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Go East, young person

Pramath Sinha

India presents such a huge opportunity for western higher education institutions that it is almost the next frontier. The government of India’s target is to lift the tertiary gross enrolment ratio from 10 per cent of university-age citizens attending universities to 30 per cent in the next 10 years. That means 50 million Indians will need higher education, filling 1,000 more universities and 50,000 extra colleges.

Educating such numbers is not something we can do on our own. So institutions here and elsewhere in the West need to understand that they have a real opportunity to help educate Indians and, in the process, generate substantial financial surpluses to fund research both in India and elsewhere.

There has never been a better time to partner with India. Only 362 of India’s 21,000 higher education institutions are proper universities. Of those only 10 are private universities and 23 are central universities, so the vast majority are funded by individual Indian states. There is a huge lack of the sort of high-quality research universities that exist in the West.

That’s why global collaboration is so important. My view of its power was formed as I helped found the Indian School of Business, now a stand-alone, philanthropic business school for 500 students. Its main international partners are, in the US, the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania and the Kellogg School of Management, Chicago, and, in the UK, the London Business School. It also has links to the MIT Sloane School and Tufts University, both in Massachusetts, US. By 2008 the ISB was ranked 12th in the Financial Times global MBA rankings.

The ISB has benefited from a global personnel model you may not be familiar with. We began in 2001 by recruiting visiting faculty from around the world instead of permanent faculty. Ten years on, we have 55 permanent faculty members but we have retained the visiting teaching faculty; about 120 teaching staff come through the school each year, freeing the permanent faculty for their research. Postgraduate students can be supervised by visiting faculty. Using visiting faculty also allows you to bring in the ‘heavy hitter’ teachers for undergraduates.

Undergraduates need to be inspired in the classroom and many of the best researchers are not skilled teachers.

The partner schools’ faculties put a great deal of effort into mentoring. Our partners were not able to send us their senior faculty to work in India but by designating them as formal mentors we were able to get them to help in getting research activities going on a long-distance basis with the young faculty pool that we were hiring from some of the top universities around the world. By any criteria we are now the leading institution in this field in India, surpassing longer established organisations.

India’s government is intent on replicating this achievement. It is to build eight new institutes of technology, our elite technological institutions, seven new management institutions, 14 world-class innovation universities and 16 new central universities. That creates a huge need for faculty and academic expertise. And this is where the opportunities for foreign collaborations will be.

Where’s the money to come from? There are two ways of meeting the funding challenge. One is by increasing efficiency through outsourcing. Private companies have very successfully harnessed Indian research talent. So why shouldn’t this successful model be replicated in higher education? The costs of higher education in the US and elsewhere are becoming unsustainable. These universities have to consider moving some operations to lower-cost venues in other countries.

The other opportunity is based in the area of teaching and research mentorship, acting as a catalyst to get new institutions up and running, much as the University of Liverpool is doing in China in XJTLU, its joint venture with Xi’an Jiaotong University. Such new institutions will generate huge financial surpluses in India and they are unlikely to know what to do with that money. At the moment surpluses in India’s ‘for surplus’—not ‘for profit’—research universities are being used to open up multiple campuses. That is where collaboration with a western university could help get research activities off the ground.

There is also a new generation of philanthropists in India, which is putting a lot of money into education. Some of it may be available to support research.

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Pramath Sinha is founder and director of the International Foundation for Research and Education, India, and owns India’s only higher education magazine EDU. He was speaking at Research Fortnight’s second annual conference, Globalisation: The future of research institutions, on 9 November. A transcript is available via the link below.