Indian university expands overseas branch campuses

Two years ago it was just a patch of desert around Dubai, but now a new state-of-the-art Manipal University campus has arisen out of the sands with its own laboratories, lecture theatres and classrooms in purpose-built facilities.

Unlike the majority of foreign branch campuses, which mainly provide undergraduate courses, Manipal – one of the largest private institutions in India, where it has set up several medical schools and comprehensive university campuses – has aspirations to include quality research at its branch at Dubai’s International Academic City, a hub for overseas universities.

This is part of its expansion overseas. Manipal already has medical colleges in Nepal, Malaysia and Antigua. A new multi-faculty university is being built outside Kuala Lumpur, similar to the multi-faculty campus in Dubai.

The number of Indian branch campuses overseas is growing fast, according to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.

India leads overseas higher education provision from non-Western countries, with at least 17 campuses abroad, 10 of them in the United Arab Emirates, four in Mauritius and others in Malaysia, Singapore and countries in the West.

Why step out of India?

“The reason we stepped out of India was because we could not grow in India,” Anand Sudarshan, CEO of Manipal Global, told the International Finance Corporation’s conference on private education in Dubai on 8 March. He was referring to Indian government restrictions on the number of students from abroad at medical schools in the country.

Nepal and Malaysia invited Manipal to set up medical institutions in their countries, he said, describing the opportunity as “pure chance” rather than strategic planning. “We recognised that there is an enormous opportunity for us to start looking at setting up branch campuses.”

Manipal Global now earns roughly two-thirds of its revenue from international branch campuses, Sudarshan said, with some 10,000 students compared to 35,000 students at its universities and medical colleges in Manipal, Bangalore, Mangalore in southern India and Sikkim in the north-east, with a new comprehensive university also being built in Jaipur in Rajasthan.

Manipal was also invited by the Dubai authorities. “They looked at India. They said 'we should not only invite Western universities to come in, we should also invite Asian universities'. India was a logical choice, largely because the higher education system is very good,” Sudarshan told University World News.

For Manipal, the attraction is a large South Asian expatriate population in Dubai, many of them familiar with the Manipal name – its first non-profit medical college in India was set up in the 1950s. “A significant chunk of students here in Dubai are from South Asia, India in particular,” he said.

Students from the region

For students in Dubai it means they do not have to go back to India for higher education. But Sudarshan believes Manipal will be able to attract more students to its new purpose-built Dubai campus from outside that specific group, as regional student mobility begins to rise in the Gulf, and in the Middle East and Asia more generally

Already around 10% to 15% of students on the Dubai campus are from outside Dubai, mainly from other emirates.

That may mean adjusting courses. “You have to be relevant. If Dubai attracts more students from across the region we will have to adapt courses and provide something different to what we provide now,” he said.

Localisation has always been key with Manipal. “In Malaysia, for example, when we started the Malacca medical college we had a preponderance of faculty who had gone there from India. Now local Malaysian faculty head perhaps two-thirds of the departments there, and a very large proportion of the faculty are local. There is a transformation that happens over a period of time.

“When we look at setting up in another country we also consider whether it is possible for us to attract good faculty. We don’t want to go into a country and be seen as somebody who will poach faculty. That is not the intent,” Sudarshan said.

“We also don’t want to be seen as an institution that comes from India or any other place parachuting faculty in from outside and therefore not melded in with the local culture at all.”

Other countries

Manipal also went beyond the local expat community for students with its 100% ownership of the American University of Antigua medical college in the Caribbean, where 90% of the students are American or Canadian and medical education is geared towards the North American system.

“We are looking to expand to other countries, not because they are setting up higher education hubs, but because there are other opportunities,” Sudarshan said.

“For us, wherever there is a large number of young people who are aspirationally driven, recognising that higher education is going to form the foundation of their career success, that’s the country we would like to be in, and the region we would like to be in.”

“We have looked at Sri Lanka very seriously. The government is very keen; it has invited us,” Sudarshan told University World News. “We’re just waiting for some legislative changes that the government is bringing in, so that private universities and the way that they can be structured, can be allowed in Sri Lanka.

“It is possible for Sri Lanka to make an exception, but we would rather work under an umbrella bill for private universities,” he added.

Other regions of interest, though no specific plans are afoot, include East Africa, South Africa and Egypt, as well as many of the South-east Asian countries including Vietnam and Indonesia.

“None of the others is in a position where I can say within the next 12 months something is likely to happen. But there are four to five conversations going on currently,” he said.

“Obviously we can’t do all of them but these are the kind of countries we would definitely like to go to – and medical education for us is worldwide.”