February 17, 2023: Two years ago, the national children’s rights body alleged that church schools in India had violated the Right to Education Act, cornering Rs 2,500 crore in the 2017-18 period by denying free seats to poor children. The NCPCR (National Commission for Protection of Child Rights) had reportedly detected that almost 13,000 church schools defied a mandate under the Act to earmark 25% of their seats for kids from economically weaker sections or EWSs.
Many of those schools, notwithstanding the impeccable quality of English-medium education they impart across India, are a legacy of centuries-old church missions that had once upon a time zeroed in on the Indian subcontinent from Europe to anglicise the native culture.
That chapter was about church schools. Now, fast forward to 2023.
The NCPCR’s warning bells about the impunity with which some schools with an overseas legacy can operate seem to have fallen on deaf ears. On January 5, the UGC (University Grants Commission) floated a proposition that could pave the way for FHEIs (foreign higher educational institutions) to literally prise India’s economy open.
The statutory body regulating higher education in the country issued a notice provisionally announcing that all kinds of foreign universities should soon be able to open campuses across India with the commission’s nod, and conduct business with a high degree of freedom. The approval would be given for a period of 10 years.
A FREE HAND
If the UGC’s proposal is finalised, FHEIs would enjoy unprecedented powers, such as hiring foreign staff and thereby ignoring Indian talent, charging exorbitant fees and thereby denying poor students access, and – most disturbingly – repatriating their entire profits to their home countries under India’s FEMA (Foreign Exchange Management Act).
The UGC’s draft has been posted on the regulator’s website. It awaits feedback from stakeholders and the public by February 20, after which the final rules would be announced and published in the government-run Gazette of India.
In a country where more than 3,200 foreign companies are already doing business, with many of them repatriating considerable chunks of their profits, the proposal has expectedly drawn sharp criticism from experts.
The UGC argues that the initiative is a follow-up of the New Education Policy 2020, and “will provide an international dimension to higher education, enable Indian students to obtain foreign qualifications at affordable cost, and make India an attractive global study destination”.
Apart from putting in place routine checks and balances, the UGC’s draft notice gives a free hand to what it calls “reputed” institutes to run their courses and programmes, including those from undergraduate to postdoctoral levels, and also award degrees, diplomas, and certificates in all disciplines.
ALARM BELLS RINGING
Experts and teachers’ bodies have voiced apprehensions, pointing out that FHEIs are unlikely to land here with utilitarian goals, and might see this opportunity primarily as an offshore business venture.
Consequently, the gulf between the haves and have-nots in India’s educational sphere could widen further with students only from affluent families having the means to afford the hefty fees.
The free run to be given to FHEIs could hit hard the country’s reputed higher educational institutes as well, whose day-to-day functioning is already severely hampered by a lack funds and strict rules, explained Kolkata-based Partha Pratim Roy, secretary of the Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association, or JUTA.
“Government-run universities function under strict rules and regulations. The rules framed by the UGC for recruitment of faculty and programmes such as PhD are binding on us. But the FHEIs are being given full autonomy on recruitment and to decide and control their PhD rules, undergraduate and postgraduate regulations. So, there are apprehensions that they may do things on their whims and fancies,” Roy told Empire Diaries.
IN DIRE STRAITS
To buttress his argument about the financial distress gripping India’s top institutes of higher learning, Roy cited the condition prevailing at Jadavpur University, considered as one of the best academic institutions in the country, especially in engineering courses.
“While the Bengal government has curtailed the maintenance grant, the UGC grant that used to come under the Five-Year Plans stopped in 2017 as the Planning Commission itself was scrapped.
“Leave alone buying new equipment and computers, we don’t even have proper funds to change the ink for printers. We used the previous grants for laboratory development. But now, the labs are in very bad shape. Introducing new experiments is a pipe dream. The old experiments are being continued by repeatedly repairing old instruments, which have shelf life,” said Roy.
While on one hand, government-run educational institutions are in dire straits, the free hand given to foreign universities under the new plan would trigger unequal competition and chaos, he said.
Echoing Roy’s fears, Thanjavur-based SASTRA Deemed University’s Vice Chancellor S Vaidhyasubramaniam recently sought a level-playing field for Indian varsities.
“The UGC should ensure an equal amount of academic, administrative, and financial autonomy to Indian universities as much as foreign universities might be entitled to. Such a level-playing field will ensure progressive competition and increase overall quality and excellence in Indian higher education,” Vaidhyasubramaniam reportedly said.
On the tendency that FHEIs could have to cold-shoulder students from poor families because they wouldn’t fit into their business model, former UGC chairman Sukhadeo Thorat recently wrote that the proposal “was likely to further reduce the access of weaker sections to higher education… which may enhance unequal access, unless the government comes with corresponding measures to safeguard them”.
The UGC’s draft makes no mention of India’s complex reservation system, leaving out the need to address problem areas such as admission quotas for students representing Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, and EWSs. Thus, there are fears that FHEIs could become exclusive clubs of urban social and financial elites.
A bone of contention is the UGC’s plan to give FHEIs the permission to repatriate their earnings to parent campuses headquartered abroad. The move, if approved, could see them avoid reinvesting their profits into the Indian economy, therefore, resulting in India’s financial resources getting drained out.
“Cross-border movement of funds and maintenance of Foreign Currency Accounts, mode of payments, remittance, repatriation, and sale of proceeds, if any, shall be as per the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) 1999 and its Rules,” the UGC draft reads.
In fact, UGC chairman M Jagadish Kumar has made it amply clear what this rule means. “This has been an area in which there has been some debate. Now, it is very clear in these regulations that the campus established by the foreign HEI can repatriate the funds generated by the campus. The audit report should be submitted annually to the commission certifying that the operations are under FEMA Act 1999 and its rules,” he announced at a press event.
At the same press conference, while highlighting that domestic students would benefit from the proposed move, Kumar pointed out that in 2022, over 4.5 lakh Indian students went abroad to study, leading to an outflow of an estimated $28-30 billion.
Clearly, the two statements seem contradictory. If the motive is to stop the outflow of foreign currency, then why is the UGC proposing that FHEIs should be allowed to send their earnings out of India? Apart from levying the usual charges and taxes on the outward money transfer, the UGC doesn’t want to make it mandatory for the foreign entities to invest at least some fraction of the earnings in the Indian economy.
Roy, the JUTA secretary, questioned whether India will benefit by allowing a new flock of foreign educational institutions to send abroad the profits they make here. “See, the foreign universities and institutes, if they come, will come to serve their business interests only. They will use their brand names to do business. If repatriation or outward remittance of funds is allowed, how do we stand to gain then?” he asked.
GREAT GAME 2.0:
The UGC’s proposal shouldn’t be seen as an isolated event. It is a reminder of an ongoing recolonisation of the Indian economy across industries by several overseas corporations that have set up shop here, and are repatriating significant chunks of their profits out of India.
International trade is no longer the primary source of financial resource drain for the geopolitically weaker nations in South Asia, Africa, and South America, where MNCs from export-oriented countries often dump enormous quantities of goods and pump out money.
Recolonisation of these economies by foreign players through FDI and other strategies has, in recent decades, silently re-emerged from the bygone days of the seven East India Companies that once infamously squeezed the Indian subcontinent dry of its financial wealth.
It remains to be seen if the UGC’s proposed red carpet will indeed get rolled out for a new breed of opportunistic FHEIs that are eyeing Indian education’s green pastures.
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