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Engineering master's student Siddhartha Kumar at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. (John Ulan/John Ulan/Epic Photography)
Engineering master's student Siddhartha Kumar at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. (John Ulan/John Ulan/Epic Photography)

Canadian universities see India as land of opportunity Add to ...

In a rocky field dotted with mango trees, five minutes from southern India's gleaming new Hyderabad airport, Dezso Horvath sees a solution for Canadian universities struggling with limited public dollars. The York University business dean has struck a deal with a developer to build an outpost for the Schulich School of Business, making it one of the first foreign campuses in the world's fastest growing market for higher education.

"If you analyze the global environment, you have no choice but to move into India," said Mr. Horvath, long a student of international commerce. "The opportunities for the Canadian education system are endless."

His reasoning is straightforward. India is home to an increasing share of the planet's under-25 population, and Canadian universities, some of which are chronically short of students and funds, need to tap into that market. In the tussle for government dollars, higher education must compete with rising health-care costs for scarce resources. Expanding abroad will allow schools to add faculty and programs, Mr. Horvath says, and give them the heft they need. Canadian schools, which have long recruited heavily in such countries as China and the United States, are increasingly targeting India. But what Schulich is doing is new, made possible by an Indian law, expected to pass later this year, that would allow foreign universities to open campuses on Indian soil.

The schools' new interest in India is shared by federal and provincial governments, which see the country's booming economy as a perfect fit for their trade and innovation agendas. Since last fall, Prime Minster Stephen Harper and the premiers of Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan have visited the emerging nation, all with university presidents in tow. Fresh from that visit, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty made doubling foreign student enrolment in five years a key aim in his Throne Speech.

"There is just a huge demand," the Premier told The Globe and Mail's editorial board earlier this year. Increasing foreign enrolment "would hardly become the foundation for a funding model for our universities, but it can be a good supplement."

This week, Mr. Harper and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to encourage the continued development of "synergies" between Canadian and Indian universities.

In a decade, 30 million Indian students are expected to be looking for a postsecondary education - double current enrolment levels - and Indian schools, even with the expected addition of 1,400 more, are unlikely to meet that demand. But Canadian universities are coming to the party as relative unknowns compared with their counterparts in the United States, Britain and Australia. Most, unlike York's business school, are still ruminating over how best to make inroads, although there are a growing number of joint research projects and student exchanges. The University of Waterloo, the University of Alberta and Concordia University are active in India, as is the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business, among others.

Many campus leaders have also mounted their own fact-finding missions. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is aiming to co-ordinate efforts - and gain more profile with Indian officials and media - by organizing a tour of the vast country this fall for a group of 15 Canadian university presidents.

"In my opinion, university presidents have travelled to India rather aimlessly," David Malone, a former Canadian high commissioner to the country, told a recent Ottawa conference of university officials. "They come back with enthusiasm, but not sure what to do next."

The Schulich campus in Hyderabad - part of a 2,225-hectare development that includes the new airport, a hotel and convention centre, and retail and recreation facilities - is helping to raise Canada's profile. It will take 120 students in its first year and can accommodate up to 350, drawing from outside India as well. It will offer the same courses and have the same requirements as the school in Toronto, and will use Schulich faculty, who may choose to spend two or three years in the country. Having a presence there, Mr. Horvath says, will strengthen the home campus by allowing the school to offer students more options and hire more professors. There's a financial benefit as well: Under the proposed Indian law, foreign schools cannot take profit out of the country, but those restrictions do not apply to executive MBA programs, traditional money-makers for business schools.

Pawan Agarwal, an official in West Bengal and author of a book on Indian higher education, says there is little awareness of Canadian schools in his country, despite the large number of Canadians of Indian descent. "The United States is the obvious choice for most Indian students, especially at the graduate level," he told the same Ottawa meeting. If Canadian schools hope to attract more Indian students, they need to be visible, he said, urging them to work together and suggesting a "Canadian campus" might be the answer.

Paul Davidson, president of the AUCC, says until recently most universities have concentrated their recruiting efforts in such countries as China, the legacy of long-standing relationships cultivated by a succession of federal and university leaders. He characterizes efforts in India as "episodic and sporadic," and the numbers back that up: At last count, there were more than 42,000 students from China in Canada, compared with 7,000 Indian students.

Siddhartha Kumar is one of them. The 24-year-old masters student landed in Edmonton from Mumbai eight months ago. His attraction to the country was based not on an organized recruiting effort, but on a personal connection - a professor at the University of Alberta taught him in India as an undergraduate. 

Now halfway through his engineering program, he's fielding e-mails from other students in India curious to know about his experience. "I think we will see more," he predicted. "People do prefer the U.S., but they are starting to think more about Canada."

University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera, a native of Sri Lanka who came to Canada as a graduate student, has made it something of a personal mission to make that happen. She has gone to India five times in as many years and visited high schools with a history of graduates who study abroad. She has also reached out to the Indian community in Canada, urging business leaders to help Canadian universities make headway in their native country.

"Indian students are not coming here because they simply don't know," she said. "We have to market ourselves as a collective to have an impact the way that Australia has been so successful."

While many, including Ontario's Mr. McGuinty, point to Australia with its $15-billion overseas student industry as an example, it also provides a cautionary tale. The system, which provides students with a fast track to residency status, has been riddled with abuses, a recent government report found. Physical attacks on Indian students studying there, including a fatal stabbing, also are giving parents second thoughts about the benefits of an Australian education, leading to a drop in overseas applications.

To York's Mr. Horvath, Canadian universities need to act now and be ready to invest for the long term. Being one of the first foreign schools ready to build a campus when new legislation is passed later this year has put Schulich on the front pages of the Indian press, along with such U.S. schools as Virginia and Georgia Tech, which also have plans for campuses.

"I want to be the first foreign MBA program going into India because of the attention we are going to get," said Mr. Horvath, who in 2005 opened an office in Mumbai and this year also began a joint MBA with a local school there, actions he said helped pave the way for the new campus.

Mr. Davidson at AUCC agrees that Canadian universities need to move quickly to gain momentum in India, partly because of the setbacks suffered by Australia. He also has planned this fall's trip by university presidents to make an impression on politicians at home, hoping they will include more money for marketing in next year's budgets.

"There is a window that is open," he said, "but it will close."

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