India issues draft rules for foreign university branches

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India’s publication of draft guidelines for foreign universities establishing branch campuses in the country has sparked concern among academics about potential infringements on institutional autonomy.

The criteria, which were expected to be finalized later this month following consultation, clarify the rules for international universities setting up Indian campuses, a shift first announced in the 2020 National Education Policy (NEP). They come amid soaring demand for higher education in the world’s fastest growing major economy.

According to the draft, foreign universities must be ranked among the world’s top 500 to set up shop in India, a more expansive definition than the top 100 threshold originally set out in the NEP.

The guidance also specifies that the quality of education provided by Indian outposts must be “at par” with that of an institution’s main campus. Once approved by the University Grants Commission, providers will be free to set their own tuition fees, define student selection criteria and appoint faculty.

While numerous commenters praised the “flexibility” of the guidelines, several academics speaking to Times Higher Education raised concerns over institutional autonomy.

Ashok Kumbamu, an assistant professor of biomedical ethics at the Mayo Clinic and an advocate for academic freedom in India, worried that foreign universities could “compromise on their liberal values” to accommodate Hindutva—Hindu nationalist—values.

“I could see a symbiotic relationship between foreign capital and Hindutva ideology. They cooperate with each other to dispossess historically marginalized groups in the Indian education system,” he said.

While others were less pessimistic, they too shared the concerns over academic freedom.

“Given India’s increasingly spotty record on academic freedom, foreign universities may have hesitation linking up with Indian counterparts or starting their own branches in India,” said Philip Altbach, professor of higher education at Boston College.

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Furqan Qamar, former secretary general of the Association of Indian Universities and professor of management at Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in New Delhi, agreed.

“Academic autonomy has been and is a major concern at the moment,” he said. “There are many provisions which circumscribe the autonomy of universities, and I think they would deter the best ones” from opening Indian branches, he added.

Some academics raised questions over phrasing in the draft that prohibits universities from operating in a way that runs “contrary to … the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, [and] public order.”

The language replicates the phrasing of an earlier regulation aimed at academics, noted Katharine Adeney, a professor at the University of Nottingham who researches majoritarianism in South Asia. In 2021, India put in place a rule requiring professors and administrators to get prior approval from its Ministry of External Affairs to hold international conferences related to India’s security or internal matters—a catch-all to clamp down on dissenting views, critics said.

But not everyone was worried by the new guidelines.

Shantanu Roy, professor of chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology at Delhi and previously its dean of academics, said the language on state security was “fairly standard.”

“I don’t think it is right to speculate on matters of academic freedom in regard to [foreign] institutions,” he said.

Eldho Matthews, a deputy adviser to the Unit for International Cooperation at New Delhi’s National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, was doubtful that academic freedom would ultimately force foreign universities to reconsider India branch plans.

“Many foreign universities are operating in countries like China, U.A.E., Kuwait [and] Qatar,” he said.

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