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India opens up, and raises the bar for its education system

There are exciting things afoot in India: the country is on a serious mission to raise the quality of education across its schools and universities and at the same time make education accessible to more Indians. To cap it off, India is now welcoming foreign universities to set up branch campuses within its borders.

Ambitious goals for enrolment

The Indian government wants to raise its higher education GER (Gross Enrolment Ratio) to 30% by 2020. It is currently at 19%, well below the global average of 26%. The government is stressing the importance of improving quality as a means to enrol more students within its own higher education system (for years, top – and/or wealthy – Indian students have tended to go abroad for higher education; in fact, the number of Indian students going overseas to study rose a stunning 256% from 53,266 in 2000 to 189,629 in 2009).

Last year, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee commented:

“The standards of higher education in India today need improvement. In ancient India, we had universities like Nalanda and Takshashila which had established themselves as international centres of educational excellence where students from all over the world came and studied. We must change the reality of our universities for not figuring in the list of top universities… Indian universities should aim at becoming top educational institutions in the world with global standards of research, teaching and learning.”

The government now says that efforts have been underway to rectify this situation since the introduction of the 11th Five Year Plan (which covered the 2007–2012 planning cycle). The 12th Plan (2012–2017) aims to reduce poverty by 10% and achieve an 8% growth rate. Its educational focus areas are technical education and distance learning, plus better quality in research, infrastructure, faculty, and curriculum content.

State-funded schools get new funding

To support the ideas of quality improvement and greater access, the government has green-lighted new funding of US $4 billion to the higher education plan known as Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (or RUSA), which has a budget of US $16 billion dollars to be spent between 2012 and 2022. The two most notable – and encouraging – aspects of RUSA are:

  1. The focus of the available budget is on improving the quality of institutions as opposed to the creation of new infrastructure. The idea is to prioritise student needs (e.g., labs and training) over more administrative or logistical options.
  2. The target of the new funding is state schools, which serve about 94% of the higher education student population in India versus the 6% served by centrally funded institutions. To date, despite state schools’ much higher student populations, it has been centrally funded schools that have received the most funding from the central government.

To be eligible for funding, states will have to set up certain administrative procedures and commit to allocating at least 4% of their GDP to higher education. Professor Baishnab Charan Tripathy, vice-chancellor of Ravenshaw University in Odisha state provided this quote to University World News:

“RUSA links the state government, the centre and the university, with all three working towards strengthening the higher education sector. This can rejuvenate declining state institutions and give a big boost to higher education in states.”

In short, where previous government five-year higher education plans have emphasised creating new infrastructure and institutions, RUSA is meant to be about strengthening existing resources, improving quality and outcomes, and improving governance. Moreover, it will be performance based, with more funds going to states and institutions boasting the best records and outcomes.

Foreign institutions invited in

In early September, the Indian Education Ministry announced it will now allow foreign branch campuses to set up shop in the country, putting an end to years of legislative delays on this issue. The degrees that will be conferred from foreign branch campuses will be considered foreign degrees, and if students wish to switch over or progress to Indian higher education institutions they will need to seek recognition of their credentials from the Association of Indian Universities.

To be allowed in, foreign branch campuses have to meet these conditions:

  • Not for profit;
  • In existence for at least 20 years;
  • Accredited by a reputable organisation;
  • Be ranked in the top 400 in one of three global rankings: the UK-based Times Higher Education or Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) rankings, or the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities;
  • Offer course content as good as that offered via their main campuses;
  • Not repatriate money earned on Indian soil or distribute profit or dividends to members.

So far, reaction to the new ruling seems positive, with an overall sense that branch campuses will increase the quality of education available to Indians in India, create a more competitive overall atmosphere (thus prompting Indian universities to improve), and bring in investment to various regions. University World News reports:

“A Human Resource Development Ministry official said that at least 20 foreign universities – mostly from the US, followed by Australia and Canada – had expressed a desire to enter the market, including Duke University, California Institute of Technology and Virginia Tech.”

Key will be in implementation

The Gross Enrolment Ratio goal of 30% by 2020, the RUSA funding and emphasis on quality, and the more welcoming policy toward foreign institutions may well spell great things to come for Indian students – and for a broader socio-economic swath of students than is currently able to access quality higher education in India.

But achieving “quality” improvements can sometimes be more elusive than simply expanding infrastructure and will have to be well managed and executed – with measurable indicators of performance checked off along the way. Done properly, RUSA stands to be incredibly important to the Indian higher education system, but done poorly it could amount to high hopes and lower real outcomes. Time will tell.

Another concern is how smoothly foreign branch campuses will be able to set up operations in India. There will be careful study of other branch campus setups in other countries in recent years to prevent red tape from bogging down the process and for great courses and programmes to be available to Indian students before long.

What is more immediate is what all three developments – the GER ratio goal, RUSA, and the new openness to branch campuses – signal to institutions around the world heavily invested in Indian student recruitment: India is intent on stepping up its domestic higher education quality and capacity, and create a skilled workforce of 500 million people by 2022.

India is not alone. The significant representation of Chinese institutions in world university rankings is a relatively new development. A recent ICEF Monitor article on Hong Kong, and other emerging education hubs in Asia, noted:

  • A 17% increase in the number of Asian universities in QS’s global top 200 during the last five years;
  • The number of Asian institutions in their global top 50 growing from nine to eleven;
  • The fact that Asia boasts five of the world’s top six “young” institutions (universities established since 1963) according to the QS Top 50 Under 50 ranking.

Will India now achieve similar success? If it does, look for even more Asian institutions in the world university rankings in years ahead.

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