Internationalising Indian universities – The way forward

With a population nearing 1.3 billion, half of which is 25 years or younger, and a projection that by 2030 India will have 140 million people in the college-going age range, the country holds great potential to become a major source for world talent.

The major challenge higher education policy-makers face is to put in place an effective system capable of educating and training this young population to deliver on the ‘demographic dividend’.

Size and shape of higher education

The Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education – the number of individuals participating as a percentage of the college-age population – is estimated by the All India Survey on Higher Education or AISHE 2015 to be 23% – significant growth from the 0.4% in 1950-51.

The government’s stated aim is to achieve 30% by 2020. Various estimates indicate that to achieve this would require an additional 1,500 higher education institutions.

With one in four graduates globally being a product of the Indian education system, India already has the third largest higher education system in the world in terms of enrolment, after China and the United States.

The number of students enrolled in higher education – colleges and universities – in formal taught courses, including in open and distance learning, is estimated by AISHE to be in the region of 32.3 million in 2013-14.

Largely influenced by the British education system, higher education in India has witnessed significant growth since the first universities, modelled around the University of London, were established in 1857 in Calcutta (Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai).

From around 20 universities and 500 colleges at the time of independence in 1947, according to Deloitte in 2012, the sector has grown to 728 universities and some 37,200 colleges.

It is pertinent to note that India’s challenge in higher education is not just about equity and access, but also quality, excellence, relevance, governance, funding, encouraging diversity, and enhancing capacity.

Perspectives on internationalisation

Student mobility and global exchange is not something new to India. As early as the 7th century BC, Takshacila (spelt nowadays as Taxila) attracted more than 10,500 students from all over the world who studied more than 60 subjects at this university (Tilak 2010).

Nalanda University, believed to be built in the 4th century BC, finds an important place in the valuable account of India left by the Chinese traveller and scholar Hiuen Tsang, who visited India in the 7th century. Considered to be one of the great achievements of the ancient period in the field of education, the university attracted over 10,000 scholars and students from Asia and across the world (Rajkhowa 1935; Tilak 2010).

In the last two decades however, the dominant theme in the internationalisation strand has been outward mobility.

Various estimates indicate that the number of Indian students going overseas every year is in the region of 300,000, whereas the inflow of overseas students into India is between 22,000 and 25,000 – resulting in a net outflow of foreign exchange which is estimated to be double the government allocation to higher education.

The number of overseas students, which is roughly 0.1% of the total number of students in higher education in India, is miniscule when compared to 21.4% enrolled in Australia and 19.5% in the United Kingdom.

China, a relatively new entrant in attracting international students, has approximately 330,000 international students with a target of 500,000 by 2020. Singapore with 90,000 international students and Malaysia with a target of 200,000 by 2020 have also become strong international education destinations.

Reforms and initiatives needed

While there has been much debate on reforms in higher education, what is required is systemic thinking on how reforms could contribute to providing a specific focus towards internationalisation.

From an Indian perspective the focus should be more on how global resources can be used to build capacity, increase access, enhance quality and encourage diversity, and less on the commercial opportunities associated with the fast growing global market in higher education.

The current initiative of the government in framing a New Education Policy is a step in this direction.

With ‘Empowering India through quality education’ as the underlying theme, the report provides an overarching commentary and specific recommendations for the education sector, addressing issues of regulation, governance and reform required to strengthen national-level institutions. Notably, in the area of internationalising higher education, the report recognises the significant imbalance in the area of student mobility and recommends:

“Selected foreign universities from the top 200 in the world should be encouraged to establish their presence in India through collaboration with Indian universities. It should be made possible for a foreign university to be in a position to offer its own degrees to Indian students studying in India, such that these degrees should be valid also in the country of origin."

“Encouragement should be given to ‘high quality’ foreign universities and educational institutions to collaborate with Indian partners and establish an Indian presence. Appropriate enabling legislation, as required, may be enacted.”

This, the report urges, should be placed within the broad opportunity to ‘globalise’ Indian higher education without compromising the basic tenets of access, equity and quality.

Challenges and opportunities

There are opportunities and challenges in internationalising higher education.

