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In the last few years, internationalization of higher education has changed progressively in India. The distinctive political and economic circumstances that transformed the relationship between higher education, social demand and labour market; increased wealth of the society; the promise of earning higher income through international academic experience; new models of transnational education such as branch campuses, joint and double degree programs, MOOCs and other distance education modes, etc are some of the possible reasons for this change.

Before the liberalisation and opening of Indian economy in 1991, the government’s role related to internationalisation was mainly characterised by sending students and members of faculties abroad for advanced studies, training and research. During this period, India had also received different kinds of assistance for the setting up of a few premier Indian institutions like IITs and IIMs that were founded with foreign collaborations. While IIM Calcutta received assistance from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, IIT Bombay and IIT Chennai received help from former Soviet Union and West Germany respectively.

In order to promote cultural understanding through education, the Indian government has been offering many fellowships to international scholars specialising in Indian studies in the fields of culture and social sciences through the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR). The ICCR has also established 108 Chairs of Indian Studies in various foreign universities. However, the dramatic growth of transnational education providers in the Indian higher education scene has been a more recent phenomenon.

The emergence of the new global environment has dramatically reshaped the country’s higher education system which has created  tremendous opportunities for internationalisation, especially transnational or cross-border education. The dramatic expansion in the number of students going abroad and a significant rise in the number of partnerships with foreign institutions is an example of this growth. Apart from this, inward mobility of international students to Indian institutions has also been increasing in recent years with the majority of the foreign students coming to India  from Asian and African countries.

The number of  Indian branch campuses functioning abroad has also increased during this period.  An off-shore campus of  Manipal University—a prominent private university—operates in Malaysia and another private university, Amity University operates campuses in the US, UK,China and Singapore. The presence of four Indian private institutions in the Dubai International Academic City also reflect this trend.  Interestingly enough, the southern Indian State of Kerala had recently decided to set up an International Academic City along the lines of Dubai.

Another trend is the opening up of off-campus centres—a kind of franchised centres-- of Indian universities in countries where a sizable number of Indians are working. However, recently there were some reports in the media that the University Grants Commission had advised the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala to shut down its seven international off-campus centres in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman because of violation of the UGC guidelines on the territorial jurisdiction of universities.

Interestingly, internationalisation is not integrated into strategic planning at the majority of Indian higher educational institutions. Institutions alone cannot be blamed for this situation because currently India does not have a national policy governing the entry or operation of foreign higher educational institutions. Although the  Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill which was introduced in the Indian Parliament in 2010 to regulate the entry and operation of foreign  higher educational institutions, it failed to achieve sufficient consensus in the Parliament and eventually lapsed. However, following the path of All India Council for Technical Education-- the statutory body under the Ministry of Human Resource Development for technical education—the University Grants Commission of India came up with a set of regulations last year to promote and maintain the standards of academic collaborations between Indian and foreign educational institutions.

Currently only a minority of Indian universities and colleges have significant alliances with foreign institutions for activities including development and delivery of courses,  joint research, or the exchange of staff and students. Although the newly emerged private universities and colleges are very active in promoting internationalisation through the adoption of foreign curriculum, twinning programmes, etc., their objectives have only a limited dimension—improve their market position through the promise of preparing students for the globally integrated economic environment.

The main attractions of private for-profit institutions in India with foreign tie-ups are: a foreign degree, lower tuition and fees compared to institutions abroad, opportunities to gain international experience by spending a semester in the partnering institution, professional development, academic standards equivalent to those in the partner country, access to extensive online resources, direct admission to the foreign institution’s courses after the completion of an undergraduate course in India, internationally recognized degree, international placement assistance, etc. However, discussions about the goals, content, and quality of the programmes offered by these institutions have not been given priority so far leaving open the question of whether students coming out of these institutions can broaden their skills and horizons simply by following an adopted curricula?

The dramatic expansion in numbers of students going abroad and a significant rise in the number of partnerships with foreign institutions is not the result of  a government  policy. On the contrary, this change can be viewed as an essential aspect of domestic political and  societal changes. However, the higher education structure of the country is so stratified that only a small percentage of the relevant age population benefits from current internationalization activities. This situation sustains existing social inequality in the country and therefore, government intervention is needed to provide  various forms of assistance to the needy students in order to ensure equitable access to international opportunities.

I am grateful to Prof. Jane Knight for her critical comments and inputs on an earlier version of this article.