The Challenges of Opening Up Higher Education in India


With legislation to allow foreign universities to come into India still far off in the distance, it remains a difficult environment for Western institutions hoping to secure a lucrative prize. Without this legislation foreign universities are unable to build new campuses or award accredited degrees in India.

A year ago, Strathclyde’s Business School, in partnership with the Indian logistics company SKIL Infrastructure, opened a new facility for its staff to teach at. They were some of the very first to deliver British degrees at a UK campus on Indian soil. But their expedition has so far failed, just six students enrolled in 2011-12. Recruitment was so low for this year that in August Strathclyde left the country while it carried out a full review.

Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, in the US, believes the legislation opening up the Indian HE market, will remain permanently on the shelf. Continuing uncertainty over the bill has led to “a good deal of frustration in the higher education community”, he says, and has left some US universities “burnt” by their experiences.

The bill has been designed to regulate a sector that already exists but lacks a legislative framework. There were 631 foreign providers operating in the country in 2010, according to a study by the Association of Indian Universities. Of these, 440 did so from their home campuses while 186 were involved in twinning agreements or had some other arrangement with local institutions. 5 institutions had set up branch campuses in India in the absence of a law barring it.

Even if it is passed, some think that proposed legislation will be less than inviting to overseas providers. It would not allow foreign universities that set up in India to repatriate profits. Each university would need a “corpus fund” of about £6 million to stop them bailing out of the country and leaving students in the lurch. The bill also insists that branch campuses have an Indian advisory board of three national research professors per foreign institution. Kavita Sharma, director of the India International Centre, questions where the country will find so many distinguished national professors as many academics have left the country in search of higher salaries and better career progression.

Lancaster Goenka, one of the 5 universities with a branch campus, opened in 2009. With high fees (£3,000 per year for its engineering programme) versus local courses that charge a nominal fee, students at Lancaster Goenka are mostly from very wealthy families. The main issue is that the institute, which has applied to become a university, is not recognised by the national accreditation bodies. The degrees awarded by Lancaster, are invalid in India, making it impossible for graduates to get jobs in the public sector or to study at postgraduate level at India’s public institutions. In response, Lancaster says that it is in the process of acquiring university status for G.D. Goenka World Institute so that “the partnership will be in full compliance of all local regulations”.

In 1999, Virginia Tech was the first US institution to offer a degree programme in India, in partnership with S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research. The university now has plans for a campus in Tamil Nadu. However, while waiting for the foreign universities bill, Virginia Tech is concentrating on research initiatives and supporting its Indian partner MARG Swarnabhoomi.

India’s University Grants Commission is also planning non-legislative routes to allow foreign universities to operate in a regulated manner. It intends to allow only institutions that appear in the top 500 of either the Times Higher Education World University Rankings or the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings to come into the country in collaboration with Indian universities rated “A” by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. But this policy raises problems about the number of foreign institutions already operating in the country that would fail this requirement.

India remains a complex place to ‘do business’ in the higher education market, but there is no doubt, the demand is there if the authorities can find a way of managing the expansion in a practical way.