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India moves on from branch campus plan

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A high-policy document from the Indian government sets out plans for significant reforms and enrolment targets in Indian higher education and skills training
  • The government has indicated that it will abandon plan to open up Indian higher education to foreign partnerships
  • Instead, the focus is shifting to the development of a cohort of “eminent” institutions that can compete with leading institutions around the world, and on improving governance, quality of education, and graduate outcomes

India has effectively turned the page on its plan to open its market to foreign universities. After moving last year to liberalise regulations permitting the market entry of foreign institutions, senior Ministry of Human Resource Development officials have signalled that priorities have changed. Rather than encouraging domestic-foreign partnerships in higher education, a policy direction the government had pursued for some years, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now set out plans for new reforms in tertiary education.

These new proposals are outlined in a Three Year Action Agenda published last month by the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog). NITI Aayog functions as a high-level think tank within the Indian government, and, as such, provides important inputs on government policy and direction.

In the new Three Year Action Agenda, NITI Aayog sets out a new focus for higher education reforms in India. In particular, the designation of 20 “world class” universities that will receive additional funding and autonomy to allow them to operate outside of existing governance structures for Indian institutions. Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar has since referred to the group of 20 unis as “Indian institutes of eminence.”

In a recent interview with Times Higher Education, University of Pennsylvania Professor Devesh Kapur said that he thought the “institutions of eminence” plan was a more sustainable model for the long-term when compared to opening up the country’s higher education system to foreign institutions. Institutions within that group of 20, he observed, “will themselves form partnerships with good institutions around the world, whether twinning, faculty/student exchanges, [or] joint research projects.”

The idea is to build a cohort of ten private and ten public institutions form the eminent group of 20. To date, a budget of 10,000 crore rupees (US$1.5 billion) has been approved to support the to-be-determined public institutions. The longer-term goal of the eminent institutions programme is to establish a top tier of Indian institutions that can attract greater international recognition along with the best students and faculty from within India and abroad.

Governance reforms

The drive to build a cohort of eminent institutions appears to be part of a broader effort to reform university governance in India. NITI Aayog was unflinching in its critique of existing regulatory structures, and particularly the country’s University Grants Commission, which is states is “in dire need of reform.”

“The UGC’s position as an overarching regulator of every aspect of higher education from student fees to curriculum to teaching and course hours keeps India’s higher education system from responding to the changes and challenges that it faces in a fast evolving world,” says the Three Year Action Agenda. “Various professional councils further complicate the regulatory environment in higher education. We should introduce a system of regulation that focuses on information disclosure and governance rather than micro management of universities. This requires an overhaul of the UGC as a regulatory system and a rationalisation of the role of professional councils.”

The goal behind all of these high-level reforms is to improve the quality of relevance of Indian higher education. The employability of Indian graduates has long been called into question, and NITI Aayog cites a single 2016 assessment of 150,000 engineering graduates as “an indication of the magnitude of the challenge.” Only 18% of those newly minted engineers were found to be employable in the software services sector, and only 4% were deemed suitable work in software engineering start-ups.

This in a country that has seen its university enrolment expand by leaps and bounds over the past decade, to the point where only China has a larger head count. The drive is on to boost India’s tertiary gross enrolment ratio to 30% by 2020, but the system is struggling to keep pace, in terms of budgets, facilities, faculty, and curriculum renewal.

Meanwhile, the limited employability of graduates is clearly a preoccupation for government which aims to capitalise on the “one-off opportunity” of the country’s massive demographic dividend. Along with building its university enrolment and improving graduate outcomes, however, India also needs to dramatically expand its numbers in skill training programmes. With that in mind, the Three Year Action Agenda highlights an established goal to train five million apprentices by 2020. In support of this goal, NITI Aayog appears poised to focus greater attention on national standards frameworks, including the recognition of skills training gained by Indian students abroad.

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