Radical reform of India’s higher education sector will open the door for British universities

New opportunities beckon. parth joshi

Universities are being urged to seize the opportunity of expanding into India where reforms will radically change the country’s higher education sector in the next decade.

In a new report, the British Council said India’s tertiary-age population will be the world’s third largest largest by 2020, behind only China and the United States. Ambitious plans by the government to expand university enrolment from 18% to 30%, means India needs to provide 14m extra university places by then.

The report comes after the latest figures on UK university admissions showed the number of Indian students heading to the UK halved in the last two years. The UK has registered its first drop in international students, of 1%, for courses starting in 2012-2013. Universities have blamed the fall on a restrictive immigration policy.

The British Council’s researchers interviewed a range of Indian academics and higher education professionals for their report. Many said the UK should broaden its horizons when considering ways to partner with Indian higher education institutions, or risk losing out.

“Historically, we’ve been able to forge a deeper and more substantial relationships with many American universities,” said Professor C. Raj Kumar, vice chancellor of O.P. Jindal Global University in India. “I’ve always felt that there is a case for this kind of engagement to be deepened with British universities.”

Don’t forget the states

At the moment, India’s higher education sector is highly regulated, with foreign universities restricted from setting up campuses. Until now, much of the research collaboration between the UK and India has been with “tier 1” universities and Institutes of National Importance, through programmes such as the UK-India Education and Research Initiative.

But these top level institutions only represent 2.6% of the students who enrol in India. The vast majority come through either private, or state institutions, in particular through a system of “affiliated colleges” which are linked to state universities.

Quality control of these colleges has been a constant problem, although it has stepped up since the government made accreditation mandatory in 2013. The report recommends UK universities would do well to start partnering with these state institutions, which educate the bulk of Indian students.

Legislative changes ahead

Ongoing reforms to devolve higher education budgets from central government to the states are also set to reshape the higher education landscape. So far, 19 states have signed up to the reform programme, called Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan, with the first round of funding due to begin in October 2014. Some states, such as Gujurat and Tamil Nadu, are likely to make progress quicker than others.

The report points to two pieces of legislation which could help open up the higher education system to more foreign partnership. It looks unlikely that the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill – which would regulate the entry of foreign universities and allow them to award degrees in India – will be passed any time soon.

But Indian academics are more hopeful of progress in a second Innovation and Research Universities Bill. This could allow new education hubs to be established that would be free to recruit foreign faculty members – currently very restricted in India.

Still, the report warns UK universities not to wait for the legislation to pass in order to form partnerships with Indian institutions, particularly as elections in April 2014 may push legislative timetables back even further.

The report’s authors also point to a problem with the poor research output in India as an important opportunity for UK universities. There is a “chronic shortage of undergraduates and postgraduates choosing to pursue academic careers”, the researchers found. Understaffing is a big problem, with 30-40% of teaching posts left vacant. India also has a low output of PhDs compared to other emerging economies.

Bricks and mortar

“Even though India has a long history of higher education, we’ve not been able to develop leading institutions of excellence which are promoting research, scholarships and publications,” said Kumar.

He said it was “a mistake” to assume the future of foreign higher education institutions in India would be in “brick and mortar” buildings. Instead, he pointed to more partnerships based on research and innovation.

The jury remains out on whether building new campuses abroad is a profitable venture for UK universities. “Start-up costs are high, as are reputational risks,” explained Simon McGrath, professor in International Education and Development at the University of Nottingham, which has campuses in Malaysia and China. “Often the current branch campuses are public-private partnerships with limited scope for profit generation and subject to legal constraints on repatriation of income.”

The British Council report also found Indian academics are keen for UK students to study in India, rather than just continue the one-way street the other way. Other countries, such as France and Germany, have been more active at sending students to India, than the UK.

McGrath says that for the most part, programmes with compulsory years abroad have concentrated on Europe, although some networks such as Universitas 21 are now encouraging more global mobility.

“The reality is that take up is far less than hoped for at the moment,” he said, pointing to a variety of cultural, linguistic and practical reasons such as cost and quality and parity of institutions.

The problem remains the same for China too. While there are around 150,000 Chinese students in the UK, but only around 5,000 UK students in China.