India is looking to fast track the legislation to allow Foreign Universities to set up campuses and even operate as For-Profits, Hindu Business Line claims. Indian media could be excitable, and we have seen such stories before, so this should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. However, given that this is a story on the Front Page of a respected newspaper, it deserves some commentary.
I noted in this blog earlier that I would be surprised if the Government does anything on the foreign education front. This scepticism was based on observations about the general approach of this government to Higher Education, with its urgency to indianise education and introduce, as much as possible, traditional Indian values into it. While this story only confirms some of the feelers I received earlier from people in the know, the consensus was that the Government would bring some new legislation just after the Budget session, it directly runs counter to the approach of controlling Higher Education, even directing previously autonomous institutions about their curriculum etc.
This liberal leap, if it at all happens, will be good for Indian Higher Education. It is not that all foreign providers are good, and indeed, most For-Profits are justifiably viewed with suspicion, but the alternative - a badly regulated and protected market where only the corrupt can survive - is doing enormous harm to India's prospects. One would hope that the policy thinking is broader than this story suggests as one can not readily see how the Government could allow Foreign Universities working as For-Profits while barring the domestic players from it. But opening up the opportunity to new players and making it easier to operate would indeed lesser the scope of corruption, increase market competition and improve the educational experience.
However, all of this may still be done for wrong reasons! Prime Minister Modi alluded to the loss of foreign exchange due to students travelling abroad in his campaign trail, and the only reason cited to explain the policy move was the preservation of foreign exchange. The fact that this comes before the sheer educational reason that India needs better and more relevant education highlight the weakness of the policy. The conversation about Higher Education in India is very rarely about Higher Education at all, and this new piece confirms that observation yet again.
This legislation, as and when it happens, will pave the way for Indian institutions to improve their quality and offering quickly, as they will face international competition as well as become attractive investment opportunities globally. Further, this will also introduce the required scale and diversity in Indian Higher Education, and create the scope building the Google or Facebook of Education out of India! This is a point sorely missed by all those Members of Parliament who keeps blocking this bill every time it came up for consideration, fearing that they would lose access to a protected market. They should now see the other side, that this would make Indian Education interesting to foreign investors and they may get an exit out of their own badly run institutions. They should vote affirmative, though this is still the wrong reason why India should allow foreign universities.
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