Universities need to get ready for India’s high fliers

Engaging with Indian higher education has been always been a very complex endeavour for foreign institutions. However, Indian higher education is now priming up for new opportunities to recruit students and build partnerships. This time it is different as the opportunities are largely driven by student demand as opposed to policy reform.

Soon, an emerging segment of Indian students will not only aspire to global education but will also have the ability to afford the experience. This will present new opportunities for institutions interested in engaging with India.

The traditional segment – Strivers

With nearly 200,000 students enrolled outside the country, India is the second largest source of globally mobile students. However, the number of students going abroad has grown at an anaemic pace for the last five years.

Consider the case of the United States, which enrols nearly half of all globally mobile Indian students. The number of Indian students in the US has pretty much remained the same in 2012-13 (96,754) as in 2007-08 (94,563).

One of the reasons is that Indian students are highly dependent on loans from India or financial aid from universities. Post-recession, availability of financial aid became very difficult and at the same time the devaluation of India’s currency increased the cost of studying abroad.

Another characteristic of globally mobile Indian students is that they are primarily enrolled on masters-level programmes in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – related fields. Three out of four students (78%) from India in the US were enrolled on STEM programmes as compared to only 37% of Chinese or 17% of Korean students.

Looking at globally mobile Indian students from the framework of four segments of international students – high fliers, explorers, strivers and strugglers – typical Indian students were most likely to be strivers.

As I have previously forecast, from the beginning of 2015 the biggest change in the profile of Indian students aspiring to global education will be the emergence of ‘high fliers’ – those who are academically prepared and more importantly have an ability to pay for their experiences.

The emerging segment – High fliers

The emergence of Indian ‘high flier’ students can be traced back to the economic sociology where the changes in the nature of the economy have transformed the structure of society.

In early 1990s, India went through economic reforms which opened up public sectors like telecommunication and financial services to private competition. This reform created high demand for professionals who received high salaries and a premium for their skills.

Complementing the policy reform was an unexpected opportunity offered by global IT services. The ‘Y2K’ computer glitches in the late 1990s gave birth to the Indian IT outsourcing industry which employed thousands of Indian engineers.

These new-age professionals who started their careers in the late 1990s not only had a mindset that valued saving, but also had the chance to become part of the real estate boom in India. The combination of these economic changes and opportunities enabled many professionals to amass substantial financial resources over time.

In addition, these professionals strongly believe in the value of education and hence are ready to spend on the best education for their children. One indicator of this trend of investing in education is the number of students enrolled in high-end international schools offering programmes like the international baccalaureate.

In sum, I define Indian ‘high fliers’ as children born in the late '90s to parents working in new-age industries like IT, financial services and telecommunications. Many of these ‘high flier’ students will start exploring undergraduate colleges in 2015 and many others will apply for masters programmes in a few years’ time.

Getting ready for new opportunities

A new wave of demand for global education among Indian ‘high fliers’ is set to take-off. These children of professionals who started working in new-age industries in the late '90s will create a new opportunity for foreign higher education institutions interested in engaging with India.

Making the most of the opportunity will require overcoming challenges of understanding the unique characteristics and needs of this segment. An upcoming research report will offer insights about the decision-making processes of different segments of Indian bachelor and masters degree-seeking students.

Likewise, institutions interested in building deeper engagement should explore how to create solutions that go beyond expectations for radical policy reforms like the bill that was supposed to allow entry of foreign universities to establish campuses in India.

While the growth of ‘high fliers’ in India will not be as rapid as that in China, forward-looking institutions should make the most of this opportunity by informing and adapting their internationalisation strategies to the unique needs of this segment.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at and @DrEducationBlog.