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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.

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.