UGC bid to woo foreign universities welcome, but it must focus on homegrown ones

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The decision to allow foreign universities comes at a time when local institutions are facing serious challenges in terms of resources, infrastructure and academic freedom.

The University Grants Commission is going ahead with its plan to let foreign universities set up their campuses in India. The foreign institutions will have autonomy on matters regarding admission criteria, fee structure, and channelling funds back to parent campuses, according to draft norms announced by UGC chairperson M Jagadesh Kumar recently. While being attractive because of the quality of education on offer, the imminent entry of foreign universities throws up the question of equal access. Very few will be able to afford quality education at a time when India’s best public universities are witnessing a drastic deterioration in quality.

What may have prompted the higher education regulator is the enthusiasm of Indian youth for foreign education. Students feel that they are better placed to bag quality jobs in India and abroad when armed with foreign degrees. In 2022, over 4.5 lakh Indian students went abroad to study leading to a foreign exchange outflow of $28-30 billion. The move to allow campuses of foreign universities in the country will help Indian students realise their dream of gaining foreign degrees at lower costs. It will open the windows to quality education for a large number of Indian students who cannot afford to join campuses in the United States or the United Kingdom.

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With foreign universities coming to Indian shores, the cost of foreign education will fall drastically with huge savings on accommodation and living costs. The UGC has reiterated that it expects education to be at par with what is imparted at parent campuses.

Indian students enrolled in foreign universities (In 1000)

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While the universities have been granted freedom to decide their own fee structure, the draft regulation recommends reasonable fees to keep these universities affordable. Even then, the government is unlikely to exercise any control over the final fees structure. The Setting up and Operation of Campuses of Foreign Higher Educational Institutions in India Regulations 2023 specify that the fee structure should be transparent and reasonable while also stating that the universities will be free to provide need-based scholarships.

What courses are on offer? 

To many, it may have seemed ironic that the UGC green lights autonomous functioning of foreign universities while local institutions suffer censoring of syllabus. However, the regulations have an added clause which states that foreign universities must not offer courses that jeopardise the national interest of India or the standards of higher education in India. Simply said, it may be impossible for foreign universities to offer liberal arts courses in the country. This must not come as a surprise considering attempts made in the past to liberalise education were opposed by parties including the BJP when it was in opposition.

According to the UGC chairperson, a few universities based in Europe have already shown interest in opening campuses in India. The courses offered by the offshore campuses are likely to be in the fields of urban design and fashion design. They may not be restricted to traditionally popular disciplines like computer science and engineering.

The government wishes to bring the best universities out there and only those which participate in global rankings and feature in the top 500, either in the overall or subject-wise category, can apply to set up campuses in India. Those who do not participate in such rankings will need to be reputed in their respective countries.

Homegrown universities need UGC attention

India may be looking to become an education hub by wooing foreign players under its ambitious National Education Policy (NEP). But the opening up of the sector may kick off an overhaul of higher education in the country. Where this leaves Indian institutes of higher education? Those hailing from academia have questioned why instead of improving the quality of education in India, the government is focussing on bringing others here.

While allowing offshore campuses, the government needs to focus more on improving the standard of education and infrastructure of Indian universities so that they can compete at the global level. This is a daunting task since none of Indian universities has made it to the top 100 in global rankings. Not even IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, University of Delhi or JNU could make it to the top 100 in QS Top Universities Ranking, 2022.

The government’s move to allow foreign varsities to set up campuses in India comes at a time when universities at home are facing serious challenges in terms of resources, infrastructure and academic freedom. The government is engaged in an ambitious overhaul of the Indian education system and rolled out the National Education Policy 2020, the first since 1986.