Opening Up India’s Higher Ed Market – Another Action Item for Obama

When President Obama arrives in India in a few days, he’ll have plenty of pressing issues to discuss — the Afghan war and the future of Pakistan notable among them. I was pleased, though, to see that his official schedule includes a town hall meeting with university students. Here’s hoping the president says at least a few words about the urgency of opening up India’s higher ed market to the foreign providers who are clamoring to get in.

As an article in Time explained recently, India’s “famously exasperating mix of politics and regulations” has made it very hard for U.S. institutions to gain entry. While other sectors of the country’s economy have opened up to foreign trade and investment in recent decades, helping spur India’s remarkable boom, protectionism is alive and well when it comes to higher education. Foreign universities can’t operate independently, despite the huge appetite that exists for their offerings in a nation short on university places — and sorely in need of higher-caliber postsecondary institutions.

Unable to establish full-blown branch campuses, many Western institutions have entered into partnerships with Indian universities. They often join forces with fast-expanding private colleges, some of dubious quality, in an effort to sidestep the regulatory hassles that come when working with public universities. Even then, unpredictability is the rule. When I was working on The Great Brain Race, I visited the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbia, a well-regarded institution that was running a joint degree program with Virginia Tech. By the time I was fact-checking the manuscript a year and a half later, I discovered that the program had closed down, the victim of overzealous government regulators.

Now, as Time reports, Virginia Tech is hoping to build a full-blown campus in Southern India. But the going will likely be tough. A bill heralded as throwing open the nation’s doors to foreign universities was passed by India’s cabinet earlier this year. Since being introduced in Parliament in May, however, it has hit numerous roadblocks. Among other challenges, the Indian Council of Universities, which has 60 members, has come out in opposition to the legislation, saying that it is unconsitutional.

New partnerships between Western and Indian universities will certainly continue to be launched. Just last week Yale announced that it would work with two elite institutions, the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur and the Indian Institute of Management in Kozhikode, to train university leaders. But much more can be done. The Yale initiative is part of a five-year collaboration between the United States and India known as the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative. President Obama should take the opportunity of his visit to press India to open its higher ed market more broadly and quickly. Meeting the demand for better access and quality in Indian higher education is a problem that foreign providers can help solve. Yes, an appropriate regulatory framework must be created. But political controversy notwithstanding, removing protectionist barriers isn’t just good for Western universities – it’s good for the Indian people.

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