‘Harvard Hyderabad’: The future of US higher education could be in India

Universities that open significant branches in India could become among the very best in the world, argues Tyler Cowen.

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higher education | Harvard University | IITs

With much of U.S. higher education online only this semester, and its more long-term future deeply uncertain, now is a time to dream big. My own fantasy is based on the Indian government’s recent plan to encourage the top 100 universities in the world to operate in India.

Consider how the next 30 years might look if India were to allow the creation of a “Princeton Mumbai,” a “Harvard Hyderabad” or an “Oxford Kolkata.”

At first, most top U.S. universities would be reluctant to proceed boldly. Branch campuses abroad exist, such as the Yale-NUS College in Singapore, but they are usually smaller and less important relative to the home university. Top universities jealousy guard their positions as exclusive institutions, and it would not be easy for Harvard (even pre-Covid-19) to hire faculty of comparable quality in India in most areas of academic study.

Still, some schools in the top 100 would start operations in India. Even if Harvard hesitated, schools such as University of Texas at Austin, Georgia Institute of Technology or perhaps one of the nearby Singaporean schools would not.

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In my fantasy, the schools that are open to expanding their India operations will rise considerably in reputation. India, and South Asia more generally, is in the midst of a phenomenal explosion of talent in diverse fields. Sundar Pichai runs Alphabet and Google, and Satya Nadella runs Microsoft. Abhijit Banerjee recently won a Nobel Prize in economics. Vishy Anand is one of the world’s top chess players. Indian writers are famous around the world. And so on.

The universities that open significant branches in India thus would become among the very best in the world–not the top 100, but the top 50. India could find itself in a situation much like that of the U.S. in 1900, when most American universities and scholars lagged behind those of Europe but were within decades of overtaking them. Competitive pressures would kick in, and the very top schools that initially were reluctant to enter India would find themselves drawn in.

You might wonder whether India actually needs all of these foreign branches, when it has some superb schools of its own, for instance the various Indian Institutes of Technology. In my fantasy, some Indian institutions of higher education will improve and force some competitors—shall we say UC Berkeley?—to leave the country. Yet many talented Indians will find attending a branch of Harvard or Yale to be an appealing option. Furthermore, the top foreign schools may form alliances with Indian institutions (as Yale has done in Singapore), giving students the best of both worlds.

This future gets better yet. Over time, the population of Indian alumni of prestigious U.S. universities will increase, relative to those who studied and graduated in America. America’s top schools thus will become engines of opportunity. It might also become obvious that the students attending in the U.S. are underperforming their Indian counterparts. What better way to light a competitive fire under the current dominant institutions?

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And maybe some of the keenest and most ambitious American students will prefer to study in India rather than in America. (Perhaps a “canceled” American student could be sent to Brown Uttar Pradesh?) Wouldn’t you want to study with the very best of your peers, knowing you might be sitting next to the next generation’s Einstein, von Neumann or, of course Ramanujan?

Best of all, America’s top schools would learn they could open their doors to many more students, while boosting the reach and prestige of their institutions overall. The success of Princeton Mumbai would lead to a much larger Princeton in New Jersey. After all, if they can admit more qualified students from Kerala, doesn’t it follow that they can also accept more high-achieving kids from suburban Maryland? Or even, say, Detroit?

As I said, this is all a fantasy. Indian bureaucracy can be frustrating, Indian politics can be forbidding, and many talented faculty still seek to leave India rather than to move there, among other problems. Still, especially considering the implications of a rising India, this future no longer sounds crazy. An Indian expansion could be the best thing to happen to American and British higher education in this century.

Next stop: MIT Lagos!