Suresh Kumar, a U.S. Commerce Department official who is in New Delhi this week on an education-focused trade mission, says India needs to open up to foreign universities to accommodate its own ambitious plan of sending 30% of graduating high-school kids to college by 2020, up from 13% now.
The problem is, the proposal India’s Parliament is now batting around isn’t going to help attract U.S. universities, he says, and might actually scare them away, because it imposes too many restrictions on their entry.
India’s proposed higher education bill would create a route for foreign universities to legally set up in India, as opposed to some unofficial partnerships with Indian universities that are happening now. But it would prevent them from repatriating profits back to their home countries. The government could regulate tuition fees to keep them low, but foreign colleges would still have to ensure what they offer is of “quality comparable, as to the curriculum, methods of imparting education and the faculty employed,” of what they offer on their main campuses.
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Mr. Kumar, Assistant Secretary for Trade Promotion in the U.S. Commerce Department, says such provisions are counter-productive. Top U.S. universities that charge $120,000 to $160,000 for two-year M.B.A. programs, he says, would likely never come to India if the government were going to dictate how they run their businesses.
“If you suddenly think you can get a Harvard M.B.A. degree in India for $20,000 – it’s just not going to work,” he said. “You can’t impose a Western system in India. But India also can’t expect to have the Harvards come here under the current construct.”
Mr. Kumar said reforming education is a must for India if it hopes to maintain heady economic growth numbers over the long term. The bill is “a step in the right direction,” he said, and he’ll be making his case about how to tweak it in discussions this week with Indian Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal. Mr. Sibal also will meet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Thursday as part of the US-India Higher Education Summit.
The education law isn’t exactly on India’s front-burner. Mr. Sibal, who is also India’s telecommunications minister, has had his hands full ushering through sweeping policy changes in that sector and dealing with the fallout from the 2008 “2G” spectrum scandal.
Mr. Sibal is traveling to the U.S. for the education forum and neither he nor a spokeswoman could be reached for comment. Proponents of the approach in the government’s bill say allowing too freewheeling an environment for foreign colleges, with no strings attached, would commercialize higher education and adversely impact government institutions.
U.S. universities may not be setting up shop in India yet, but they’re already attracting Indian students in droves – mostly graduate students. Last year, 105,000 Indian students were studying abroad in the U.S., the second most behind China’s 127,000.
At a college fair Monday organized at New Delhi’s Shangri-La Hotel as part of the trade mission, 21 U.S. universities were recruiting and the high enthusiasm of Indian students to go abroad was on display.
Neiha Pandey, a 12th grader who spent time chatting up an official from the University of Pennsylvania, her first choice, says she wants to study in the U.S. because of the less rigid curriculum options in liberal arts colleges. “It’s a different thing than India – there are so many variations, you can switch streams in the middle. It’s flexible,” she said.
Mr. Kumar is an India native who once was a high-profile news broadcaster for Doordarshan television in the 1980s (he says he earned 100 rupees, about $2, per broadcast in those days) and had a 30 year career in business and academia. He says one of his goals as a representative of the U.S. government now is to “convey to the Indian population the range of universities we have” so people are familiar with more than just the costly, high-profile schools.
At the fair, relatively better-known schools like Arizona State University and Hofstra had set up booths alongside others that had some attendees scratching their heads – Savannah College of Art and Design, University of the Incarnate Word and Life University, for example. UPenn, the best known school, had the biggest crowd at its booth.
“I wish bigger universities would come here,” said Rubina Singh, 25, who is looking to enroll in a psychology graduate studies program. “There are universities here I’ve never heard of.”
Elenora Haag, who was representing the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the school has already had surprising interest from Indians with almost no marketing – of its 200 foreign students (out of a student population of 5,000) 80% are Indians. “It’s entirely by word of mouth,” she said.
But she added that the school is hoping to diversify the kind of Indians it attracts. All its Indians now are computer science graduate students and, interestingly, all are from Hyderabad. “I guess some of them came and told their friends back home in Hyderabad to come,” Ms. Haag says.
Mr. Kumar says the Indian interest in U.S. colleges is promising, but he says if U.S. universities were allowed to more freely establish campuses and partnerships in India, they could handle a much larger base of Indian students, something India sorely needs. India has capacity to handle 28 million undergraduate college students now, but by its own calculations will need to add another five million seats by 2015 and then keep rapidly expanding in future years.
Another element of Mr. Kumar’s trip has been aimed at exploring what kind of collaborations Indian universities are looking for with U.S. institutions. He met with officials from engineering institute BITS Pilani, Kurukshetra University and Amity University and tried to assess what they’re interested in.