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Outsourcing an American Education

India is considering allowing Western universities to plant satellite campuses directly in the subcontinent's fertile soil.

There is a bill currently making its way through the Indian parliament — The Foreign Educational Institutions Bill — that would open up for universities in the West, particularly in the U.S., a massive English-speaking market. Massive is the key word. We're talking hundreds of thousands of Indian students reaching college age who are interested in an education that would allow them to better participate in a globalizing economy.

At first glance, the passage of the bill, which is being pushed ahead by Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, benefits Western universities by providing them with a growth opportunity and allowing access to a well-educated student population interested in an education whose brand is recognized across the world.

It equally benefits India's higher education system and the students who go through it. While India currently has two university systems — the Indian Institutes of Technology and The Indian Institutes of Management — that rival the American Ivy Leagues, the systems are simply not big enough to manage the demand from within the country. There are not enough top-class universities for the many thousands of students who qualify to attend them.

In the past and currently, India has allowed partnerships between Western and Indian universities. Brown University, for example, has a long-standing relationship with St. Stephen's College in Delhi that allows Brown students to spend a semester in India. And in a recent expansion of the relationship, select St. Stephen's students will be able to study at Brown.

But this bill is something bigger. It would allow Western universities, within certain parameters, to set up entire satellite campuses in India.

So what's the problem? Why has it taken this long for the bill to gather the steam it has? Why is there discussion about the bill if it seems to benefit everyone involved? Things, of course, are never that simple.

In an opinion piece published in the Indian Express earlier this month, David Finegold, the dean of the School of Management at Rutgers University, lays out 10 reasons why top universities will not flock to India. Among them are the global financial crisis, the shortage of faculty talent and local competition from significantly cheaper Indian universities.

Among Feingold's reasons, his discussion of Indian bureaucracy deserves quoting.

"Although the government is striving hard in the bill to open up the Indian higher education market to the best foreign universities, a number of factors may discourage them from investing in India: the requirement to post an $11 million bond to establish a university; the steps that will be required to get planning permission for a new campus; the uncertainty about the new body that will govern all higher education and many other forms of regulation in this sector; and the stipulation that they cannot transfer any surplus generated out of India. All of these concerns are compounded by the risk that a change in government could potentially affect their ability to operate in India."

The possible bureaucratic roadblocks in India are in marked contrast to NYU's newly opened campus in Abu Dhabi, which was paid for entirely by the Abu Dhabi government.

The reasons why the bill may be placing so many restrictions may have something to do with the history of Western involvement in education in India.

When the British were setting up their education system in India in the mid-19th century, there was debate on whether to have the instruction take place in English or in the Indian vernaculars. The historian and essayist T.B. Macaulay was appointed the president of the Committee on Public Instruction; in his famous "Minute on Indian Education," Macaulay argued that the medium of education needed to be in English because the Indian students demand it and it allows them to participate in the growing world economic system. That argument, made well over 150 years ago, sounds pretty familiar.

Macaulay went on to write: "We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect."

I don't think the Indian members of parliament who are considering the bill are quoting Macaulay to themselves, but they are certainly affected by his ghost.

Will the establishment of American universities mean the creation of students who look Indian, but are Western in taste and opinion? I don't think so. In our early 21st century moment, parsing out what are Western and non-Western tastes and opinions has become quite difficult.

But it does mean that the Indian government and the Western universities that wish to set up shop in India will have to enter into a careful dance that benefits them both without either feeling that one is encroaching upon the other too closely.