Western universities hesitant on India branch campuses

Survey on Indian government initiative to open up to foreign offshoots finds concern about hurdles from overseas institutions

July 23, 2021

Most overseas universities are taking a “wait and see” approach to opening branch campuses in India, as the nation’s government makes long-awaited moves to open up its huge education market to international institutions, according to the first survey of its kind.

Eldho Mathews, author of the report, published by India’s National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, where he is a deputy adviser, surveyed 43 higher education institutions from 11 countries soon after the 2020 launch of the National Education Policy (NEP), which opened new legal pathways for internationalisation. The paper bills itself as helping the government “identify delivery models suitable for India…and frame relevant rules and regulations”.

Mr Mathews told Times Higher Education that, if the initiative succeeds, it could bring “more diversity to the sector, make niche courses available, help develop globally relevant curricula, and encourage healthy competition in the sector”.

Manju Singh, joint secretary of the international section at India’s University Grants Commission, said last month that a foreign branch campus is “on the top of our wish list”. 

Eight of the 43 HEIs in the survey said that they would “definitely consider” the idea of an Indian campus. All eight institutions were based in anglophone nations that host large numbers of Asian students – five in the US, and one each from the UK, Australia and Canada. All said that their preference was to target “mainly Indian students”.  

The eight interested parties stressed the importance of the government developing a “liberal regulatory framework for improving the attractiveness of India”. Half said that they were concerned about the state of infrastructure such as roads, electricity, water, telecommunications and airports. And five questioned whether India would provide “financial and non-financial incentives” to open the schools.

Most expected some sort of Indian backing. The most popular possible models included state-supported buildings and facilities (as at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China), privately supported buildings and facilities (as at the University of Nottingham campus in Malaysia), education hubs (as at the Dubai International Academic City), or collaboration with a local partner (as at the Singapore Institute of Management’s programme at the University at Buffalo).

The NEP specifies that only universities ranked in the global top 100 could qualify for branch campuses. However, in Mr Mathews’ research, only two institutions in the top 100 of THE’s World University Rankings expressed interest. The other six interested universities are from the top 200. 

One higher education analyst in India, who asked to remain anonymous, told THE that he would cast the net even further to the world’s top 500, especially as “Covid has forced many universities to change their global engagement strategies”.

He listed major financial hurdles that the government would have to overcome. For example, a new framework would be needed to allow these institutions to repatriate earnings from their Indian branches.

Additional feedback from the surveyed universities underlined potential pitfalls. “Price points for education in India are low, which makes it difficult for overseas universities to build a business case, as it forces them to look at high-volume education scenarios,” which were unlikely for top-200 institutions, one respondent said.  

“It is difficult to have a university with a higher cost of tuition operating in India without a backlash from society,” said another, who also expressed concern about the cost of training local staff to global standards, and whether the country could offer a “strong legal and financial structure.”

Another said that “India would need to offer incentives similar to countries like China to attract world-class universities”.

Mr Mathews said that the government should cultivate an investor-friendly environment, a dedicated portal for communication and “diverse models” of delivery, including partnerships, higher education hubs and science parks. He also recommended that a new academic accreditation body be created in partnership with international agencies.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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