In 1943, Winston Churchill remarked in a speech at Harvard University that "the empires of the future will be empires of the mind." He might as well have predicted that the empires of today would clash over traditional prizes like natural resources, but also over new ones — notably, talent.
In a world where globalization is erasing physical borders and replacing them with virtual ones, talent has emerged as one of the most sought after commodities by countries and companies alike. The trend is one of the major reasons why a growing number of American universities, eager to expand into previously ignored markets abroad, have set their sights on India.
They have established wholly owned operations in India and formed partnerships with Indian universities or plan to do so. The list includes California State University, Long Beach; Cornell University, Rice University, Champlain College, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Ohio University.
So what's the attraction? For starters, approximately 40 percent of India's 1.1 billion citizens are under the age of 18. Then there is the country's scarcity of higher-education opportunities, which the national government frequently cites as one of the biggest obstacles to economic progress there.
"India has an enormous need for more [higher education] opportunities for its population," Madeleine Green, vice president for international opportunities at the American Council on Education, said. "At 1.1 billion people, their capacity is nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of absorbing that age cohort. The demand is certainly there — India is having labor shortages and is desperately in need of more qualified workers than it currently has."
According to the National Knowledge Commission — an advisory body to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on education issues — only 7 percent of Indians ages 18 to 24 enter a university, which it attributes to India's lack of higher education opportunities. The commission has recommended that India double that figure — effectively bringing the country up to par with the rest of Asia — by creating at least 1,500 colleges and universities over the next few years.
"The engine of the economy is educated people," Green said. "For India to move forward economically, it needs to develop more educational opportunities."
For now, American universities are proceeding cautiously — Indian laws governing how foreign educational institutions may operate in the country are difficult to navigate — but that could soon change. The Indian Parliament took up a draft law in April that would ease rules on foreign investment in education on the subcontinent.
If approved, the bill would exempt foreign institutions from tough rules that currently apply to all government-accredited universities in India on curriculums, staff salaries and fees.
"That's the key," Green said. "India must establish some ground rules to encourage foreign investment in higher education."
The U.S. government agrees. Karen P. Hughes, U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, visited India in late March along with a half-dozen American university presidents to show support for the bill and to encourage greater collaboration between U.S. and Indian universities.
In a March 26 speech to members of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce in Mumbai, Hughes addressed the growing importance of talent in the global marketplace and said the best way to nurture it is to give more students access to higher education.
"We believe encouraging more young people to become truly global citizens serves our national interest, India's interests and your interests as business leaders," Hughes said. "In this increasingly global world, you need employees who are highly educated, able to speak different languages and able to move easily between cultures and countries, and so we are here to ask for the business community's active partnership and support."
Hughes also urged Indian students to consider attending college in the United States. American universities, she said, welcome an infusion of Indian talent and creativity to their campuses.
She also emphasized the need to "give American students important skills to work in the global environment."
"Such cooperation will help meet the growing demand of American and Indian businesses for skilled, knowledgeable workers … and help future generations forge stronger bonds between our countries," Hughes said. "We need to do a better job of helping Americans learn the languages, cultures and history of the world."
Thus far, Indians are doing their share to strengthen those bonds. The National Knowledge Commission estimates more than 160,000 Indian students are currently attending colleges and universities abroad, spending roughly $4 billion annually. Indian and Chinese students comprise the largest number of foreign students in America.
Thomas Farrell, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of State's Office of Education and Cultural Affairs, said more than 76,000 of the estimated 580,000 foreign nationals currently studying at the university level in the United States are Indian.
"That's more than any other country," Farrell said. "There are more Indians studying in America than there are Chinese, Korean and Japanese students. The reason more Indians come to the United States relates to the variety and quality of an education they can get here. It's the premier destination for education in the world and the best place for research and advanced studies. Our institutions attract talent."
Farrell estimated that 206,000 Americans are currently studying abroad, yet only 1,700 of them are in India. He said the State Department wants to increase both figures, particularly the number of Americans studying in India, but remains hampered by the small number of Americans who choose to study abroad — currently, about 1 percent — and India's low capacity to receive more foreign students.
"Only a small percentage of U.S. students study overseas, and most of them go to places they are more familiar with, like Western European countries, Canada and Australia," Farrell said. "But even if we were to change that, I don't think India could handle many more foreign students because it really just doesn't have the capacity for them."
It is difficult to quantify the number of American institutions that are doing business in India or with Indian schools because no comprehensive list exists — just anecdotal information. However, the London-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education — a joint initiative between the Association of Commonwealth Universities and Universities U.K. — reported in 2004 that 66 U.S.-based colleges and universities were collaborating with private institutions in India.
"We're not sure where that number stands right now, but we suspect that it has gone up," Green said.
Count Ohio University's College of Business among the most recent crop of American institutions that have expanded their operations to India. Two years ago, the school aligned with Christ College in Bangalore to launch the Ohio University-Christ College Academy for Management Education.
Taught primarily by Ohio University professors at Christ College, the intense program offers full-time students a Master in Business Administration degree in just 18 months.
Ohio University administrators anticipated high interest in the program from prospective students; they received more than 10,000 applications for just 120 seats.
Dr. John Keifer, an Ohio university professor who was instrumental in setting up the India program, credited its success to soaring demand for business education in India, which he said is a direct result of the country's booming economy.
"As the amount of foreign direct investment in India continues to increase, so too, will demand for educated workers who can communicate clearly," he said, adding the program focuses on business communication, whereas many Indian universities emphasize basic coursework.
"You have to be very culture specific when talking about India," Keifer said. "The Indian culture is very paternalistic, very hierarchical. When Indian students come into the classroom for the very first time, they are very respectful, almost to the point of causing discomfort. They say, 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir,' very often."
Keifer said the Indian students gradually begin to relax the longer they remain in the program.
"You see a maturation in their development — their comfort level gradually increases and they begin to engage their classmates in the classroom," he said. "They entered the classroom in the beginning as deer in the spotlight, but at the end they have transformed into young colleagues."