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Foreign university campuses in India: Is the move practical?

As the UGC prepares to attract foreign universities to India, their success will depend on multiple factors that are yet to be resolved

Mansvini Kaushik
Published: Jan 31, 2023 04:30:06 PM IST
Updated: Oct 17, 2023 06:16:10 PM IST

Foreign university campuses in India: Is the move practical?Nearly 6.5 lakh Indians joined foreign universities in 2022. Image: The Harvard University's campus in Cambridge, MA, USA

India, with the world's largest population, has 1,113 higher education institutions, with 4.13 crore students, according to the Ministry of Education. Instead of addressing the regulatory and administrative issues within India’s education system, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has announced its intention to attract foreign institutions to establish campuses in the country.

The goal is to improve access to higher education by inviting world-renowned Foreign Higher Education Institutions (FHEI) to establish satellite campuses in India, targeting those with a top 500 global rating or recognised reputation in their home country. As per the regulation, such campuses can offer only physical classes. “A legislative framework facilitating such entry will be put in place, and universities will be given special dispensation regarding regulatory, governance, and content norms on par with other autonomous institutions of India,” says the UGC document.

Nearly 6.5 lakh Indians joined foreign universities in 2022, as per data shared in Parliament, in search of quality education and entrepreneurial training, resulting in a massive outflow of over Rs 1,300 crore to finance their education. UGC intends to target these students while also attracting international students.

These universities will initially be granted permission to set up campuses for 10 years, after which the renewal will be subjected to the fulfilment of requisite conditions of the UGC. Based on the approval of a ‘Letter of Intent’, the FHEI is expected to begin establishing its Indian campus and building infrastructure within two years. “These colleges would be required to take classes full-time in physical mode only with a reasonable and transparent fee structure. Furthermore, foreign faculty appointed to teach on the Indian campus would be expected to live in India rather than just visit here to teach,” points out Piyush Kumar, regional director, South Asia, and Mauritius, IDP Education, an overseas education consultant platform.

Even if international universities set up a base in India, it would take time for them to establish themselves, adjust to India’s regulations and create a similar ecosystem as offered on their native campus. UGC’s 10-year window is also considerably small for universities that generally have a long-term objective. “It may not be reassuring or attractive for the best institutions to consider long-term plans. Only if these universities view India as a viable source for higher research and can bring foreign students to study in India, would they consider it as a potential option,” says Neeti Sethi, dean, School of Liberal Arts, Chitkara University, in Chandigarh.

How would an FHEI establish a campus in India?

The proposed models for establishing satellite campuses in India are based on various existing models around the world. There are five proposals: Self-funded university (eg, Webster University in the Netherlands), government-funded (eg, University of Nottingham in China), private company stake (eg, University of Nottingham in Malaysia with Boustead Holdings Berhad and YTL Corporation Berhad), academic collaboration with local partners (eg, Singapore Institute of Management and University at Buffalo School of Management in Singapore), and a leased facilities model (Dubai International Academic City, UAE).

Academic collaboration with local partners is what Indian universities see as the most feasible and immediate option. Nitish Jain, president of Mumbai-based SP Jain School of Global Management, for instance, says, “We are considering availing of this policy and are open to partnering top foreign universities who may be wary of going the whole hog in the short run.”

SP Jain School has campuses in five countries and each has different regulations, says Jain. “One needs to understand the spirit of the policy in the country they want to operate in. High-quality education at affordable fees and generous scholarships to students who need financial support are the underpinnings of the Indian policy,” he says, adding that foreign universities who put India’s interests first will succeed in establishing a long-term relationship with India.

Why would an FHEI come to India?

Many top-ranking universities are for-profit entities that are very careful of their branding and perception, built over long periods, through the evolution of organisational and research culture. The concern then is why would a reputable university want to set up a campus in India.

Foreign university campuses in India: Is the move practical?

“There is no precedence of the best foreign universities abroad establishing campuses in other countries. They are considered best on basis of their research, scholarship, and collegiality, and are highly coveted and competitive. They induct the cream of students, do not rely on patronage by foreign students, and even provide scholarships. Many of our institutions are considered at par with many such universities abroad. And I do not see these universities considering opening campuses in India,” says Sethi.

Her hypothesis is backed by the experiences of countries in West Asia. Even with financial support satellite universities have not been as successful as expected due to various regulatory, financial, and academic reasons. The Cross-Border Education Research Team (CBERT) database reveals that as of 2020, 37 countries have ‘imported’ FHEIs (306 campuses overall), of which the largest number of campuses are in China (42), UAE (33), Singapore (16), Malaysia (15) and Qatar (11).

Foreign university campuses in India: Is the move practical?
In China, barring NYU Shanghai, none of the other FHEIs come from top-ranked global universities. There are a few but they are either joint centres (like Tsinghua-UC Berkeley Shenzhen Institute, University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute, etc.) or universities set up in collaboration with existing Chinese universities (for example Duke-Kunshan University). In Malaysia too, not a single FHEI is ranked among the top 100 in the world.

