For U.S. universities, India remains a frontier of sorts. “Right now, we’re basically doing exploration of India, trying to figure out what the path forward is there,” said the president of Georgia State University, Mark P. Becker, who traveled to India this spring. Georgia State isn’t interested in opening a branch campus in India – one, because it doesn’t have the resources and two, because, Becker said, “it’s not exactly clear why we would want to do that at this point.” But the university – like many others in the U.S. – is interested in partnering with Indian higher education institutions and developing collaborative degree programs.
“Invariably when you start thinking about India you start comparing and contrasting with China, because there’s been this explosive growth and interest in higher education there,” Becker said. “When you look at India, you naturally ask yourself, ‘Is this China 10 or 20 years ago?’ ”
India historically has restricted the entry of foreign higher education providers, which cannot confer university degrees in-country – although, in the absence of a regulatory framework, collaborative arrangements between foreign universities and private Indian institutions at the program level have proliferated, and hundreds of such programs now exist. Georgia State’s business school, for instance, already offers a joint, two-year master’s program with the National Management School in Chennai, a private for-profit provider whose degrees are not recognized by the government of India.
Government-recognized degrees are required to obtain government jobs or to pursue advanced degrees. But in vocationally-oriented fields, like business, many Indian students have made the bet that even unrecognized credentials can open doors to better jobs in private industry. In this environment, high-quality foreign collaborations exist alongside collaborations of low quality. Now, in an attempt to regulate this market and dramatically increase the capacity of its higher education system, India appears poised to provide a path for foreign universities to establish branch campuses or otherwise offer government-sanctioned degrees. The Foreign Educational Institutions Bill was approved by the country’s cabinet in March and is pending in Parliament. While its form may change, many observers believe it will pass.
Just because the bill would provide a path, however, doesn’t imply that the path will be clear of obstacles. In India, the rhetoric surrounding the bill centers on the need to attract the likes of Harvard University and the University of Oxford – and keep fly-by-night or profit-seeking operators out. As such the proposed barriers to entry are high.
Most notably, the proposed bill requires that foreign universities front an initial investment of around $11 million, to be deposited in a corpus fund, and prohibits the repatriation of profits to the home country or institution (any surplus revenue can only be used to develop the institution in India). "If we look at just these two points, it means there is no financial incentive for a foreign university to come to India," said Rahul Choudaha, associate director of development and innovation at World Education Services and an expert on Indian higher education.
In addition, under the bill, foreign universities interested in operating distance education programs in India would not be welcome. The bill defines a "foreign educational institution" as one offering a degree, diploma or certificate "through conventional method including classroom teaching method not including distant mode.” The bill does not, however, stipulate that foreign institutions would have to abide by India’s quota-based affirmative action system, which had been seen as another potential barrier to entry.
"The intention of the bill is really good, and the timing is very good," said Choudaha. "This is a good start for clarifying the country’s policy about foreign higher education. However, as for the approach, that’s where the question marks start coming in. Creating some barriers for entry is good, but creating them so high that nobody can jump over them is unrealistic."
Waiting in the Wings
In an interview earlier this year with NDTV, Kapil Sibal, India’s minister of human resource development (which encompasses higher education), laid out the reasons for the legislation in stark, numerical terms. "220 million children go to school," he said. "And of that 26 million only go to college. So there are 194 million children in India who, if the [gross enrollment ratio] remains the same, will never go to college. Can any country afford that?"
He added: "If we need 500 more universities, or 150 more, or 300 more universities, who’s going to build them? Can the state afford to build them on its own? So we need to get the private sector. And the private sector includes not only the domestic private sector, it includes also the foreign private sector. Now we’re going to regulate that. We’re not going to let fly-by-night operators come in. We’re going to have very quality institutions come into the country."
However, the well-intentioned emphasis on keeping fly-by-night operators out may also undermine the government’s stated goal of increasing capacity. Philip G. Altbach, professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College, thinks that high barriers to entry are a good thing. "They’ll eliminate some of the bottom-feeders that very often go into wide-open doors in poor countries and they will make it clear that you have to be serious about what you’re doing educationally in India if you want to come in,” he said. “So I have no problem with them. I do think it’s going to restrict the numbers [of interested foreign universities] dramatically. That’s not what the Indians want but I think that’s what the Indians are going to get."
But from Altbach’s perspective, that result might be for the best. Fundamentally, Altbach said, India needs to expand its higher education system largely on its own. "No country can or should allow foreigners to build up a higher education system," he said. "This isn’t the case for Georgia Tech or Yale or such kinds of places, but generally speaking, foreigners want to make a buck. That’s why they’re going there."
Georgia Institute of Technology is one of a handful of U.S. universities that are moving ahead – albeit slowly -- with plans for branch campuses in India. For five years now, the university has been planning to open a post-graduate, research-oriented campus in Hyderabad. This past year, Georgia Tech signed memorandums of understanding with Infosys, an information technology company, and Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation to create research centers focused on advanced computing and energy and natural gas exploration, respectively. Joint research efforts are scheduled to start this fall. However, Georgia Tech’s plans to offer master’s and Ph.D. degrees are on hold until legislation regulating foreign universities is passed.
