India: Science school leads global trend in higher ed

Photo caption: Indian students celebrate their Central Board Secondary Examination. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

MANIPAL, India — In this sleepy town on the outskirts of Mangalore sits a university campus that looks unlike most others in India.

The modern central administration building is made of red brick and glass. Buildings are air-conditioned. And the ground floor of the health sciences library houses an Indian version of Starbucks. Upon arrival, most of the 23,000 students are handed laptops through which they can get access to the internet almost anywhere on the campus.

Welcome to Manipal University, a private school known for its medical and engineering programs, that has made a name for itself in a country where the private sector is typically associated with shoestring operations of dubious quality.

From a small teaching hospital with 100 students in 1953, Manipal has grown today into a network of 20 professional schools on its main campus. Another campus, in the northeastern state of Sikkim, offers seven programs, including online education.

The Manipal Group, the university's parent company, has developed a network of campuses abroad too, in Nepal, Dubai and Malaysia. Manipal is investing about $30 million on a new campus in Dubai and $10 million to enhance its Malaysia campus. Last October, Manipal began developing a new campus in Antigua, with an investment of $35 million.

"We want to become a leading provider of English-language higher education in the developing world," said Anand Sudarshan, chief executive of Manipal's education division.

With sights on global expansion, Manipal represents a trend in higher education. Other universities in India, the Persian Gulf and even Iran are branching out to other parts of the developing world as well.

"Globalization has been unipolar, mainly by the U.S. and U.K., and if Manipal does this, it creates a much broader base for globalization," said Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College. "It's good to have an array of choices, and it's good to know that developing and middle-income countries have the capacity and ideas to be players in the global education marketplace."

Manipal's domestic expansion plans were limited by tight rules governing the private higher-education sector, and Sudarshan says they almost went international by default.

"We were growing and expanding in India, and then it became impossible to expand further in India," said Sudarshan. "When we got invited by Nepal and Malaysia to set up medical colleges."

Manipal studies potential markets carefully. Sudarshan says he is focusing now on emerging markets in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Africa, where there is a growing, aspirational middle class.

Finally, Manipal's officials look for places where there is a demand for Manipal's core expertise: medicine and engineering.

"It is not risky for us; it is taking advantage of our capability," said Sudarshan, who became the head of Manipal in 2006.

But Manipal also has expansion plans in India. The Manipal Group is planning to invest more than $100 million over the next two years on additional campuses in India.

Manipal, which hasn't always had a stellar reputation, has benefited over the years from the weak and underfinanced public higher-education system in India. Students who could not get into a public school turned to the mushrooming private sector. T.M.A. Pai, who established Manipal and many other schools, believed the private sector should step in where the government could not.

Premchand Palety, founder of the Centre for Forecasting and Research, which ranks universities in India, said that when he was a university student in the mid-1980s, Manipal "wasn't thought of as a good place" to study. It was known as a haven for wealthy students who couldn't get into the top schools.

"If you didn't get in anywhere good, private was the option, and private meant only Manipal. They charged huge fees and benefited because there was no competition in that space," Palety said.

But "over time [manipal] has become an established brand and created a place for itself," he said.

The private sector has expanded rapidly: There are almost 2,500 engineering schools, most of them private, in India. In the face of competition, Manipal has improved in quality.

"Now Manipal's character has changed and it has systems in place, like good infrastructure and a decent number of faculty," Palety said.

At Manipal students shell out about $4,100 a year, and medical students pay $9,100 a year in tuition. By comparison, students at the prestigious public Indian Institutes of Technology pay $1,600 to $2,000, including housing. Students at India's premier teaching hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, pay $80 a year.

"I had no other good choice left," said a Manipal civil-engineering student who goes by the name Arhcana. "I applied in several colleges, didn't get into many, and was on the wait list on one."

Manipal administrators freely acknowledge that their students aren't among the academically elite but argue that it makes their institutions stronger.

"Our undergraduate students have to work much harder than an IIT student," said Somnath Mishra, director of the Manipal Institute of Technology. Student quality "in IIT is higher than here, so here we also have to be very strong in teaching abilities. In IIT a teacher doesn't have to make so much effort."

Sudarshan, the chief executive, says he wants to improve the quality of Manipal's academic programs and the credentials of its faculty members. Only about 25 percent of its faculty members hold doctorates, which is typical of an institution of its academic caliber in India.

But professors in Manipal's engineering and medical programs without Ph.D.s must now work toward earning advanced degrees at Manipal while they continue teaching at the institution, says H.S. Ballal, pro chancellor of the university.

Sudarshan says he wants the university to become an "elite applied-research institution," in part by trying to get more corporate- and government-sponsored research projects.

The Manipal Life Sciences Centre has been recognized by India's former president as a center of excellence in pharmacogenomics.

"We want to put Manipal on global research map," said the center's dean, K. Satyamoorthy.

At its engineering school, 89 percent of students who will graduate this year already have jobs, many with top companies such as Microsoft India, Nokia and Cisco Systems.

As its quality and visibility have increased, so have the number of student applications. In 2009, according to G.K. Prabhu, Manipal University's registrar, the university received nearly 100,000 applications for 7,000 seats.