This article is more than 6 years old

The PPPassage to India

William Lawton examines the current state of higher education in India, and highlights the opportunities for UK providers.
This article is more than 6 years old

William Lawton is a higher education consultant.

From the perspective of the UK HE sector, India appears to have gone off the boil.

After a period of some excitement over the prospect of new partnerships and ways into the Indian market, notably in 2009-12 when the charismatic Kapil Sibal was Minister of Human Resource Development, things seem quieter. Some of it is our fault, notably the 26% decline in recruitment from India in the four years following the UK government’s withdrawal, in 2012, of the automatic right for international students to stay and work after graduation.

Such a collapse in inward mobility should naturally turn the thoughts of university strategists to transnational education (TNE), a term that covers a number of dissimilar methods of delivering an institution’s qualifications in other countries.

India, however, has at best an ambivalent attitude to foreign provision. A long-anticipated piece of legislation to clarify the status of foreign institutions in India entered Parliament in Delhi in 2010 and vanished without trace. Foreign universities do have to consider the risks involved in doing business in a famously opaque regulatory and legal environment.

Paying dues

Nothing is straightforward: any TNE plan has to take account of the price point that is achievable in India. Recent experience suggests the upper fee limit for the expanding Indian middle class is about $3,500 (£2,500) per year (indeed the top Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) charge less than this, and top research university Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) charges tuition of between $3 and $150). UK universities are reluctant to offer a degree or postgraduate diploma at the de facto upper limit, partly because it is so much lower than fees in the UK and partly because of the optics that suggest that quality should cost more. These obstacles can, and do, preclude entry into the Indian market.

Probably the only way a UK institution could consider entering a new market at this fee level is to do it at scale – perhaps ideally with an Indian partner well-versed in both the local market and online pedagogy. The Indian government, unfortunately, has an answer for that too: the University Grants Commission (UGC) imposed a ban on distance learning provision in December 2016, apparently in response to the spread of programmes from institutions not recognised by the UGC. Although the outright ban was lifted in early 2018, it still applies to institutions not recognised as universities. There are plenty of good reasons why foreign universities do not know what they can and cannot do in India.

The “iron triangle” and the private sector

India’s government, like any other, is of course subject to the “iron triangle” of access, cost, and quality – the typical policy trade-offs in higher education. Tens of millions of young Indians, especially in rural and less-developed regions, cannot afford any kind of higher education. This pressing need for access is acknowledged in planning documents. There may be a “growing realisation that government provision of higher education in traditional modes alone cannot accomplish this task” but turning realisation into results is daunting at India’s scale. The government cannot take credit for the improvement in the gross enrolment ratio, which reached 25% in 2016-17 (though with marked regional variations). The spread of private institutions was instrumental in achieving that. They now account for about three-quarters of all enrolments – and the vast majority of enrolments in engineering, pharmacy, hotel management and physiotherapy.

While the private sector responds directly to the demand for marketable skills, the government instead turns its attention to the global research excellence agenda – or, rather, to the international rankings industry. This is a sore point in Delhi and the latest response is an announcement to nurture 20 “institutes of eminence“. Earlier incarnations of this initiative – all without consequence – were to establish “world-class universities” and “innovation universities”. In any case, and whereas India needs good higher education for the many rather than the few, they have come down firmly on the side of international reputation and prestige. No one should question the benefits of excellence in higher education but this is a case of taking your eye off the ball, consistently.

In spite of these poor odds and the fact that other countries offer more transparent and straightforward business environments, India’s sheer demographics, combined with its proven inability to up its domestic capacity in the manner of the Chinese, means that it will in the future be both a top source of internationally mobile students and an irresistible destination for TNE.

Public-private partnerships

But what is the smoothest passage to India for UK universities? A realistic answer, for some, is likely to be via a partnership with a specialist private provider. A number of UK research universities are working with for-profit “online programme management” companies such as Keypath, Pearson, and Wiley. These companies identify new markets for existing programmes, put them online using a bespoke platform, do the recruitment, and manage much of the relationship with students.

Doing this successfully in India, however, may require a more specialist Indian partner. Online education providers based in Bengaluru and Mumbai include SimpliLearn, Edureka and UpGrad. They provide bespoke teaching and learning platforms, sales and marketing, and stress the tenacity of their ongoing student support systems. Some, including UpGrad, go beyond this by incorporating regular face-to-face interactions with industry experts and leaders, offline sessions for students to work on projects together, and they co-create the teaching content with academic partners in India and the UK. Completion rates are close to 90%.

These entrepreneurial outfits offer mostly short postgraduate-level online courses in collaboration with HE institutions and industry. Popular disciplines for employability are data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), entrepreneurship, digital marketing, and product management. Working professionals wanting to upskill for career advancement is a big target market. This does little or nothing for the need to widen participation but it does anticipate and address future skills needs.

Current market research from UpGrad suggests that about 20% of the thousands of young professionals taking PG Diplomas in data science and machine learning would consider upping their qualification to a UK MSc. Either a progression agreement for advanced entry into a face-to-face MSc, or validation of a blended MSc programme delivered by the Indian partner would constitute realistic entry points into the Indian market.

In-house or outsource?

Even universities with similar niches and profiles choose different internationalisation strategies – for example, whether to focus on international branch campuses or more partnership-based approaches. They likewise adopt different stances in regard to public-private partnerships. Some institutions feel that online provision – and the platform technology and different pedagogies it requires – are core institutional competencies. Others are comfortable outsourcing this expertise to a specialist – at least for a while. Universities in the US, UK and Australia have at various times ended their relationships with commercial organisations once the expertise was gained in-house e.g. Macquarie University and Navitas in 2014.

The growing role of private actors in higher education is a consequence of many factors, including international competition, the demand for education by older students, and skills deficits. It also fundamentally reflects the withdrawal of the state from its funding role or (in the case of India) the state’s inability to narrow the chasm between demand and supply.

The state’s largely hands-off attitude to domestic private HE providers is born of necessity but it is not matched by its longstanding equating of foreign provision with the commercialisation of HE. The ad hocery is compounded by the government’s refusal to recognise online and distance provision while also embracing MOOCs. Unsurprisingly, regulatory overhaul is a recurring theme: plans to replace the UGC and other bodies with a single regulator were spelled out in some detail in the 2009 Yash Pal report, then announced by the current government in June 2017, denied in Parliament in August 2017, and now draft legislation has apparently been prepared.

Resolving the regulatory environment would be desirable but it may not affect the strategic plans of UK universities. Whether or not the type of qualifications discussed here are formally recognised by the UGC is relevant to those seeking certain civil service jobs or subsequent, higher qualifications. For India’s working professionals and the great majority of Indian students, that is not relevant. What matters is what private-sector employers think of the qualifications.

This article is a part of our HE Futures series. You can read more about the series here.

Bill is co-organising the second symposium from the TNE-Hub, to be held at City, University of London on Wednesday 11 July. This free event will explore the theme of “Transnational Education: Innovations in Practice” with reference to student recruitment, pedagogy and delivery models, student experience and attainment, and graduate employability. Proposals for presentations are welcome and proceedings will be published.


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