Students at Lovely Professional University in Punjab listen to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai speak after receiving an honorary degree in 2013
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It was in his native Zambia nearly four years ago that Gabriel Katatula, then working for the Zambian state electricity company, stumbled on a newspaper advertisement for Lovely Professional University, a private college in India’s northern state of Punjab.

Though he had completed a three-year diploma in engineering at home, Katatula knew a fully fledged bachelor’s degree would bring greater opportunities, and was considering overseas study, including in Malaysia. While he was not familiar with LPU, he found the prospect of an Indian education enticing.

“Zambia always has respect for India,” Katatula says. “We had Indian lecturers in Zambian universities, and if you look at the engineering we are doing, we’ve been using Indian textbooks. We have seen their commitment to work and their field.”

An LPU agent in Zambia helped Katatula engage in discussions with the university, which said it would treat his Zambian diploma as the equivalent of the first year of its four-year degree in electrical engineering, allowing him to complete the four-year course in three years.

Today, Katatula is in the final year of an electrical engineering programme at LPU. He is one of more than 2,000 international students, from 26 countries, enrolled on undergraduate and graduate courses at the sprawling 250ha campus near the industrial town of Jalandhar, about 400km north of New Delhi.

Aman Mittal, the director of LPU’s international office, which provides support to foreign students, says the university, which has about 30,000 students, including 18,000 in residence, has been making a determined effort since 2010 to woo students from abroad as part of its effort to enrich its campus environment.

More than 2,000 international students from 26 countries are registered at Lovely Professional University

The university has participated in educational fairs, advertised in newspapers and set up a system of agents to spread the word, especially in Africa, about the opportunities it offers. “We always wanted to create diversity in the campus nationally, as well as internationally,” Mittal says. “This diversity is going to bring a different educational culture to the university. The discussions in the classroom have gone to a very different level, with people adding a global perspective.”

LPU is one of a clutch of Indian private universities that are aggressively recruiting international students – especially in technical and professional education – and slowly trying to put the giant Asian economy on the global higher education map.

Until now, India – where thinking about higher education has been dominated by a few elite public institutions – has been far more preoccupied with overcoming its acute shortage of capacity to provide quality education for Indian youth than with attracting additional international students to its shores.

Indian students face famously fierce competition for a coveted place at one of the state institutions offering affordable international-standard education, while tens of thousands of young Indians head overseas each year in search of educational opportunities they cannot find at home.

“The government view is, ‘in principle, we want more foreign students’, but in practice it really hasn’t been a priority up until now,” says Devesh Kapur, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for the Advanced Study of India. “There is such a huge demand within India for quality institutions that the priority has been expansion for the domestic market.”

But India’s higher education system has expanded dramatically in recent years, fuelled by thousands of new private institutions offering technical and professional education. India had more than 35,500 colleges in 2011, up from around 12,800 a decade earlier.

While many Indian colleges are struggling with a dearth of qualified faculty and churn out barely employable graduates, India does have a number of large well-established private institutions, such as Manipal, in the state of Karnataka, and Symbiosis, in of Maharashtra state, that have emerged as credible providers of quality education.

It is these institutions that are now actively wooing foreign students, as per government rules that permit up to 15 per cent of a private university’s places to go to overseas candidates. “The fees from the foreign students help subsidise the cost for the Indian students,” says a spokesperson for Manipal University, which has about 2,000 foreign students, many of them of ethnic Indian origin, from Malaysia, the Gulf and North America.

Of the 28m students enrolled in some form of higher education in India in 2011-12, some 31,630 were foreigners – just a fraction of the roughly 300,000 enrolled in China but a significant jump from the 27,000 enrolled the previous year.

Many foreign students in India are drawn from neighbouring and nearby countries with which India has a long history of cultural, political and trade ties. Around 17 per cent of foreign students in India come from Nepal, 17 per cent from Iran and Afghanistan combined and 5 per cent from tiny Bhutan.

But the numbers of students coming from further afield, including Africa, are growing, aided by perceptions of Indian institutions as offering high-quality education that is both more relevant and less expensive than western offerings.

“India is also a developing nation, so we feel some of the challenges India has are the same challenges we have in Zambia,” says Katatula.

Lovely Professional University has wooed foreign students to enrich its campus environment

India has also seen the emergence of new philanthropy-driven higher education institutions, such as Shiv Nadar University and Ashoka University, each situated within 50km of New Delhi. While these are still at the earliest stages of establishing themselves, they are expected to seek to woo foreign students in the future.

Meanwhile, the Indian government, which is slowly waking up to the potential of higher education as a means of projecting soft power overseas, has also begun to get into the act, spearheading the establishment of new institutions intended to serve as a beacon for foreign students, especially from across Asia.

In September, the first 15 students, including one from Japan and one from Bhutan, and 11 teachers, many from abroad, arrived in a remote part of Bihar state for the start of classes at the new Nalanda University, which is being built a few kilometres from the site of its ancient counterpart. In its heyday, Nalanda, which was active from the fifth century until its destruction by invaders in the 12th century, was a beacon of learning, drawing scholars of Buddhism, philosophy, medicine and mathematics from across Asia – a community of intellectual discovery that India hopes to recreate today.

The Indian government has also allocated $300m and promised a large plot of land in south New Delhi for the so-called South Asian University, which has been established to educate students from across the region.

However, Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania has criticised such projects as attempts to create new elite ghettos – albeit, in the case of Nalanda, in a remote location likely to struggle to attract students or faculty. “It’s a boondoggle,” he says. “Don’t set up a university in place you would not send your own children to.”

Kapur argues that the public funds India is spending on these new university projects would be far more effectively deployed in strengthening existing universities both for domestic students and to make them more attractive to international students.

India could still do more to open itself up to foreign students. Universities complain that students often have trouble obtaining visas for the duration of their course, or even for an academic year. But Indian colleges will undoubtedly continue to court foreign students, whose numbers are expected to grow gradually as some of the country’s young but serious fledgling private institutions mature.

“We are universities, so we have to be universal in our approach,” says LPU’s Mittal. “We have to widen our vision. If you want to compete with global universities, and be a global nation satisfying global requirements, we cannot just think so locally.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.