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By Shailaja Neelakantan. India's recent announcement that it would more closely regulate the many joint- and dual-degree programs its universities have developed with foreign partners has been met at home with a mix of confusion, annoyance, anxiety, and even ridicule. Foreign-university administrators are also unclear about the effect of the new restrictions, which include allowing only institutions ranked in the top 500 worldwide to collaborate with Indian universities.
Many Indian institutions are confused about whether they even fall under the purview of the new regulations, issued by the University Grants Commission, the country's university regulator. Some academics are annoyed because they see the rules as evidence that Kapil Sibal, India's education minister, has all but given up on a bill that would allow foreign universities to set up stand-alone programs in India. The proposal has faced stiff resistance from members of India's Parliament. Several observers find it downright amusing that government officials believe elite international universities would flock to India to offer joint degrees. The fact is that few of the 340 or so Indian institutions offering joint or dual degrees have top-tier international partners.
"There's a bill pending in Parliament—they should have waited to see its fate instead of sidestepping it," said Ramamurthy Natarajan, a former director of India's regulatory agency for professional education, about education-ministry officials. An academic who didn't want to be named, for fear of angering higher-education officials, described the ministry's decision as "madcap," saying it "confuses and confounds."
American university administrators were equally flummoxed by the announcement.
"The regulations are excessively restricted," said Guru Ghosh, associate vice president for international affairs at Virginia Tech, which is developing a research center outside Chennai, India. "Having worked with Chinese universities for over a decade, I can attest that even China does not have such stringent requirements and rules dictating academic partnerships and twinning programs."
Mr. Ghosh said he was talking with Virginia Tech's Indian partners to better understand the new rules. He said he appreciated that India is hesitant to open its arms to outside influence in light of its colonial history. But to fix the country's deep-seated educational problems, like a lack of skilled faculty members and a rapidly growing young population, it needs to bring in "the best minds and research and educational facilities" from around the world.
Who's the Boss?

A major point of confusion stems from the overlapping authority of India's two dozen higher-education regulators. Many institutions that run joint programs are overseen not by the University Grants Commission but by the All India Council for Technical Education, which regulates programs such as engineering and management. Further, some education administrators note that their institutions offer not degrees but diplomas, which are different things in India.
"What is really prohibited is the award of a foreign degree on a stand-alone basis or a joint degree where both universities jointly admit a graduate to a bachelor's or a master's degree," said P.V. Ramana, chairman of the private ITM Group of Institutions, which operates such collaborations.
Still other providers say they're exempt because they are not universities but institutes—again, two different things in India. Then there are the institutions that offer degrees but are called institutes and not universities. They are confused about where they fall. "I don't know what will happen. No one is asking the right questions," said the director of one such institution. "The education ministry is getting reckless."
To an outsider this might just seem to be another tale of bureaucracy run amok in India. But how the regulations are carried out could have a real impact on foreign engagement. India's higher-education system has been a notoriously difficult—and sometimes hostile—landscape for foreign institutions to navigate. If the government throws up additional barriers to partnerships, some educators say, that could harm what little internationalization has managed to take root so far.
"International partnerships largely work through personal contacts and individual efforts," said R. Narasimhan, founder-director of the private SMOT Business School and a consultant on higher-education strategy. Mr. Narasimhan said it was unlikely that an American university ranked in the top 500 globally, as the new regulations require, would be contacted by a top Indian university, also required by the regulations, and agree to develop joint-degree programs just because the Indian government says they can do so. Allowing Indian institutions to build partnerships with universities abroad is needed, he said, but the government needs to understand that such partnerships do not mature easily.
"So giving them time and helping them to improve should be the approach," he said, "instead of always holding a stick on the head ready to hit anytime when something goes wrong."
Wrong About Rankings

Several experts say that, in any event, rankings are the wrong way to evaluate the quality of academic programs. E. Lee Gorsuch II, president of the City University of Seattle, said his institution had been seeking an Indian partner, but any potential collaboration would seem to be illegal now. "It appears that the new regulations would preclude CityU since it is not on the list of 500," he wrote by e-mail to The Chronicle. He said recognition by an American accreditor should be enough for India to ensure that any partnerships will be of high quality. Other educational experts have said that India is unlikely to attract top-ranked higher-education players because so few of its universities are well regarded worldwide. But some dismiss that argument.
"We may not have many Indian universities in the top 500 global rankings, but we do have many outstanding academics," said P.M. Bhargava, former vice chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, a higher-education advisory body.
As for what may happen next, Ved Prakash, the University Grants Commission's chairman, could not be reached for comment. But he has made clear that "every institute that grants a degree," even if approved by another regulator, such as the All India Council for Technical Education, "has to follow the new rule," according to Mr. Bhargava, who said he had spoken with the chairman about the subject.
Mr. Prakash told an Indian newspaper in June that the number of foreign institutions operating in India in some form had increased to 631 in 2010 from 144 a decade earlier. "The idea is simply to regulate this growing area for the benefit of students so that only genuine academic collaborations are encouraged," he said.
If Indian institutions don't meet the new regulatory requirements, they have only six months to make improvements, the rules say. If the institutions fail to do so, they will have to terminate the agreements or risk being derecognized, if they're private, or lose government funds, if they're public.
"Six months is too short a time to wind up any ongoing partnership," said the SMOT Business School's Mr. Narasimhan. Students at institutions in such partnerships, he said, should be allowed to finish their programs.
Mr. Bhargava differs. "Six months should not be a problem," he said. "If they are so dependent on the foreign partner, the university has no right to exist."