OPINION

Beware of the Trojan Horse

Philip G. Altbach

Allowing foreign institutions to set up shop in India is not the only road to the internationalisation of Indian higher education.

India’s Parliament is often accused of inaction or long delays. The case of the Foreign Education Bill, bottled up for two years because of disagreements in the ruling coalition government, may be a case where delay is a good thing. India’s higher education policies are of crucial importance for the country and also of great relevance for the many foreign universities wishing to set up shop. The Indian press reports that 40 international universities have sought land from the government of Maharashtra in the Mumbai-Pune-Nashik area to establish campuses. These trends provide just one indication of the tremendous foreign interest in the large and lucrative higher education market in India. Some foreign universities are already working in India, mostly in collaboration with Indian partners.

India might be the world’s largest single market for foreign universities. The country has a significant unmet demand for higher education access — currently only 10 per cent of the age group attends university — half the proportion in China and well below the rate in most rapidly developing and middle-income countries. Further, India has a huge unmet demand for high-quality higher education. The number of places available in India’s very small top sector — the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management, and similar institutions — is tiny when compared to the demand. Thus, foreign institutions see a tremendous opportunity for lucrative growth in the Indian market.

Reasons for caution

Some stakeholders who see higher education simply as a tradable commodity that can be bought and sold internationally favour opening borders without restriction for educational products of all kinds. The for-profit higher education companies, many private universities, the international testing companies, and increasingly some universities and government agencies in the exporting countries — such as the United Kingdom and the United States — have this perspective. People who are convinced that higher education is more than a commodity have much to worry about in the rush toward importing and exporting universities and academic programmes because the idea of academic work as preparation for citizenship, preparation for critical thinking, and similar “public good” goals often get swept away by the importers and exporters. The traders are interested in selling products in immediate demand, such as management studies, and not in sustaining research universities, enhancing access and equity for underserved communities, and the like.

Why do foreign universities and education companies such as Laureate Education Inc. wish to enter the Indian market? The motivations are complex but very important to understand. One goal is clear — everyone who enters the Indian market wants to extract profits — mostly by offering academic programmes in fields that are in high demand. With very few exceptions, foreign providers are not interested in investing in high-cost academic infrastructures such as science laboratories and research facilities. They wish to minimise the investment and maximise the profit, like any corporation. Some countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, have a national policy to earn profits from higher education exports. Thus the British Council and similar organisations assist British educational institutions to maximise their export potentials. The British Council is no longer mainly in the information business but rather is focused on export promotion.

The United States differs in some respects but essentially follows the British and Australian pattern. The United States has no national higher education policy. Higher education policy is mainly a responsibility of the 50 states, and no state has declared higher education an export priority. Unlike the United Kingdom or Australia, the United States has a strong private higher education sector, and the private universities and colleges have been most aggressive about overseas exports. It is likely that the largest number seeking to enter the Indian market will include low-end private schools seeking to earn a profit.

The for-profit sector is also much stronger in the United States than is the case elsewhere. The two largest players are Laureate Education Inc. and the Apollo Group (owners of the University of Phoenix and other institutions). Laureate’s strategy is either to purchase existing universities outside the United States (they own 29 universities and postsecondary institutions on three continents) or to establish new schools. Laureate started a university in Andhra Pradesh, a state friendly to foreign providers, but pulled out when the regulatory environment seemed too complex.

The top American private and public universities—20 percent or so of the total of more than 3,000 colleges and universities—have complex motives for entering the Indian market. For the most part, they are genuinely interested in internationalization, and see India as an important player, economically and educationally, in the 21st century. They are concerned with their “brand image” and wish to expand it in one of the world’s major higher education markets. They may use their Indian outposts to recruit bright Indian students, and academic staff, to come to the United States for studying. Their Indian branch campuses will provide a place where their own students and faculty can study and do research. And, of course, in most cases the universities will seek to earn money from the programs offered in India.

The problem for India is the myriad of institutions at the bottom of the American academic hierarchy, both for-profit and non-profit. These players are likely to concentrate on entering the Indian market, with one essential reason for being in India — to earn money. While many of these institutions will offer respectable academic programmes, some will try to cut corners. Vetting and regulating these institutions will not be easy. There will be no help from the highly regarded American accrediting system. So long as an institution is accredited (and U.S. accreditation measures not high quality but rather the minimum standard), there are no official guidelines concerning institutional quality. These schools will offer the programmes in India that they feel will attract students and may well have little commitment to either a long-term presence in India or to maintaining good quality.

Branch campuses

As India carefully considers its policies concerning allowing foreign institutions in the country, a number of central issues must be addressed. What is the motivation of the foreign institution? Is everything about the foreign branch transparent and open? What is the status of the foreign institution in its own country? Is the foreign institution capable of offering the same quality in India as it does at home, and is that quality deemed of an acceptably high standard in the home country? Is the foreign institution able to deliver its programmes in India using its own faculty, and does it have appropriate infrastructures such as libraries, e-learning facilities, and laboratories to deliver the programmes it proposed? Is the foreign institution able to sustain its academic offerings over time in India?

Allowing foreign institutions to set up shop in India is not the only road to the internationalisation of Indian higher education. Twinning programs, joint degrees, exchanges of students and professors, sharing of curriculum, and other relationships are possible and more likely to ensure that essential Indian control over Indian higher education is maintained.

So far, India’s main contribution to world higher education is the export of students, many of whom do not return. India needs to engage more with the rest of the world, but not at the expense of giving up academic sovereignty. Higher education is not, in the end, purely a commodity to be bought and sold on the international market. Higher education represents an essential part of a nation’s patrimony and a key to future prosperity.

(Philip G. Altbach is Monan University Professor and Director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA.)



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