The University Grants Commission is proposing new guidelines to allow the entry of foreign universities in India. Any good-faith effort to reform higher education ought to be welcomed. But before you applaud this latest pantomime on higher education and mistake it for a genuine revolution, ask a few probing questions. These so-called reforms, like so much that emanates from the UGC, are being carried out under false premises.
Let us begin with the grandest of aspirations: To get top universities like Princeton, Stanford, Yale and Oxford to set up campuses in India. Ask yourself this. Why do these universities not have any branch campuses anywhere in the world, including countries with liberal regulatory environments? Why would they set up in India? What is it about the economics and the structural form of a top research university that makes it difficult to reproduce them? There are about four hundred foreign campuses operating in the world. But just consult the comprehensive database of American universities operating abroad compiled by C-BERT. Just go through the list yourself to see what proportion of those institutions are top-tier institutions. Barely a handful, if one is being generous. Very few are like NYU Abu Dhabi, but almost all of them received massive subsidies from the home government. Several high-profile ones like Yale–NUS have been “reabsorbed.” More than 30 per cent of foreign campuses receive some form of subsidy, and the better the institution, the more subsidy it requires. Can India justify subsidising top-tier foreign institutions with public money?
Let us go further. This reform will apparently allow for the repatriation of money to the home institution. Now here is the blunt truth about universities. If you want to build a top-class university in India, it will have to integrate teaching and research. This is a financial black hole requiring continual support not derived from fees alone. Any private institution that is for profit that seeks to skim money off education can never build a world-class university since a top-class university requires continual reinvestment. Now, what kind of an institution looks to repatriate “surpluses?” The same kind that in India seeks profit.
The UGC boldly declares that it will ensure that the qualifications of the faculty assigned to India will be the same as those of the faculty in the parent institution. A lot turns on how you interpret the term “qualification”. If it simply means formal equivalence of qualifications (PhD from a good institution, etc.) then most institutions are on par. But if it means faculty who are exceptional (which is what the top institutions claim they have), then there is no cost advantage to moving to India. Land and capital costs are not cheap. But if you are going to define equivalence as something close to those who have been through the tenure processes of the top-ranked universities, they have no economic or lifestyle incentives to spend a lot of time in India unless either their salaries are matched or exceeded. This makes running campuses in India with the same “standard” prohibitively expensive.
Let us think about regulatory trust. Would you invest millions of dollars in a regulatory system that is unreliable, to say the least? There are at least 30 to 40 entrepreneurs in India who could (financially, at least), single-handedly create slightly lower-cost, world-class alternatives to Western institutions. But there has been only a trickle of institutions in India so far that are ambitious in this respect. The question to ask is why? If we are not investing enough, why would anyone else? Does anyone now remember the Institutions of Eminence revolution that was heralded a few years ago? How many of those high-profile greenfield projects have got off to a flying start, within two years, as was promised? How much net investment in higher-end research universities did that botched reform generate?
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The mendacity of this reform will also be obvious to anyone who has looked at Indian higher education. The same UGC that wants to standardise the admissions process for all public universities gravely assaults their autonomy day in and day out and is now supposed to protect the autonomy and distinct identity of foreign universities. You would be foolish to take the UGC at face value. In any case, the UGC is engaging in a nauseating form of reverse discrimination against Indian, and especially public, institutions. You ought to be wary of such a regulator. Just imagine the oddity of saying in higher education: Freedom for foreign, chains for the Indian.
What is this reform supposed to achieve? The ostensible rationale is to make high-quality foreign education available in India at a somewhat lower cost so that students don’t have to leave, and some of the billions we are using to consume foreign higher education can be spent in the country. If you look at the C-BERT list, what strikes you is that not only are there very few top-tier universities, most foreign campuses are very small, with an average size of 300-400 students. How much supply are you augmenting, especially in a context where you are diminishing the net supply of higher education by destroying established public universities? Perhaps Indian capital might be willing to subsidise a foreign brand. Perhaps some professional schools will show up since mostly they can generate a surplus.
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The only thing good about this announcement is the UGC’s perverse honesty. It thinks of universities and teaching like a McDonald’s franchise that can easily be replicated without regard to agglomeration effects, or the effects of the larger ecosystem in which they are embedded. It seems to have little conception of what combination of capital, vision, and human resources it takes to get a high-end research university going. More depressing is its utter defeatism. The UGC has admitted that its cumulative failures, across governments and political parties, have brought us to this pass. India could have been a top-class, lower-cost higher education hub for the world. Indian universities, both public and private, can reach glorious heights of excellence; that both the top and the average quality can be improved. We gave up on that project with public institutions a while ago, then pinned hopes on a private revolution, which in quality terms is still a trickle, and now want to hang onto the coattails of foreign brands who will either be elusive or for the most part second rate. University Gimmicks Commission, indeed.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express