Will India open up to foreign universities?

Photo caption: An Indian youth practices his football skills at the Allahabad University campus in Allahabad on June 10. Indian parliament is now considering a bill that would open up the country to foreign universities. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — Parliament is considering an education bill that would allow foreign universities to legally set up shop in India. But, ironically, many say requirements included in the bill may actually deter institutions from doing so.

Among the bill's potentially onerous stipulations is that a foreign institution must have been accredited in its home country for at least 20 years. The institution must also set up a bank account in India with a minimum of about $11 million, and universities are forbidden from funneling surplus revenue back home. The Indian government maintains final say over which foreign universities get to operate in India.

Other facets of the bill appear less troublesome. The bill does not require that foreign universities abide by India's elaborate system of quotas, in which almost 50 percent of students at public universities need to be from various castes or ethnic groups. Nor does it set tuition caps. And, the bill states that the federal government may exempt institutions with solid international standing from all but a few provisions of the bill.

The downside to that freedom, though, is that the government would then become involved in running the institution through an advisory board of academics it nominates.

The future of the bill — which is the product of a very public four-year debate — remains to be seen. In March it won the approval of the prime minister's cabinet, but now it sits with parliament, where a multi-party committee will evaluate the bill and propose changes, if any, to the ministry in charge of higher education. Once that is complete, the revised bill goes to a full parliamentary vote.

India’s higher-education system needs help. That much almost all agree on. No more than 10 percent of India's 90 million college-age citizens go to college. While the most underprivileged members of that age group don't even make it through high school, many students in the country's rising middle class, too, are unable to find places in public higher education institutions because the system is so small. India has very few good government-approved institutions.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, says India must not look at foreign universities as separate and apart from domestic university reform.

"The ideal situation is one in which there is comprehensive regulatory reform of which foreign universities are one aspect," said Mehta. India needs foreign universities to meet student demand, he says, and to ensure that the country can recapture some of the $4 billion that the 200,000 or so Indian students studying abroad spend each year.

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Kipal Sibal, the minister in charge of higher education, had said he hopes the bill will pass before the end of the year.

Even though some foreign institutions currently operate in India illegally, there has been resistance among Indian officials to the idea of allowing them in formally. Even some members of the leading Congress Party are not in favor of the bill, though the party as a whole has aggressively pushed the idea of opening India up to foreign institutions.

Leftist parties have categorically said they don't want foreign universities in India, fearing that they will become enclaves of the rich.

Sibal has rejected calls for tight controls over foreign institutions, and his influence has clearly shaped the bill. In recent years, many of the more controversial restrictions fell to the wayside — including tuition caps, quotas and government involvement in curricular design.

But political compromises are still a possibility if the Congress Party hopes to push the bill through this year, which now seems unlikely.

"Usually the minister does pay heed to recommended changes, because if he doesn't the issues will come up for debate in parliament by the same members anyway," said an official at the ministry in charge of higher education, who wasn't authorized to speak to the media and asked to remain anonymous. "The whole process takes seven to eight months, usually."

If the bill is passed, foreign universities interested in operating in India would still have to wade through a nearly year-long process of red tape. They would also need written endorsements from their embassies or high commissions in India.

Sibal and other officials have expressed concern over the possibility of letting in low-quality institutions, and the bill sets out penalties of up to about $119,000 for institutions that fail to offer the same quality of programs as on their home campuses. Institutions could be fined or forced to forfeit any financial gains made in India.

"A number of foreign educational institutions have been operating in the country, and some of them may be resorting to various malpractices to allure and attract students," Sibal wrote at the end of the draft bill, referring to insitutions already operating in-country illegally.

"Due to lack of policy or regulatory regime, it has been very difficult to make meaningful assessment of the operations of the foreign educational institutions, and absence of such meaningful assessment has given rise to chances of adoption of various unfair practices besides commercialization," he wrote.

How many American institutions actually want to enter India is open to debate. Many college delegations have traveled to India but few have followed up with concrete action.

"There are not a large number of universities that will set up campuses," said Edward Guiliano, president of the New York Institute of Technology, which has been interested in working in India. "I think universities will do joint ventures with Indian universities in the beginning."

Guiliano said institutions were likely to be concerned about the mandatory $11-million investment as well as the costs of building a campus abroad.

He also pointed out the difficulty in accomodating India's disadvantaged students. "In India the question ultimately will be: Will there be a class of students who won't be able to afford elite or foreign universities?" he asked.

Krishna Vedula, special assistant to the provost for international partnerships at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, agreed that collaborative programs are the way to go.

"I'm convinced that collaborative programs at the undergraduate and graduate level between faculty and students that benefit both sides are the best way to expand ties," he said.

Of his institution, Vedula said: "They were just curious about this fascinating country with great economic growth and a culture oriented toward education. ... They have decided it is not worth it."