Passage to India

South Asia beckons American colleges looking for students, joint ventures and new sources of funds. But are expectations too high?
August 6, 2009

Kapil Sibal, minister of human resource development, is pushing to open India to foreign universities hoping to set up campuses there. Blair H. Sheppard, dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, is among those pulling for him.

“We want to go there as Duke,” said Sheppard, who in September announced Fuqua's partnership with the Graduate School of Management at St. Petersburg State University, as well as plans to similarly establish “a physical presence of real scope and scale” (complete with Duke M.B.A. programs, at least two research centers, executive education, and service learning opportunities) in Dubai, London, New Delhi and Shanghai.

“The objective is to actually be in India as Duke and partner from that platform. So to contrast it to Russia, in Russia, the structure is a formal relationship with St. Petersburg State. And so all of the things we do are intended to be done in concert with them, with some minor exceptions,” Sheppard said.

The majority of foreign universities currently operating in India conduct their business via “twinning arrangements” or program-specific collaborations, as Pawan Agarwal noted in a 2006 paper, "Higher Education in India: The Need for Change," released by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. “There is no major foreign education provider operating in India through its offshore campus or branch campus," Agarwal wrote.

If legislation that Sibal is pushing becomes law, that could change -- and Duke is only one such interested party watching.

Sheppard shied away from using the word “campus” in describing his ambitions for the Fuqua in India. That said, “I haven’t found a better term, but we will have classes, we'll have offices, we’ll have a library, we’ll have athletic facilities, we’ll have a dorm, and I expect you’d say to me, ‘Blair, that’s a campus.' " The business school plans to expand into India regardless of proposed regulatory changes, via partnerships and such if need be, but wants a place of its own.

“Even if 90, 95 percent of what we do is partnered, we still want a place where people will say, ‘I’m at Duke in India.’ ”

'Terms and Conditions'

American higher education leaders have watched as Sibal, since stepping into his role as minister of human resource development in May, has aggressively reached out to foreign universities, forming a joint Indo-U.S. working group in June, for instance. “My proposition, which I want to place before this august assembly today, is that the time has come, like in manufacturing and the service sector, in the area of education, for institutions to reach for students rather than students reaching for institutions,” Sibal said during the recent UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education.

'If Stanford, Harvard or MIT want to come here, then what's the harm in it?” Sibal was reported as saying during an interview with the Hindi news channel, IBN7, in July. He added, however, “They will come to India on certain terms and conditions or else, we won't allow them to come.”

Ah, there's the (potential) rub. What terms and conditions, precisely? It's still unclear.

Georgia Institute of Technology has plans for a small research campus in Hyderabad. "We're trying to be cautiously optimistic, but you can't really put a stake in the ground until you know what the boundaries are," said Vijay Madisetti, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and leader of Georgia Tech's India Initiative for the past four years ("it's been," he said, "a slow process").

Georgia Tech hopes to begin with research collaborations with Indian universities and corporations in two areas -- energy and information technology. Out of the research, and pending developments in the regulatory environment and local approvals, Georgia Tech potentially would develop master's and Ph.D. programs. "It's subject to a lot of approvals and resolution of much uncertainty with respect to the campus and how it would operate," said Madisetti, who added that the big question is one of autonomy and control over curriculum. "At this point, it's unclear what the provisions of the bill [to regulate foreign university entry] will be. We're hopeful that at least in the earlier versions of the bill, there were provisions for exemption, there were provisions for some sort of observer role, as opposed to a more direct regulatory role, by the Indian government institutions."

"We're hopeful that once the research side gets established, and both the companies and the government see the value of a world-class research campus, we might be able to work with the government to find a middle ground. We're very hopeful [due to] the statements of the new government that they would like to see foreign universities work in India," Madisetti said

"There is significant interest actually coming from the foreign players, not only in the U.S. but likewise from Canada and other places. But at the same time, the environment, the regulatory environment, is not conducive enough in India... nothing much is going forward, apart from maybe some small relationships in terms of research or exchange," said Rahul Choudaha, associate director of World Education Services, in New York.

"There is intention, there is interest. The challenge would be execution, because India is central to a lot of internationalized universities. It is central to a lot of universities to be present there."

'Envisioning the Future'

One such set of terms and conditions that might prove problematic for some institutions has to do with affirmative action, which in India involves quotas and requirements that universities reserve seats for students from disadvantaged castes. Sibal recently told the Times of India that foreign universities would not be exempt. ‘‘All institutions must be inclusive. If any institution has to set up in India then it has to ensure a place for backward castes. There is no compromise on it," Sibal said.

