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India’s plans to completely overhaul its higher education system and to open it to international branch campuses have been hailed as impressive by observers, although they remain uncertain about how the country will achieve its lofty goals.

The National Education Policy (NEP), approved after 12 months of public consultation, sets out a 20-year blueprint to nearly double higher education capacity.

It envisages turning all higher education institutions into large, multidisciplinary institutions with several thousand students, to be accomplished via widespread mergers and expansion programs, and phasing out single-subject providers. The goal is to have one such large institution in each district by 2040, serving as a higher education “cluster” or knowledge hub.

The NEP proposes restructuring institutions into three types -- research universities, teaching universities and colleges -- and finally confirms that “the top 100 universities in the world will be facilitated to operate in India,” an idea that has been in the works for at least a decade.

The strategy also proposes widespread structural reform to cut through India’s infamous red tape, proposing a new independent National Research Foundation to provide competitive research funding and to coordinate grants offered by government agencies. There will also be a Higher Education Commission of India, comprising councils focused on regulation, accreditation, funding and graduate skills.

Craig Jeffrey, director of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne, told Times Higher Education that the NEP “is an impressive policy that navigates a range of difficult issues quite well.”

Alan Ruby, senior fellow at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania, told Times Higher Education that “the big story is the commitment to growing the total size of the sector by adding 35 million places, effectively doubling the current infrastructure. That is a good thing for economic growth and competitiveness, for social and gender equality, and for individual choice and aspiration.”

Pushkar, director of the International Centre Goa, said he was “particularly happy about the Indian government’s intent to address the fragmented nature of the higher education sector, which has literally thousands of HEIs, in the private sector particularly, with a very small number of students.”

The big question is how India will achieve all these goals, even as the government says it will increase spending on public education from 4.43 percent of gross domestic product to 6 percent.

Ruby warned of the difficulties of implementation. “The challenges will be growing the sector while maintaining quality and making participation affordable and accessible,” he said.

Pushkar said the policy read like “a statement of intent.”

“I think it will be quite tough to implement the kinds of things that are recommended, beginning with the autonomy of institutions,” he said. “There are good ideas in NEP 2020, but what happens next is something I would be more interested in.”

The plan to allow global universities into India is mentioned only briefly in the policy, which says that a legislative framework will be put in place and that foreign providers will be exempt from some regulations.

Jeffrey pointed out that “when the possibility of global universities moving into India was discussed in the 2010s, no foreign institutions seemed interested, so any legislative change may not lead to change.”

Ruby agreed that “previous proposals in this area have come to naught.”

“If they do materialize, any benefits from these campuses will not be the increase in places but as demonstration sites and exemplars of institutions that combine research and teaching and can showcase different models of teaching and learning,” he said.

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