The View From Hyderabad

Leader of a young Indian university offers perspective on higher education summit convening in Washington.
October 13, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The lobby of the Mandarin Oriental here is as far removed from the University of Hyderabad as one can get -- halfway across the world.

But this is where Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, the university’s vice chancellor (the equivalent of president), found himself this week -- jet-lagged but excited to be part of an entourage of Indian university and government officials in the American capital as part of the U.S.-India Higher Education Summit.

The summit, a daylong event today at Georgetown University, is being hosted by the governments of the two countries and will start off with remarks by Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, and Kapil Sibal, the Indian minister of human resources, who has been a key mover behind India’s efforts to build ties with American universities. The visiting group includes Indian higher education officials from an array of universities, from the widely known Indian Institute of Technology to many less well-known.

American universities are increasingly looking to other countries not only as a source of international students but as places where they can set up campuses. But what is the motivation for Indian university officials to travel 8,000 miles for a day at Georgetown?

Ramaswamy, who has been at the University of Hyderabad, in southeastern India, for about four months, said he was hopeful that the summit would bring different methods of teaching to the country.

The university at Hyderabad is less well-known than some of its peers, but may be more typical of the country’s many ambitious universities. It is more than 35 years old and is a "central university," meaning it is funded by the national government rather than by state governments. The university has about 5,000 students, almost all of them graduate students, in a range of disciplines. Despite leading a new and growing university, Ramaswamy said that he wants to see more efforts to increase capacity in India.

"We worry about growth, especially in India, with inclusion," Ramaswamy said. "There is disparity like you will not believe."

The vice chancellor said one of the basic problems for Indian universities is infrastructure -- India's, he said, is far from adequate. Another challenge, he said, is educating the masses in India – and he said that it was important to view this challenge as not one limited to his own country. "It is a global problem. It is no longer a local, Indian problem anymore," said Ramaswamy, who has a doctorate from Princeton University and did his postdoctoral work at the California Institute of Technology. He cited his own career trajectory as an example of how an Indian student may be educated in the U.S. and then go back to work in India, while others may follow the opposite path.

"Indian youth eventually are going to go and work all over the world. And they are going to work in a fairly seamless manner. So they may be educated in India and work over here or vice versa," he said.

What is needed in India, he said, is a community college approach, encouragement of polytechnics and the strengthening of basic skills.

He also wants the translation of research into products -- a concept at which he said the United States is much better than India. “We don’t translate our higher education and learning into actual things,” Ramaswamy said. That can happen, he said, with more meaningful collaboration between U.S. and Indian universities -- not just quick efforts to establish American programs in India. "It is very easy to open up another business school," he said, but that may not help much.

The summit comes the same week as an education-focused trade mission from the U.S. to India, where a U.S. Commerce Department official said India needed to open up to foreign universities as it grows its ambitions, The Wall Street Journal reported.

A proposed higher education bill in the country that aims to enable foreign universities to set up shop by themselves in India is still being discussed -- and some say that its rules are too strict to attract many American institutions.

Although Ramaswamy said that he welcomes American universities, he would like them to see them more as partners than solo operators, he said. He stressed the need for true collaboration in educating the students of both countries. "This kind of seamless moving across means that the job of higher ed is really -- I mean it has to be viewed as one of the other problems of globalization," he said.


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