India’s new National Education Policy (NEP), approved by the Union cabinet on Wednesday, could cause a major dust-up in the only field of publicly-funded academia that can claim any success since independence: higher education. This is not just because we could soon have a reworked school system, a common entrance test for college admissions, a flexible approach to undergraduate studies, and a shift in what students are taught, all overseen by a new regulator, but also because our hallowed portals of learning may be thrown open to foreign universities. In a significant break with tradition, they would now be allowed to set up local campuses here. Whether it is varsities of America’s Ivy League stature that take up the offer, or less fancied names, this is sure to prove controversial—not least because the country’s current ruling party had opposed a similar move by its predecessor on nationalist grounds. Today, the idea of letting them in seems to have bipartisan support, and that is arguably good for India.
The new policy aims to “facilitate" the entry of the world’s top 100 universities through an enabling law. This would expand the set of choices available to Indian students and perhaps save billions of dollars in fees paid by parents who send their children abroad for studies. Over 750,000 Indians are estimated to be studying overseas; their bills are truly exorbitant, and many of them may opt to stay in India if they could get the same degree at a lower cost. The same package could attract students from elsewhere too, helping us earn foreign exchange as a “knowledge hub", a term used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for what India ought to become. These new institutions are likely to charge far more than what subsidized Indian colleges currently do, but so long as our subsidy regime survives, nobody should fear an overall rise in educational fees after their entry. The country’s commitment to equity should ensure that high-quality education never goes out of anyone’s reach. The market has already got segmented by fee brackets with the proliferation of private colleges, and this trend will probably get accentuated. What is of greater relevance, however, is the effect of global competition in a domain that has had too little of it. Already armed with a cost advantage, Indian colleges would be spurred to raise the quality of teaching and research in a bid to attract the best students. We may even see a fascinating rivalry between the world’s top academic names and India’s own.
Suspicions have been around that the globe’s best reputed universities have fee structures that reflect not just their excellence, but also their “brand premium" and scarcity of seats in the face of swelling demand. India’s best- regarded colleges are also extremely short of seats, as seen in our annual admissions scramble, but at least they offer exceptional value for money. Now that the NEP promises to widen subject choices and blur the rigid separation of arts and science streams, our homegrown institutions could conceivably compete with the Ivy League on their unique selling point: their offer of a multi-discipline “liberal arts" education. This is great stuff for the diversity of exposure it affords. Higher education in India has had horse-blinders for too long. For the field to acquire sufficient vibrancy, however, each college must be granted the autonomy it would need to pursue its own aims. This may depend on how liberal the sector’s regulatory authority turns out to be.