"We feel that the [foreign universities] bill is moving into the right direction," said Vijay K. Madisetti, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and executive director of the Georgia Tech India Initiative. "So we’re putting our effort into the research side and hope it will naturally evolve into a Ph.D. operation as well."
In March, Virginia Tech announced plans to open a campus outside Chennai, offering graduate degrees in engineering and the sciences. "This will be our first full-fledged campus outside the United States," said S.K. De Datta, Virginia Tech’s associate vice president for international affairs. The university signed an agreement with MARG Limited, a real estate development company, which, De Datta said, has pledged 30 acres of land for the planned campus and $5 million for start-up costs. Details about funding for construction have not been finalized.
De Datta is hopeful that Virginia Tech would qualify for an exemption from the $11 million requirement in the proposed Foreign Universities Bill. The bill, in its current form, gives the government discretion to grant exemptions to the bulk of the legislation’s provisions, “having regard to the reputation and international standing” of the foreign university.
In the absence of such an exemption, De Datta said the $11 million requirement would present a significant challenge to Virginia Tech’s expansion plans. Its private industry partner could conceivably provide funds but, as a state university, Virginia Tech can’t devote any of its core resources to the India campus. "Certainly we will not write a check for $11 million," De Datta said. "That will not happen."
At the same time, De Datta said, Virginia Tech is not looking to profit from this venture either. "From what I understand, the government of India is worried that many universities are coming in just to make money in India. That is certainly not in the cards for us. We’re going there as an educational enterprise because we want to be present globally."
The Unregulated Status Quo
Since the 1990s, foreign universities have increasingly been coming into the country, through various collaborative arrangements primarily with private Indian higher education institutions. Private Indian colleges have looked to foreign partnerships as a strategy for gaining legitimacy and attracting students, said Sudhanshu Bhushan, professor and head of the Department of Higher and Professional Education at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, India. “Over all, private higher education in India has grown outside of a clear legislative framework, and foreign education providers have had to fit within this unregulated context as they almost entirely operate in the private sector,” Bhushan wrote in a 2006 Observatory on Borderless Higher Education report on this subject.
A 2008 U.K. India Education and Research Initiative report identified 143 Indian institutions and 161 foreign universities involved in delivering collaborative programs. A total of 641 programs were delivered collaboratively. Twinning programs, in which two institutions jointly recognize a program and often award dual or joint degrees, were the most popular form of collaboration. Colleges from the United Kingdom and the United States were present in India in the largest numbers, and the joint programs were primarily in management or business, engineering, information technology and hotel management.
The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), an accrediting body, does publish a list of approved and unapproved foreign collaborations on its Web site. There are six AICTE-approved programs listed and 67 unapproved. But that’s about as far as oversight of the sector goes. “To some extent, it is a reflection of the inefficacy of the regulatory mechanism, which was already tainted with the allegations of being corrupt, bureaucratic, inflexible and out of sync with the needs of higher education,” Choudaha said in an e-mail. “In this context, several foreign collaborations were established outside the regulatory system, especially in the professional fields like MBA where industry recognition and employability was perceived to be more important than academic recognition. However… many institutions are using [the] foreign collaborations tag to mislead students. In addition, graduates of these unrecognized institutions find it very difficult to use their credentials for further international education or immigration. Thus, foreign collaborations in India have come to a stage where genuine high quality collaborations are coexisting with poor quality, misleading collaborations.”
The proposed Foreign Universities Bill would encompass both international universities operating independently and those working in collaboration with Indian institutions. In fact regulating these collaborations is a motivation for the legislation, which acknowledges that, “Due to lack of policy or regulatory regime it has been very difficult to make meaningful assessment of the operations of the foreign educational institutions and absence of such meaningful assessment has given rise to chances of adoption of various unfair practices besides commercialization.”
Among the existing collaborations, Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom, offers degrees at a campus paid for by the G.D. Goenka Group, a company that, per its Web site, “has had varied interests in the fields of Real estate, Educational institutions, Travel & Tourism, Polyester buttons, Garments & other exports.” The campus has capacity for 5,000 students and had 300 in its first year; officials expect 1,000 this August, said Anthony Marsella, director of external linkages at Lancaster. The campus offers a range of undergraduate and graduate programs in business and management-related fields. Lancaster delivers its courses and maintains control over academics; G.D. Goenka markets the programs and collects tuition, of which Lancaster receives a percentage.
The arrangement is included on AICTE’s long list of unapproved foreign collaborations. Asked about this, “At this stage, we’re operating, I think, correctly,” said Marsella, explaining that under the current arrangement an Indian company provides U.K. degrees. “Obviously under the new legislation we’re going to have to apply for registration and pay the licensing fee, which is considerable, and operate under the new regulatory environment which we expect to come into effect next year.”
As for the $11 million, “That sort of barrier will dissuade a number of players. I think it will have a chilling effect,” Marsella said.
“If I were a smaller player,” he said, “I would probably pull out."