As part of the Obama-Singh initiative, a “summit” of Indian and American academic leaders and policymakers met for a day in Washington on October 13, 2011. Goodwill was expressed and promises of collaboration were proffered. But, in fact, relatively few courses of action exist for Americans to improve Indian higher education, and there is only a modest need for U.S. involvement.

Reasons for involvement

The first observation is why academic institutions team up in operations outside of their borders. Many of the universities involved in such engagements, especially those at the bottom of the prestige hierarchy, view international involvement as a way to raise revenue. Establishing a branch campus, recruiting students overseas, and franchising degree programmes are typically ways of earning money for the home institution. For more renowned universities, motivations vary, and engaging in expanding the “brand image,” providing opportunities for overseas research, places for home students to do study abroad, and perhaps recruiting some of the “best and brightest” foreign students are among them. It is also a broad trend that many of the well-known branch campus initiatives of top western universities have been largely funded by the host country — costing such western institutions little, if anything. Academic institutions seldom undertake international activities for philanthropic purposes.

India's problems

Everyone agrees that India's higher education sector is in poor shape. It can neither serve the growing demand for access, nor does it have the quality required by a growing economy. Also, there are plenty of good swadeshi (home-grown) ideas about how to solve these problems. India's Knowledge Commission, which issued a comprehensive report in 2009 on a range of the country's needs for the digital age, has not had a major impact. Other reports have been largely neglected. In India, only one university was tracked among the top 400 in the recent Times Higher Education global rankings. A recent New York Times story pointed out that many of India's top high school graduates cannot attend the best colleges at home and instead accept scholarships from America's top colleges and universities. India enrols only 11 per cent of its university-age population — less than half of China's access rate. Moreover, a growing proportion of enrolments exists in private, often for-profit, “unaided” colleges and universities — in which standards are often questionable.

India spends less than many of the other fast-growing economies on research and development — about $20 billion U.S. purchasing power parity, as compared to almost $150 billion U.S. PPP for China. This modest investment has negative implications on research funding for universities, as well as for innovation in the economy.

India's requirements

It is surprising that an academic system so large and complex, as in India, has almost no “thinking capacity” on higher education. There are no agencies, other than the University Grants Commission, and its capacity is limited, in or outside of government, for focussing on higher education policy or development. Even accurate statistics are hard to come by. Most other countries have a web of agencies that help to provide information and professional expertise.

Foreign academics and universities cannot help India to develop solutions for domestic higher education challenges. Only those who are familiar with the problems and the complexities of Indian society can provide creative and specific ideas. But this problem solving requires a cadre of Indians who focus their attention on higher education, backed by accurate information and the respect of both the academic community and government authorities.

Potentially valuable American lessons

It is certainly true that the U.S. has developed one of the world's most successful academic systems — providing access to most students who wish to attend postsecondary education at mass-access institutions and many of the world's best universities at the top. America does less well in graduating all of the students who enter the mass-access institutions. Further, the level of debt accrued by students, due to budget cuts and rising costs for tuition, has reached crisis proportions.

Quality assurance remains a challenge for India. The current arrangement is cumbersome, bureaucratic, and has failed to cope with all of the colleges and universities needing certification. The American accreditation system has proved over a century as largely successful in providing a floor of quality for postsecondary institutions. Additional accrediting is provided to programmes in fields such as business, engineering, and others. Institutions that are not acceptably accredited cannot gain access to federal or state government funding or loan programmes and cannot attract many students. Thus, accreditation is a major necessity. Recently, however, the American accrediting system has had problems coping with distance education and the rapidly expanding for-profit education industry.

Like India's system, American higher education is largely a responsibility of the states rather than the central government. Issues of coordinating between the states and federal authorities are largely smooth practices. Each state has a differentiated academic system, with various types of academic institutions serving constituencies — from research universities, at the top, to community colleges with open access and vocationally focussed programmes, at the bottom. These systems typically offer articulation so that students can progress from one kind of school to another, as their academic interests and needs may develop.

India is in great need of an attractive sub-baccalaureate and vocationally oriented institution. The American community college may, indeed, offer a useful model. A community college combines vocational courses of generally good quality, linked to the job market, and provides an associate degree — based on these two-year programmes. Community colleges also offer academic courses that can be transferred to four-year baccalaureate institutions.

There are other aspects of the American system, however, that India might do well to avoid — one issue is cost. American higher education spends, on average, the highest amount per student in the world. While many institutions provide good value for money, much criticism has recently been expressed about both the high cost and the debts that many students accrue during their education. These negative issues are particularly serious regarding the new for-profit sector, which so far has been only lightly regulated.

It is certainly the case that American higher education is far from perfect. The negatives, as well as the positives, deserve attention.

Prospects for collaboration

India is still debating legislation to open the door to foreign higher education institutions. It is unlikely, despite smiling university presidents and copious amounts of goodwill, that America's top universities are going to invest heavily in India, even if the doors are open. More likely, bottom feeders will slither into the country.

The recent summit shows an interest on both sides concerning establishing ties. The devil will be, of course, in the details. It is likely, however, for student mobility to be somewhat one-sided and limited. For example, Indians will continue to come to the U.S. to pursue education because of lack of capacity at home, the perceived quality of American qualifications, and the growing middle class. Virtually, no Americans will be seeking to earn a degree in India. While modestly growing numbers of U.S. students will wish to come to India to pursue study abroad, the numbers will be limited by the lack of capacity in India to provide suitable academic experiences.

Indians can easily learn the lessons of the American higher education experience, and there is a wealth of data and analysis available. Moreover, many Indians have experienced the U.S. higher education, and a small but growing number even serve in senior leadership in American universities. Americans, on the other hand, know next to nothing about Indian higher education. Before branch campuses are set up or collaborative programmes are implemented, Americans will need to educate themselves about India's complex higher education system and its challenges.

(Philip G. Altbach is Monan professor of higher education and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, U.S.)

Foreign academics and universities cannot help India develop solutions for higher education challenges. Only those familiar with the problems of Indian society can provide creative and specific ideas.