Can campuses be cloned? That’s a question the Indian higher education community is grappling with as the government opens up additional locations of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). Supporters say the global reputation of the institutions will guarantee quality students, faculty and education. But critics argue that there aren’t enough faculty members to staff these new institutes, and contend that creating inferior schools will damage the brand equity of the successful IITs and IIMs.

New research, however, suggests that the government’s approach may be the right one after all. According to a paper titled, “Will They Return? The Willingness of Potential Faculty to Return to India and the Key Factors Affecting Their Decisions,” Indians living in the U.S. are willing to come back to their home country. Indeed, the survey of nearly 1,000 Indians currently or previously engaged in studies at American graduate schools found that only 8% strongly preferred to remain in the U.S. While private sector jobs and entrepreneurship were the top choices for a career upon returning to India, teaching and research were not too far behind. Moreover, within the academic sector, 73% of respondents named the IITs and IIMs as the most attractive options.

“The IITs and IIMs educate only a tiny fraction of India’s graduates,” says David Finegold, a co-author of the study and dean of the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “With the huge expansion underway in Indian higher education and the increased demand from the growing number of young people, even a doubling of the number of IITs and IIMs will not reduce their selectivity.” Finegold authored the study with Rutgers doctoral student Anne-Laure Winkler and B. Venkatesh Kumar, a professor at the School of Labour and Management Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Science in Mumbai. Kumar is spending the 2010-2011 academic year at Penn State University’s College of Education as a Hubert Humphrey Fellow studying ways to rejuvenate higher education in India.

Quality Is the Key

The paper points out that India needs to recruit at least one million new faculty members for its colleges and universities if it is to meet the government’s ambitious target of offering a higher education to 20% of the country’s young people by 2020. “The most promising way to fill this [faculty] gap is to recruit back many of the over 100,000 Indians who are studying in the U.S. each year to obtain a graduate degree and the many others who are studying in other nations, or who have completed their degrees and begun academic careers abroad,” the researchers write.

The men and women surveyed named high-quality teaching and cutting edge research as the top factors for pursuing graduate education in the U.S. Only 7% made the move out of desire for a job and plans to settle in the country permanently. Family concerns scored high among respondents’ reasons for wanting to return to India, as did a desire to give back. But the results also indicate that, for Indians, America may be losing its charms as an immigrant’s paradise. “It’s the poor job market in the U.S., both in academics and elsewhere, over the past few years, along with tight visa restrictions, combined with the growing attractiveness of India and recognition of the opportunities there,” Kumar notes.

In India, the real issue is not the number of institutes (though that, too, is a problem given the size of the young population). India has around 21,000 higher education institutions, compared to 6,700 in the U.S. and 4,000 in China. “The key is to maintain or even increase the quality of existing and new institutions,” according to Finegold. “Our study suggests two ways to do this: recruit top Indian Ph.D.s — both newly-minted and experienced — from abroad, and increase the time and support that these faculty have for research to complement their teaching.”

But there is a gap between that prescription and reality. For the returning Indians surveyed, opportunities in the corporate sector were the most attractive. Bringing up the rear was politics, with teaching and the public sector doing almost as poorly. By contrast, a job that combined teaching and research had many takers.

“The respondents in our survey preferred jobs in the private sector,” Finegold states. “In all countries, the motivations of individuals for choosing different careers vary. Those primarily motivated by financial rewards are unlikely to choose an academic career. But there are many compensating advantages to being a faculty member in a research university: control over one’s time, the intrinsic rewards of the chance to work on topics of most personal interest and create new knowledge, and the opportunity to interact with bright young people and colleagues. In some top Indian universities and institutes, there may also be lifestyle advantages — free or subsidized housing on campus and no commute. The key to attracting folks back will be creating attractive higher education environments.”

The older IITs and the IIMs seem to have done that already, but the newer ones have a long haul ahead. One factor in their favor is the survey indicates that the schools are competing against other institutes, rather than India’s private colleges. Only 15% of respondents interested in a higher education career named private colleges as an attractive option. (There are a few exceptions like the Indian School of Business, which comes with a different pedigree.)

“It’s not surprising,” Kumar says of the low interest in work at private colleges. “Many of these institutions have become degree mills, with no or very little focus on quality education. Many have serious problems — lack of quality faculty, no infrastructure and poor quality student intake. They often have very poor governance structures. These institutions are very often run by education barons, whose main aim is profiteering. Due to lack of an adequate regulatory framework, these institutions have come to be established, creating very poor quality degree-holders, many of whom are unemployable. Unless we strengthen regulatory mechanisms, this will continue to be an issue of concern.”

Spreading the Word

There is of course a limit to the number of IITs and IIMs the government can set up. A proposal that the schools be privatized was greeted with widespread protest and has become a nonstarter. So even if the U.S. Ph.D.s return to India, will there be place for them in academics? “India has seen a huge emphasis on investment in education in recent years,” Kumar notes. “There has been both institutional expansion and also increased funding for higher education.” The environment is improving and there is now a greater focus on research, he adds. “There has also been a substantial increase in faculty salaries, though they are still low compared to the salaries that faculty receive elsewhere in the world.”

But the government must also play a greater role in wooing these potential faculty members. The survey identified “removing red tape, reducing perceived corruption, and expanding research opportunities for faculty” as key factors.

“If the Indian government, colleges, and universities wish to recruit Indians who have studied abroad to return for faculty posts in India, it is vital that they understand the most effective ways to communicate with this group,” the researchers write. “The good news is that most Indians based in the U.S. are fairly well informed about developments in India’s education system, with close to 75% indicating that they follow changes underway in India very closely to somewhat closely. Their two primary means of obtaining information are personal networks (50%) and newspapers (45%), with less reliance on list-servers and blogs. This suggests that, in addition to newspaper ads, using a snowball approach that leverages faculty and alumni connections through social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn may yield the best results.”

The government may need to move swiftly with its marketing efforts, as many other countries have realized the faculty problem and are swinging into action. Finegold and Kumar hope to teach officials a thing or two as well. Says Kumar: “Our intention next year is to make this a comparative survey.”