Take the time to get it right

Philip Altbach advises India to tread carefully - the international experience shows that simply throwing open the doors to foreign providers is no panacea

July 9, 2009

India's new Minister of Human Resource Development, Kapil Sibal, has promised to open up its higher education sector to foreign universities and to promote private investment. This is a break with the policy of previous administrations, which traditionally have been cool to foreign involvement. As India contemplates its new direction, it is worth examining what happened in other countries that have followed this path.

Market first, quality second

Sibal would be quite wrong to assume that foreign involvement will assist India to rapidly improve its lagging higher education system.

With few exceptions, foreign providers worldwide seek a quick profit by establishing programmes that attract high student demand and are inexpensive to start and operate - especially popular are information technology, business studies and related fields. Most foreign providers are not top universities but rather institutions at the middle or bottom of the hierarchy in their home countries. Some have financial or enrolment problems at home that they hope to solve with offshore ventures. A few are "bottom feeders" that provide a substandard educational product.

Experience shows that the "market" is slow to detect low quality - and in any case there seems to be a clientele for it. However, a few top universities will be interested in India for a combination of reasons - to earn money, establish long-term relations with the best Indian institutions on their home turf and set up a base from which to recruit outstanding Indian students and faculty.

Domestic reform is not guaranteed

Some have argued that foreign transplants will spur reform in India's moribund higher education system. This is an unlikely scenario. Thoughtful Indians know what is wrong with the system, and numerous high-level inquiries, including the recent offering from the Knowledge Commission, have provided road maps for reform. Further, many Indians have experience in the best overseas universities and know how they work. Improvement will come from the inside, not from a few foreign transplants.

Foreign programmes will not focus on reforming higher education but rather on competing successfully with local colleges and universities. Nor will foreigners replicate the full infrastructure of a modern university. They will bring specific programmes and facilities that will be profitable in India. Only when the host country pays the full cost do foreign universities establish full facilities and expensive programmes, as in the case of the Cornell University Medical School in Qatar.

Elite are not easily enticed

If Sibal believes that he will quickly get top-quality universities to set up shop in India, he is mistaken. It is likely that some for-profit providers, such as Laureate and Apollo, will be most interested. Although these institutions have operated successfully in many countries, they are not seen as prestigious.

University transplants frequently encounter significant logistical problems. A big challenge is convincing staff from home campuses to teach abroad. This is often the Achilles heel of foreign providers, which, in almost every case, end up hiring local teaching staff. It may be sufficient for Indians to study in an ostensibly foreign institution in India taught by local professors; the students may end up with a foreign degree but with little international experience. Just as important, if there is no quick profit, the foreign operation may pull up stakes or reduce costs by lowering quality.

Regulation: stronger is better

What are the lessons of other countries' experiences with foreign-branch campuses and international collaborations? Some that opened their doors with little regulation found most foreign entrants to be substandard. This was Israel's experience. Most of the foreign institutions were marginal at home, and performed poorly. Israel's door was soon closed again. The losers were the students who paid high prices for low quality.

Most countries with relatively positive experiences created a clear regulatory framework to control market entrants and the terms and conditions of their operation. China requires foreign institutions to connect with a Chinese institutional partner and to gain government approval. Even then, some provincial and local authorities that approve collaborations have made mistakes.

Sibal has indicated that he will abolish strong regulators such as the University Grants Commission and the All India Council for Technical Education. In many countries, however, foreign involvement in higher education has been run by strong regulatory regimes that have worked well. Singapore, with a largely successful history of overseas collaboration, stringently regulates foreign providers and has been willing to terminate programmes, such as one with Johns Hopkins University, which the Singaporeans felt was not living up to its promises. Ministries of education or their equivalents in South Korea, Japan and some other East Asian countries carefully regulate market entrants and monitor performance.

Quality assurance has been a central problem. Few countries can effectively monitor standards in their own universities, so foreign institutions create additional challenges. US accreditors monitor American branch campuses and find it a difficult task. India's quality-assurance agencies do not function particularly well; monitoring and evaluating numerous foreign transplants may be beyond their capability.

Clear policy needed

Sibal is right that India cannot keep its academic doors shut for ever. The country is a rising power in a globalised world. However, simply throwing the doors open would be a serious mistake. A truly open door lets in pests as well as welcome guests. India, like other developing countries, needs a clear policy and regulatory framework. What is the rationale for participating in global higher education? What institutions and investments from abroad are appropriate for India? What are the criteria for selecting, monitoring and evaluating foreign institutions? Until these questions are answered and a robust policy framework is established, opening doors will create long-term problems for India's academic system.

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