Making Sense of India's Crackdown on Foreign Education

The University Grants Commission (UGC) of India has made news recently by ordering the closure of Pearl Academy, a popular fashion school with more than 4000 students, because they were offering foreign degrees, from UK's Nottingham Trent University, illegally.

While some people would see this as an attempt to clamp down on Foreign Education in India, and make Indian Higher Education, already quite parochial, more inward-looking, this particular development may not signify any of that. While the closure of Pearl Academy would make news, especially because it is owned by the global education conglomerate, Laureate Education (something that the Indian media seemed to have overlooked, with some effort presumably), the UGC has been showing teeth and enforcing regulation for some time now. 

The infamous IIPM, which operated without any license for years and offered an MBA, Masters Diploma in Business Management, to thousands of students, as well as running the equivalent of an educational ponzi scheme by guaranteeing employment of its students using a part of the fees they paid, was closed down recently, as was Mewar University last year for giving out foreign degrees without authorisation. The Indian approach to Foreign Higher Education, which was defined by legislative inaction to create any clear frameworks coupled to loose enforcement allowing a free-for-all regime, is now showing signs of change - both in terms of efforts to roll out clear guideline for foreign collaborations and an activist approach to enforcement.

It would indeed be a mistake to expect that the Indian Government, with its strong Hindu Nationalist ideology, would necessarily be very open and welcoming to Foreign Education. We know that the Indian HRD Ministry has been interfering even in supposedly autonomous institutions, either by decree, or through key appointments (in some cases, by overturning the decisions of the governing boards), or by implicitly endorsing demands of student unions affiliated to the Hindu Nationalist cause. India also instituted its own Higher Education ranking mechanism and implicitly rejected the notion that its universities need to compete for global rankings (which may indeed be seen as a defencive move as its universities usually do so poorly, especially compared with other Asian nations). 

However, at the same time, one should be aware that this Government has been quite keen on foreign investment, particularly in manufacturing and technology, and has been open to foreign technical education in the country. A less reported, but perhaps more significant, move is the recent proposal to reform Professional Education sectors, such as Accountancy, Company Secretaryship and Medicine, by creating independent regulators for each of these areas instead of the current catch-all institutions such as Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) or Indian Medical Association (IMA), which are both professional bodies and sector regulators themselves. One way of looking at it is that the government is creating a bureaucratic layer and moving away from professional self-regulation. However, given that these bodies have manifestly failed to modernise the sectors they are responsible for, and have been known for corruption and incompetence (particularly the IMA, whose ex-President was caught taking bribes for granting expansion of seat capacity of a medical college), the Government move is unsurprising. The stated reason for the move, to create diversity in the sector and for development of an export-facing service economy in India, point to greater openness to foreign professional bodies and qualifications. 

I would argue that there is no apparent conflict between the moves to close Pearl Academy and the new openness to global education. What Pearl Academy was able to do was clearly illegal - it was a private training institution offering a foreign degree - and it was just loose enforcement that kept it going for so long. There are people who would argue that poor countries do not have the 'right' to regulate their own Higher Education sectors - and indeed this is what is being pushed in many African countries, which have become a free-for-all for American For-profit operations - but that kind of anarchy, as previous experiences in India would show, does not necessarily enhance quality or access to Higher Education. There may some players with good intentions, but that kind of setting, where no norms are sacrosanct, usually create 'markets for lemons', where frauds and charlatans thrive - and drive out honest operators. The lack of enforcement is not of interest of anyone, including For-Profit providers trying to offer World Class education (in fact, it creates a disincentive for good education).

I am therefore cautiously optimistic about Foreign Education in India. India needs to be open to global Education, and given the demography, the time to act on it is now. The new guidelines should make it easier for Indian universities to establish partnerships and collaborations, and hopefully the New Education Policy, due later this year or early 2017, would establish clearer frameworks for Foreign institutions to operate in India. Together with the reform of the Professional Education sector, and good enforcement, this should create incentives for legitimate foreign institutions to create partnerships or even campuses in India. Indeed, there is much to be done - the current bureaucratic, punitive, regulatory structure is hardly the way to go to create a dynamic world-ready Higher Education sector, but it seems that the basics - frameworks and enforcement mechanisms - are being worked upon now.


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