India’s branch campus plans may not germinate without seed funding

A lack of financial incentives, on top of academic freedom concerns, is likely to put off many overseas institutions, says Saikat Majumdar 

一月 20, 2023
A farmer holds a handful of rice seeds with a shoot growing out of one of them
Source: iStock

To say that universities are in crisis is both to invoke a cliché and to elide considerable nuance. The global higher education crisis is actually a series of crises that vary considerably by country and region. But while the crises in India and the anglophone West may be very different, they are also strangely complementary.

Many US universities are haunted by declining student enrolments and skyrocketing tuition fees, while their counterparts in England and Wales fret about the diminishing value of domestic student fees. The state of the humanities and social sciences, meanwhile, is causing great alarm on both sides of the Atlantic.

By contrast, India, with an exploding youth population and a traditionally state-sponsored higher education system with low tuition fees, suffers from a serious problem of quality control. The sheer statistical reality of selection from huge numbers of applicants often ensures high student quality at the top institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology. But highly uneven and inconsistent research cultures, along with a complete lack of pedagogical consciousness beyond outlier individual practitioners cannot but lead to very patchy educational provision, particularly beyond the big cities.

More recently, private universities have rushed into the market but these have brought high tuition to the table without significantly raising quality because, barring a few exceptions, they are unrelentingly profit-seeking.

On the face of it, then, the prospect of foreign universities coming to India seems like a win-win. First announced in the new National Education Policy unveiled in 2020, the lifting of the ban on foreign branch campuses in India offers the opportunity for Indian students to tap into international quality and for Western universities to tap into India’s vast higher education market. I mentioned the US and the UK because they are still the most coveted academic destinations for most Indian students, but the case can be extended, with some modification, to other anglophone countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

But the mathematics rarely adds up easily in the real world.

The original announcement has now been followed up by the publication of draft guidelines for foreign universities establishing branch campuses in India. However, even assuming everything else works out administratively, two major questions remain.

The first is financial. A quick look at the overseas campuses of major US universities shows that most of the funding, if not all, has come from local partners, be it the government or private players from the particular regions. The universities have provided some of the academic resources and, most importantly, a brand that sells, usually for a high price. For instance, in Qatar, the semi-private, non-profit Qatar Foundation has underwritten branch campuses of several overseas institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University and HEC Paris, at its Education City campus in Doha.

However, the closure of UCL Qatar in 2020 attests to the fact that in recent years there has been a withering of enthusiasm for branch campuses even in the rich Gulf region, amid management challenges and scant financial returns. It is highly unlikely that foreign universities will move ahead in India with their own resources. It is equally unlikely that Indian governments, central or local, will underwrite foreign university campuses’ expenses. And it is only marginally more likely that private stakeholders will do so.

That may partly explain why, of 43 Western universities surveyed in 2021, just a handful expressed an interest in setting up a branch campus in India. There is much greater enthusiasm about collaboration on joint degree and study programmes but that may have been dampened by the unexpected closure of Yale-NUS College, a liberal arts college within the National University of Singapore, about which expectations were high. The closure highlights worries about the prospects for success of the liberal arts approach in Asia, amid the tendency for Asian countries to seek to liberalise their economies while at the same time suppressing liberal thought and political citizenship.

Anyone familiar with the political climate in India today knows that its majoritarian intolerance of liberal political beliefs has already started to decisively shape – or destroy – the nation’s public higher education system. Even the Indian Institutes of Technology have been made to dilute their scientific and technological offerings with quasi-fictional curricula based on constructions of ancient Hindu “science”. And criticism of the state has led to severe suppression of freedoms across public universities – with many private institutions following suit to stay in governmental favour.

Liberal thought has been essential to universities in the West, but it is almost an act of unwarranted optimism to believe that branch campuses will be able to freely exercise it in today’s India. That could be another reason for Western university leaders to seek to address their crises by other means.

Saikat Majumdar is professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University. He is currently a fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study.



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