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INDIA
Key higher education bills pass parliamentary committee
Key education-related bills, including the foreign education providers bill that would allow overseas universities to open campuses in India, have finally been cleared by a parliamentary committee comprising members of several political parties – after a delay of more than two-and-a-half years.

The Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry is hoping the committee’s consensus will enable it to push the bills through parliament.

An HRD ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told University World News that the committee’s report would boost the chances of getting the bills passed.

“We are hopeful that some if not all of these bills will be passed either in the current session or in the monsoon session,” he said. The monsoon session is from July-September.

“If they get pushed to the winter session then we may have to wait for a new government,” the official said, referring to elections that are due to be held in early 2014. The government will steer away from potentially damaging controversies in the months building up to a general election.

Due to bottlenecks in parliamentary business over the past year, however, more than 30 bills are still pending in parliament.

In its report, the parliamentary committee said that scrutiny of all the proposed legislation had been completed. Enactment would bring about major transformation in the higher education sector “and thus restructure and reorient our higher education system” in a globalised world.

“The committee is of the firm view that passing of these legislative proposals need not be delayed any further,” the report said.

Opposition consultations

A member of the committee who didn’t want to be named said the report had support, and the ministry had agreed to include most of the suggestions made by the committee across the five bills.

“There was a feeling earlier that not all stakeholders were consulted and the ministry was going about its work in an arbitrary manner. However, consultations were held with numerous stakeholders and suggestions given by the committee have been considered by the ministry,” the member said.

This development is being credited to new HRD Minister MM Pallam Raju, who recently met Sushma Swaraj, leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha – the lower house of parliament – to garner support for the pending education bills, and followed up with a meeting with Arun Jaitley, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house.

Raju told local media that Swaraj had promised that her Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, would cooperate in the passage of the bills. “As a responsible opposition party the BJP would extend its support to the passage of the bills,” Raju said, adding that he had addressed doubts about the bills expressed by her party’s MPs.

Some political analysts have suggested that the repeated stalling of key education bills was due to a failure by previous HRD minister Kapil Sibal to reach out to the main opposition party to secure support.

Nirmala Sitharaman, spokesperson for the BJP, said the party expected the education bills to come up for debate before mid-May. “We will not be able to comment on the bills until we see the final version that is presented in parliament.

“It has often happened that between the suggestions given by the parliamentary committee, the cabinet and the government, the final bill is a completely different one,” Sitharaman told University World News.

She said, however, that the BJP was open to the idea of quality foreign universities coming to India. During NDA rule – the 13-party National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP that was in power from 1998-2004 – “1,600-odd collaborations happened with foreign institutions.

“We are closely watching all forms of foreign direct investment and we want a fairly meaningful regulatory system which will ensure quality of curriculum and certification for Indian students,” Sitharaman said.

Revisions

Under the Foreign Universities Bill, which proposes to allow foreign education institutions to open campuses in India, the committee had questioned a clause that required foreign institutions to maintain a minimum corpus of Rs500 million (just over US$9 million) in India, and another provision that bars foreign universities from repatriating profits.

The ministry has indicated that it is prepared to revise downwards the minimum corpus requirement.

“The corpus will not be Rs500 million for every institution. Instead, it will be based on certain classifications. For instance, for engineering, vocational and other programmes, it could be less than Rs500 million whereas for medical programmes, the corpus could be more than that,” an education ministry official told University World News.

The official hinted that the provision that prevents foreign universities from repatriating profits might also be reviewed by the ministry.

Rachel Davis, dean of the Delhi School of Business, said the foreign providers bill had to include all kinds of foreign universities.

“Several of the Ivy League institutions may not be looking to open campuses in India. They would be more interested in research and institutional collaborations,” she said. Also, the bill should not prevent non-Ivy League institutions or vocational and community colleges from entering India.

The other bills envisage setting up a national accreditation regulatory authority, a tribunal to fast-track the adjudication of disputes in the higher education system, and forming a national academic depository to digitise credentials of students and curb forgery.

Meanwhile, a bill to open 20 new Indian institutes of information technology (IIITs) in partnership with the private sector was introduced to parliament on 18 March.

The institutions will be set up with 50% of the funding from central government, 35% from states and 15% from industry. The government has already set up four IIITs under the 11th five-year plan that ended in March 2012, and they are considered ‘deemed’ universities. Central university status is a legislative decision.

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