INDIA: Foreign universities bill needs to be revised

Proposed steps to regulate the operation of foreign education providers in India, as contained in the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill under the consideration of parliament, are very welcome initiatives. They are welcome because, as Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal (pictured) pointed out while introducing the bill, "a large number of foreign educational institutions have been operating in the country and some of them may be resorting to various malpractices to allure and attract students".

The absence of a regulatory regime, according to Sibal, has "given rise to chances of adoption of various unfair practices, besides commercialisation". These institutions function under several guises, exploiting the obsession of the Indian middle class for certification from foreign institutions. The proposed legislation is intended to restrain such institutions and their malpractices, through administrative, academic and financial regulations.

These steps will have universal approval, except from those who are beneficiaries of these practices. The implication of the bill, however, goes far beyond the stated objectives.

Its main consequence is that it would give official approval to what is currently being done surreptitiously, by enabling foreign 'educational providers' to set up campuses in the country. It is possible that this might not attract a large number of quality institutions to invest money and set up campuses. Yet, in the event of even a limited entry of foreign institutions, the educational system of a country like India is bound to face certain challenges.

The general assumption is that foreign institutions would improve quality through competition and increase access due to the availability of a larger number of new institutions.

Both these possibilities are attractive to the upper crust of the middle class who have reached positions of power from colonial times through education in prestigious foreign universities. Even a cursory survey of India's power elite during the last century would indicate that their dominance is primarily rooted in such educational opportunities.

The 'open door' policy of the government would make foreign education available on the doorstep, which accounts for the popular support it has attracted from the intelligentsia and the English-educated middle class.

An apprehension generally shared by the intelligentsia is about the possible misuse of liberalisation by 'fly-by-night operators' who could be looking for a quick return on their investment. The bill seeks to allay this genuine fear by providing administrative control, financial safeguards and academic vigil.

To qualify for registration as an educational provider, an institution should have 20 years experience in educational services and a corpus fund of not less than 500 million rupees (US$11.3 million). Secondly, surplus revenue generated by can be invested only in the growth and development of educational institutions established by it in India. The bill also stipulates that the quality of education should be comparable to that imparted in the foreign institution's main campus.

It is assumed that these stipulations, along with the administrative formalities to ensure the fitness of the institution to provide quality education, will make the participation of 'foreign providers' a positive asset to the nation.

However, it is my belief that the bill, if passed by parliament, is likely to have long-lasting adverse impacts on the national character of Indian education, which has not yet fully emancipated itself from the intellectual influences of colonialism.

Nobody expects that foreign education providers are going to swamp the scene. It is also true that they will not provide mass education. Their operations would by and large be confined to certain specialised areas. Yet an open policy would introduce a new stream in Indian education system.

Philip Altbach, the editor of International Higher Education, has brought to our notice that in a couple of countries where branch campuses exist, they "are fairly small and almost always specialised in fields that are inexpensive and have a ready clientele". It would be unrealistic to expect these campuses to train undergraduate students in social sciences or humanities. Understandably, they are not going to make any substantial improvement in access to higher education.

There is greater expectation in the matter of improving the quality of education, as the main rationale for 'importing' institutions could only be their superior academic credentials. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect them to help improve the standard of instruction in Indian institutions.

With this in view the bill lays down that "a foreign education provider shall ensure that a course or programme of study offered and imparted by it in India is in conformity with the standards laid down by the statutory authority and is of quality comparable, as to the curriculum [and] methods of imparting education, to those offered by it to students enrolled in its main campus in the country in which such institution is established or incorporated".

That the conditions and quality of education of the 'mother' institution can be replicated in new campuses is a very doubtful proposition. Yet their presence itself, however controlled, will have serious cultural and academic implications.

The idea of transplanting the curriculum and pedagogy of foreign institutions, as envisioned in the bill, attributes universal character and purpose to education.

But even when fundamental principles of education are commonly shared, the fact remains that the development of education is integrally interlinked with the demands of specific societies and it plays a crucial role in development and nation-building. More importantly, education is a defining factor in moulding the identity of a nation.

No country could, therefore, entrust the responsibility of educating its citizens, even a part of it, to external agencies that have no stake in the nation except their own self-interest.

That foreign educational providers would be required to employ the same curriculum and pedagogy as at home, is claimed as a positive factor. In fact, that is the most undesirable part of the scheme, as the cultural assumptions of curriculum and pedagogy would vastly differ from one nation to the other.

The borrowed contents and practice of education may not lead to 'cultural invasion', as feared by some critics and dismissed by its defenders. But they would certainly be affected by cultural incompatibility, which in turn would defeat the creative and innovative possibilities inherent in education. Education is an organic process that cannot be borrowed or superimposed on a society. The main weakness of the new scheme is its externality, which is suggested even by the name - educational provider.

This is not to suggest that Indian academia need no exposure to the global community or relationship with institutions abroad. There is a case for greater professional exposure and institutional collaboration.

Before the bill is passed, the different possibilities for achieving its goals deserve to be openly and publicly debated.

Among the many ways in which linkages can be established with the international academic community, two deserve attention: first, as provided in the bill, is to permit foreign universities to start campuses and, secondly, to establish collaborative arrangements with specialised institutions for exchange of teachers and students.

The first is an easier option and is in consonance with the overall policy. Even if it is successfully implemented, it would only create a few more islands of excellence. It would also deplete the already weak academic resources of existing institutions in India.

An alternative paradigm is currently being pursued by the state of Kerala and has been successfully implemented during the last five years.

It is based on the principle of sharing knowledge generated by scholars all over the world. In pursuance of this, a large number of outstanding scholars, including Nobel Laureates, have been brought to the state for interaction with teachers and research scholars.

Combined with collaborative arrangements with reputed universities and a substantial increase in the allocation of funds to universities, higher education in the state is poised for a leap forward. The emphasis is on long-term growth from within by invigorating the academic resources of the state.

In this respect the manner in which American and European universities have organised their Indian studies programmes is worth emulating. They did not persuade Indian universities to organise their mini-campuses, however competent and well-known they are in Indian studies. Instead they invited scholars from India to work in these centres in order to help organise their academic programmes.

Some of the centres have become well-regarded institutions of research in Indian studies. So much so that the government of India has found it necessary to institute endowments to them for the study of Indian civilization!

The present proposal to permit foreign educational providers to function in India would do considerable harm to the independent development of Indian education. Instead of contributing to the building of a national identity, it is likely to create a social stratum, intellectually far removed from the concerns of the nation.

The immediate response to the bill generally would have been to scrap it, but for the provision to regulate the operation of foreign educational providers. In the circumstances, the best solution would be to refashion the bill with provisions for preventing the operation of foreign educational providers and introducing sufficient space for promoting independent interaction and collaboration with global academia.

* KN Panikkar is Chairman of the Kerala Council for Historical Research and Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council. He is currently the General President of the Indian History Congress. He can be reached at