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India, US to discuss issue of sham universities

By Aziz Haniffa
August 19, 2011 12:40 IST
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A senior official in the Barack Obama administration has said that all contentious issues, including concern that Indian students are being duped by sham universities and colleges that have questionable credentials, would be on the table during the major United States-India Education Summit in October.
When asked how the administration proposes to alleviate the concerns of Indian parents and India that students are being deceived by educational institutions like Tri-Valley University in California that was shut down and the under-investigation University of Northern Virginia, where the majority of students are from India, Reta Jo Lewis, special representative, Global Intergovernmental Affairs, said, " I do believe that during the education summit a whole host of issues are going to be placed on the table."
Lewis has just come back from a two-week visit across India, during which she visited Delhi, Assam, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra. She met with chief ministers, senior state, local and municipal officials and noted that education collaboration was a topic that has figured prominently in the discussions.
In an interaction with journalists at the Foreign Press Centre in Washington DC, Lewis said, "I will tell you that because of the peer-to-peer exchange, because of the state-to-state engagements, a lot of those relationships happen at that governor, mayor level. And we believe that the effort of being able to understand that -- the interest and commitment is there on the India side. And we believe that we will see the same on the US side, because our US leaders and their education institutions are all looking to collaborate in a mutual way, to be beneficial."
But when she was pressed on the alleged deception being practiced by some US institutions even as the State Department was declaring with great fanfare that the highest number of international students studying in the US was from India, Lewis ducked the issue and tossed the ball into the Department of Homeland Security's court.
She said, "While I was in India, the Department of Homeland Security has taken the lead on the issues surrounding the students' visa situation at those universities.(But) Of course, the State Department is very concerned about those, and we look to our colleagues at Homeland Security to handle those matters."
Lewis also side-stepped the visa issue when informed that institutions like UNVA credentialed to issue only 50 I-20 certificates of eligibility had issued over 1,500 and the consulate in Hyderabad had approved student visas for these students, saying, "I can't speak to address that question. That is a question for our consular affairs, who is definitely handling that with a different consulate. All I can continue to emphasise is the fact that the students, whether they're Indian students or US students, matter a great deal to us because of our people-to-people ties."
"We understand that it is very important, and we recognise that all of the people that we engaged at the state level want to see more collaborations between universities throughout the United States, colleges and technical schools throughout the United States," she said.

Lewis said that in terms of the ratio of Indian students pursuing undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in the US and American students studying or doing research in India, there was a yawning gap.
"We do see an imbalance. There are over a hundred thousand Indian students studying in the US; there are only 3,000 US students studying in India. And so I'm not sure whether you are aware, but during the secretary's visit they announced the Passport to India. And through the Passport to India project, it really is geared towards US students to encourage students, professors, faculty and others to be more focused and targeted about studying and training in India," she said
Lewis added, "We hope that with this effort, that will be further discussed during the first-ever US-India education summit," and that this would be an "opportunity where a very wide  and broad group of educational leaders and academics and young people will really talk about how we move more aggressively to interest more US students. And working with the private sector is going to be critical in that."
Lewis said even during her meetings with officials at the ministry of external affairs, the ministry of rural development and the ministry of small and medium enterprises, educational collaborations had permeated much of the discussions.
"All of the ministries discussed significantly the responsibilities of assisting the young people, of which we know that there are over 300 million in the ages between 12 and 24. We also know that it is a very major topic of conversation, about the training and the collaborations that could be done with our vocational schools, because it's all about creating jobs," she said.
And Lewis asserted, "It doesn't matter whether you're talking to a US official or whether you're talking to an Indian official, job creation and skill development is of paramount importance."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC