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Sibal U-turn on foreign varsities

- Moots plan in HRD, objects to it in law

New Delhi, Dec. 30: A year is a long time in politics. For Kapil Sibal, it seems true about policy too.

A move to allow foreign institutions to set up campuses in India and give degrees, initiated by the HRD ministry when Sibal helmed it last year, is being questioned by the law ministry that he heads now.

The law ministry has raised several questions on a set of draft rules of the University Grants Commission (UGC) — under the HRD ministry — to allow foreign institutes to operate as not-for-profit entities.

The rules were framed as a bill to permit overseas universities has been hanging fire in Parliament since 2010 because of lack of consensus among parties. Sibal was HRD minister when the process of framing the UGC rules and allowing such entities began last year, sources said.

But the law ministry he heads now doesn’t seem persuaded by the UGC (Establishment and Operation of Campuses of Foreign Educational Institutions) Rules.

With the Foreign Education Providers’ Bill stuck in Parliament, overseas institutions are unable to set up campuses as there is no legal framework for them to operate.

Under the draft UGC rules, only foreign institutions that figure among the top 400 universities of the world will be allowed to set up campuses. This will be based on rankings published by Times Higher Education, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) or the Academic Rankings of World Universities (ARWU) by Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

But the law ministry has asked whether a foreign university can set up base here and offer degrees in the absence of a specific law enacted by Parliament. The UGC Act does not have provisions to allow such varsities and their degrees, law ministry officials said.

Former UGC secretary R.K. Chauhan said the higher education regulator had initiated a similar move in the 1990s but the HRD ministry had rejected the proposal citing the UGC Act.

“The ministry had turned down the UGC proposal in 1990s when it had prepared similar regulations. I do not understand how they are doing the same thing now,” Chauhan said.

However, sources in the HRD ministry — now headed by Sibal’s Congress colleague M. Pallam Raju — defended the fresh move. They argued that under the draft rules, the degrees awarded by overseas institutes in India would be treated as foreign qualifications that shall be subject to equivalence accorded by Association of Indian Universities (AIU) for further study or government jobs.

“The degrees to be offered by the FEIs (foreign educational institutes) will be treated as foreign degrees, not Indian. The students will have to seek equivalence certificates from the AIU in the same way that those from foreign universities (who study abroad) do now,” an HRD ministry official said.

The law ministry has raised another issue —penalties for rule violations by foreign institutions. The UGC draft rules peg them at Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore.

The penalty under the UGC Act for Indian institutions is only Rs 1,000. The law ministry has cited this and asked how fines could be raised to such high levels for overseas entities.

The HRD ministry official, however, said an amendment was planned in the UGC Act to remove the incongruity. UGC chairperson Ved Prakash declined comment on the objections.

The law ministry’s reservations have come despite two other wings of the government — the department of industrial policy and promotion under the commerce ministry and the department of economic affairs in the finance ministry — supporting the overall plan.