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Saturday, August 20, 2011

University World News - INDIA: Hazare unrest delays higher education bills

Protests led by social activist Anna Hazare, which are likely to escalate in the coming week, has meant that a parliamentary bill to allow international branch campuses to set up in India, and other key higher education reform bills, have a negligible chance of making it through in the ongoing session of the Indian parliament.

Hazare, who has united students, academics, farmers and others from all social backgrounds in his populist anti-corruption campaign, has increased pressure on parliament to deal with a bill to set up an anti-corruption watchdog or ombudsman (Lok Pal).

The issue has dominated the stormy parliamentary session, which began 1 August. The previous parliamentary session was also disrupted by the uproar over corruption.

Meanwhile 15 higher education reform bills are waiting to be cleared by parliament, affecting the pace of education reform in the country.

"It seems unlikely that the foreign universities bill will come up for discussion in parliament this session," Member of Parliament PK Biju toldUniversity World News.

Biju said several other important issues, including the government's handling of the Lok Pal Bill, would take precedence.

Parliamentary business is likely to be hamstrung by lengthy and heated debates, as Hazare has called on the government to draft and pass a citizens' ombudsman (Jan Lok Pal) bill with the public's participation in preference to the government's own bill, known simply as the Lok Pal Bill.

On 17 August Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to appeal to a restive Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) to "ensure that parliament functions smoothly. There are important measures that are required to be passed."

The prime minister criticised Hazare for disrupting the legislative process by launching protests and a hunger strike, and for seemingly involving the public in the legislative process.

"The issue before the nation is not whether a Lok Pal Bill is necessary or desirable. All of us in this house are agreed that a Lok Pal Bill must be passed as early as possible. The question is, who drafts the law and who makes the law?" Singh said.

Other debates pending in parliament, including on the Mumbai serial bomb blasts, Maoist violence and farmers' rights to their land, mean that higher education reform has slipped down the priority list.

Education Ministry officials are hopeful that a bill to set up tribunals for adjudicating disputes in higher education institutions, including foreign institutions setting up in India, will come up for discussion in Rajya Sabha(the upper house of parliament), and be cleared. It has already been passed by the currently embattled Lok Sabha.

Meanwhile, the foreign universities bill may still need amendments.

The parliamentary standing committee scrutinising the bill "has given several suggestions and we have been assured that the Human Resources Development Ministry will actively consider these in the bill," said MP Biju, a member of the opposition CPI(M) party.

The standing committee gave its support to the draft foreign universities bill on 1 August but queried several points, including a clause barring foreign institutions from repatriating profits.

The committee believes this could frighten away big names in global education. "It is like one-way traffic. Reputable education providers may feel hesitant about opening campuses in India," the committee said in its report.

Although surpluses generated from education activities cannot be sent abroad, no such curbs apply to transfers of funds from other activities such as consultancy and research.

Education ministry sources said it was considering changes to the existing bill based on the committee's recommendations, including a downward revision of the minimum 'corpus' of around US$11 million required for a foreign institution to set up a campus in India, particularly for universities setting up in collaboration with Indian institutions.

However, in a key recommendation, the committee also said the size of the corpus needed to be increased in the case of medical institutions.

The pre-condition that a foreign institution cannot utilise more than 75% of income from the corpus fund towards developing the branch campus in India, may also reviewed.

If changes are made, it could increase the time required before it comes before parliament. The bill will first have to go to the Ministry of Law and Justice and then back to the cabinet for approval before being re-introduced in the Lok Sabha for debate, where other issues may arise.

Biju has repeatedly raised concerns about the impact of the bill on asevere faculty shortage in Indian universities.

A task force set up by the education ministry warned recently that if a current lecturer shortage of more than 300,000 was not addressed, the backlog would grow by 100,000 per year in the next decade as higher education expands.

Meanwhile, the case of Tri-Valley University in the US, where Indian students were left to fend for themselves after the university wasexposed as a fake in February, and July raids by US immigration authorities on the University of Northern Virginia, have made educationalists and parliamentarians more wary about the authenticity of foreign universities keen to set up in India.

"The ministry also needs to clearly state what mechanism they have to verify the standing of foreign universities in their home countries," Biju said.

The current draft of the bill says that foreign universities must be established for at least 20 years in their home country before opening a campus in India.

Despite the concerns about the bill, there are many who are in favour of allowing in foreign institutions.

While addressing the July convocation of the SMOT School of Business in Chennai, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs V Narayanasamy said India needed another 1,750 universities to provide trained manpower to ensure double-digit growth.

"We need foreign universities to establish facilities in India, but with certain restrictions, to improve our quality and quantity of educational facilities," he said.

"Higher education in India needs to expand. We need thousands of universities to cater for the growing demand," said Saumen Chattopadhyay, an associate professor at the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

But he said the bills, once passed, may not be enough. "While the government has been very good at making laws, it is implementation that is the problem. Both foreign and private universities in India must go through stringent verification," he said.


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