Would this move contain brain drain?

The proposed move will let these universities repatriate funds to their home countries. They have the autonomy to decide the fees for their courses. Which loosely translates to the courses being expensive. This wouldn’t be viable for students belonging to the lower economic strata. Sethi questions why even the high fees paying Indians would want to opt for a satellite university in India.

“Foreign universities are attractive to fee-paying Indian students because they want to go abroad, for the overall experience, post-degree work rights, and the possibility of settling abroad after the degree. Plus they are willing to pay higher fees to study in a foreign land because, they can pay off their loans, fees, and living expenses in a very short time by finding part-time work while studying. They will get none of this on Indian soil,” she says.

According to a recent survey by INTO University Partnerships, almost eight in 10 Indian students look at a study abroad plan to work and settle overseas after completing their international degree. Another report on international migration patterns by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently pointed out that Indians studying in economically developed countries are the most likely among all foreign students to stay back in the host country and join the local workforce.

Many students seek education abroad also because of the multicultural approach it provides. This might be seemingly difficult to achieve in India during FHEI’s first few years of operations. “A foreign university’s campus in India will have mostly Indian students. Hence, it will be difficult for Indian campuses to provide the same kind of multicultural environment to students,” says Kumar of IDP Education. These universities wouldn’t be fully autonomous. “They cannot offer any programme that jeopardises national interest or the standards of higher education. It will also be difficult to get the same standard of faculty as in their native country to India,” he adds.

Foreign university campuses in India: Is the move practical?

Chenraj Roychand, chancellor, Jain Deemed-to-be-University in Bengaluru, agrees: “These universities, which will be required to offer the same quality of education as in the parent campus, may not be able to do so during the initial years, and also the students will not be able to get exposure of studying in a different country or culture.”

Is setting up FHEI campuses in India feasible?

Apart from day-to-day operations, academic delivery, and governance, student experience may pose challenges, as would faculty recruitment and retention, cultural contextualisation of academics, and stakeholder engagement, believes Sethi. “At independent campuses in India, an FHEI may not be able to provide services and infrastructure at par with their main campus, which may impact their student intake and compromise quality,” she adds.

From the university perspective, Sethi says, “Regardless of the possibility of repatriating funds back home, conversion rates may feel restrictive. Despite the vast amount of freedom provided to foreign universities, it will be capital-intensive, and may not be economically or culturally viable, but rather challenging,” she says.

Jain, on the other hand, is optimistic: “It’s never easy to set up a full campus in a foreign country but it surely can be done. Considering the massive Indian student market it would be well worth both the effort and investment. Foreign universities thinking of India would need to take a long-term view.” Citing the success of the French ESSEC Business School in Singapore, Jain adds, “The well-known French business school opened a Singapore campus that now has even more students than the home campus, so the success of such campuses is possible.”

These universities would take time to build a reputation in India. “Foreign universities will have to comply with various regulatory and compliance requirements. This could raise concerns among students and parents about the validity, acceptance by industry, and quality of education,” says Meena Chintamaneni, pro vice chancellor, SVKM’s NMIMS Deemed-to-be University. “I believe that by partnering with reputable Indian universities and offering joint programmes, foreign universities could attract interest not only from Indian students but also from students around the world.”

India is not a popular destination for international students. University Living, a student housing company that helps Indians while studying abroad, had attempted to expand its business to India but had to close due to low demand from international students. “For our India initiative, the timing was not right. The Indian market can be still worked upon in terms of the infrastructure, depth, best practices, policies, and framework,” says Saurabh Arora, founder and CEO, University Living. The latest UGC move, however, could lead him to resume India operations. “It is a very good move for Indian education as well as the accommodation sector, as it creates many opportunities. India’s startup sector is booming and so are various industries. There is a continuous rise in new ventures and ideas. I feel that the universities will be able to attract a higher pool of international students for exposure that India, the world’s most populous country, can offer,” he says.

If these universities do set up campuses in India, would the graduates be viewed in the same light as those from Indian universities? “Unemployability had been a bigger challenge than unemployment in India,” says Neeti Sharma, co-founder and president, TeamLease Edtech. “While we have been producing many graduates, most of them have not been able to get the right job at the right wages. The understanding is that these universities will bring their years of experience and quality to the Indian campuses as well, so the industry should give almost equal weightage to the degrees these universities provide in India.”

On one hand, having foreign universities set up campuses in India can bring advanced teaching methods, research opportunities, and international exposure to students. On the other hand, it may also lead to the diversion of resources from existing Indian universities. Experts believe that the success of foreign universities in India will depend on careful planning and execution.

Sethi states that India should look inwards and reform its current education landscape before trying to build on foreign universities’ prestige. “A total reform of our education system is needed, right from nursery to high school and then university level. We need to initiate overall change, with pedagogy, curriculum, teacher training, etc, to enrich our students intellectually by changing their style of learning,” she says.

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