Foreign University Collaborations in India: Will Top-Ranked Institutions be Interested?

“A comprehensive legislation will be introduced in Parliament shortly to regulate entry of foreign universities and educational institutions in the country” according to Times of India. Can you guess the year in which this line was written? No, not 2010, its 2002. That’s right it had been nearly a decade in history of Indian politics and the rhetoric has not changed. So, we should not be very disappointed if Foreign Universities Bill along with several other important bills have not yet seen the light of approval in last two years.

In this context, my first impression of the recent announcement by UGC to allow joint-degrees and twinning collaborations between Indian and foreign institutions was of continued skepticism which later changed to cautious optimism.

Elizabeth Redden of InsideHigherEd quoted me in a story covering the development. My reason for cautious optimism is that “given the dual requirements regarding accreditation and ranking many of the predatory institutions, who are interested in profits at the expense of quality and students, would be filtered out.”

Most foreign institutions which are currently engaged with collaborations in India follow an approach similar to traffic rules in India–ignoring them is easier and faster, but not safer or better. So, foreign institutions which are truly interested in collaborations should be cautiously optimistic about this new announcement from the UGC–they should not ignore it but remain cautious to re-evaluate their engagement approach with India.

Consider the requirement of NAAC which filters out many predatory institutions. For example, in Maharashtra–state with largest number of colleges–only 360 out of more than 4,500 colleges are NAAC accredited. This eliminates many private players who voluntarily would not pursue any quality assurance or NAAC accreditation.

Likewise, on foreign institution side, rankings may eliminate several institutions who are seeking to enter India for enrollment numbers (revenue/profit-seeking institutions) alone. Of course, the downside is that many other well-meaning institutions which do not figure in the rankings will also get filtered out. However, given the vulnerability of quality assurance in India, this filter is still relevant in current context.

One positive aspect of this announcement in contrast to Foreign university bill is that it does not create an unrealistic financial barrier like corpus fund of nearly $10 million, instead it creates a qualitative barrier in the form of accreditation or ranking.

Another unintended consequence is that NAAC accreditation will gain value and weightage among private players in the hope of building attractiveness for foreign collaborations. This would increase the number of institutions pursuing a quality assurance framework and hence it may help in raising the overall quality at the systemic level.

The challenge remains in implementation, as NAAC requirement creates a subset of institutions which are more likely to be publicly funded and hence less inclined in foreign engagements. Likewise, top-500 ranked foreign institutions will continue to feel jitters about lack of consistent, comprehensive and enforceable policy framework.

Although, this announcement may not address the issue of several unaccredited and unrecognized foreign collaborations already in operation, nor does it offers a framework for establishing a full-fledged branch campus, it does provide a low-intensity, high-relevance pathway for institutions who are truly interested in building collaborative academic engagements in India. It may offer more welcoming approach to “prestigious” and “prestige-seeking” segments of foreign institutions.

-Dr. Rahul Choudaha

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