Proposed vision for HE revives foreign universities bill

An eminent group of experts commissioned by government to draft a five-year vision for higher education has revived the old idea to allow top foreign universities to set up branch campuses in India, to upgrade higher education in the country.

The higher education department of the Ministry of Human Resource Development has finalised its five-year plan titled the Education Quality Upgradation and Inclusion Programme or EQUIP.

The EQUIP report released on 28 June says the Foreign Education Providers Bill will be looked at again “with an open mind”.

The proposal, which has the potential to transform the education landscape in India, would allow select foreign universities that figure among the world’s top 200 – from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and other countries with quality education systems – to establish and operate branch campuses in India.

Several attempts by previous governments, including the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress party, to push the 2013 Foreign Education Providers Bill through parliament failed to bear fruit.

However, experts note that during recent elections the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP secured a big majority in parliament, and in 16 state assemblies – solely or as part of a coalition – compared to ruling just seven states after the 2014 elections.

Some major foreign institutions such as the University of Chicago, Harvard Business School and Virginia Tech from America and Deakin University from Australia have been allowed to open research centres that do not teach undergraduates or graduates. There is no legislative framework in place to allow foreign institutions to teach in India.

At the same time, prestigious Indian higher education institutions – public and private – that meet specified eligibility criteria, will be encouraged to set up overseas branch campuses in select countries.

The ministry will come up with ‘enabling provisions’ to permit top-ranked Indian institutions participating in the ‘Study in India’ initiative to set up branches abroad.

The Study in India programme launched last year has identified the best 100 institutions in the country that have come forward and offered more than 20,000 seats for international students. These institutions are setting up world-class facilities for international students.

Proposals welcomed

The proposals have been largely hailed by academics.

Jaivardhan Singh, who graduated from Columbia University's school of international and public affairs, said: “Allowing top foreign players into the higher education system could make things better for the country. I think tight controls in the education sector in India must go, as they have so far prevented meaningful associations with world-class institutions.

“The internationalisation of education will be incomplete if top foreign higher education institutions are not allowed to set up campuses in India and vice versa,” Singh added. Internationalisation is a key aim proposed by EQUIP.

Indian students are increasingly travelling abroad to study. But India has been unable to attract large numbers of international students, an issue that EQUIP says needs to be tackled.

The EQUIP plan

The five-year EQUIP plan, to be implemented between 2019 and 2024, was prepared in accordance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s direction for a vision for each ministry.

The report was crafted by 10 committees led by experts from various areas, such as Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer of NITI Aayog, a government policy think-tank, and academics, administrators and some corporate chiefs.

The objectives of the programme include promoting excellence, more funds for higher education, and improved employability and entrepreneurship, among other things.

The plan notably aims to double the gross enrolment ratio or GER in higher education, improve teaching and learning processes, resolve geographically skewed access to higher education institutions and achieve globally acceptable quality standards across the country.

The report proposes additional funding for 100 universities in states with a low GER. It emphasises building capacity in existing universities and colleges rather than creating new institutions. The aim is to increase overall GER to 40% by 2024 from around 26% in 2018.

The document notes: “The more worrying aspect is that public investment in higher education has declined as a percentage of gross domestic product from 1.14% in 2006-07 to 0.71% in 2016-17.”

Other objectives of EQUIP are to position at least 20 Indian institutions among the global best, promoting the research and innovation ecosystem, use of education technology, governance reforms and a ‘quantum increase’ in investments.

Former vice-chancellor of Bhoj Open University, Tariq Zafar, said: “Indian higher education institutions are making their mark among the global best universities. Already nine Indian institutions figure in the global best 500 universities, according to the QS World University Rankings 2020.”

He believes that “at least 50 Indian institutions can reach the global best ranking within a short period if the appropriate support structure is created for promoting research and building global-class infrastructure as envisaged in the EQUIP report”.

More funding is key

Many academics and students said financing of higher education should be a big priority for the government.

Abhishek Mishra, a graduate of Florida State University in the US, said: “The EQUIP report says the regular budget allocation would need to be expanded at a much faster rate. Higher education institutions would need to be financially more robust by increasing their internal resources and revenues. Therefore the higher education vision plan is headed in the right direction.”

The EQUIP report – which proposes a significant increase in investment in higher education, including a one-time catch-up grant to every institution over the next five years – will now go to cabinet for approval.