Home / Opinion / Views /  Our perplexing eagerness to import higher education
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The nation enters Amrit Kaal with the news that India is now the largest provider of overseas students to the United Kingdom. During the year ended on 30 June 2022, the UK issued 117,965 study visas to Indian applicants. This constituted 24.23% of all student visas issued by it and marked a whopping increase of about 89% over the previous year.

A recent Indian relaxation in the recognition of Master’s degrees from the UK could possibly be one of the major reasons for this rise in the number. Denial of equivalence had been a deterrent, but was an unexplainable incongruity. The problem has been persisting for some time now, and it is good that the issue has been resolved at least to some extent, if not fully.

How could India advertise, select and award Commonwealth fellowships for postgraduate studies in the UK and at the same time not recognize the qualifications earned? How could the country sanction leave for its officers or sponsor them to pursue Master’s from select universities in the UK and then refuse to recognize their qualifications?

This apart, India seems to be going head over heels to usher in opportunities for its people to pursue foreign higher education. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has been holding extensive consultations with foreign missions in India to invite their universities to enter the country. Nearly four dozen foreign universities have already conveyed their enthusiasm for twining kind of possibilities.

The UGC is working hard to come up with a framework for the entry and operation of foreign universities. Indications are aplenty that such institutions would enjoy much freedom with regard to fees, faculty and curricula. In the interim, Indian rules relating to dual-degree programmes in collaboration with foreign universities have already been relaxed.

Efforts to create an enabling framework for the entry and operation of foreign universities have been on since 1995. The government had, however, put on hold the idea of allowing foreign universities to set up campuses in India in 2017, even though the Niti Aayog had favoured the idea.

Our policy planners are now only pursuing what the new National Education Policy prescribes, albeit a little more enthusiastically. One aim of the policy is to have the top 100 universities of the world come to India. Policy planners and regulators have already identified as many as 250 from 60 countries, not only to set up their campuses in India, but also to offer programmes under twining arrangements.

India has traditionally been a net importer of higher education. In 2000, the number of students studying abroad for higher education was 10 times the number of foreign students studying in India. Even in 2020, this gap was as wide as 9.7 times. By the Unesco Institute of Statistics (UIS) data, in 2018-19, India received 47,427 foreign students as compared to 461,792 Indians who went abroad for higher education.

Obviously, this has had serious implications for our foreign exchange outflows on account of studies abroad. Data on outward remittances under the Liberalised Remittance Scheme (LRS) of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) reveals that outflows on account of studies abroad have gone up from $218 million in 2009-10 to $5,165 million in 2021-22.

Peculiarly, the outward remittances on account of studies abroad were no more than $159 million in 2013-14. In relative terms, such foreign transfers as a proportion of total remittances under the LRS shot up from 14.6% in 2013-14 to 30.2% in 2020-21.

The per student outward remittances on account of studies abroad ranged between $726 and $738 during 2010-11 to 2013-14. Since then, this figure has skyrocketed, and reached $7,731 in 2018-19.

This tenfold increase over the span of half a decade suggests that the higher cost of higher education does not necessarily deter people from going abroad.

This could also hint at the fact that now a larger number of students are going abroad for undergraduate programmes that are less (or not) supported by financial aid packages and scholarships.

The entry of foreign universities is often justified on the ground that it would check the outflow of students to offshore destinations and thus help reduce our foreign exchange outflows. The argument may have merit, but only to a limited extent.

There are few private universities which claim to offer world-class higher education within the country at only a fraction of the cost charged by world-class universities overseas. They have indeed been able to attract a good number of students, but that has not coincided with any decline in the number of Indian students going abroad.

Given the fact that most foreign universities have shown interest only in the twining arrangement, it would be naive to expect any significant inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country’s field of higher education.

This doesn’t mean that there would be no beneficiaries of the initiative. Private higher education providers may hope to benefit immensely. They could position themselves as elite institutions offering foreign qualifications under twining arrangements. Many might emerge as multi-brand higher education providers offering a diverse range of ‘products’ at variable prices.

These are the author’s personal views.

Furqan Qamar is professor in the faculty of management studies of Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and a former adviser for education in the erstwhile Planning Commission

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