INDIA: Foreign universities bill tabled

A controversial bill to regulate the entry and operation of foreign education institutions was introduced to India's parliament last week amid opposition objections that signal a rocky path ahead for the proposed opening up of the nation's higher education sector.

The Foreign Educational Institutes Bill was one of four major acts tabled in the lower house of parliament by Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal in a bid to reform the university system.

Other bills to improve the quality and accountability of universities included mandatory accreditation of all institutions, ways of dealing with malpractices by institutions and the establishment of national education tribunals to resolve disputes.

But the foreign universities bill attracted the most attention. The Opposition attempted to block the bill's introduction, arguing the proposals would "Westernise" Indian education.

Basudeb Acharia of the Left CPM party said: "Allowing foreign direct investment and foreign teaching staff into the country will distort the already elitist educational structure in the country. It will make education more commercial and there will be no regulation and control over such institutions."

Amid noisy scenes, parliamentary speaker Meira Kumar overruled the Left's objections to tabling the bill. Sibal said the rules did not allow a member to oppose a bill on introduction, only at the time it was being passed.

The tabling of the foreign universities bill was repeatedly postponed because of opposition from the Left, which was part of the governing coalition when the bill was drawn up four years ago.

A change of government put the Left in opposition last year and a revised draft was finally cleared by the Cabinet in March.

Under the proposed law, only institutions with a corpus of 500 million rupees (US$11 million) - the sum of money universities need to set aside as a guarantee - would be allowed to establish a campus in India.

A foreign institution would need endorsement from the embassy or Indian high commission in its home country before applying for registration in India.

Endorsement can be refused "if it is not in the interest of the country in terms of sovereignty, integrity, security, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or sensitivity of location of the foreign educational institutions", the bill states.

Foreign institutions guilty of 'misleading' the government would be liable for a hefty fine.

The bill, if passed, could come into force next year, allowing world-class institutions into the country and providing more educational opportunities.

"The gross enrolment ratio in higher education is 12.4% of 18-30 year olds. If we want to push [it] to 30% by 2020, we will need at least 800 more universities. This cannot be achieved by the government alone," Sibal told reporters outside Parliament.

Among the other bills introduced this week, the educational malpractice bill would levy fines or even imprison university administrators if promises of 'quality' education made in their prospectus were not kept. Charging so-called capitation fees, as donations to secure admission are known, would also become an offence.

Major infractions will be considered criminal offences and tried by the courts. But isolated instances of malpractice involving just one or two students will be tried in educational tribunals to be set up at federal and state level under another of the bills tabled.

"These reforms in higher education were long overdue. We need a transparent system which is friendly to students and parents rather than to university officials. I hope the bills, once they come into force, will serve this purpose," said Professor Yashpal, former chair of the University Grants Commission and now head of the advisory committee on higher education reforms set up by the Education Ministry last year.

The fourth bill seeks to set up a body to assess and accredit every institution in higher education. At present accreditation is voluntary.