If the University Grants Commission (UGC) has its way, foreign universities may soon enter Indian shores. It has released the draft University Grants Commission (Setting up and Operation of Campuses of Foreign Higher Educational Institutions in India) Regulations, 2023, to facilitate this. Defending the rationale of the regulations the UGC Chairperson said that it was in consonance with the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 and offered wider educational choices. It is another matter that the UGC is slated to be replaced with a National Commission for Higher Education & Research, but it still continues to be the main instrument in implementing policy for higher education.
The draft was notified on January 5, 2023, and the academic committee had time until February 3 to submit their comments.
The draft regulations seem to be a culmination of the guidelines on the Internationalisation of Higher Education that the UGC announced in 2021, which included setting up an office for International Affairs and an Alumni Connect Cell in universities. On May 2, 2022, it notified the UGC (Academic Collaboration between Indian and Foreign Higher Educational Institutions to offer Twinning, Joint Degree, and Dual Degree Programmes) Regulations, 2022.
The latest draft regulations are intended to make it easier for the world’s top-ranked universities and higher education institutions to establish campuses in India that would meet the same standards as their parent institutions in their country of origin. In addition to conferring degrees, diplomas, and certificates in all disciplines, they will be allowed to conduct undergraduate, postgraduate, doctoral, post-doctoral and other programmes.
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According to the draft regulations, these institutions have to avoid offering any programme of study “which jeopardises the national interest of India” and to ensure that their operations are not “contrary to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, or morality”.
With this, the Indian higher education system will have two distinct parts – one of which will be foreign ‘owned’ and governed almost entirely by regulations other than those the UGC enforces on Indian universities. For a potentially ‘global’ student population, the criteria for admission and fee structure will be decided by the foreign institution concerned; no reservation for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, or Economically Weaker Sections will be applicable.
Foreign Higher Educational Institutions will be allowed to develop their own criteria for admission and decide on the fee structure, which the UGC says should be “transparent and reasonable”. It says that “based on an evaluation process, full or partial or need-based scholarships may be provided by the FHEI from funds such as endowment funds, alumni donations, tuition revenues and other sources.” There is no obligation to do so.
The institutions will have the autonomy to decide “qualifications, salary structure, and other conditions of service for appointing faculty and staff”. That is, the UGC Regulations on Minimum Qualifications for Appointment of Teachers and Other Academic Staff in Universities and Colleges, which is in force, will not be applicable to them.
Foreign universities setting up campuses in India are required to ensure that the quality of the education and the qualifications they award to students are ‘equivalent’ to those of the parent institution. By implication, they will not be covered by the UGC Regulations on Minimum Standards and Procedures for award of degrees. Neither will several new ‘initiatives’ flowing from NEP 2020, such as the Academic Bank for Credits scheme, apply to these institutions. Instead, after a campus is established in India, the degrees awarded will be equal to those granted in India.
Paradoxically, foreign institutions are not permitted to offer online and open distance learning programmes of study, even though the NEP has posed these as effective means of expanding enrollment and increasing ‘access’ to education. The government plans to enact a law to start a National Digital University that will let students pursue courses fully online.
The Democratic Teachers’ Front, one of the largest teacher organisations in the University of Delhi, has described this as double standards. It has raised concerns that these institutions would draw away the best from public funded universities and provide exploitative working conditions for all other teachers and employees.
The autonomy granted to foreign institutions setting up Indian campuses under these regulations is a double-edged sword. While several UGC regulations will not apply to them, the UGC will decide which institutions are deemed to be ‘reputable’ and eligible to apply. The UGC will grant them initial approval based on the proposal submitted by the foreign institution concerned, and renew the approval from time to time. The UGC will also have the authority to judge the operations of the institution—whether it is meeting its obligations or acting against national interests—and the right to impose penalties, including suspension/withdrawal of approval, if it believes they are in violation of the regulations.
The UGC, and the Central government as a result, will have considerable discretionary power in all these given that the regulations are full of vaguely specified objectives and standards with reference to which such decisions have to be made. It is entirely possible that these may be misused to intrude into the rights of universities and of academics in ways that they find it excessively intrusive—the experience of public universities in India in recent years is evidence of the fact that this is not an imaginary threat.
On the other hand, there is sufficient scope for large-scale profiteering in the name of education – the mushrooming of private higher education institutions is a prime example of how this may happen. The risk of profiteering is even high in the case of foreign institutions whose sponsoring bodies are not restricted by Indian laws on the use of funds applicable to bodies sponsoring private higher educational institutions in India. The regulations do not seem to have any specific provision to prevent such profiteering and even repatriation of any gains from that; all that is stated is “Cross-border movement of funds and maintenance of Foreign Currency Accounts, mode of payments, remittance, repatriation, and sale of proceeds, if any, shall be as per the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) 1999 and its Rules.”
The larger question, however, is that the regulations reflect the government’s warped higher education priorities. Generally speaking, a quality university has to have a combination of adequate physical and human resources and other enabling conditions that foster the pursuit of academic excellence. A myopic education policy – insufficient public investment but excessive government intervention that has created unfavourable conditions for attracting the best talent to teaching and academics, --- have hampered Indian universities.
In fact, through political measures such as vetting the credentials of academics who can travel and also lack of resources for exchange programmes, government policy has hampered and constrained Indian academia’s international academic interaction. Researchers from reputed universities with valid research visas have been denied entry into the country. In March 2022, Filippo Osella, a social scientist from the University of Sussex, was deported as soon as he landed at Thiruvananthapuram. Osella, who was the head of the Anthropology department, was to present a paper at a conference jointly organised by the University of Sussex, Cochin University of Science and Technology and Centre for Development Studies, University of Kerala, on issues concerning coastal communities.
As a developing country, India has its own challenges—a large education deficit, unequal access to education and a large proportion of first-generation learners, in addition to language and medium problems that come up from time to time in a country with such a vast linguistic diversity. Foreign institutions, however ‘reputed’ they may be, cannot be expected to have the ‘know-how’ to address these ‘national’ challenges and fill in these gaps. For example the Gross Enrollment Ratio in Higher education is not going to increase from 26.3 per cent to 50 per cent by 2035 as envisaged in the NEP with the setting up of foreign campuses. Most likely the same group of students who go abroad to study will end up on these foreign education campuses. In short, these campuses will not widen the base of the entry point of higher education.
Indeed, creating a separate privileged tier of institutions into which foreign resources will flow and then be ‘recovered’ through fees, and to which only a handful of India’s elite may have access, will only add to the problems in Indian higher education. The United Progressive Alliance 2 had also tried to bring forth a Foreign University Bill with similar objectives but had to shelve it in the face of opposition. The Modi government, with its brute majority in Parliament, might be able to push this through. The only casualty will be higher education.