Welcome foreign universities with calibration

With a share of 21 percent of the total international student enrolment, India’s 19 percent increase in 2021-22 outgrew China’s 9 percent fall.

Published: 29th January 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th January 2023 11:20 AM   |  A+A-

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I typed “when in doubt…”  and asked ChatGPT to complete the phrase. It replied, “When in doubt, trust your instincts.” Instinctively I asked ChatGPT on its position regarding the entry of foreign universities into India. The reply was a fine display of global diplomacy and swadeshi simplicity with no decisive conclusion. It provided a ‘two-sides-to-a-coin-reply’ forcing me to decide, not by tossing the coin and relying on luck, but by studying closely the two sides. If they are a hot ‘No’ and a cool ‘Yes’, can we find a mid-path in a tempestuously charged policy instrument like this? The author had previously written two articles on the same issue in 2010 and 2011 when there was a move to facilitate the entry of foreign universities in India. In both the articles, the author called for a calibrated approach in a phased manner and reiterates the same views.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) draft regulations facilitating the entry of foreign universities by establishing campus in India is in the public domain for feedback in the spirit of consultative and democratic policy-making. As the feedback starts pouring in, some data provides interesting policy pointers. The total number of international student enrolment in US universities rose from 5.6 lakh to 8.5 lakh between 2000 and 2020. For the year 2021-22, though China’s share of 31 percent in the total number of international students was the highest, the growth of Indian student enrolment has been the highest when compared to 2020-21 enrolment.

With a share of 21 percent of the total international student enrolment, India’s 19 percent increase in 2021-22 outgrew China’s 9 percent fall. Further, the source of funding for higher studies in the US has predominantly been from private savings and current employment, which is around 75 percent and only 20 percent from US college, university or government grants. This proportion of self-funding by Indian students demonstrates willingness to go abroad for higher studies using own funds mainly for post-graduate/doctoral programmes in STEM and management education.

The same is the trend for other popular destinations like the UK, Canada, Europe and Australia. Also, Australia (31 percent), UK (24 percent) and Canada (22 percent) have a significant share of international students in their total student population. The international student tuition fee revenue is one of the survival lifelines of many reputed international universities who will not compromise that on their own volition. It is in this background that the intent and modus operandi of foreign universities in India needs to be tested.

India’s higher education is at the cusp of a transformational shift triggered by the NEP 2020. One of its main highlights is the internationalisation of higher education, which includes both foreign university presence in India and foreign experience provided by existing universities in India. The draft regulations deal with the former while the latter requires more focus. Be that as it may, the provisions of the proposed regulations require attention to certain critical provisions. First, the academic, administrative and financial autonomy assured to the foreign universities must also be assured to deserving Indian universities (Top 100 NIRF—National Institutional Ranking Framework or Category One universities) to ensure competitive parity in a level-playing field without institutional disparity in a bumpy field.

Secondly, the reputed foreign universities are known for their cutting-edge research activities, flexible curriculum, creative pedagogy, etc. To what extent this can be replicated is unclear as seen from the limited (also discouraging) success of a few foreign universities who have set up campuses in the UAE, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. If they choose to remain a teaching shop and not a research university (difficult to replicate), then they may not deliver the desired learning outcomes of comparable quality.

Thirdly, the provision to repatriate their income may lead to exotic accounting provisions that shall limit fund availability to expand and engage in socio-economic development inside India, something that Indian universities do in large numbers.

Fourthly, the existing UGC regulations for twinning, dual-degree and joint-degree with foreign universities is just taking shape and needs time to form matured engagement models.

Fifthly, students go abroad to experience real-time new culture and geography and not a ‘mini-me’ foreign campus in India. Will foreign exchange outflow reduce when willingness to go out is more?

With more questions limited by space-seeking answers, I welcome foreign universities to offer post-graduate and PhD programmes for the first 10 years with no provision to repatriate income. This shall not only address the looming faculty crisis in India, but also test their long-term intent. In short: Welcome foreign universities with calibration.        

S Vaidhyasubramaniam

Vice-Chancellor, SASTRA Deemed University



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