India's Foreign Education Providers Bill: What Next?

With India's new government in power, the outlook for foreign investment is optimistic. Whatever effect this new government has on India's domestic polity, economic revival is their key agenda, and foreign investment has been the incumbent Prime Minister's favourite talking point in his previous stint as the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujrat. It is, therefore, logical to expect a foreign investor-friendly investment. This is more so because the economic nationalists in the Administration believes China is past its prime and India's moment has truly arrived: They would be looking to take advantage of the clear mandate the government has got and open doors everywhere.

Accordingly, there is nothing to be surprised about the government's proposal to open up Railways and Defence industries to Foreign Investment. These announcements show that the government is unafraid of controversy and taking full advantage of its mandate: Railways is indeed India's biggest employer (the second largest employer in the world after the Chinese Red Army) and opening up Defense is always problematic. 

However, if anyone was expecting that this openness, and the legislative activism, promised by the new government will also extend to foreign education providers' bill, which is languishing in the parliament in one form or the other, for over a decade, they are likely to be disappointed. I am reminded by the India observers that it is not in the manifesto of BJP (nor it was on Congress') and though Mr Modi made references to keeping Indian students' money in India on the campaign trail, he is unlikely to spend any political capital on this any time soon. 

It is, however, important to have a sense of the new government's approach to education and hypothesize the fate of this bill, given that this is actually much talked about among the young electorate, the ones that voted the new government into power. Education is billed to be one of the priority areas, and the state of Indian Education, particularly Higher Ed, is expected to receive a lot of attention. The Foreign Education Providers' Bill may not have been on the manifesto, but the issue of foreign education and economic competitiveness through education are unlikely to be forgotten in the conversations.

Among the many moves of the new government that attracted attention, the most notable was its choice of the Minister of HRD: Ms Smriti Irani, a television actress and comparative political lightweight. The fact that she had no college education attracted attention, but this is indeed a non-issue: Of far greater import was the approach this signifies - there is an education agenda to sell to India's youth who may connect easily with Ms Irani, a well-spoken forty-something with a successful television career! Follow this up with the two significant scraps of news we have seen from MHRD - the first that Ms Irani wants to reform the school curricula to give it a more 'Hindu' perspective (see here) and that the MHRD will set up 8 new IITs (see here).

Based on these signals, one could possibly guess the direction of India's education policy in the coming years: One consistent not just with economic nationalism but also revivalism that underlie the ideology of the ruling party. Mr Modi may indeed like to follow the lead of Mahatir Mohammed, who vowed not to send Malaysian students for education to the UK in the 1980s and successfully achieved the target within a decade, but he may want to do more: Unlike Mahatir, his strategy may not be one of attracting foreign institutions to India to award their degrees, but to create an Indian education sector on the strong footing.

Indeed, there are significant challenges that any government will face. To start with, education is mostly under the control of Indian states, who wield far more regulatory power than the central government. However, this may be one of the first areas of legislative action that we are going to see: The government in Delhi would want to seize the initiative in education as this is crucial to its social message (and part of their political strategy to change the conversation in India). While the first battleground will perhaps be the school curriculum, with Ms Irani as the strategy's principal salesperson, Higher Education strategy has to move lockstep with it. It is unlikely, therefore, that the government will start promoting an open door to Foreign providers, which will fragment its control further.

However, one would expect many other things in Higher Education which may be conducive to foreign investors of a different kind. To achieve its agenda of strong indigenous Higher Education, the government will need to encourage private investment in education. One way of doing so is to control India's corrupt, inconsistent and inefficient regulators from interfering overtly in educational institutions. This is consistent with the government's 'minimum governance' agenda and therefore likely to happen. One would be unsure whether they would allow For Profit operations in Higher Ed, but the attractiveness of the sector should pull enough private money anyway in the form of Not-for-Profit ventures or social enterprises (Section 25 companies, as they are called in India). This will open the space up for Foreign Investors bringing in money, know-how or linkages. We have already seen operations with Indian money and foreign institutional knowhow (Mahindra Ecole Centrale or BML Munjal University), where Indian business groups hosted foreign institutions: We are likely to see foreign investment now promoting Indian curriculum in some form.

Returning to the subject of the Foreign Education Providers' Bill, then, it may be time for us to stop talking about it. Like many other projects of the previous government, this may be a stillborn one. Once the conversation moves beyond this, we may have some meaningful global engagements in India. Whichever shape it takes, exciting times are ahead for Indian Education!


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