US universities court India for future growth

NEW DELHI — In the last few years India has played host to delegations of top officials from Columbia, Cornell, Duke and Stanford universities, among others, who came courting to explore the lucrative market here for higher education where demand far outstrips supply.

"Traveling Salesmen," is what India's main Communist party sniffily likens those delegations to. "We don't want them here," Nilotpal Basu, of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said last year, before the party withdrew its support for India's ruling federal coalition.

Allowing foreign players into India's higher education system would only exacerbate inequalities, left-leaning parties believe. And as long as the communists were supporting the government, observers thought, a bill framing rules to allow foreign universities in would never be introduced in Parliament.

But it isn't just the communists who are against allowing foreign higher education institutions into India.

There is a deep and growing divide even within the leading party of the federal coalition and the academic community. It is no wonder then that the bill on this issue, originally scheduled to be introduced in Parliament in early 2007, hasn't seen the light of day despite the communists' withdrawal from the coalition last July.

“There was no consensus on the bill," one government official told a local daily last month. "It is on the backburner.”

No one disputes the fact that the country's higher education system needs help. Only 11 percent of India's 90 million college-aged citizens go to college, despite the government subsidizing higher education to make it accessible to everyone.

Students are being squeezed out because the public system is so small, and India has few good, government-approved private institutions.

The communists and many others believe it is still the government's responsibility to increase the supply of subsidized higher education. More foreign higher education institutions will only help the few, Basu said: "It's a very minuscule portion of society and students who will really benefit, because fees will be so high that only they can get access to these foreign universities who come here."

But the access argument is a faulty one, said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, an independent think tank. He said that almost 160,000 Indian students go abroad every year to study, depriving the country of $4 billion annually. "The de facto reality is that students who can afford to go abroad are seceding from the system anyway," Mehta said.

Then there are some academics who say that only top foreign universities should be allowed in. And "even they should be regulated," said P.M. Bhargava, an eminent biologist and educational advisor. Besides, foreign universities, if allowed in, can't take any profits made here to their home campuses, Bhargava and some other academics believe.

That is unrealistic, other academics say. "Even for top institutions, part of the lure for foreign collaboration [or branch campuses] is to make money," Philip G. Altbach, an international education expert at Boston College, said in an interview last year.

Also, according to Mehta, foreign investment generates jobs locally, "even if the foreign entity takes money out of India."

P.V. Indiresan, an engineering education expert, agrees. "I don't mind if they take $1 million out of the country," he said.

Those arguments are precisely the sorts that raise the hackles of the left, as well as of those who believe education isn't a commodity. "Even in their own country, the not-for-profit universities reinvest any excess income they make back into the parent institution," said R. Natarajan, an engineering education consultant.

With national elections scheduled for April or May — and judging from the political hot potato the issue has become —  outsiders may have to wait awhile (some say a long, long while) before any foreign universities are allowed to set up campuses in India.

Read more GlobalPost dispatches about education in India:

Why Indians give to US universities

Parents challenge “citizenship” course

Fewer Indian students look to US universities