The 'GIFT' Economy of Higher Education That Keeps on Giving

'To implement any fee structure, be ignorant of the urgency of access and equality of opportunity.' This is one of the ‘freedoms’ gifted to offshore education centres to establish their campuses in GIFT city.

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On October 12, the Union government issued a Gazette of India notification titled the ‘International Financial Services Centres Authority (Setting up and Operation of International Branch Campuses and Offshore Education Centres) Regulations, 2022’.

The international branch campuses (IBCs) and offshore education centres (OECs), as per the notification, will be set up in the Gujarat International Finance-Tec City, Ahmedabad, or GIFT City, a business district, focused on IT and finance.

Among the objectives stated in the notification are:

To enable foreign universities to establish international branch campuses in GIFT International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) either on a standalone basis, or in such other form as may be permitted by the authority;

To enable a foreign educational institution other than a foreign university to establish an OEC in the GIFT IFSC;

To ensure world-class education in GIFT IFSC.

To be eligible, besides financial stability, ‘the applicant [the foreign university seeking to set up a campus in India] should have secured a position within Top 500 in global overall ranking and/or subject ranking in the latest QS World Universities ranking’. But, interestingly, the institution that sets up the OECs need not be a university at all, according to the norms.

These campuses can also offer research programmes in financial management, fintech, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The notification insists that ‘any course or programme conducted by a registered entity in the GIFT IFSC shall be identical in all respects with the course or programme conducted by the parent entity in its home jurisdiction’. The overarching regulatory body for any OEC would be the International Financial Services Centres Authority.

The notification declares that ‘all transactions undertaken by the IBC or OEC shall be in freely convertible foreign currency only’.

Under the heading ‘miscellaneous’, the notification has two items:

All the obligations of the parent entity in its home jurisdiction for the conduct of courses or programmes in any offshore jurisdiction shall be complied with by IBC or OEC, as the case may be.

The parent entity shall be permitted to repatriate profit, if any, without any restriction.

There are several points of interest in the notification, some should arrest us mid-stride in terms of what they may possibly mean for higher education.

A gift of higher education

So the notification offers the gift of foreign institutions, with their research programmes and courses, to Indian students. None of us can quarrel with the opening of such doors of opportunities, of course, unless we are among those blinkered ideologues who stress the primacy of the ‘local’ over the ‘global’ (until such time as the ideologues discover, to their own advantage, foreign grants to apply for!). So it is indeed a gift of higher education for those of our students who can afford these institutions.

That the quality of education offered by universities in the QS top 500 would be rigorous, topical, and in line with the demands of the 21st century is also something we can, perhaps, being open-minded about such matters, expect. That would be a gift too.

Again, no quarrels on that, unless we are among those self-indulgent faculty who have not read a word after their own PhDs (extending the benefit of the doubt, we assume they did read then) and refuse to improve their course curriculum because it has ‘worked so far’, i.e.,  remained unchanged since inception.

With specialised courses and programmes in the fields listed in the notification – which pointedly ignores all social sciences, arts, humanities but retains management, engineering, math – we believe, being broad-minded in this as well, that we will produce better technocrats, scientists and managerial classes. This is undoubtedly a gift.

So far, so good.

Also read: The Smokescreen of Diversity and Inclusion in Indian Higher Education

The new freedoms

A news report about the notification, citing people in the know of the matter, noted that the regulations seek to address some of the hurdles foreign universities have faced in coming to India such as fee and administrative control, implementation of reservation policy and the prerequisite that they have to be a not-for-profit entity.

Apparently, foreign universities were facing ‘hurdles’ in the form of our constitutional provisions – the control exercised by our regulatory bodies such as the University Grants Commission and the All India Council for Technical Education – and the fact of state-funded universities being a public good rather than a profiteering company. Thus, facilitating the education of historically disenfranchised peoples is a ‘hurdle’, supposedly.

To implement any fee structure, to ignore the ground realities of Indian student demographics, of which many members are first-generation literates even today, to be blind to the urgency of access and equality of opportunity to these demographics, to foreclose subsidies that are essential to enable a semblance of equality: these are some of the ‘freedoms’ gifted to the OECs by this notification. Affordable higher education for all then seems to be no longer a national goal.

The regulatory authority for these OECs is the International Financial Services Centres Authority, not the UGC or the AICTE, which is in itself an interesting move in the same period when the UGC and AICTE are, at least temporarily, under the same chairman. So, to put it crudely, higher education in these cases of OECs will be monitored by an accounting agency.

Alternatives in higher education

The notification also suggested that our own institutions have failed to provide quality education (never mind that our education is still affordable, subsidised and accounts for our student populations).

The OECs will offer research programmes in those very domains which are the flagship programmes of our IITs, IIMs, IISERs, some of the universities and the IISc. Admittedly, not all of these ‘temples of modern India’ are in the QS World Rankings. But several of them are: in terms of citation, research publications, and faculty profiles. They have produced scientists and engineers who are now working at the world’s best universities, research centres and business organisations.

In the words of the President of India herself, pronounced at the recent IIT-Delhi’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, ‘In more than one way, the story of the IITs is the story of Independent India.’ A truer word was never spoken, we would like to believe.

Also read: Rethinking Public University: The Moral Crisis of Higher Educational Institutions in India

So why do we assume that quality education does not emerge from our IITs, IIMs and universities, thus necessitating the arrival of OECs without any limits to their freedoms?

Have we assumed that our faculty, researchers and students can no longer make it to the top 500 or become ‘world class’ (if indeed the top 500 is where we wish to be)?

Cash-starved, over-regulated, with decrepit infrastructure, badly trained faculty and dated curricula and pedagogic practices, our higher education is racing along to extinction. Public institutions, not just in India but everywhere, were traditionally regarded as a ‘public good’ but are now increasingly seen as a ‘public threat’ by demagogues who wish the future citizens to be drones rather than critical thinkers.

In lieu of investing more time, energy, funds into reviving these, and enabling our students to have better education and skills suited to the demands of a different world, we are busy ‘gifting’ the system to anyone who has the money to set up an OEC.

While studies show that some forward-looking universities are seeking to ensure better student-success rates by modifying financial and leadership policies, we seem to assume that the OEC, and the OEC alone, will ensure success, but only for those who can pay a fortune for it.

Are we regulating faculty recruitment to ensure only the best and the most committed enter the system or are we merely seeking to fill up vacant posts? Is our research programme rigorous and updated? And do we, religiously, implement practices and principles of academic integrity (do we dare examine the publications of professors, deans, vice chancellors)?

The more unpleasant question – beyond that of access to these programmes in GIFT city – is, are we looking at a new imperialism in the domain of higher education? Related questions would include: are students of the formerly colonised nations being drawn into a new global governance and financial structure through ‘quality’ education? Would this two-tier system create a ghetto for those entering the portals of our crumbling public university because they cannot afford the ‘gift’ of the OEC?

The other students would be the alternatives to those who receive the OEC gifts, natives but not quite!

The gift, argued the most famous theorist of the idea, Marcel Mauss, enables a social relationship through giving, receiving and reciprocating. In gift exchange, there is an obligation to reciprocate. In the new imperialism, like the ‘donors’ of Kazuo Ishuguro’s Never Let Me Go, we give gifts to the OECs without expecting any obligation on their part.

This is the new gift economy of the modern era.

Professor Anna Kurian contributed to this story.

Pramod K. Nayar is a professor at the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad.