Global Matters: Maine's India achievement test

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Back in 2007 I wrote in these pages that India, bolstered by a booming economy and a relentless drive to succeed, would no longer be the butt of jokes caricaturing telemarketers selling things to Americans at suppertime. I suggested that Mainers ought to pay close attention to the voice on the other end of the line. Indian investment in the United States was on the rise and one day soon, that caller was likely to be one of our co-workers, if not our boss.

The current Great Recession has done nothing to change my opinion. While much of the world struggles, India’s economy will have grown a full 7 percent in 2009, according to the Asian Development Bank, and prospects for 2010 look even brighter, with the World Bank forecasting 8 percent growth in India’s gross domestic product.

Several factors account for such rapid growth. In the first place, India is advancing from a position near the back of the pack. With per capita income at about $773 in 2008-09, according to India’s Central Statistical Organisation (sic), there’s nowhere to go but up. Any sustained economic improvement is likely to be large in percentage terms.

At the same time, the more India grows, the more difficult it will be to sustain such gaudy growth rates.

As Professor Ilan Mihov of INSEAD, one of the world’s leading business schools noted recently, developing countries do indeed grow quickly, but only up to a point. They can only achieve “convergence” with developed economies when they cease to be low-cost manufacturing havens capable only of throwing cheap labor at industrial production.

Ultimately, to position themselves for sustainable prosperity, developing economies must institutionalize good government, commit to transparency, encourage innovation and value education.

Aspiring Indians have known for some time that education – and particularly international education – holds the key to a better future. That’s why roughly 100,000 Indians venture abroad each year to study, spending $7 billion on tuition and housing.

Clearly, these students benefit from the experience, but they give as good as they get. While foreign students add diversity and perspective to the institutions in which they enroll, they also add serious money to local economies.

It’s no surprise, then, that Maine academic institutions are on the lookout for quality foreign students to matriculate (and pay tuition) here in Maine. The enormous potential for Maine to profit, in all senses of the word, from the presence of foreign students, especially Indian students, is underscored by a Jan. 14, 2010, presentation to be offered by the Maine International Trade Center, “From Bangalore to Bangor: Attracting Indian Students to Maine’s Schools.”

Of course, international education is an important factor in Maine’s economic development, but let’s be clear. Don’t look for India, keen to achieve its own potential, to remain satisfied with outsourcing higher learning to institutions in this country for much longer.

The Indian government is close to passing legislation that will enable foreign educational institutions – like Harvard, MIT, Yale and the University of Maine – to establish their own campuses in India.

Foreign universities operating their own, branded campuses and offering degrees in India will bring higher quality faculty and facilities to the country, affording Indian students access to best-in-class educational resources, while keeping some of the aforementioned $7 billion in tuition and housing now spent abroad in India. Opening the market to foreign universities will also encourage India’s best and brightest to remain in-country post-graduation to contribute to India’s growth.

Of course, opening the Indian market to foreign universities is not without its detractors. Some claim that competition from foreign universities will weaken domestic universities.

Kapil Sibal, India’s minister of human resource development, sees it differently:

“If you ask me, this process of a global economy moving forward started first with the services sector. Then the manufacturing sector ventured out, and I’ve been saying the time is right, the moment is right for the educational sector. If nations want to get closer to each other and develop a strategic partnership the best way to do it is through investment in education, because that’s what brings people together.”

And so in February, as we continue to look at ways to attract Indian students to Maine, the New York-based Institute of International Education (IEE) will lead a delegation of 20 college and university presidents to India to explore opportunities to establish programs in that country.

“For us, India is the country of the future,” says IEE Chief Executive Allan Goodman.

That’s for sure.

So, the question now becomes whether the best way to tap into the future is by pursuing students interested in studying here or, as the great Wayne Gretzky put it, skating not to where the puck is, but to where the puck is going to be.

Sidebar Elements

Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe.