India’s higher education is opening up. But is it ready?

Indian higher education has suddenly become ‘hot’ – with delegations of global university leaders and politicians flocking to the country, the latest group from Australia. Governments and universities from around the world are signing memoranda of understanding with Indian counterparts and making big plans for research collaboration, joint degrees and other initiatives.

Recent regulations for setting up international branch campuses in Gujarat and the interest expressed by some foreign universities in doing this is the latest trend.

This is not surprising. India is now the world’s second largest higher education system, with around 38 million students in 50,000 academic institutions (including 1,057 universities) and a goal of doubling gross enrolment rates from the current 26.3% to 50% by 2035. Further, India is the second largest source of international students (after China) globally.

Interest is also stimulated by the new National Education Policy (NEP) released in 2020 that promises major investment in post-secondary education and significant improvement in India’s top universities with an emphasis, for the first time, on internationalisation.

Importantly, the NEP promises to open up a highly regulated and a largely closed academic system to the world. The traditional Indian ‘swadeshi’ (encouraging local products) ideology will, it is proposed, be replaced by an open door.

Scepticism about China, especially in Western countries, its ‘zero-COVID’ policy, and a modest decline in internationally mobile Chinese students have also stimulated interest in India.

While there is enthusiasm, little is known about the realities of Indian higher education and data are limited. It is worth looking at some of the challenges that international partners will face in India.

This brief discussion on the challenges is intended as a contribution to a realistic approach to future collaboration and partnerships. Of course, there are tremendous opportunities for those who engage realistically with understanding of the context.

Populism and politics

Indian higher education today exists in a highly toxic political and societal environment – as is the case in many countries – and this has fundamental implications for how academic institutions from other countries should consider possible collaboration and involvement.

A few examples illustrate the point. The ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government’s Hindutva ideology, and especially its anti-Muslim rhetoric and activism, is without question a hindrance to global higher collaboration.

Numerous examples of visa denials exist, such as a University of Sussex professor who is an expert on Kerala who was refused entry at the Thiruvananthapuram Airport and deported on his way to a conference with no explanation provided.

Academic freedom issues reported in the international media are all problematical. Indeed, reports of academic freedom threats are common. There were reports that government interference led to the resignation of eminent professor, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, from Ashoka University, a private institution.

The recent proposal by Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah to emphasise Hindi in the central universities and in the Hindi-speaking states will similarly be seen as a turn towards nationalism. Promoting pseudo-science in the name of promoting Indian knowledge systems in prominent institutions, promoting Hindi for medical degrees in the state of Madhya Pradesh, etc, can be harmful for the country’s higher education system in its efforts to compete globally.

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