Grassroots protests erupt against ‘first’ foreign campus
The protest was not only against the university. It was also an opportunity to rail against a series of higher education bills pending in India’s parliament, including the Foreign Universities Bill that would allow in foreign branch campuses.
More than 2,000 people took part in the Bhopal protests, with hundreds of students mobilised from colleges and institutes in the city during the first two weeks of February.
The size and vehemence of the local campaign against the ‘marketisation’ of higher education serves as a warning to foreign education providers of what could greet them on the ground should they push ahead with establishing campuses on Indian soil, protestors said.
One or the organisers, the All India Forum for the Right To Education (AIFRTE), said it would stage demonstrations throughout the country against trade-oriented reforms in education.
“It will be a long battle, we should not lose patience,” AIFRTE leader Anil Sadgopal told cheering supporters. “We have been consistently fighting against the foreign university bill.”
Sadgopal added that the protests were about much broader issues than one institution. “This [university] is a forerunner of the Foreign Universities Bill,” he said.
White-bearded Sadgopal looks much younger than his 72 years and is no minor rabble-rouser. He is a noted educationist who studied at the California Institute of Technology and a former professor and dean of education at the University of Delhi, India’s most prestigious public university. He has also served on a number of government-appointed committees.
Now representing AIFRTE, Sadgopal believes foreign education providers should not be allowed to “exploit” the country. Other left-leaning groups – the All India Revolutionary Students Organisation, the Revolutionary Youth Federation of India and Shiksha Adhikar Manch (Students Rights Movement) – were co-organisers of the Bhopal protests.
Leeds Metropolitan University at Bhopal is a joint venture between Leeds Metropolitan (not to be confused with the more prestigious Leeds University) and India’s non-profit Jagran Social Welfare Society.
The normally soft-spoken Sadgopal argued that it “is an illegal university, as it is not authorised to award degrees under the UGC [University Grants Commission] Act. Neither the central government nor the state government has taken any action against this blatant violation of the law,” Sadgopal told University World News.
He said the university’s courses were not even recognised by the All India Council for Technical Education, which oversees technical and vocational degrees. Without relevant laws being passed in parliament, and UGC approval, the university could not grant degrees, Sadgopal maintained. Its first students are due to graduate in May.
The director of Leeds Metropolitan University Bhopal, Abhishek Mohan Gupta, an alumnus of Leeds Metropolitan, said the university was providing foreign degrees to students in India.
“Our application for recognition for the university is under process with the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Even our institute does not figure in the list of de-recognised institutes of AICTE,” Gupta told University World News.
“The students from Bhopal have an opportunity to study one full semester at Leeds Met, UK, along with other international students. This semester would be helpful in enhancing their career prospects by providing them international exposure,” Gupta said.
The 180 students at the Bhopal campus are mostly from wealthy Indian families able to pay the approximately US$29,000 for a ‘British quality’ degree. A number of students are from Nepal, Bangladesh and Dubai.
The university, which offers both undergraduate and graduate courses, claims students can save 70% of the cost of studying the same degree at its UK campus.
A student at the university, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “This campus has made a foreign degree possible for me at an affordable cost. I am shocked to hear that the degree has not been recognised in India.
“They have promised placement at the end of the course. We have to see whether they keep their promise or not.”
The university has said it will be providing the same courses as on its home campus in Leeds. However, the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency said last November that it had ‘limited confidence’ in Leeds Metropolitan University’s quality assurance procedures for students studying outside Leeds and ordered it to ensure “full and effective oversight of all its collaborative programmes”.
Laxmikant Sharma, higher education minister for the state of Madhya Pradesh, where the university is situated, told University World News: “I don't know much about this university. I think it's better to have our children study in campuses of foreign universities in India, instead of going to foreign universities.”
But he said he was willing to investigate how the university was set up.
Officials claim that the foreign university was built in Bhopal despite the absence of a national law on overseas branch campuses because of a loophole in the law that allowed an existing Jagran-backed institution to change its name to Leeds Metropolitan University. The purpose-built campus includes a swimming pool, fitness centre and basketball courts.
Sadgopal insists it is an illegal institution and that the government “could if it wanted, turn off the electricity supply, close down its roads and seize the lands”.
Although the university was reportedly built on land already belonging to Jagran, Sadgopal told supporters that the government was in cahoots with foreign universities. “Otherwise they [foreign universities] would not be able to acquire even an inch of land here.”
The protesters said they would scale up the demonstrations and conduct a national campaign against the higher education bills coming before parliament, including a bill to allow foreign higher education providers.
Parliamentary scrutiny of the bills could begin as early as the budget session of parliament that begins on 14 March.
Vivek Kumar, national president of the All India Revolutionary Students Organisation, claimed the bill would “open the floodgates” for foreign trade in higher education.
The protesting organisations also submitted a petition addressed to Indian President Pratibha Patil and the Madhya Pradesh governor, Ramnaresh Yadav, on 16 February calling for bills that would lead to the “commercialisation of education” to be scrapped.
They also called for a plan to improve India’s more than 500 universities and 25,000 colleges, instead of inviting in a handful of foreign universities, and to “provide adequate funds for establishing an education system that is democratic, egalitarian, secular, scientific, humane and free of gender-based discrimination”.
Deepak Bundele, state convenor of the Revolutionary Youth Federation of India and coordinator of the Save Higher Education-Save India Campaign, said one of the pending bills to set up an accreditation authority “has the declared objective of maintenance of quality”. Yet its main purpose was not academic; it functioned as an aid to students to decide where they should 'invest' to get the best 'returns' from the system, he said.
“In an educational environment as historically, regionally and socially diverse and unequal as contemporary India, it would seriously compromise those courses and institutions that would in fact merit the most support,” Bundele said.
A number of universities from the UK and US have been positioning themselves for collaborations and setting up branch campuses in anticipation of the Foreign Universities Bill clearing parliament.
However, the Bhopal protests are an indication that establishing themselves in India may not be plain sailing even if they can clear the substantial regulatory hurdles.