The lack of clarity in the UGC’s regulations on entry of foreign universities has caused unease in academia and educational institutions
The recently approved University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations, on foreign universities, have done little to clear the prevailing confusion on the subject.
For those who support the move to bring in foreign universities, and those who oppose it, there is unease over the ambiguities in the UGC (Promotion and Maintenance of Standards of Academic Collaboration between Indian and Foreign Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2012, for its perceived discrimination between privately-funded institutions and public institutions, and infringement of autonomy.
The most glaring of them is that the nature of collaborations between an Indian educational institution and its foreign partner is not defined, leaving the door open for manipulation by institutions, both Indian and their collaborating partners, as the UGC is not empowered to regulate foreign institutions. On the other hand, the memorandum of understanding signed by two collaborating institutions has to be approved by the UGC, which is being construed as an infringement on the autonomy of higher educational institutions.
But, the loudest protest is over the provision on accreditation, which makes it mandatory for foreign educational institutions keen on partnering with Indian ones, to be among the top 500 institutions as ranked by only two specified ranking methods: the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) or the Academic Ranking published by the Center for World-Class Universities (CWCU) of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The protest is mainly on two counts. First, that the choice of assessing quality of foreign educational institutions is severely limited because several equally credible ranking systems — QS , Webometrics, USNews — to name just a few, have been ignored.
Apart from these popular ranking systems, there are traditionally acknowledged categories — for example, the Ivy League institutions of the United States, or say the Russell Group of top-20 research universities in the United Kingdom. Some of them may not subject themselves to assessment by either THES or Jiao. Shouldn’t students have the right to form their own opinion about universities that opt to stay clear of popular ranking formats for one reason or the other? By limiting the choice to the THES and Jiao lists, UGC regulations have precisely blocked this opportunity, though it will certainly block the entry of fly-by-night institutions.
Second, while all collaborating publicly-funded domestic institutions in India are exempt from the requirement of prior accreditation, private domestic institutions are required to have accreditation by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC). Accreditation and assessment of universities and higher education institutions are not mandatory at present. Academics working for private universities strongly feel that it is doubtful that such blatant discrimination between public and private universities is constitutionally sustainable. In any case, not all publicly funded educational institutions in India make the cut for a blanket exemption from accreditation, nor are all privately-funded institutions with NAAC accreditations academically sound.
Also, a separate Bill on making accreditation for all institutions compulsory irrespective of ownership is pending before Parliament, adding to the confusion.
Issue of regulations
Doubts are also being raised about the competence of the Commission to regulate foreign providers. These regulations have been framed under section 26(1) of the UGC Act, 1956 which empowers the Commission to make regulations for “defining the minimum standards of instruction for the grant of any degree by any university,” and for “regulating the maintenance of standards and the coordination of work or facilities in Universities.”
Collaboration has been defined as an “arrangement between an Indian institution and a foreign educational institution (FEI) through a written agreement for the purpose of collaboration/partnership/twinning arrangements for the purpose of degree or post graduate diploma programmes.” However, the nature of collaboration is not defined and there appears to be no clarity on the role of the partners and the arrangement of faculty. Also, in case the foreign institute does not confer a degree (it is not mandatory), the students would end up with an Indian degree, thereby defeating the entire purpose of allowing such an arrangement. In the reverse situation, the role of the Indian educational institutions would be a suspect. They could even end up as being merely a channel for students.
According to the regulations, FEI can offer only conventional mode, and not distance education. Recognised Indian institutions imparting undergraduate, post graduate programmes and higher levels can be the Indian partners. Only PG programmes of more than one year duration are proposed to be allowed. Collaboration could be in the form of twinning, whereby students enrolled in an Indian institution may study partly in India and partly in the FEI situated in India or outside India.
Also, the regulations require that any FEI collaborating with an Indian institute will have to enter into a written agreement. The FEI concerned shall submit a draft memorandum of understanding (MoU)/agreement to the UGC along with an application in the prescribed format, giving all details about the facilities, faculty and requisite funds for operation for a minimum of three years. This is being perceived as an infringement on the autonomy of the private institutions as it would be the UGC that would decide on the appropriateness of the courses.
Under its mandate to coordinate and determine standards of university education, the UGC can prevent a higher education institution from tying up or collaborating with foreign education institutions, if, in its opinion, that would result in a lowering of standards; and, it can prevent a university from awarding unrecognised degrees. But the jury is still out on whether it has jurisdiction over FEIs, or over foreign degrees resulting from twinning programmes.
One way to look at the proposed UGC regulations is as a poor substitute for a comprehensive regulation of foreign education providers through an Act of Parliament. While it is understandable that the HRD Ministry has reasons to be frustrated over the slow progress in getting its proposals through, mainly owing to a lack of numbers in Parliament, and because it is unsure of the support of its own allies, the timing of the UGC regulations could not have been worse. The government is open to the charge that it is trying to use the Commission to sidestep legislative obligations. The possible breach of Parliamentary privilege apart, the legality of the proposal is also suspect.
Academic collaboration in the initial stages is a good strategy to engage with reputed FEIs. It is also nothing new to Indian higher education. The early Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) are results of collaboration with leading foreign institutions. Academic collaboration with reputed institutions would serve to enhance the standards of higher education — benefiting faculty, students, academic, administration, as well as research. Academic collaboration may also be more acceptable across the political divide that confronts the second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government; certainly, more acceptable than the entry of new greenfield FEIs, which could be a longer term option. However, the extra-Parliamentary manner in which it is proposed to be delivered could result in the baby getting thrown out with the bathwater.