In 2009, The Telegraph responded enthusiastically to the efforts of India’s then minister of human resource development to attract foreign university campuses, proclaiming: "A revolution is brewing in the higher education sector, with foreign universities waiting for India to open its doors to them."
Nearly four years later, sentiments have changed from uninformed optimism to informed pessimism.
Several big names like Duke Fuqua, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have all abandoned their ambitions for fully fledged degree campuses. The Chronicle of Higher Education summed up this unfortunate transition, saying: "For US colleges in India, great possibilities, thwarted hopes".
Journey from uninformed optimism to informed pessimism
Three years ago, I argued in a blog post for University World News that there was a significant mismatch in expectations between policy-makers, and Indian and foreign institutions. I suggested that foreign universities interested in engaging with India have different needs and objectives, which can be grouped as: 1) prestige-enhancing; 2) prestige-seeking and 3) revenue-profit maximising.
Indian policy-makers were interested in attracting universities from the first group without understanding that, unless they are funded or financially supported by the host country – for instance, New York University in Abu Dhabi – there is a lack of interest among this group in building branch campuses.
At the same time, the foreign universities bill proposed upfront barriers like the requirement for a corpus fund of Rs500 million, which it has since revised to Rs250 million – from US$10 million to US$4.2 million due to the depreciation of the Indian currency.
Additionally, the clause regarding non-repatriation of surpluses effectively eliminated all leading universities, especially publicly funded ones who cannot justify to their stakeholders putting up financial capital when there is limited potential for a return on their investment. Lack of government support and high financial barriers to entry are a potentially toxic combination, which leaves corporate funding and philanthropy as the only viable funding sources.
Corporate funding often means aggressive growth and profit at the expense of reputation, which is the antithesis of what many prestige-enhancing institutions stand for. At the same time, this is exactly what the foreign revenue-profit maximising institutions want, as do many private Indian players.
However, the Indian government does not want ‘for-profit’ institutions and hence it requires that a foreign educational provider be a not-for-profit legal entity. This is ironic, as many private institutions that are not-for-profit and were established as charitable institutions have perfected the art of profit maximisation right under the noses of the regulators.
In terms of philanthropy, Indian higher education is still far behind. There are hardly any cases of wealthy Indians donating money to higher education institutions and potentially funding foreign branch campuses, although there are a couple of recent examples like Shiv Nadar University and Azim Premji University – both private universities funded by technology billionaires intending to leave a legacy.
In sum, the transition from uninformed optimism to informed pessimism is the net result of misaligned stakeholder expectations and the complexity, inertia and confusion of politics and policy-making in India.
The way forward – Informed optimism
Debate on the lack of momentum around the establishment of foreign branch campuses has tainted the optimism for engaging with India. Many foreign university leaders are at a loss in terms of their India engagement strategy. This is an unhealthy outcome and may result in missed opportunities for foreign and Indian institutions alike.
With less than 20% of the addressable population enrolled in higher education, India offers a huge opportunity, but also needs help.
Thus, the discourse around engaging with India needs to be reframed from a focus on branch campuses and their regulatory requirements to models and opportunities of partnership that align with the expectations of stakeholders.
Thankfully, some recent developments are moving in this direction.
The US-India Higher Education Summit included community colleges and research partnerships. A couple of recent publications like Partnerships in India: Navigating the policy and legal maze by the American Council on Education and the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, and Applying the US Community College Model to India by the Institute of International Education, have attempted to find creative strategies for engaging India.
My core recommendation to foreign institutions is to ‘incubate’ partnerships and not to limit themselves with grandiose plans about branch campuses. Indian higher education is rich with opportunities, but rife with challenges, and hence it is important to start now.
Higher education institutions need to take informed risks with a ‘start-up’ mindset by working with several institutional partnerships of varying intensity and resources, testing out the relationships and results and ramping them up over time.
Likewise, institutional leaders and policy-makers in India need to understand the groups of foreign universities with different needs and accordingly create pathways for engagement – only a handful of universities are willing and able to establish branch campuses, and many more are interested in exchanges at a variety of different levels.
Of course, engaging with Indian higher education is not easy and there are several barriers. However, we need informed optimism in order to build creative solutions that circumvent the regulatory deadlocks.
As Brian McGreevy rightly stated: “If a problem can't be solved within the frame it was conceived, the solution lies in reframing the problem.”
Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation 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.
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