The Import of Foreign Higher Education in India: Committing to the Profit Motive Without Addressing Structural Needs

With India’s large, and increasing, population, there is good profit to be made in the higher education sector. The Indian state has welcomed a profit-facing expansion as well, which has resulted in this space taking on an increasingly free market character, with low barriers to entry. A reaffirmation of this commitment to profit-facing growth comes through the recent announcement by the University Grants Commission [UGC] regarding the draft UGC (Setting up and Operation of Campuses of Foreign Higher Educational Institutions in India) Regulations, which are to be adopted in May of 2023. These regulations would allow for Foreign Higher Education Institutions [FHEI] to set up campuses in India, with the goal of conferring degrees, diplomas and other programs similar to those in the origin country of the universities. This move is in line with the goals of the National Education Policy [NEP] 2020, which envisions a Gross Enrolment Ratio [GER] of 50%  in Higher Education [HE] in India by the year 2030. Effectively, this cements the beginning of the NEP vision for the future of the higher education system in India, which encompasses collaboration with and desires the standards of foreign education in tandem with homegrown systems of education and other programs. 

While the government has cited reasons such as quality education and wider choices as a rationale for the move, the question remains- how will setting up FHEI campuses address the structural challenges prevalent within the system of higher education in India? In an already complex HE sector, with pronounced inequalities of affordability, access, and quality, inviting FHEIs to initiate domestic campuses stands out in stark contrast as a move that benefits from the inequalities in higher education, instead of further mitigating it. 

India has one the largest young and adolescent populations in the world, even as it stands to surpass China in terms of overall population in 2023. This trend, along with improvements in overall indicators of economic well-being, has likely led to an increase in demand for HE experience and degrees. As a result, the Indian HE space has evolved over the years, resulting in a complex system of public and private institutes, universities and colleges, differentiated along state and centre lines; each with their own set of challenges, benefits and regulations. 

While there is a good case to be made for the availability of a diverse set of HE choices, concerns arise when the diversity is unable to improve educational outcomes and access to quality education for the country as a whole. That has indeed been the experience in India, and is majorly expressed through the vast qualitative inequalities in the HE space- a select and small group of public and private HEIs offer the best quality of education and professional outcomes, while the larger remainder of the HEIs continue to perform poorly. The latter cater to a larger chunk of the HE aspiring population as well. Due to the growing demand, the large chunk of the population, unable to meet the requirements of the limited number of well-performing HEIs, is forced to turn to HEIs of poor quality. Thus, the vast eligible population, coupled with increasing annual demand, has resulted in great profits to be made in this sector. However, these profits have come at the cost of quality education and commitment to student well-being. In the last 7 years, the number of private universities in India has almost doubled, while failing to deliver on lofty promises of quality teaching and placements. While public HEIs have increased as well, the growth of private institutes has been historic and has seen the greatest disruption in the HE space since 2012. As a result, the Indian HE space has been steadily liberalised in the last decade, taking on more free-market characteristics through the infusion of private and for-profit players.

The decision to “import” pedagogy through FHEIs, thus, appears to benefit directly from the inequalities of access to quality education in the current HE system. This move takes advantage of the existing unmet demand that the domestic private HEIs are unable to meet due to issues of quality and the public HEIs are unable to address due to the overall lack of available seats and investment. Further, Indian interaction and interest in FHEIs are not new. Over the years, a considerable number of Indian students have moved abroad for their higher education, reaching a six-year high in 2022. The major reasons for this have been a significantly better quality of education abroad, broader program choices, flexible degrees, and the search for a better standard of living and society. Thus, the demand for foreign education has always existed, and it has effectively been met on foreign shores. The decision to invite FHEIs has tried to address this foreign outflow of talent, by expecting to provide the same experience and quality of education inside the country while also targeting the population that aims to leave each year. Additionally, the UGC draft states that only FHEIs of high quality and foreign universities from the world’s top 500 will be allowed to set up domestic campuses. 

