In January 2011, Tri-Valley University in California was raided by US federal agents. The grounds? Misuse of the US student visa programme for personal gain by enrolling students, and collecting tuition fees without providing education. The case received a lot of attention from Indian media and government officials. Some even questioned how the sham university was approved to accept foreign students in the first place.
While this was an unfortunate case, there are many institutions just like this in India, and not much is being done to address it. Tri-Valley was at least shut down. By contrast, Indian regulatory and quality assurance mechanisms tend to remain embroiled in paperwork and rhetoric about institutional malpractices.
In India, an institution of higher learning should be registered as a non-profit society or trust and approved by appropriate statutory authorities such as the University Grants Commission (UGC) or the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).
But an incoherent regulatory framework and lack of quality standards in Indian higher education are risking the quality and potential of foreign partnerships.
Driven by market opportunities and entrepreneurial zeal, many institutions are taking advantage of the lax regulatory environment to offer 'degrees' not approved by Indian authorities. And many institutions are functioning as pseudo non-profit organisations, developing sophisticated financial methods to siphon off the 'profits'.
Some are effectively misleading students about the validity of their degrees while claiming to offer an alternative choice.
Consider the case of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, or IIPM, which enrols more than 5,000 students across eight campuses with more than 400 faculty members. Yet it is not approved by the UGC or any other accreditation agency.
Its full-page advertisements in newspapers and magazines display the catchword 'MBA' in large font. It is only on visiting the institute's website that one finds acknowledgement (in fine print) that it does not actually offer MBA degrees. Audaciously, its website Q&A even states: "Students bothered about statutory recognition of IIPMs programmes need not apply to IIPM..."
The UGC issued a notice in 2005, and again in 2010, clarifying that IIPM is not a university and does not have the authority to award degrees. Yet IIPM continues to enrol students.
Institutions like IIPM flourish in India because prospective students do not necessarily understand the implications of attending a recognised or unrecognised institution.
Students are often unaware that credentials offered by an unrecognised institution will be useless should they decide to continue their studies - whether in India or abroad. Attending an unrecognised institution also affects students' migration prospects, as credentials issued by such institutions are not considered valid under immigration requirements.
In response to cases like IIPM and a growing segment of unapproved institutions that appear to be profiteering, the Prohibition of Unfair Practices Bill was approved by cabinet in March 2010. The bill promises to curb malpractice - including misleading advertising, which may result in fines of up to INR5 million (US$110,000). The bill is still awaiting parliamentary approval.
It is quite ironic that on the one hand, the government is trying to curb malpractice, and on the other, government regulatory bodies themselves have been accused of corruption and inefficiency, as well as being out of sync with market needs.
Consider the example of the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill, which aims to provide a regulatory framework for foreign institutions interested in offering education in India.
It has received significant attention from media and institutions both in India and abroad. Speculation on its potential effects on the higher education landscape have ranged from scenarios of Ivy League institutions queuing to start branch campuses in India to the utter collapse of Indian higher education driven by profit-seeking foreign institutions. The Indian cabinet tabled the bill in March 2010 but it has yet to get parliamentary approval.
Even if the bill is approved, it is unlikely to make a major difference, due to a multitude of impractical clauses and a lack of enforceability.
Some foreign institutions have already decided to circumvent the red tape and have taken the plunge to start campuses in India, such as the UK's Lancaster University, which is partnering with the GD Goenka Group to offer UK degrees.
What does this say about quality assurance under the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill and about universities' ability to work their way around it? The bill has generated more questions than answers; more confusion than clarity.
If you are a foreign university looking for collaborations in India how do you distinguish between 'recognised' and 'unrecognised' institutions, and what are the implications for your institutional brand? For example, how do you distinguish between institutions like the Indian School of Business, ranked 12 in The Financial Times rankings of business schools, and IIPM, when neither is recognised by AICTE?
A lot needs to be done by Indian institutions and regulators to restore transparency, coherence and confidence in the higher education system both at home and abroad.
At the institutional level, a code of self-regulation and self-restraint has to be adopted. Institutions have to lead by example, not only by creating good practice but also by curbing malpractice.
Higher standards of data sharing and transparency have to be mandated at policy level, along with empowering prospective and current students to compare institutions and lodge complaints if need be. Last but not least, regulations have to be enforced, lest they remain mere words on paper.
Meanwhile, what can foreign institutions do to engage with India? The challenges involved in collaborating with Indian higher education institutions are numerous, but the opportunities are plenty too.
To maintain integrity, foreign institutions should consider assessing their potential Indian partners in at least two critical ways:
* First, determine that the prospective partner institution is approved by the Indian regulatory authorities. Though regulatory approval is not a sufficient indicator of quality, it can reduce the high level of partnership risk.
* Second, assess the values, credentials and commitment of the leadership team, as they truly define the overall direction, mission and functioning of the prospective partner institution.
To sum up with an investment analogy: in India, it is difficult to tell a junk bond from a blue-chip stock. India is a promising investment market but you have to make sure you know where you are investing. Moreover, India itself has to step up its efforts to create investor confidence and build an enabling investment climate.
Given that the future of the country is dependent on human resource development, it is high time that higher education reforms at institutional and policy level started moving from good intentions to action.
Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO a tDrEducation and http://interEDGE.org. He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at info@DrEducation.com and @DrEducationBlog.
I totally agree. It is most painful to see the degree mills which are also affiliated to universities. Tamilnadu alone has 490-plus engineering colleges and deemed universities that produce nearly 250,000 engineering graduates every year. Mushroom growth, lured by placements in software organisations, donations to obtain seats and mafias running educational institutions is the order of day in India. Is there a solution? I see one - except to be nihilistic.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters