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  • Foreign universities in India: What can we expect from them? | OPINION
Foreign universities in India: What can we expect from them? | OPINION

Foreign universities in India: What can we expect from them? | OPINION

  • 1st Jun 2023
  • India Today

The UGC is finalising guidelines for foreign universities to open their campuses in India. But why does the government want this, and what can we expect from the foreign varsities?

By Prof Mahesh Panchagnula: The University Grants Commission (UGC) is in the process of finalising the guidelines for top foreign universities to set up India-based campuses. This is in line with the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, which envisions broadening the education base available to Indian students.

While the guidelines are awaited, it is important to understand the problem that this proposal wants to solve, and just as importantly, the set of problems it does not propose solving.

As per the recently released All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE 2021), India has approximately 4.14 crore students studying in various degree programmes, at over 43,000 colleges and over 1,100 universities.

To put this number in context, India is a country with approximately 15.2 crore young citizens in the age group 18 to 23 years.

Now, add to this mix of numbers, the count of students leaving India to study abroad. As per the Ministry of Education data presented in Parliament recently, approximately 7.5 lakh students left the shores of India in 2022 alone to study abroad.

There is a 68 per cent increase in this number as compared to the previous year. Again, to put this number in context, one must note that less than 2 per cent of the total students leave India each year to study abroad. However, the idea of bringing foreign universities to India is not just about reducing this 2 per cent. There is more to the story.

Cost of studying abroad

Most of these students going abroad would be self-financing their education. This is a considerable cost borne by those families. An ASSOCHAM report from 2008 estimated that the cost of students studying abroad is over Rs 50,000 crore. In contrast, the total higher education expenditure by students studying in India is also just about Rs 50,000 crore.

The per capita cost of a student studying abroad is almost 100 times the cost incurred by a student studying in India.

Whether a student goes to a foreign university or a foreign university comes to the student, I don't believe this cost structure would change significantly. Then, why encourage foreign universities to come here?

Reasons for bringing foreign varsities to India

There are two main purposes to bring foreign universities to set up campuses in India. The first purpose, as I see it, is to bring diversity to the Indian education system. A foreign university will bring their perspective to Indian education as well as their quality standards.

UGC, in their draft guidelines, have said that the fees must be "transparent and reasonable", but "the quality of education imparted by it on its Indian campus" has to be "at par with that of the main campus in the country of origin".

This is a tall, but rightful, demand on any foreign institution wanting to explore this option, not to mention the fact that they must be ranked in the top 500 in the world. The universities that will choose to set up a campus in India will help advance the purpose of diversity.

Foreign universities in India will not only improve the options for our students, but also gently nudge the Indian universities and faculty to aspire to perform better - become better teachers, better researchers, etc.

However, for this nudge to work as desired, as S Vaidhyasubramaniam, Vice-Chancellor, SASTRA Deemed University, told The Hindu, "The UGC should ensure equal amount of academic, administrative and financial autonomy to Indian universities as much as foreign universities might be entitled to. Such a level playing field will ensure progressive competition and increase overall quality and excellence in Indian higher education."

The second purpose appears to be directed towards stemming the flow of foreign exchange out of the country. Foreign universities will look to the proposal to set up campuses in India with a view to at least break even with their cost structure.

If the quality expectation is that the education is 'at par' with the main campus, the cost would also have to be at par -- even if it is not so at the beginning, it is bound to become so in due course of time.

The idea of hiring good Indian faculty for the foreign university campuses in India is not a good long-term plan because the cost savings won't last very long. Therefore, I envision that the only conceivable steady state solution is that a small fraction of Indian students would be studying at these foreign campuses while they continue to pay a high fee, compared to a corresponding student in an Indian university, in order to secure a foreign university degree. This would certainly partially stem the outflow of foreign exchange.

A student leaving India does so for a multitude of reasons. As someone who left India to study and as part of a class that largely left India in the 90s, I know the most prominent reason to leave India then was to enable a better professional life for themselves and a better quality of life for their families.

This desire is also reciprocated by the host country welcoming them. A motivation for countries abroad to also encourage and in fact, actively market their education systems in India is to eventually import high quality manpower into their workforce.

Therefore, I envision that most universities that will set up shop here will offer the students an option to move to the university's home country in the later stages of the programme and help them find employment. All stakeholders would be happy with such an arrangement.

During the past five years, only 8 per cent of IIT Madras graduates left the shores of India. This is a testament to today's India.

As we wrap our minds around the idea of foreign universities coming to set up shop in India, I do not anticipate that they will either be able to help India's Gross Enrollment Ratio, nor will they find it viable to set up universities at India scale.

We will have to evolve solutions on our own for these problems and those solutions will have to rely heavily on technology-enabled education delivery paradigms. Stay tuned.

(Views expressed in this opinion piece are that of the author.)