On paper, this move comes across as a case of meeting a simple demand: there exist gaps in the current HE space and a section of HE aspirants that are increasingly flooding the private HE sector or getting their degrees abroad if their conditions allow it. Thus, bringing FHEI campuses into the country would, theoretically, fulfil a dual demand- it would augment the existing private HE choices by acting as a foreign-sourced aspect within the space while also targeting a fraction of those that would have otherwise left the country for their education. Finally, the FHEIs would overall enhance the Indian HE space by efficiently “importing” high-quality education, program design, and professional outcomes similar to that of their source country. 

The reality, however, is not as linear. The quality of education provided by FHEIs of note is significantly influenced by the regulatory systems that govern them, thus allowing for a certain quality of academics and research. To that effect, universities abroad are given considerable autonomy in deciding their subjects, and choice of faculty, while undertaking considerable research along with academics. Replicating the success of FHEIs in their source country in India is not just a matter of setting up a campus, but also enabling systems that allow for academic and educational rigour. A university is not simply a building, and limited research undertakings result in a lack of meaningful academic outcomes. 

In the above context, the move to invite FHEIs comes under serious scrutiny. Any FHEI will not be permitted to teach any course or subject that “jeopardises the national interest of India”, according to a clause put forth by the document, without delving into further detail as to what this constitutes. Additionally, FHEIs will be penalised if “activities or academic programmes are against the interest of India”, another clause that does not specify what such activities are. Such clauses come against the backdrop of an increasing trend of censorship of campus activities, regular branding of institutional spaces as “anti-national”, and other instances of faculty censorship and bias. While HEIs have always been a hotbed of politics in India, the last decade has seen an increasing trend of arbitrariness in the ways in which campus culture and academic activities are applied to issues of national interest. On the contrary, HEIs abroad- especially those in the top 500 of the world, actively emphasise the role of academic autonomy and critical thinking as pillars of their academic and professional success. 

Additionally, the top 500 HEIs in the world have high research activity, with their home countries usually having a Gross Expenditure on Research and Development [GERD] above 1.5% of their GDP. In contrast, over the last decade, the Indian GERD has fluctuated between 0.7-0.8%. China, a country against which India is often compared, has a GERD above 2%, within which the investment in social science education has been increasing by 15-20% since 2003. 

Therefore, India seems to be importing FHEI campuses without investing in making the general HE sector one that is more research-intensive, robust and autonomous, the very aspects that have been proven to make FHEIs globally competitive. Such a move is then, by nature, symptomatic of the lack of policy concern towards meaningfully investing in higher education and implementing reforms that challenge the status quo. 

A state of stagnant GERD, consistent challenges in qualitative improvements and increasing trends of arbitrary academic curtailing show how the liberalised market-friendly expansion of the HEI sector in the last decade has mostly just remained an achievement of numbers. The impact of the expanded HE sector is limited to marginal improvements in enrolment, without the same being contextualised against qualitative and regulatory improvements in education, if at all available. Of course, given that FHEIs are also profit-making bodies and there is a profit to be made in the Indian domestic space, FHEIs may just welcome this move and set up offshore campuses. The move may just be a success, even relatively, determined simply by whether an FHEI sets up a campus or not. Indeed, Australia’s Deakin University has already become the first to announce a tertiary campus on Indian shores. 

Therefore, the move to invite FHEIs for domestic campuses, in the grand scheme of things, remains just that- another way of liberalising an already market-friendly and profit-oriented sector, with very little accountability towards reaching meaningful goals in higher education. While there is nothing objectively wrong with the profit motive in higher education, the profit motive in the Indian HE space has remained unconditional, without any meaningful large-scale gains in quality and impact. Enough can be discussed on the nature of education as a public good with public benefit, which, when privately provided, must be regulated in a manner to serve the public interest. 


Yashoroop Dey is the research lead for SPRF, a Delhi-based Public Policy Think Tank. His research interests include political systems, political economy, social security and development economics. 
Featured image illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty.