been discussing a bill to allow Foreign Providers into the country for more than a decade now, but never got to the point of putting it forward to the Parliament.

For the outside observers, this is just the way India works. The lethargy in governance is just too well known. The various International Directors at various western universities love this, as it always allows them a talking point in the meetings, a topic about which one can appear knowledgeable without having to do anything about it. What gets missed, however, is that the Indian government can be remarkably decisive and even authoritarian on the issues it wants to act on. It can ram through much more difficult reforms and can even pass laws reducing petrol subsidies or getting foreign retail companies into the country. For some reason, it never felt the same kind of urgency to do anything with foreign universities. However, no one seems to ask why this may be so.

It is an interesting difference in perspective. For most foreign observers, India needs foreign universities. Period. It sends out more than 150,000 students every year who seem to spend US $10 billion - US $17 Billion (there has been different estimates) in educating themselves outside India. This is taken as a clear evidence that the country needs foreign education. Any interaction with the academic leaders (and education businessmen) from India establish that they are over-eager to get a foreign partnership. And Indian employers routinely complain that they are not getting the graduates they need. 

Yet the question may evoke a different response in India. Most Indian academics believe they are doing a fine job, under the circumstances. While students may prefer a 'foreign stamp', they seem to want a locally recognised award. While the employers may complain about the Indian graduates, they are not eager to employ foreign trained graduates either. And, while Indian companies may be going global, most jobs in the recent years have been created in the sectors servicing the 'inside market', retail, insurance, banking, education, where knowing the ground realities are more important than knowing English.

This is the context, therefore, of Indian Government's flip-flops on the Foreign Education Providers' Bill: It can't make up its mind whether the country needs foreign education providers, because it has never fully clarified why it may need them. The reason why India wants to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India isn't because the country needs their expertise in research, or even their money to boost the investment in the sector, but to stop the outflow of foreign exchange. 

This rationale should be seen as the starting point for judging the Indian government's intent to get the Foreign Universities in India. It is not investment (with a market like that, there is no dearth of private investment that can be found) nor expertise, because Indian policy-makers still think that the the expertise must be developed endogenously (more on this argument in a later post) but preservation of Foreign Exchange prompts the bill. Indeed, this is out of line with India's overall, rather liberal, approach to capital movements, and this is why the bill may never have been a legislative priority. 

Once this is understood, the most befuddling aspects of this bill becomes easier to understand. Why is India trying to make repatriation of surpluses so hard? Or is trying to restrict this to only the top universities, and not opening up to global For-Profit chains which may bring investment? Or thinking only about branch campuses despite India's different regions and priorities may be better served by recognition of partnerships entered with different universities, rather than setting up campuses? All the answers seem to lie in the fact that this is about discouraging Indian students from going abroad and keeping the money in the country. 

Are the Indian policy-makers deluding themselves? No university in the world, and much less the top ones, will ever agree to such restrictive conditions anyway and no one will ever come to India, the commentators opine. However, this may precisely be the intention. Under the terms of the bill, the only thing that will be possible perhaps is that an Indian business group sets up the campus and the foreign universities bless this with their name and expertise, holding the Indian students there. That way, Indian policy-makers can do what Mahathir Mohamad achieved for Malaysia - a self-sustaining education infrastructure in the space of a couple of decades - without having to lose control over what gets taught and who gets the money.

This post isn't an endorsement of such aims, but a commentary on the discourse. India can be confusing, but it can be understood once we seek to understand it on its own terms. Whether such 'protectionism' in education is necessarily bad, can be debated: However, any argument against the same is severely undermined once the interlocutors themselves indulge in protectionism of different kinds, including restricting foreign students from coming to their universities. Besides, if the economic development of a country is the central purpose of education, the whole debate needs to framed in economic terms, and policy priorities must be defined within its context. There may be many educational reasons why Indian education needs to have greater intercourse with ideas generated elsewhere, but this needs to be seen against India's colonial experience.

In summary, the politics of Foreign Education in India is complex, and deserves considered discussion beyond the usual rhetoric, for and against. A good place to start is to delve deeper into the need for Foreign Education, which I intend to do as a part of a project on this blog.


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