New policy highlights university autonomy, internationalisation

The Indian government approved a National Education Policy or NEP 2020 on 29 July, making way for large-scale transformational reforms including restructuring the higher education system into three categories of degree-awarding institutions, greater institutional autonomy, a new National Research Foundation and renewed commitment to allow foreign universities into India as part of an internationalisation drive.

The latter will require amendment to current legislation which does not permit foreign institutions but indicates an easing of the rules and a change of heart by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP government, which in the past opposed setting up foreign branch campuses.

Previous attempts to change the law had to be abandoned. Experts point to a large BJP majority in parliament as a hopeful sign for a new attempt.

NEP 2020, a blueprint for the development of education over the next 10 years, proposes a departure from the current top-down system to allow considerable autonomy to institutions.

Currently India has eight types of universities, mainly based on how they are funded, including whether they are centrally funded, funded by a state or privately, as well as some 40,000 colleges without degree-awarding ability, and dependent on being affiliated with degree-awarding institutions.

“The eight categories would be subsumed into three – research universities with some teaching, like the Indian Institute of Science,” said Chetan Singai, who was a full-time member of the NEP drafting committee, referring to Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, one of India’s top ranked institutions.

“Then the second would be teaching universities with some research – that’s the typical public state university. The third would be degree awarding autonomous colleges,” he told University World News.

Singai described this as a move away from an “ownership-centric system where the state university is owned by the state, because they are the ones funding [it]. The central university is owned by the central government. Now that has to change to a function-based system of research, teaching and service.”

Graded autonomy

Under graded autonomy, academic, administrative and financial autonomy will be given to colleges on the basis of their accreditation status under the three categories, with top research universities having the highest levels of autonomy.

“It’s a conceptual shift to reduce complexity of the system, as well as to ensure there is dedicated planning and funding for institutions who say they want to be research universities,” said Singai, who is now deputy director of the Ramaiah Public Policy Centre, a think tank in Bengaluru (Bangalore).

“All the three institution types will have their own sets of governance mechanisms. Right now, we have one governance mechanism for eight types of institutions. Which is problematic – you can’t see everybody with the same lens.”

A National Research Foundation or NRF will be set up as a top body for promoting a strong research culture and building research capacity across higher education.

The NRF will identify research-focused universities and help to develop their state-of-the-art research facilities to enable researchers to undertake highly advanced, innovative and pioneering research, according to the NEP 2020 document.

Universities and colleges restructured in the other two categories will focus more on teaching and granting degrees, with the affiliation of colleges to degree-granting universities phased out in 15 years and a stage-by-stage mechanism established for granting graded autonomy.

The restructuring takes its cue from several countries in South East Asia, notably Vietnam, which restructured in the past decade to allow top institutions more autonomy, according to officials.

Rather than the overarching University Grants Commission, the current regulatory body which will be scrapped under the NEP 2020 proposals, boards of governors would supervise the day-to-day operations of individual universities.

The Delhi University Teachers’ Association has slammed the move to hand over higher education institutions to boards of governors, which the association said would enjoy all powers so far vested in the governing authorities of colleges and universities as well as the University Grants Commission and other regulating bodies.

Foreign universities

Increased autonomy for institutions will also change the landscape for partnerships and exchanges with foreign institutions, giving institutions more say in setting up partnerships and collaborations with overseas institutions. This is intended to boost internationalisation, experts said.

Stand-alone foreign branch campuses are also back on the agenda as part of a new government commitment in the NEP blueprint to allow foreign universities ranked within the top 100 of world university rankings to set up campuses in India.

The United States welcomed the new policy. It is “welcome news that foreign universities may establish campuses in India and that Indian universities may do the same overseas. We look forward to opportunities for American and Indian universities to partner and collaborate on research to advance our understanding of the world,” the US State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs said in a tweet.

It will still require new laws, however, which has been a sticking point in the past. “The foreign universities bill has to be amended in line with the national education policy 2020, and that is not so easy to get through Parliament,” Singai acknowledged, adding: “Debates, discussions are already happening in the country, partly some are ideologically positioned in terms of allowing foreign universities to come in.”

Pankaj Kumar Garg, convener of the Indian National Teachers Congress and an associate professor at Rajdhani College affiliated with Delhi University, said the government must work to improve Indian universities’ rankings instead of allowing foreign universities to operate in India.

“Allowing foreign universities is like permitting foreign direct investment in the education sector,” he said.

University teachers in India fear foreign campuses would ‘poach’ staff by offering better salaries and lead to shortages in the public university sector.

According to an official of the Higher Education Department in the Education Ministry – as the Human resources Development Ministry was renamed on 29 July – “allowing top-rated foreign universities to set up campuses in India is expected to raise the standards of their Indian counterparts and encourage India’s talented students to stay in the country.”

