No ‘rush to India’ by top-ranked universities, academics say

Government more likely to attract branches that are ‘very small and focused’ than large landmark campuses, scholar predicts

March 1, 2023
A 20-feet long apple garland is raised with a crane to welcome former Karnataka Minister D.K. Shivakumar, in Bangalore to illustrate No ‘rush to India’ by top-ranked universities, academics say
Source: Getty

As India rolls out its ambitious plan to attract world-leading institutions to its shores, scholars are sceptical that it will attract many takers.

In January, India published draft guidelines for foreign universities establishing branch campuses in the country, limiting the opportunity to institutions that are ranked among the world’s top 500.

The target group is larger than the top 100 initially envisaged, but some academics remained doubtful that the plan can succeed.

“I think there’s not going to be a rush to India by top universities overseas,” said Philip Altbach, professor of higher education at Boston College.

He noted issues including a heavily bureaucratic system, questions over academic freedom – and cost.

“Around the world, top-quality private institutions which have established branch campuses are heavily subsidised by foundations or governments in hosting countries, and India doesn’t seem to be interested to do that at all,” Professor Altbach said.

He said the government might need to lower its sights and consider interest from institutions that might lack high-profile name recognition but nevertheless provide “good” quality.

“Indian authorities are going to have to figure out if they…want to welcome those kinds of institutions,” Professor Altbach said.

Shahid Jameel, a professor at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and former chief executive of the Wellcome Trust DBT India Alliance, said the top 500 cut-off was an overreach.

“While it’s good to start with a high ambition, it is equally important to be pragmatic,” he said.

He pointed out that many elite institutions do not have branches in China, a top source of Western-bound students and – until it was surpassed by India – the world’s most populous country.

“Do Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge have any international campuses?” Professor Jameel asked. “What makes us think they will be rushing to India?”

Other leading institutions might also have reservations. Despite India’s recent assurance that it would not interfere in the functioning of any international branches on its shores, Professor Jameel was wary, noting that it had not set a “good example of autonomy by what is happening to its own universities”.

“This has all the wrong optics and doesn’t give assurance to those who are sought but have no real need to be in India,” he said.

Anurag Mehra, professor of chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, agreed. “There’s this illusion that we’re such a great intellectual superpower that people are just waiting outside the gates,” he said.

He worried that any foreign universities would struggle to cater to a “thin slice” of society: parents who are comfortably well off but lack the means to send their children to university abroad. The fees charged by Indian branches of international universities – even if they were reduced – would be unaffordable for the vast majority of their target demographic, he said.

Jason Lane, dean of the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University in Ohio and an expert on branch campuses, thought that India would ultimately attract a “small number” of top 500 institutions.

“You already see some top 100 institutions, such as Monash [University], positioning themselves to set up shop,” he said.

But if India was looking to international institutions to significantly expand domestic capacity for students, it might be disappointed.

“There are very few institutions that have the resources to invest upfront in the development of expansive facilities or large staff that seem to be envisioned by the government,” Professor Lane said. “Without those resources, it’s even more likely that [branches] will start out with very small and focused offerings.”

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