The recently announced draft regulations for foreign higher institutions (FHEIs) looking to open campuses in India mark a shift from the old thinking that has prevented India from becoming a global education hub.
To put itself in the reckoning for this, India must not only nurture the excellence of its own universities but also be a preferred destination for global educational institutions. The National Education Policy 2020 gave the broad policy direction with its call for “a legislative framework” that gives FHEIs “a special dispensation regarding regulatory, governance, and content norms on par with other autonomous institutions of India”, and the rules try to live up to that vision. The aim, of course, is to impart an international character to higher education in India, make available for Indian students the programmes from top-brand global universities, and position India as a global education hub. The current dispensation has come a long way indeed from opposing the United Progressive Alliance’s efforts to bring in a legislative framework for the entry of foreign universities. The draft FHEI regulations talk about true autonomy for universities looking to come here.
The rules give FHEIs considerable freedom on hiring of faculty including qualifications and salary structure, determination of admission procedure and fee structure, academic structuring, etc. For a country that has shown considerable reluctance in even letting its best institutions decide on these matters without interference from the ruling dispensation of any political colour or at any jurisdictional level—state governments have routinely pushed academic institutions to tailor syllabus, course content, etc, on ideological lines—this represents a sea-change.
However, there are many points of concern that the government would need to address. The devil is in the imponderables contained in the regulations. For one, the FHEI is free to set its own fees in India, as long as it is “reasonable”. Now, what would constitute a “reasonable” quantum? Will the government eventually prescribe a formula or cap, belying autonomy on fee setting? The government also needs to be rational about its expectations—the regulations demand that the quality of education and the value of the degree, with regards to employment, at the Indian campus should be on a par with those of the parent institution, but how would the UGC ensure it? Strange also is the warning to FHEIs against hurting ‘national interest’, which could be another route for government interference.
Experts have also drawn attention to the fact that the FHEIs have only been permitted to offer on-campus programmes and not online and distance learning programmes. In view of the fact that the UGC has allowed the top 100 HEIs in India to offer this, the exclusion of the top 500 globally from this privilege looks quite odd. Also, the rules seem to have ignored precedence from other jurisdictions, including Asian ones such as Dubai and Singapore, when it comes to facilitating entry of FHEIs. Leaving land acquisition to the FHEIs themselves or their domestic partner institutions can be problematic in a country that has seen huge problems over this issue. Lastly, the government should also extend the same autonomy to domestic institutions. The promised graded autonomy for institutions remains on paper, with many curbs on top universities, from fee capping to reservations for admissions. It is a fit case for a level playing ground.