An estimated 750,000 Indian students spend billions of dollars every year in studies abroad. With better opportunities in India and if top global universities set up campuses there, then a large number of these students are expected to stay in India and money that currently benefits foreign universities would go to Indian universities, officials said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which shut many universities abroad, led to the return of many students to India, while large numbers of students continue to be stranded abroad often without economic means as part-time jobs have dried up. The Indian government has organised repatriation flights but the pandemic has accelerated the need for alternatives in India, officials said.

“The policy talks of internationalisation at home,” said Singai. While the NEP is a blueprint for the next decade: “For internationalisation they want to have less than a decade timeline,” driven by the pandemic situation. “Because for another year or two this is the kind of anxiety that they [government] have,” he said, referring to the need to provide quality extra places in India.

Institution-driven internationalisation

More realistically, the government “would like to amend the law but for the immediate year or two it will be more institution-centric,” Singai said.

Foreign universities will be given special dispensation on regulatory, governance and curriculum content issues, on par with other autonomous institutions under the plans for increased autonomy for institutions.

Currently just a few institutions are involved in exchanges and foreign partnerships. “But going forward it will be many institutions,” Singai said.

Without new laws universities’ foreign partnerships “would continue in the way they are doing now but one difference we will see is the regulatory hurdles reduced, which has been a barrier, so the autonomy of an institution means that they really have [student or faculty] exchange-making capacity.”

Foreign universities operating on a joint-venture or partnership model with an Indian institution – such as Australia’s Monash University centre on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai, which issues joint degrees with IIT-B – would become easier under the new NEP framework.

“The foreign universities Act or Bill is supposed to be government to government or nation to nation. The NEP strongly recommends autonomy for institutions that are performing well, and they would have flexibility to engage in a global orientation,” Singai said, adding that this would “make a difference in terms of internationalisation”.

Increased autonomy will also allow for more flexibility in the implementation of quotas for the disadvantaged, which has been a point of contention for foreign universities.

“We have a certain percentage of reservation or affirmative action fixed by the constitution, especially for the socially disadvantaged population. For private universities they [government] are saying you would have a choice – you can either go with socially disadvantaged or economically disadvantaged, a certain percentage that you would find appropriate but also ensuring the fact that you don’t miss out on a deserving candidate.”

While foreign institutions would not be able to bypass constitutionally mandated quotas, officials said the Education Ministry could allow in branch campuses on the understanding that there will be scholarships for the socially disadvantaged at the individual level rather than requiring systemic quotas to be set aside.

University access

The government places strong emphasis on university access and flexibility so that students can transfer more easily between institutions, reducing dropout rates.

NEP 2020, which replaced the 34-year old National Policy on Education 1986, also aims to increase the Gross Enrolment Ratio or GER in higher education including vocational education from 26.3% as of 2018 to 50% by 2035. Some 35 million new seats will be added to higher education institutions. Open and distance learning will be expanded to play a significant role in increasing GER.

Secretary for Higher Education Amit Khare said in a statement: “The government aims to increase public investment in the education sector from the current 4.3% to reach 6% of Gross Domestic Product at the earliest.”

An Academic Bank of Credit is to be established for digitally storing academic credits earned from different institutions so that these can be transferred and counted towards a final degree.

Najma Akhtar, vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia or JMI in New Delhi, said NEP 2020 would create new possibilities for students and allow them to pursue studies “with greater resilience” according to their interests and needs. “Students can take admission and leave and re-enter as per their convenience and career options,” she explained.

Under the NEP 2020 plan, undergraduate education can be three or four years with multiple exit options with appropriate certification. For example, a certificate after one year, an advanced diploma after two years, bachelor degree after three, and bachelor with research after four years.

Academics have largely welcomed NEP although some remain sceptical about how effectively it can be implemented. The real challenge, they said, is to get the NEP 2020 translated into action on the ground. Some said NEP 2020 is progressive and a game changer.

Former Delhi University Vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh, an official assessor of the NEP document when it was being prepared, said in a statement: “The NEP affords the best opportunity to higher education institutions to formulate curricula around the challenges of society. The NEP proposes to set up a Higher Education Commission of India as a single overarching umbrella body for entire higher education, excluding medical and legal education.”

“Public and private higher education institutions will be governed by the same set of norms for regulation, accreditation and academic standards. This would help to re-establish the autonomy of universities,” he added.

Jamia Millia Islamia’s Akhtar welcomed a single regulator: “It would streamline educational planning, administration and management,” she said.

However, some academics have raised concerns that the proposed Higher Education Commission of India or HECI would have multiple departments to fulfil various roles – a National Higher Education Regulatory Council for regulation, General Education Council for standard setting, Higher Education Grants Council for funding and National Accreditation Council for accreditation. This would be cumbersome and could impede smooth functions.