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November 01, 2016

Under government scrutiny, India's Amity University has canceled plans to buy the New England Institute of Art in Brookline, Mass. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

One of India's largest college chains is tapping the brakes on its plans to expand into the U.S.

Based in New Delhi, Amity University is an education empire with more than 125,000 students enrolled at campuses in 11 countries.

Amity recently bought a campus in New York and announced plans to open another campus there and in Massachusetts. But state officials were skittish about an India-run school setting up shop in the Commonwealth.

By 2022, India will become the most populous country in the world, overtaking China. And that's creating something of a problem for kids trying to get into college there.

"The top ones are extremely selective," said Jamshed Bharucha, a distinguished fellow at Dartmouth. "Once you go one or two levels below them in terms of brand, the quality drops tremendously. They're not able to recruit faculty members who are good enough to challenge students at this point, so it's a crisis in higher education."

A crisis that Amity University is trying to solve – and capitalize on.

Since its founding in 2003, Amity has enrolled tens of thousands of students, offering them degrees in everything from fashion to food technology, marine biology to engineering. And not just in India. It's got a network of schools in 11 countries, including China, South Africa, Dubai and Britain.

In September, the university announced plans to enter the U.S., buying its first campus on Long Island, New York for $22 million. The school said it was also planning to buy two more campuses, including a troubled for-profit college near Boston.

But Amity met local skepticism - most notably from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

Earlier: Massachusetts AG Opposes Indian College’s Plans To Expand

Even though Amity is considered a non-profit in India, Healey worried it would operate more like a predatory for-profit college in the U.S. She called on the state’s Board of Higher Education to block Amity from buying the troubled New England Institute of Art in Brookline, which is set to close following a settlement with the Department of Justice. 

In September, Healey sent a letter urging the Board to "prohibit NEIA from transferring any of its teach-out obligations until the school commits to needed financial relief for current and former students."

“We’ve had enough problems with these kinds of institutions. We don't need to be taking more of them on,” Healey told WGBH News. “I don't think that we should be taking a flier with an unlicensed, unaccredited entity from India that has no track record providing education to students here in the US.”

Listen to Attorney General Maura Healey on The Takeaway.

Amity refused to comment for this story, but university officials had said they planned to cater mostly to Americans with some foreign students attending for short periods. In the U.K., Amity has partnered with two universities to offer limited degrees. Officials there say the school has been working hard to get accredited on its own.

That could be an uphill battle in the U.S.

While many American colleges have successfully set up shop overseas, few foreign schools have been able to open branches here, says Barmak Nassirian with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“The United States tends to be viewed, quite correctly, as the leading nation when it comes to both the scale and quality of its existing higher education infrastructure. So it would be kind of a tough sell for overseas institutions to come to of all places here – where we have so many institutions and so many great institutions,” Nassirian said.

“If it were Oxford University proposing to do this, I would take some solace from the fact that it’s Oxford, but then I have to look at the other leg of this transaction and I see Amity and that’s very alarming.”

Dartmouth’s Jamshed Bharucha says Nassirian and Attorney General Healey are being narrow-minded. He says Amity should have been given a chance, just like any other school.

"The accrediting bodies will make the determination of quality and the institution will rise or fall based on the reputation that it develops," Bharucha said.

While Amity is backing off its plans to run a college in Brookline, the university says it will open its New York campus next June.

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