INDIA: A global higher education magnet

Universities from Europe, the United States and Canada are beating a path to India hoping to collaborate with Indian higher education institutions - even though legislation to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India has yet to be passed.

Many analysts said the education collaborations announced this week with visiting university delegations from the UK, US and Canada were not just about education, but were strategic and economic as well.

"These countries need us as much as we need them," a senior Indian government official said.

"The US, UK and Canada are countries that Indians have traditionally flocked to for education. It is indicative of India's role in the global education scenario today that they are coming to India virtually in back-to-back trips we have never witnessed before," he said.

As a result of US President Barack Obama's three-day official visit to India last week, the two countries announced their first-ever higher education summit to be held in India in 2011, promising more joint projects and the possibility of involving the higher education sector in policy-level initiatives.

Obama's visit also coincided with a visit by a delegation of US higher education government officials and high-level administrators from 10 US colleges and universities, visiting India as part of the International Academic Partnership Program, funded by the US Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.

Following their American counterparts, Canada last week sent their biggest ever delegation of 15 university presidents on a seven day mission to India.

The Canadian universities announced funding for a series of India-specific initiatives valued at over CAD$4 million (US$4 million). These include the new Globalink Canada-India Graduate Fellowship to provide up to 51 scholarships valued at more than CAD$3.5 million for Indian students.

Both countries have agreed to collaborate on research in science and technology - a priority area for many of the countries interested in collaboration with universities in India.

On Friday India's Education Minister Kapil Sibal and David Willetts, Britain's minister for universities and sciences at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, also signed an agreement launching the second phase of the UK-India Education and Research Initiative.

Starting in April 2011, the new phase will comprise four strands of education collaboration -innovation and partnerships, skills development, leadership development, and student mobility and quality assurance.

"The challenges that our two societies face are increasingly global in nature and solutions will increasingly be found by working together," Willetts said in New Delhi on Friday.

While the UK is particularly interested in science and technology research ties and collaboration on vocational and distance education in India, US universities are keen to broaden the education experience of their own students by sending them to collaborating universities abroad and also to enhance their own visibility in India, which is a major source of foreign students to US universities.

According to the US Institute of International Education, which led the US delegation in India, "higher education institutions in the United States and India are increasingly seeking out partnerships with counterparts to enhance academic collaboration, expand curricular offerings, advance joint research, and prepare their students with the international experiences and cross-cultural tools needed in their careers."

The US' Carnegie Mellon University on Friday announced a major partnership in undergraduate engineering education with India's Shiv Nadar Foundation with a university campus in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

From June 2011 students will study at the institution following a curriculum designed by the top-rated US university, and taught by Indian faculty trained at Carnegie Mellon. They will also study at Carnegie Mellon's main campus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They will receive prestigious Carnegie Mellon degrees.

"The increased visibility of alumni in high level position in parts of the world such as Asia, particularly in India and China, promotes the value of these [overseas] institutions in those countries," an Indian student said.

Indian educationists welcome the moves towards more international collaboration even without setting up campuses in India - something that many overseas universities have expressed an interest in doing once the necessary legislation is in place. In particular India is interested in high-quality courses delivered by overseas institutions.

"Whether foreign universities will set up campus in India is a moot point. It should not stop Indian institutions and the Indian government from accessing expertise in specialised areas," said Janaki Rajan, a professor of education at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.

For instance, India would need 95,000 teacher educators to train two million teachers to implement Right to Education Act, she said, referring to the law that came into force in April this year guaranteeing free, compulsory education to every child.

"We should seek partnerships with education departments in the world's best universities," she added.

India should also collaborate with foreign institutions to provide vocational skills, said Amitabh Mattoo, a professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

"In 10 years time India will have 550 million young people under the age of 25. If we have to take advantage of this demographic dividend, we need a massive expansion of public education. Vocational education plays a huge role in this." Mattoo said.

Referring to the Singh-Obama 21st Century Knowledge Initiative, launched in 2009 as an education and science partnership, education minister Sibal said: "We have massive human resources that the world cannot ignore. Moreover, the aging countries of the West will need young qualified human resources in the coming years and they realise that India will fill the resource gap.

"It is in their interest to invest in higher education in India."

These developments strengthen the idea that Indian higher education is becoming globalised, no longer a national sector unaffected by international developments.

According to Sam Pitroda, adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on innovation and infrastructure, Indian education is passing through a phase similar to that of the Indian economy in 1990s: which went from an inward-looking model that did not have to rely on international trade, to a more globalised economy.

It's time to "deregulate education" and push ahead with the reform agenda", Pitroda said.

The Indian economy, expanding at around 8% a year, needs a large, trained workforce to sustain the growth momentum. It will need to step up research and development and innovation, which generally emerge from educational institutions, an area where India needs to catch up with the rest of the world.

Collaboration and internationalisation will be an important aspect of the growth in the country's higher education sector, experts maintain.

"Asia is rising in the 21st century both as an economic powerhouse and an intellectual hub. Higher education in India is on a reform path and it's essential for India to maintain its economic growth," Yale president Richard Levin said on his recent visit to India, adding that his university wanted strong ties with the country.