Source: The Times of India
The delay in enacting the Foreign Universities bill has cost India dear. When it was mooted a few years ago, India was riding high on the growth curve. Markets were bouyant, and the size of the population made it an interesting place to invest. Wherever one went, the term ‘demographic dividend’ boomed through the loudspeakers. These were the youth who were trained in English, who had access to engineering degrees (others too, but engineering made the headlines) and would transform the nation. India was the leading light of the BRICS which were still the next big thing. All of this was very exciting to the education world – the demographics alone were enough – the millions who needed higher education before the dividends could be reaped – were a market.
It is not so now. The India story has paled, the market seems to have stalled. The demographic dividend is still expected if we manage to educate our young. But there are questions about viable models in higher education given the experience of the past few years. The executive order to allow foreign providers via their own campuses is welcome. Even if it comes late. The question is – will there be enough quality foreign universities who would want to open campuses in India? Now?
A few years ago, just as the bill was mooted, foreign universities were at the peak of their global aspirations. There was a buzz around campuses across the world as a transnational model of higher education was set to evolve. This was the era before MOOCs of course. But there were funds allocated and Delhi (and the states of course) jostled with Singapore and Dubai as a destination for campuses. Now, the experience of the Ivy league colleges in these campuses has taught them caution. Most of the funds have been allocated, others will proceed with caution based on their learnings. Delhi has missed the boat with many desirable providers of higher education.
Even if they do come to India, certain fundamental problems remain. Infrastructure. Especially soft infrastructure. Across the board the paucity of good faculty is acknowledged. Credentialing is no guarantee of quality. Nor is the number of research papers they have churned out. Credit and competence are not linked. Finding a good teacher and a good researcher from within the country is a an uphill task. Finding one from outside the country is even more difficult. It is not just the pay that is inadequate. There is no reason for anyone to take a paycut to come to India – there is little that Indian universities can offer to compensate for the paycuts. On the contrary, they need incentives to disrupt their families and the steady track of their their lives. Yes, personal living conditions count for a lot in most places in the world and moving in to cities with potholes in roads that need you to walk through garbage piles to reach ordinary shops is clearly not an incentive to disrupt lives. Will the best faculty want to move here given the current conditions? Let us think.
Another hurdle is the quality of research, laboratories and of course funding. The best faculty are those that can move a department out of mediocrity or build something new. There are very few of them who have these qualities but do not already have access to the best research and funding. It may be possible to woo the young bright sparks who show promise with new funding and equipment that the foreign investors will certainly bring. This is the only window of hope – a fast track for the bright young professors. The new order has been promulgated under the University Grants Commission. As details are awaited, the first question that arises is: Will the faculty recompense be constrained by UGC rules? Presidency University was just reported to have had some problems with paying their faculty. They were constrained by the rules and had to find workarounds to retain people. While a small proportion of PU faculty, it is clear that the issue exists and is at the heart of the debate on new universities, and that includes the foreign universities.
While the older bill languished, the executive order hoped to mitigate the damage done by the delay. Even as smaller and keener players teamed up with Indian partners to provide joint degrees (that were often not accepted by the Indian establishment), the older Ivy league colleges melted away. They were fine with limited collaborations with departments that clearly delineated their contribution and benefits. To be an entire university campus is a much larger investment. And as investors, despite the doors opening again, the repatriation of profits is still not allowed. Nor is the investment expected a small one.
It is clear that India wants to invite the best and wants them to commit to their investment in the country. This is a very good thing to want, but it may still be rather ambitious. The will has been shown, and the path paved via this new regulation. As we await details, as do the legal departments of interested foreign universities, the real question that needs to be asked is: Will India pass the due diligence tests of the global majors in higher education?