The government is reportedly promising near full autonomy to foreign universities on academic, administrative and financial matters, hoping to attract them to India.
While the government will be reaching out to top universities across the globe through the embassies in their home countries, University Grants Commission (UGC) chairman M Jagadesh Kumar has said that the higher education regulator will come up with a set of regulations for universities setting up India campuses.
The ‘India campus’ vision dates back to the UPA government, but has not materialised because of various reasons, including possible concerns of over-regulation even though some concessions were announced. So, even when a regulatory framework will apply to any top-grade foreign university with expansion plans involving India, it is being expected that such a framework will have a feather-touch approach. This has sparked a debate over a level playing field for Indian universities and top-rung colleges.
There is a belief that with Indian universities and colleges still subject to a more stringent regulatory regime, they will not be free to grow and evolve in a way that is more responsive to changing contexts in the social, academic, market and other relevant spheres. This, it is feared, will hinder their growth and even erode reputation in the long run even as foreign universities attract the cream of the student population.
The National Education Policy 2020 acknowledges that ‘limited institutional autonomy’ has been one of the factors holding India’s higher education back. It talks of graded autonomy — based on the standing of the higher education institute (HEI) — and envisions ‘through a suitable system of graded accreditation and graded autonomy’ complete independence and self-governance for all HEIs in a period of 15 years.
The NEP also aims at doubling the tertiary Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) from 26% to 50% in that period. But the record in recent years, on granting autonomy, has been inconsistent.
In July 2020, the UGC was locked in a tussle with the IIMs on the MBA nomenclature for the latter’s one year-executive programmes. The same month, the technical education regulator, All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), derecognised three academic programmes at the Management Development Institute (MDI), a top-rung business school, for not meeting its duration criteria.
The UGC, in 2019, released a set of draft rules for public feedback that intended to regulate fee-setting by private aided and unaided institutions that are deemed to be universities providing professional education. The stated intent was to curb charging of capitation fee and/or other forms of profiteering by these institutions. But such moves have obvious fallout for HEIs and negate the commitment to progressively greater autonomy.
In May this year, a committee set up by the AICTE revised fee-caps for technological courses at HEIs other than IIMs and IITs. While advocates of such regulation stress on the need to keep these courses affordable, fee-capping determines the appropriate levels of fees that institures can reasonably charge. And, it was only when the pandemic forced the hand of the government that it partially liberalised the online and distance education space. Also, public-funded institutes continue to shoulder social obligations of the government, including on student and faculty reservation.
Of late, though, there has been a move towards reforming higher education regulation. The UGC has recently talked of liberalising the approval of courses and duration of new, globally recognised programmes that are still not recognised by the Indian regulator. The strict course- duration-programme nomeclature norms are also set to be relaxed. So, the future could see one-year masters programmes, in, say, public policy or wellness etc. There is a long way to go, though. The various yokes the government has placed on HEIs will take quite some time to get meaningfully lifted.