‘Long association’ leads to India’s first foreign campus

Australia’s Melbourne-based Deakin University will become the first foreign university to open a branch campus in India, according to an announcement made last week during a visit to India by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and a high-powered trade delegation, including three Australian vice-chancellors.

Deakin is expected to invest AU$4 million (US$2.7 million) in the India venture.

Speaking at the event in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on 8 March, Albanese hailed the development as an important milestone in Australia’s expanding educational cooperation with India. “It paves the way for commercial opportunities for Australian education providers to offer innovative and more accessible education to Indian students,” he said.

Albanese said the campus agreement followed the recent finalising of the Australia-India Education Qualifications Recognition Mechanism, whereby university qualifications from Australia will be recognised in India and vice-versa.

The new campus will be located in Ahmedabad’s GIFT (Gujarat International Finance Tech) City, a new high-tech city coming up on 886 acres of a former buffalo-grazing marshland on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. This pet project of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his home state is designed to ultimately challenge the regional high-tech business hubs of Singapore and Dubai.

Injeti Srinivas, chairperson of the International Financial Services Centres Authority (IFSCA), which grants approval for foreign campuses in GIFT City, said in a media statement that opening up foreign universities would not only cut costs for Indian students to get a world-class degree with greater international employment opportunities, but will also “lead to greater internationalisation of GIFT City by attracting students from all over the world”.

India’s approval for setting up the off-shore campus has been hailed as a “big win” for Deakin University, rewarding 30-plus years of networking and negotiating. But amid the diplomacy and high-level endorsements, there has been much scrutiny, of the deal and the conditions under which Deakin will operate, by other countries and universities hoping to set up in India.

According to Ravneet Pawha, Deakin’s vice-president (global alliances) and CEO (South Asia), the international branch campus will be established in the special economic zone in GIFT City and will be spread across 25,000 square feet.

“GIFT City has about 200 organisations already operating and we hope our degree offerings here will help these companies to get trained graduates,” Pawha told Australia’s ABC Radio at the weekend.

Deakin’s India venture

Iain Martin, vice-chancellor of Deakin University in Australia, told University World News that classes at the Deakin International Branch Campus (IBC), as it will be called, are scheduled to commence in July 2024 or earlier. The new academic year begins in India in July.

“The campus will be opened as early as possible and no later than mid-2024, coinciding with Deakin’s 50th anniversary and the 30th year [of ties with] India,” he said.

Deakin will start recruiting faculty from mid-2023 onwards. Martin said around 80% of the faculty will be hired from India with the remaining faculty members coming from Australia.

However, the Deakin model “emphasises frequent cross-learning opportunities”, where Indian faculty will visit Australia once every 12-18 months, and Australian colleagues will learn from the Indian context at GIFT City, according to Martin.

Martin said it was important to note that this is not a small cohort of Indian staff, adding that Indian teaching faculty at Deakin’s GIFT City campus will be required to complete a graduate certificate in higher education teaching and learning methods within the first three years of their employment.

The branch campus will operate initially from leased premises with a first intake of about 50 students.

It is not clear right now if India’s strict caste quotas will apply to Deakin’s India campus, as the university’s officials refused to comment on that aspect – a sensitive issue in India. Local universities are concerned that foreign universities will be able to evade strict quotas that they adhere to.

The university’s officials chose not to comment when asked if they would repatriate profits back to Australia. However, in statements to other Indian media, Martin said: “Hopefully, there’ll be a modest return so that we can continue to invest, but it’s not a money-making endeavour,” adding that “overseas operations … require a lot of investment – not just money but time, passion, effort”.

Tuition fee levels have not yet been announced. Pawha said Deakin would fix the fee level such that it will “not be just an elite institution for the very rich”. It is anticipated to be half of what Deakin charges on its Australian campuses, Pawha said.

Pawha also pointed to the Deakin India Research Initiative, a pioneering programme based in India that fosters collaboration between India and Australia by providing grants and scholarships to facilitate innovative, industry-led research and enable PhD students to continue their research while working.

Postgraduate programmes

The new campus will offer postgraduate programmes, with the first two masters degrees in cybersecurity and business analytics.

“Both courses are two years in duration, with the first year’s study made up of eight core units,” Martin told Indian media. “In the second year, students will focus on taking up a cadetship, working directly with industry partners on agreed projects,” he added.

Martin said the 200 companies presently operating at GIFT City would need people with cybersecurity and business analytics skills. “Deakin will support GIFT City’s aspiration to deliver a supply of job-ready graduates to its target business segments.”

