India's NEP and the foreign universities

India's employment data is sobering (see here). The pandemic has wrecked havoc and the structural problems of the economy - service sector dependence, uneven regional development and health and education challenges - are more evident than ever. Something needs to happen, and fast.

To its credit, the government acknowledges the education challenge. Belatedly - it took more than 30 years - India has come up with a new National Education Policy. It is a comprehensive policy, which covers the whole spectrum of education and perhaps overcompensates the previous neglect by advocating radical change. As I commented elsewhere on this blog, it shows a curious mixture of aspirations, cultural revival and global competitiveness put under the same hood. 

However, despite its radical aspirations, the policy document often betrays same-old thinking. One of these is India's approach to foreign universities. The NEP makes the case for allowing foreign universities to set up operations in India, justifying it with economic competitiveness argument (that India needs advanced know-how) and on the protectionist vain (that India needs to preserve foreign exchange that Indians spend on overseas education). 

At the outset, the admission that India needs foreign universities is a good thing: This is obvious from the revealed preferences of Indian students - the country sends out hundreds of thousands of students every year - and also required to develop a strong export sector (which is one of the key economic strategies of the current government). However, it can be argued that foreign university campuses in India wouldn't stop Indian students going abroad, many are seeking the freedom and opportunity that migration brings. Besides, the students going (and settling) abroad is also India's greatest opportunity to grow the export sector, if it chooses to nurture its diaspora.

The reason why India should allow foreign universities should actually be quite different. India has chosen to expand its Higher Education sector through private participation (rather than public investment) and such market solutions work only in a competitive setting. Allowing foreign universities to compete for students in India is likely to raise the game for India's private universities. Without that competition, the private university sector, which now runs almost 80% of India's colleges and educates 65% of its students. Many of these universities are poorly funded, leaving hand-to-mouth based on student fees, and lacks scale to build academic capability or governance structures. A more open and competitive sector will raise the game and bring in investment and scale in the sector.

By neglecting this aspect - and by following the protectionist rabbit-hole - the NEP gets the foreign university policy wrong. Its scope covers only top 100 (on globally accepted rankings) universities: It is evident that it's looking to protect the middle class money going abroad rather than developing capabilities or encouraging competitiveness. This is also based on a misreading of the middle-class aspiration - those who can go to Oxford (Uni) will rather go to Oxford - and how the top universities in the world operates. Their rank, which is the magic key that opens India, depends on being not expansive. They are not in the business of helping India to become more competitive - that will be the job of the Indian government - and would rather take lucretive consulting contracts than expose themselves to a campus in India (which will adversely affect their ranking). 

Now, a lot can be said about the pure economic logic being applied to higher education, which, for some, is a transcendent and long-term enterprise. That kind of thinking does not apply when the starting point of the NEP conversation is the ranking. That is indeed how it should be: The modern universities are large multinational businesses driven by economic logic as much as any corporation, even if the way they deliver their 'product' may be different. Besides, if we follow that logic, for a large part the NEP is about cultural renewal, there is nothing the foreign universities can offer. 

Coming back to NEP, I think its approach to foreign universities is misguided and impractical. A broader view of the objectives should be taken. The criteria, even if one wants to stick to the logic of global ranking (as opposed to a simpler criteria, such as the institution being accredited in their original jurisdiction), should be expanded to at least the top 500 universities. Besides, the policy should cover online and blended delivery and try to offer the same level of transparency and predictability in dealing with providers offering online university credits (such as Coursera). 

I am mindful that the NEP is a policy, a high level statement of intention, and the legislations that follow will offer details of what actually can be done. I shall hope that the pandemic and the resulting ebbs and flows of the economy will prompt the government revisit its objectives and take a more realist view of what could be done.


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