That may be about to change. The Indian government says it will increase enrollment in state-run universities by more than 50% in the next three years. Crucially, the government is also considering allowing foreign universities to open up in India either on their own or in partnership with local schools. "The time has come to recognize the right of every qualified student to pursue higher education," Finance Minister P. Chidambaram Minister said last week. "Millions of children are still out of school and that should remind us of the unfinished task before us."
The potential is huge: university education is a rare privilege in the world's second most populous nation. Fewer than 17 million out of India's 1.2 billion people have been lucky enough to study past high school. And India needs educated workers. Despite its economic boom and massive young population, India faces a serious skills shortage. Wage rates are growing by 20% a year, sometimes more, as Indian companies battle to attract educated workers. It helps that as opportunities at home improve, more students are deciding to return to India after their studies abroad. But if the world's universities can set up shop in India, not only will more Indians get a chance at a good education, fewer students will have to leave India in the first place.
For decades Indian students' favorite destination has been the U.S. According to a report by the U.S.-based Institute of International Education, 76,503 Indians currently study in America, the biggest single group of foreign students in the U.S., ahead of Chinese and Koreans. Most of those students return to work in India, but thousands stay in the U.S., contributing their skills to the world's biggest economy.
Indian students are also heading to universities in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The international market for students has become a lot more competitive recently, a trend visible at an exhibition of European universities in New Delhi last week. Potential students flocked to the show, grilling exhibitors from Europe's traditional powers, such as France and Germany, but also eastern upstarts such as Hungary and Lithuania. The number of European universities offering courses in English has risen dramatically over the past few years, making them more attractive to Indian students. "The Europeans are welcoming Asian students," says Nidhi Mahajan who was manning the stand for the Graduate School of Automotive, Aeronautical, Space Craft and Marine Craft Engineering, based in Paris. "They've destroyed that barrier of language and people are finding the U.S. is maybe a little monotonous, so they're looking for something different."
At the University of Limerick booth, Nidhi Kapur, a middle-class mother from Delhi, sat looking over courses for her 17-year-old son Kartavya. The gap between India's top schools and the next rank of universities is huge, she explained. For a B- or C-grade student like her son, "you still want a good, solid, branded university, but the options are limited in India," despite the fact that "every family would spend anything it can for education. We're happy to give up comfortable living if it means our children will go to a good school."
The world's best universities know the Indian passion for education is a potential goldmine and have been lobbying New Delhi to open up the domestic market for years. True, there will always be people who want to study overseas no matter what, people like Anupriya Diwan, 22, who earned an undergraduate degree in interior design at an Indian college and is now keen to study design in the U.S. "The point is exposure," says Diwan, who was at the exhibition last week to compare European colleges to her U.S. choices. "Friends who have come back have different thought processes now. I want to broaden my vision and the best way to do that is spend time away." But if foreign universities can open up better education to tens of thousands more Indians at home, that has got to help broaden India's vision too.