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Foreign varsity bill in freezer

New Delhi, Nov. 25: A proposed law to allow the entry and regulation of foreign universities will now be reviewed afresh under a panel of top bureaucrats, threatening to delay indefinitely a legislation scheduled for cabinet approval.

The Centre yesterday decided to refer the Foreign Education Providers Bill to a committee of secretaries to resolve differences between key government arms, The Telegraph has learnt.

The move, which effectively sends the bill into cold storage for the time being, came even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama announced plans to strengthen ties in education.

The decision also means the bill could undergo significant changes — again.

Several top foreign universities, especially in the US, have indicated interest in increasing participation in Indian higher education.

Yale, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told human resource development minister Kapil Sibal during his visit to the US last month that they were waiting for the bill to finalise their plans for India.

Speaking to reporters before the start of the winter session of Parliament, the HRD minister had said he would try his best to introduce the bill in this session.

But the HRD ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office have failed to resolve differences in perception over the drafting of the bill, despite meetings to try and paper over points of divergence, sources said.

The decision to refer the bill to a committee of secretaries effectively means the proposed legislation, which may now undergo fresh changes, is unlikely to see the light of day for some time.

Typically, committees of secretaries take several months to review a proposal or draft legislation before finalising their reports. But they have no time restrictions within which they are required to complete the review.

As reported by this newspaper on September 20, the bill was revised under Sibal over the past few months that he has been HRD minister, and was to have been placed before the cabinet.

Under the revised bill, foreign universities can set fees for campuses here on their own and the government can intervene only if it finds an institution setting fees deemed to be extraordinarily inflated.

The foreign universities will not be treated as deemed universities — as was the case under the earlier draft — and will not have to introduce any quotas.

Foreign institutions will, however, need to operate for at least 10 years in their own country before they can apply to set up a campus in India.

All other ministries have supported the draft bill. But the PMO, it is learnt, was apprehensive that the bill was still not attractive enough to foreign universities and that it would deter some of the best varsities from coming to India.

The PMO insisted that the bill reflect its concerns and that a revised one be circulated again among all ministries. But now, a committee of secretaries will review the bill afresh.

The bill has repeatedly drawn controversy and could not be tabled in Parliament during the first term of the UPA because of opposition from the Left parties that were propping up the government.

But important sections of the Congress, strengthened by the party’s performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and its independence from the Left, have said that the government will try and push the bill.

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