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India: Science school leads global trend in higher ed

Manipal University was born in a developing country and focuses on students in other developing nations.

Higher education, private sector
Indian students celebrate their Central Board Secondary Examination. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

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.