The opportunities include enhanced capacity, greater access, joint curricula, greater diversity of courses, exposure to a variety of teaching and learning methods, growing comparability of qualifications, exposure to established systems of education administration and management, less brain drain of gifted students, fusion of cultures, exchange of research ideas and enhanced research capacity, multinational and cross-disciplinary teams and the generation of new academic environments.

The challenges and risks concern quality of provision, high fees leading to elitist provision, and inequality of access leading to a two-tier system which is inconsistent with the equity and access drivers of the nation’s tertiary policy.

Higher education in India needs a comprehensive internationalisation strategy at both the national and institutional levels.

Creating ‘education hubs’ in strategic geographical locations and allowing reputable overseas institutions to establish a presence in India, through joint initiatives in curriculum design and delivery, branch campuses, and joint research and scholarly activities, should help build capacity, reduce the imbalance in student mobility and attract significant export earnings.

The establishment of strategic hubs should be clearly coordinated with the government’s current drive to establish ‘Smart Cities’. Another aspect of internationalisation is to encourage Indian institutions to establish a presence overseas, either with campuses or in strategic partnership with a local institution.

Partnerships with international higher education institutions provide boundless opportunities to infuse the oft repeated ‘culture of research’ – the very pinnacle of ranking. While many Indian institutions are engaged in cutting-edge research, this does not necessarily translate to the global acknowledgement deserved.

To leverage the demographic dividend, sustain economic development and gain competitiveness in the global market, higher education would need to encourage building research capacity from the ‘ground up’ and not merely importing research infrastructure and resources.

Initiatives such as the UK-India Education and Research Initiative, the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative and the Global Initiative of Academic Networks are a few steps in this direction.

Only when Indian academics and researchers are collaborating and working with the best in the world will Indian universities become more internationally productive and relevant.

To build capacity and raise quality, India needs universities that are globally networked. Just as India has benefitted from liberalising the economy and opening it to the world, the higher education sector too would benefit from strong international partnerships.

India offers a multitude of opportunities to international higher education institutions and the global student population. Indian organisations in the corporate, public and social sectors offer exciting and innovative opportunities for learning and work experience.

Some conclusions

In the context of a globally connected world, higher education in India is characterised by asymmetry in flows and unclear policies. Maximising the potential benefits from internationalisation of higher education would require a deliberate and sustained effort from all stakeholders.

Like Singapore, Dubai, Malaysia and now China, India should position itself as a centre for quality higher education. There is a clear opportunity to establish a regional framework to harmonise systems of higher education for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – similar to Europe’s Bologna process. India has the opportunity to take a lead on this.

India’s strategy should be based on internationalisation’s potential to help tackle issues of access, equity and quality.

The test of a good policy would be to build in safeguards and checks against misuse through strong regulatory and governance structures that are both relevant to the needs of the country and also foster innovation and creativity.

This would facilitate an understanding of and aligning with international quality assurance systems to develop standards that are fit for purpose, context driven and globally acceptable.

It is time that India’s higher education policy reflects on how best to benefit from the ‘demographic dividend’ and leverage internationalisation. Given the roll-out of key campaigns such as ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’ this is the right time for the government to send out a decisive signal to foreign providers and investors in the education sector.

India must clearly define its higher education policy objectives to be both globally and locally relevant in order to benefit from increased global student mobility and growing internationalisation. India has potential, and a clear higher education policy could secure the country a formidable global standing in higher education.

Gautam Rajkhowa is a senior lecturer in management studies and director of the MBA programme at Newman University in the United Kingdom. His research focuses on the internationalisation of higher education with a particular interest in models of collaboration in cross-border higher education, global student mobility, student expectations and experience, and public policy in higher education.

  • • Powar KB (2014) “International Student Mobility: The global scenario and Indian mobility trends”, in Trends in Internationalisation of Higher Education in India, Confederation of Indian Industry. pp 3-14.
  • • Rajkhowa SC (1935) “Ancient European and Indian Universities”, in Encyclopaedia of Higher Education – the Indian Perspective, Volume 1. Mittal Publications: New Delhi 2005.
  • • Tilak JBG (2010) “Universities: An endangered species?” Journal of the World Universities Forum, Volume 3, No 2, pp 109-128.