Foreign Collaboration in Higher Education — The Changing Indian Regime

By:  Atul Gupta & Bishen Jeswant

It’s quite well known that entering the Indian education market is a difficult proposition for foreign players, primarily due to the lack of clear legislation or guidelines that facilitate this. India’s attempt to come out with a law to address foreign education participation in India has not met with success yet and the proposed law – the Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill, 2010 or the FEI Bill – is still awaiting parliamentary clearance. The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) has regulations dealing with foreign collaboration, but these regulations are ambiguous in several aspects and only deal with a small sub-set of higher education in India – i.e. technical education. By itself, Indian regulation of higher education has been criticized for being complicated and indistinct. It’s not uncommon to see the University Grants Commission (UGC) – which is the central governing body responsible to establish standards in Indian universities and higher education – and professional councils like the AICTE engaged in turf wars on which body has the correct regulatory oversight over various educational institutions and courses.

The most recent development in the foreign education space is in the form of the UGC (Promotion and Maintenance of Standards of Academic Collaboration between Indian and Foreign educational Institutions) Regulations, 2012 (UGC Regulations), which is being proposed by the UGC. A full text of these regulations is not yet available, but media reports indicate that these regulations have the following key features:

  • They permit twinning programs between top foreign and Indian institutes;
  • The Indian institute is required to grant a degree, but it’s not mandatory for the foreign institute to do so;
  • Agreements between the Indian and foreign institutes will need UGC approval;
  • No franchise arrangements will be permitted and existing collaborations will need UGC approval in 6 months.

Media reports and minutes of UGC meetings indicate that the eligibility criteria under the UGC Regulations have been diluted since these regulations got their first “in principle” approval in June, 2012. Previously, only the top 500 foreign institutions in Times Higher Education World University Ranking or Shanghai Jiaotong ranking were allowed to collaborate with Indian educational institutions, but this was changed to “foreign institutions which are accredited with the highest grade in their homeland” in UGC’s 492nd meeting during March, 2013. Further, Indian institutions with a grading of B or its equivalent from recognized accrediting agencies (such as the National Assessment and Accreditation Council) can collaborate with eligible foreign institutions. Previously only the institutions with an A or equivalent rating were allowed to collaborate.

Since the FEI Bill is nowhere close to seeing the light of day, the UGC Regulations are clearly an attempt by the government to allow entry of foreign institutions in some form in India. The AICTE Regulations limit themselves to technical courses only, but the UGC Regulations would cover other courses as well. But do these finally only add to the confusion? Let’s examine some of the key differences between the proposed and existing regulations governing entry of foreign education providers in India:

  • The FEI Bill aims at allowing accredited foreign universities to set up their own campuses in India, but the UGC Regulations don’t permit that. Although the AICTE Regulations talk of the ability of a foreign university or institution to set up a campus in India (in addition to collaborations with Indian players), we are not aware of these being implemented in any manner.
  • The FEI Bill allows only foreign universities that have been offering education for 20 years or more in their home country to become education providers in India,      whereas the UGC Regulations talk of accreditation “with the highest grade”. The AICTE Regulations only seem to require proof of the “genuineness” of the foreign institution.
  • The AICTE Regulations and the FEI Bill appear to regulate only foreign institutions interested in imparting education that leads to the award of diplomas, degrees and equivalent qualifications. However, the UGC Regulations are intended to      govern collaborations even where the foreign institution does not provide a degree or a diploma (it is only mandatory for the collaborating Indian University to award a degree under these regulations).

So where does this leave a foreign institute looking to enter into the Indian market? Unfortunately, not in any a better position than before. Even if the UGC Regulations are notified, there are already doubts about the ability of the UGC to even come out with regulations addressing foreign universities and institutions in India, without appropriate amendments to the University Grants Commission Act, 1956. What if the proposed collaboration is in the technical education space – does the foreign institution go to the AICTE or the UGC? Sounds like the making of yet another turf war between the two. Probably some of these queries will be dispelled once the regulations are finalized and notified, but until then the regulatory quagmire will continue.

The need of the hour is for the Indian government to streamline the regulatory regime governing higher education in India. The Yashpal Committee report, which recommended abolition of the UGC, AICTE, etc. and creation of one body governing all forms of higher education, does have merit at several levels. While despite the ambiguous regime in India, several foreign education providers are active, most of their courses or collaborations are unregulated and are branded as “unapproved” by bodies such as the AICTE. India has also not been able to attract the best institutions to enter India due to the uncertain legal framework, and this is proving to be the biggest loss to the Indian youth.

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