Given that over 2 lakh Indians go overseas to study each year, spending around $10 billion in doing so, prime minister Narendra Modi has done well to call for a high-level meeting on allowing foreign universities to set up campuses in India—the move is significant since, when the UPA wanted to bring in foreign universities, the BJP was among the parties opposing the Foreign Universities Bill. This is also what the prime minister did in the case of Aadhaar-based cash transfers once he came to power—not being hostage to the BJP’s old positions, and preferring to look at each idea on its merit is a good thing and augurs well for the future.
It is not likely that, were foreign universities to be allowed, Indian students will stop wanting to go overseas to study. For one, it will take foreign universities a long time to set up so many campuses in India. Two, it is not certain a Princeton or a Harvard would even want to set up a full-fledged campus here to begin with—creating a parallel Princeton, should the varsities want to do it, is something that will take decades. What is important, however, is that India needs to dramatically improve the quality of higher education. India has just one university in the top 500 Academic Ranking of World Universities—the US has 146 and China has 44; in 2010, the US had 154, China 34 and India 2. Also, given the way in which demand for education is rising, India also needs to dramatically increase the number of positions available in universities—the rush for the Delhi University seats exemplifies just how starved India is for good universities.
Allowing foreign universities to set up campuses here—possibly in collaboration with Indian ones—is not going to solve the problem immediately, though it does open up the possibility of India maturing into some kind of regional education hub over the years, in much the same way that a Singapore has developed as an education centre. More important, and this is also related to foreign varsities, is what India does with its existing universities as well as the ones that want to come up. The fact that an Indian School of Business chose not to become a university and offered a diploma instead tells its own story of how cumbersome the education bureaucracy in India is. If top US and UK universities are to set up campuses here, surely public universities need to be freed up too? This applies to their funding as well as to various restrictions put on them by the government, from reservations for students and teachers to HRD ministers trying to impose their decisions on them. At some point, sooner rather than later, the prime minister will have to spell out his vision for universities in the country as well.