New minister puts internationalising HE on agenda

Internationalising India’s higher education is high on the agenda for India’s new Minister for Human Resource Development or HRD, Prakash Javadekar.

Javadekar, who took charge of the ministry following a cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month, is tasked with implementing the new National Policy on Education or NPE-2016, the country’s roadmap for education which also envisages the setting up of foreign universities in India as well as collaboration between Indian universities and the world’s best.

According to the draft of NPE-2016, posted on the ministry website for public consultation until 16 August, “selected foreign universities, from the top 200 in the world, will be encouraged to establish their presence in India through collaboration with Indian universities”.

The draft says the aim is to “increase acceptability of Indian students abroad and to attract international students”. Towards this end, higher education institutions are to “work towards internationalisation of curricula, aligned with international levels”.

“Internationalisation will be included as one of the components for allocating additional financial resources to government-funded higher education institutions,” says the draft policy formulated under Smriti Irani, Javadekar’s controversial predecessor as HRD minister.

The forward-looking policy appears bold, coming from a nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP government that harps on about the country’s ancient, and sometimes mythical, academic excellence.

However, with increasing numbers of Indian students – estimated at about 300,000 per annum currently – heading abroad for higher education and spending an estimated INR600 billion (US$9 billion) in foreign exchange annually, the government clearly hopes to stop that flow and perhaps reverse it by making India’s institutions attractive to foreign students.

Foreign universities bill

Foreign university campuses were to have been invited into India to set up branch campuses under a draft bill tabled in 2013 by a previous Congress-led coalition government, but with widespread opposition, including from the BJP, it failed to make its way through parliament within the required timetable, and the bill expired in 2015.

The university sector is still divided on the issue. However, 10 Indian states have said they support the idea in submissions to the ministry on the new policy.

Haryana, a BJP-ruled state bordering on Delhi, said earlier this year: “Accredited foreign universities should be allowed to set up their universities in India under vigorous guidelines.”

The state of Punjab also favoured “allowing renowned foreign institutions to open their off-shore campuses, with some riders”.

On 26 July, Javadekar held closed-door consultations with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organisation – the BJP’s grassroots affiliate – and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP, which is the student-wing of the BJP, and other affiliated organisations.

Some concerns were expressed when the internationalisation plan was brought up, according to attendees.

“We made it known that the idea of openly inviting foreign universities to invest in India was not readily acceptable, although collaborations that improve prospects for our students may be considered on merit,” Aniruddha Deshpande, spokesperson for the ABVP, told University World News. “The minister has promised to look into our suggestions while finalising the NPE.”

Policy experts’ concerns

Some education policy experts without political affiliation, expressed concern at the interest in foreign collaborations and investments in the sector.

Rajiv Lochan, member of the State Higher Education Council, Punjab, and director of the internal quality assurance cell of Panjab University, Chandigarh, said: “A society that hands over the task of disseminating existing knowledge and creating new knowledge can only be called a suicidal society.”

He said: “Inviting international universities to set up shop in India with the hope that this will help improve the competitiveness of Indian education is based on the simplistic belief that people will be willing to pay the high costs for education that these international institutions will demand.”

Pointing to the hundreds of engineering and management colleges that have mushroomed in India and boasting foreign collaboration, he said: “Once it was discovered that their alumni could not find high-paying jobs, students moved away and switched back to the far more affordable traditional universities and colleges.”

Indian institutions, even when government funded, had to be allowed to attract investment capital within India as for-profit institutions. “Today, the Indian rich find more value in donating their surplus wealth to Western universities than to Indian universities which are completely fettered by ossified regulations and corrupt functioning of regulatory bodies,” Lochan said.