In a press statement on 3 March announcing the granting of permission to Deakin to set up the branch campus, India’s Finance and Corporate Affairs Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the postgraduate degrees offered shall be “identical or similar” to those offered in the home jurisdiction. She added that they will also promote “deep collaboration between academia and industry, resulting in financial innovations”.

Martin told The Hindu newspaper that the entry criteria for these postgraduate programmes will be the same as that for campuses in Australia, “which are a good undergraduate degree, work experience and English language assessment”.

“Programmes will be delivered in the same timeline and same trimester structure [February, July and October intake]. This means that a student here who would like to do a trimester of study in Australia could move seamlessly between our campus in Gujarat and one of our five campuses in Australia. But we will also give an Indian flavour through our Indian partners and case studies.”

Other universities to follow

The vice-chancellors of Wollongong and Melbourne universities were part of Albanese’s trade entourage. The two universities are also expected to open branch campuses in GIFT City in the near future, with Wollongong already signing a ‘Letter of Intent’ to set up.

But so far only Deakin had completed the process for approval with IFSCA in time for the Albanese visit.

IFSCA Director of Development Dipesh Shah said Deakin applied on 28 February and “received in-principle approval” on 2 March, describing this as a record time for approval with less than 72 hours’ “turnaround time” – a statement intended to dispel notions of approvals being bogged down in India’s infamous bureaucracy.

Foreign university applications are being considered by an expert committee of academics set up by IFSCA. The committee met with Deakin’s vice-chancellor on 17 February, in advance of the Albanese visit.

Australia’s Education Minister Jason Clare has said that Wollongong’s campus in GIFT City is expected to be operational by the end of this year, offering finance and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses.

Responding to a question on Australia’s plan for opening campuses in India beyond GIFT City, Clare said three or four Australian universities might open a joint campus. “Some universities are also thinking about collaborating with an existing university or institute instead of [setting up] a standalone campus in India,” he said on 3 March during a visit to India accompanied by 11 Australian vice-chancellors.

In Ahmedabad, Albanese said the University of Melbourne planned to expand educational collaboration with India by launching a dual degree with three Indian universities – later named as the University of Madras in Chennai, Savitribai Phule Pune University in Maharashtra state and Gandhi Institute of Technology and Management in Hyderabad.

Indian students will spend two years in India followed by two years in Melbourne, and will be awarded BSc degrees from the University of Melbourne.

Consolidating ties with India

Deakin’s Pawha said that since 1994 Deakin has had a good relationship with India.

“We now have 10 partnerships in education and research. We have joint programmes here. We work with industry, government and academia and we had a lot of Australian students coming and spending time in India on mobility programmes,” Pawha said.

Deakin’s research partners in India include some of India’s top universities such as the Indian Institutes of Technology in Madras and Hyderabad, and private Manipal University and Amity University.

Pawha told ABC News that as an emerging superpower and with Deakin University’s long association with the country, as soon as India announced the opening up of the university sector to foreign universities, “we started discussions [about setting up a campus in India]”.

The lynchpin of these higher education collaborations is the Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA), which came into force on 29 December last year. Under this agreement, over the next 20 years, Australia expects to provide a growing India with agriculture products, critical minerals, education and skills training.

“The ECTA really defined where the relationship between Australia and India is going to go [and] education institutions are a major part of the building relationship,” argued Pawha. “The qualification recognition agreement is a very strong move to ensure the education sector could look forward to strong relationships with India.”

In his speech in Ahmedabad, Albanese also announced a new scholarship scheme named ‘Maitri’ which will give Indian students an opportunity to study in Australia for up to four years.

He also noted that Australia’s New Colombo Plan student mobility scheme with Asia has awarded 29 scholarships and more than 7,000 mobility grants for Australian undergraduates to study in India. This includes five scholarships and 110 mobility grants in the 2023 intake.

“Recently announced partnerships between Australia and India will help us to offer more Indian students the life-changing opportunity of an Australian university education,” Universities Australia Acting Chief Executive Peter Chesworth told University World News.

“More Indian students are studying in Australia now than before the pandemic and we look forward to welcoming more to our universities, in addition to those who choose to study at Australian campuses in India,” he added.

According to Universities Australia, since 2005 more than 1.5 million Indians have obtained Australian university degrees. Right now, some 130,000 Indians are studying at Australian universities and Universities Australia sees this as a “golden era” for Australia-India education cooperation.