Today's Editorial

18 February 2017

Foreign degrees ~ made in India!



Source: By AK Ghosh: The Statesman



The Centre intends to allow foreign universities to open campuses in India. Though the government allows 100 per cent foreign investment in the higher education sector through the automatic, the granting of degrees by foreign institutions is not permitted as that authority rests with the universities established through central or state acts. However, several foreign institutions have been offering various courses since 2000 through joint ventures in the form of twining arrangement, franchises, and online courses. However, it is feared that the India-made foreign degrees may not be a genuine ticket to a global career and the institutes dispensing them will prove to be nothing more than dodgy degree shops selling fancy dreams.


The innovation of courses offered in India by foreign universities suffered a setback with a Madras High Court ruling in 1977. Responding to a petition, the court issued an interim injunction restraining foreign universities or institutions with offices in India from conferring degrees on students in this country. The court intervention showed that these institutions could expect such resistance from several quarters. This used to be the general pattern with most foreign and multinational initiatives in India during the 1990s ~ initial outrage and protests followed by gradual acceptance.


In order to regulate their operations, the government introduced in Parliament “The Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operation, Maintenance of Quality and Prevention of Commercialisation) Bill, 2007”. The objective was to provide “an ideal regulatory framework…in which reputed institutions are able to enter and operate in terms of India’s national policy, and at the same time check and control sub-standard or fly-by night operators”. The revised version the “Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operation) Bill, 2010 was introduced to facilitate the opening up of the higher education sector to foreign investors as well.


Among provisions in the Bill is the requirement of setting up a corpus fund of Rs 50 crore and withholding of permission to repatriate any part of the surplus revenue. This might seem to be too restrictive to the foreign providers, and could make them opt for foreign direct investment through the automatic route. There would be no difficulty as such to offer training or vocational programmes leading to certificates of proficiency. At a time when there is a demand to delink jobs from degrees, the foreign providers would be able to exploit the situation.


The University Grants Commission Act states that only universities set up by Parliament or a state legislature, and those declared deemed universities by the government, can award degrees. The Centre can have the UGC Act amended to allow foreign campuses that will operate as full-fledged universities in India, or introduce a new bill allowing them to function as deemed universities. In 2010, the government unsuccessfully introduced a bill in Parliament to allow foreign campuses. However, in 2013, the UGC notified rules allowing foreign universities to set up campuses and award degrees.  In 2014, the HRD ministry did prepare a bill in favour of foreign campuses, but it was not sent to the cabinet.


It should not be taken for granted that the foreign institutions can ensure quality. There are a large number of universities that are chronically suffering from mediocrity. It will be difficult for these centres of learning to face the competition with quality foreign universities in the most developed countries. The dynamics of foreign universities in India would lead to commercialisation without enhancing competitiveness.


Many of the renowned off-shore universities are willing to invest in campuses abroad, and, in practice, it is hard to replicate the standards of the home country in some other country. Other related problems are: returns from the investment made in establishing and running of campuses, non-repatriation of profits as mentioned, the regulatory mechanism of the host country in regard to the fee-structure, faculty salaries, curriculum to be offered, and issues pertaining to research and intellectual property rights etc.


The University of New South Wales had shut down its campuses in Singapore within months of being established. The John Hopkins Centre also packed up its activities as it did not meet the performance benchmark in Singapore. A foreign university cannot enter China without a local university as partner. In Malaysia, private institutions could enter into twinning and franchising arrangements with partners of their choice prior to 2000, but subsequently new foreign partnerships and branch campuses have been allowed to be set up only on invitation from the Ministry of Education to the foreign institutions.


In India, we have been in the process of encouraging FDI not only in the development sectors, but in retail segment as well in order to enhance foreign funds with incidental advantages of technology transfer, job opportunities and benefits to domestic firms and consumers. But since education is not a tradeable commodity, the implications of FDI in the higher educational sector call for reflection.


It should not be taken for granted that the number of students intending to go abroad can be brought down by setting up offshore-campuses in India. The motivation of the students in such cases is mainly towards getting jobs and migrating at a later stage. The presumption that the cost of foreign education at home will be cheaper is also not based on reason. The idea that the foreign programmes will reduce the outflow of Indian currency is not realistic because the lion’s share will go to the foreign partners. It is also doubtful whether the quality of the off-shore institutions will be better than many of our internationally renowned institutions. The highly reputed foreign institutions would be interested in investment for developing or fostering centres of excellence in joint research programmes, faculty exchange and the like.


The foreign universities are very likely to focus on the market-oriented and demand-driven professional and technical disciplines. No foreign provider has shown any inclination in introducing courses in Humanities and Social Sciences. This is a major area of concern. This may have a negative effect on the future of these disciplines. Also, they may employ Indian faculty offering more attractive pay packets that would enhance the shortage of faculty in our universities. This has been noted by a parliamentary committee.


The standing committee on human resource development in its 237th report on the Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill, 2010 said that the entry of foreign universities into the country would aggravate the shortage of qualified teachers in Indian educational institutions both government and private. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in higher education is certainly harmful for home-grown institutions.  It is an educational invasion on the principle that the superior party will win. The rational approach is to improve the standards of our institutions. It is only reasonable that any foreign university that intends to set up a campus should undergo certain checks and balances. Strict norms for permitting them to offer programmes either on their own or in collaboration with Indian counterparts or through online or in the distance mode should be followed.

The fact that students make a beeline for degrees offered by foreign universities is a sad commentary on the state of higher education in our country. Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the 2009 Nobel Prize winner, has doubts as to  whether foreign campuses in India would be able to “reproduce the culture of the original place”, as similar campuses in South-east Asia and the Middle East have failed to live up to the people’s expectations. If foreign universities with an indifferent record at home are allowed to set up shop in India, the whole process will be counter-productive.