Why aren't American colleges more engaged in India's fast-growing higher-education market? That was a frequent topic of conversation at the annual conference of the Association of International Education Administrators here this week.
As American colleges continue to look abroad for partners, international administrators say India has proved to be a more challenging country to penetrate than others. But why that's so isn't always clear.
"Even in institutions with lots of international partnerships, very few partnerships are in India," said Susan Buck Sutton, a former associate vice chancellor for international affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, in a session on building education partnerships in India.
Yet India, on its face, would seem to be a natural place to develop relationships, said Ms. Sutton, now a senior adviser for internationalization at Bryn Mawr College. It's an English-speaking country in which education is highly valued. It has longstanding ties to the United States. There is great unmet demand for higher education in India, and large numbers of Indian students study in the United States.
But many colleges say it is extraordinarily difficult to find the right partners to develop active exchanges and other ties there. Some colleges complained of being approached by institutions whose names they had never heard of, leading them to dismiss the overtures. "I can't make sense of them all," one college administrator said in a session looking at higher-education reforms in China and India.
Beyond a few elite central universities and the Indian Institutes of Technology, it seems, few American educators can name many Indian colleges.
Bhushan Patwardhan, a professor in the School of Public Health & Health Science at the University of Pune, who spoke on the same panel as Ms. Sutton, said there might also be a mismatch of interests. Historically, American colleges have wanted to engage Indian institutions in areas such as social science, humanities, development, and public health. Indian institutions are more interested in working with American partners in the fields of business, technology, and engineering, he noted.
Stephen C. Dunnett, vice provost for international education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who spoke in the session on reforms in Chinese and Indian higher education, noted that American study-abroad numbers to India have remained fairly low, and attributed that in part to lack of interest among public institutions in India in developing exchange programs. "They're not so welcoming and don't have a long tradition of receiving American students."
And certainly, many partnerships have faltered on the American side as well. Nicole Ranganath, director of the global-studies program at the University of California at Davis Extension, said that it took a particularly persistent faculty member to get a study-abroad program off the ground in India.
She recounted the failure of an ambitious project called the UC-India Initiative, which was created in 2005 to give the University of California campuses leverage with leading Indian institutions and the Indian government. Despite a multimillion dollar commitment from the Indian government, it became a casualty of the California budget crisis.
Finally, there is the challenge of India's continuing to ban foreign providers from offering degrees there. A bill opening the market to foreign universities is stuck in India's Parliament, and versions of that same piece of legislation have been kicking around since 2006, noted Rahul Choudaha, associate director of development and innovation at World Education Services, in a session examining the prospects of the bill.
While he said he is optimistic that the bill will pass by December, India itself remains an overly regulated system, speakers and participants noted. Anand Sudarshan, chief executive of Manipal Education, one of the largest private universities in India, said that for foreign universities to be truly effective in India, they need to see that a broader higher-education reform bill, also before Parliament, passes as well. That would significantly streamline and improve the regulation and accreditation of the higher-education system.
"The intent is a very honorable one," he said of international partnerships. "But the path is filled with boulders."
Still, universities are finding ways around these roadblocks.
John E. Dooley, vice president for outreach and international affairs at Virginia Tech, noted that his university has made several mistakes along the way as it has sought to carve out a role in India. Now, with an advisory board in place that includes representatives from Indian industry, and support from India's minister who oversees higher education, Kapil Sibal, Virginia Tech is aiming to create a small graduate-level institute to conduct research and offer master's and doctoral programs.
Mr. Choudaha noted that a number of British, American, and other foreign institutions have figured out a way to work in India despite regulatory restrictions. Some have created joint-degree or nondegree programs with Indian partners. Others have set up research partnerships with stand-alone research institutes. Still others have engaged private institutions, which can be more outward looking and better financed than cash-strapped public institutions.
Is India ready to open itself to the world? he asked. "Yes, but it takes patience and persistence."