That statement, of course, invites still unresolved questions. "So far foreign institutions have made limited inroads in India, and mostly via partnerships with Indian institutions. Often these partnerships have been with unaided (private) institutions, which have a bit more flexibility to enter into such relationships -- and to avoid affirmative action. Affirmative action in Indian higher education is in the form of admissions quotas for members of the Scheduled Castes (formerly untouchables), Scheduled Tribes, and a government category known as the Other Backward Classes (defined by caste and economic criteria). Recently the Minister of Human Resource Development said such admissions quotas (known as reservations) would apply to foreign universities operating in India, but this all remains to be seen..." Laura Dudley Jenkins, an associate professor of political science and director of undergraduate studies at the University of Cincinnati, summarized in an e-mail (Jenkins has conducted research on affirmative action in India).

The reservation system could present a barrier for some institutions interested in working in India, said Choudaha, who said in lieu of a strict quota system, he'd like to see foreign universities be able to address questions of access through financial aid and pre-college admissions coaching and such. "For global institutions, it will be completely against their philosophy to insist on the quotas. And innovation can happen here," he said. (Of course, India's elite universities have many times tried to get exemptions from the system, and have largely failed to do so.)

“Everybody’s saying that the devil’s in the details,” said Allan E. Goodman, president and CEO of the Institute of International Education. “They have a lot of issues in India that are controversial and they have to address, including the reservation systems, set-asides for castes and certain other groups…. We’re all waiting to have some clarification but more importantly some experience.”

“As educators, we might actually welcome an unambiguous guideline that says you have to reach beyond the usual suspects in fee-paying students to create a campus that is reflective of India as a whole and our world as a whole. So there are a lot of virtues to affirmative action, a lot of values that in some ways are universal -- that access should be widened, that people who are historically disadvantaged ought to have a place. It might work out. I just think it’s way too early to tell,” Goodman said.

Back at Duke, “There’s no question we’d work within the law [on affirmative action], for two reasons,” said Sheppard, dean of the business school. “One of them is as a university there you have no choice, both legally and morally you have no choice. The second one is we’re trying to actually be in India and I don’t know how you can be in India and not accept their interpretations of the significant social challenges they have.”

Duke will likely need to make grants and loans available for some students, but, noted Sheppard, “In the U.S., we wouldn’t say, 'You’re broke, don’t come,' so why would I say that in India?” Sheppard also described the challenge in terms of a pipeline problem, with inequalities emerging much earlier in the educational system than at the graduate level (where Duke would be doing its teaching). "The real problem in admitting kids is if you have anyone to admit," Sheppard said. He highlighted the work that Duke’s Talent Identification Program is doing in-country as a modest contribution to help address this.

TIP, which has long identified and offered programs for gifted children and middle-school students in the United States, piloted its three-week summer studies program in India last summer, at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad campus, with 34 students. This summer, TIP repeated the program, but with 64 students. In describing the model for the program, Belinda Chiu, TIP’s director of international programs, explained that students completing the 8th standard -- who are about 13 or 14 years old -- choose from experiential courses, taught by professors, in Engineering Problem Solving, Java for Video Games, Entrepreneurial Leadership, and Forensic Science.

“We’re still refining our selection process as we move forward, but the last year we had students from Delhi, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Dehradun,” said Chiu. In selecting students, TIP staff look for economic, as well as geographic, diversity, Chiu said. “”It's something that we’ve always considered with all of our programs.

"They've made friends from throughout the country. Who knows what's going to happen with this group. Maybe 10, 20 years down the line, they'll meet in Parliament."

Which is where, of course, the fate of any legislation on foreign universities in India will be decided (although hopefully before the current crop of 13-year-olds gets there). Of the legislation, "I'm not too sure that it will have easy passage in the Indian Parliament," said Agarwal, author of the 2006 paper on Indian higher education and of the new book, Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future. Personally, he'd rather the Parliament focus its energies on fixing the country's regulatory system for higher education, and he pointed out, too, that it will be difficult to put a system into the place "where you can distinguish between the good and the bad institutions.... Quality institutions like Duke and Georgia Tech are few in number."

All that said, Agarwal hopes all this gets clarified soon, too. Public opinion is strongly in favor of bringing foreign universities in, he said, and the debate has long served as a distraction. "We have wasted far too long, and far too much time, on this issue of foreign providers in India," said Agarwal.

"Let's say I would like this issue to be settled, once and for all."


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