As India takes small steps toward overhauling its lumbering higher-education system, U.S. colleges and universities want a part of the action. 

Until now, U.S. involvement in the Indian higher-education system has been limited to a largely advisory role. But now a new chapter is being written and the authors are the Obama and Singh administrations.

U.S. universities are looking for new markets and new students. Indian officials, faced with surging domestic demand for high-quality, university-level training, say their current higher-education system needs massive revamping and upgrading to prepare its population to compete effectively in the global economy.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and India's Minister of Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal launched a higher-education partnership late last year in Washington.

U.S. institutions have begun working to capitalize on this new era, with universities such as Purdue, Michigan State, Pennsylvania State, Illinois, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Rutgers and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) setting up joint-degree and student-exchange programs or planning for them.

Americans are looking to partner with willing Indian counterparts. The internet is providing the technological backdrop for such budding collaborations as university officials in both countries use the web to provide long-distance education.

There's also some interest in the United States to build entire campuses in India, though officials say that is rather muted at this moment.

The Obama administration is providing a total of $250,000 in grants initially to U.S. institutions interested in sending representatives to India to lay the groundwork for substantive partnerships. The administration hopes the U.S.-India higher-education partnership will eventually strengthen into a $10 million effort, provided the U.S. Congress approves of the expenditure.

Meanwhile, two universities from New Jersey, a state with a heavy Indian expatriate population, are hoping to become pioneers who lead the rest into the new Indo-U.S. higher education frontier.

Rutgers University began working on a joint program with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai more than a year ago. David Finegold, a Rutgers vice president, said faculty members from his university are working with Tata researchers to help India effectively educate more of its college-age citizens and move beyond churning out a relatively small number of highly trained, English-speaking graduates proficient in high-tech fields.

Rutgers faculty are also helping Indian officials plan for a national vocational university to train students for blue-collar careers.

NJIT is in the early stages of establishing a focused master's level program for the employees of one global technology company begun by an Indian expatriate - a different model than the inter-university links envisioned under the U.S.-India higher education partnership.

The NJIT program, set to begin this spring, will offer a 12-credit graduate program to the employees of the NeST Group in Kochi and Thiruvanandapuram. NeST founder Javad Hassan said that his employees will receive the same rigorous education that students at NJIT's Newark campuses receive.

The NJIT program marks a different experiment, one that bypasses the governments of India and the United States. Hassan said there may be no need for government involvement given the technological linkages already present between the two countries.

The NJIT program, he added, is designed to teach his employees not just advanced technical skills but also soft skills such as the ability to communicate effectively and work collaboratively across cultures.

Those soft skills are increasingly valuable - and something U.S. universities are uniquely equipped to teach Indian students, according to Sam Pitroda, an adviser to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Speaking at a conference on the Indian higher education system organized by Penn State last October, Pitroda outlined a litany of problems that the Indian government is trying to address within the next few years:

  • Raising the quality of instruction at Indian institutions;
  • Promoting world-class research by Indian faculty members;
  • Getting professors to teach students to be creative problem solvers rather than stressing rote memorization of facts and figures;
  • Making it possible for more of India's poor to gain higher education.

We believe the next three to five years are going to be critical for us to focus on expansion, excellent and equity, Pitroda told the U.S. university officials in attendance, seeking their help. We need to really design better models for cooperation. We need to link universities here to universities there, not only to top-tier, but also second-tier and third-tier cities.

But Pitroda also pressed for prompt action from the U.S. side.

We need concrete programs, he said. Otherwise we'll have more conferences like this and won't be able to translate programs (into) execution.

India is seen as an economic competitor to the United States.

Members of the U.S. Congress routinely point to the number of high-tech graduates being produced by China and India to sound warnings that the U.S. risks losing its technical leadership unless more American students pursue math, science and engineering careers.

However, the reality is higher education is India is uneven, as Indian officials have stressed to their U.S. counterparts.

Apart from a few elite institutions, the vast majority of colleges and universities churn out graduates who lack the sought-after skills of problem solving and abstract analysis, according to a recent World Bank survey of Indian employers.

The skills that the graduates possess in abundance - the ability to memorize facts and figures - is less valuable than the higher-order skills in today's global workplace, World Bank economist Andreas Blom told attendees at the Penn State conference.

It is to develop a higher-education system that will produce graduates equipped with higher-order skills that the Indian government is turning to the U.S. for help.