The Smriti-Irani-led HRD ministry seems to have finally got its thinking right on higher education. Over the last two weeks, it first announced rules to make granting of deemed university status much faster and removed the cap on the number of off-campus centres that varsities/higher education institutes can set up. Then, it made foreign-university collaboration easier for colleges and varsities. Such moves bode well for a country where the gross enrollment in higher education—thanks to poor access and supply-side gaps, among other reasons—makes for barely a fourth of the university-age population (18-23 years).
The 2012 regulations on foreign collaborations didn’t inspire even a single partnership, given they put the entire burden of initiating this on foreign varsities—as per the rules, applications would have to come from the foreign universities alone, and given the maze of red tape typical of processes here, the UGC received none. This is in sharp contrast with the situation before the rules came into force—there were 635 foreign education providers operating in India, albeit not all being bona fide, high-brand-value ones. By allowing Indian varsities to apply to the UGC for foreign tie-ups, the government has now made the process much easier—the Indian partner is definitely better placed to see it through till the eventual approval. More such partnerships would mean high-quality education at much lower costs—Indians going to college in the US spent twice the amount that came in from that country as FDI in FY15. At the same time, by mandating that such tie-ups be only allowed between top-grade Indian and foreign varsities/colleges, the rules guard against students falling victims to fraudulent/low-value collaborations.
With just 757 universities—including central, state, private and deemed universities—and 141 million in the tertiary-education age segment, India remains poorly served for postgraduate/doctorate-level education. Thus, the government putting a six-month deadline on processing of application and granting of deemed university status—as opposed to the 6-7 years it typically takes under the existing process—will help more such institutes come up. Removing the cap on off-campus centres, too, will give a leg-up to access to education, given college density varies widely within the country—from 7 per lakh university-age population in Bihar to 58 in Pudducherry. Whether it is facilitating more deemed universities or more foreign-varsity partnerships, the ministry’s new efforts signal a better future for India.