It is not just in India; many South Asian universities are joining hands with educational institutions in the West to meet the demand for quality higher education at home, according to a report by The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Indian students have over the years been regularly going to universities abroad and universities here have also received a steady stream of students from foreign countries.

A recent trend however, in many South Asian countries, has seen institutions in these countries collaborating with universities abroad to offer courses designed, monitored and certified by the latter.

For instance, Afghanistan has tie-ups with Stanford Law School (US) and the American University of Afghanistan that offers a full, five-year integrated degree in Law. Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and the University of Houston (US) are involved in faculty exchanges, mentoring, and training sessions.

The India–Oxford Cancer Research Network, collaboration between Oxford University and six leading cancer research centres in India, has established itself as one of India’s leading academic oncology networks.

In Nepal, the University of Wyoming (US), Tribhuvan University and Kathmandu University are involved in multiple research collaborations in the Himalayas, with focus on conservation and the impact of humans on natural ecosystems. Also in Pakistan, Newcastle University (UK) and University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore, have a tie-up on the development of water scarcity management strategies.

In India, reportedly 600 foreign institutions cooperate in this manner — predominantly with universities in the UK, US and Canada.

The MoU’s these universities have signed with institutions abroad can be looked at from many angles, says Haridas Manohar, a retired professor, Delhi University. While for some, the tie-ups are the only medium to provide quality education, for others it is also a way of enhancing its education offerings. Prof Manohar also feels the need to monitor the collaborations is essential, especially when they increase in number.

A custom research report for British Council by The Economist Intelligence Unit has studied trends in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in higher education, and particularly provides insights into transnational education. The report and its findings were discussed at a recent seminar — Global Education Dialogues: South Asia Series in Colombo, organised by The British Council, which had over 500 participants from various countries.

High demand

The report highlighted the fact that rising demand in South Asia for higher education is currently not being met, despite its growing significance to economic development. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka together account for around 25 per cent of the world’s population.

India's Foreign Universities Bill may have attracted a lot of interest, despite being pending due to opposition even after gaining cabinet approval in 2010. However, India accounts for a major chunk of the number of students going abroad for education. Last year, the UK played host to over 21,000 Indian postgraduate students while the US hosted over 59,000, along with 2,041 from Bangladesh, 2,822 from Nepal, 1,900 from Pakistan, and 1,412 from Sri Lanka.

Critics point out assurance, and lack of effective accreditation and quality assurance mechanisms, remain shortcomings, when it comes to transnational education. India, for instance, is consistently among two of the largest foreign markets (along with China) for higher education in the US, UK and Australia.

So, how do other countries fare in this regard?

Afghanistan serves as the most striking example, where funding for public sector higher education is provided exclusively by the government. This is with the exception of postgraduate courses, where fee is charged.

In Nepal, the proportion of education funding allocated to higher education declined steadily throughout the 2000s, as the government shifted away from a policy of fully-funded higher education to one of cost recovery. Campuses of public universities receive government funding but affiliated campuses do not.

Among all countries in South Asia, Nepal and Sri Lanka have yet to fully embrace privatisation in higher education. In Sri Lanka, where higher education has historically been fully state-funded and free, resistance to the concept of privatisation of education has led to strikes by academics as recently as 2012. The events had resulted in a three month shut-down of state-funded universities.

Athula Pitigala-Arachchi, chief executive officer, Asia Pacific Institute of Information Technology, acknowledges a need for Sri Lanka to liberalise the sector. “The government does not have enough funds to expand the public sector, so the private sector has to play a key role”, he says.

Private funding

The emergence of private universities is a relatively recent development in South Asia, and the report acknowledges the rapid growth of private institutions in India.

Pakistan, on the other hand, say experts, has managed to shake off its dependence on public funding. The budget allocated to the highest decision-making body in higher education was drastically slashed almost by 80 per cent and universities were told to generate funding.

Pawan Agarwal, higher education adviser to India’s Planning Commission suggests an approach that mixes both standard allocation to universities and competitive funding for research, suggesting universities be encouraged to raise funds through consultancies, research contracts and donations.

Students on the other hand, at least those in countries such as Sri Lanka, feel collaborative initiatives offer the best of both worlds. “It is very difficult to get into the universities of Sri Lanka, and going abroad is not affordable for many families that have more than one child. I chose to study here because I get a global exposure, customised to suit local requirements,” said Sarath Jayate, a student who studies at the Sri Lanka University of Surrey (UK) that has partnerships with Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT) to allow undergraduate students to continue their MSc studies through a joint programme with the University of Surrey's Department of Computing.