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Building Capacity in India: What Role for Cross-Border Higher Education?

With a staggering unmet demand for higher education and an increasing desire to collaborate with foreign higher-education providers, India has emerged as central component of the global expansion plans for many college and universities. Indeed, for India and the United States, such higher-education collaborations have the potential to strengthen the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies. As such it has attracted significant attention from political leaders as well as higher-education decision makers.

Last month, we attended a higher-education summit held in Washington and a preliminary meeting at Pennsylvania State University focusing on the how partnerships between the two nations might develop. The meetings were prompted by the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative, a project co-sponsored by India and America to spur the development of partnerships and collaboration between higher-education institutions in the two countries. We came away with a fuller appreciation of the challenges India faces in its higher-education sector, as well as the enthusiasm with which American institutions view opportunities for academic partnerships in the country.

The Indian government’s educational projections are incredible: The need to educate 100 million young people by 2020, and a goal of increasing higher-education participation for the age cohort from 15 percent to 30 percent in 10 years. Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal argues that this requires 1,000 new universities and 50,000 new colleges, staffed by a million new faculty members and guided by a revamped quality assurance regime. In his view, partnerships with U.S. universities are a key element for providing the capacity within the Indian educational system needed to meet the surge in demand.

In short, India is staring at tsunami of young people approaching higher education, and the system does not have the capacity to meet the demand. And, if the government is not able to find the means to do so, the country will have a demographic disaster – “just adding mouths to feed, not hands that can work,” according to Narendra Jadhav, a member of the Planning Commission of India, speaking at the Penn State meeting.

But what exactly should the role of American (or other foreign) universities play in the development of educational capacity within India? This question raises a key issue regarding the role of cross-border higher education and the differing perspectives often brought to the table by the host and the home countries. Is the purpose of the activity to build capacity or to be capacity?

India seems to be of two minds on this point. On the one hand, partnerships are envisioned as a way of providing expertise to build new or enhance existing institutions and structures in India. Specific proposals often contemplate the training of faculty for example, or the establishment of new degrees and programs to train the “21st century workforce.” This is classic “building capacity” language.  The expertise of foreign institutions is used to transform the domestic system.

However, collaborations take time to develop and time is not something India has much of. They need to respond quickly to the rapidly approaching tsunami of young people.  Thus, India is also considering importing branch campuses. Branch campuses, while not always an ideal means for building capacity within the system, can quickly “be capacity” by providing additional access to higher education.

But establishing a physical presence in another country through a branch campus or some other variant of a foreign outpost is an enormous commitment. What we will see is likely to be similar to other countries that have taken steps to welcome foreign outposts to their shores, but have stopped short of actively pursuing branch campuses. A few institutions are able to navigate the political barriers, often through personal connections and with the financial support of local authorities, and set up independent degree-granting locations. But most activity is through joint- or dual-degree initiatives that represent modest home campus investment and can be terminated relatively easily by either party.

The question for India is whether either model satisfies the government’s policy concerns. Greater involvement of branch campuses in India could provide a modest increase in the capacity of the country, but it will certainly take indigenous institutions to fully realize the massive increase in access that is envisioned. But meaningful collaborations with foreign institutions take a while to develop and become operational. In addition, opening up their borders to foreign education providers brings some risk as well. Concerns about profiteering institutions should be taken seriously, especially since the U.S. for-profit industry is looking abroad to expand as opportunities at home are constrained by new Department of Education regulations and Congressional inquiries. In sum, India needs to find a way to rapidly increase educational access, while ensuring the quality and sustainability of the educational experience.

India is making an enormous investment in education, and is looking outside its borders for ideas and expertise. U.S. institutions are eager to help. Foreign outposts and international collaborations may form part of the solution, but will it be enough? What other opportunities might exist?

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