A new breed of Indian university: private institutions with student support structures

Editor’s note: today’s guest entry has been generously provided by Raj Chakrabarti and Augustine Bartning.

Dr. Chakrabarti (AB Harvard; MA, PhD Princeton) is a chemical physicist at the Department of Chemistry, Princeton University, and founding member of the Chakrabarti Foundation, a nonprofit that supports education in developing countries. He works with several leaders in the arena of international higher education to develop strategies for higher education reform in India. He also moderates an international forum on science education in developing countries in collaboration with the Infinity Foundation, Princeton, NJ.

Mr. Bartning (BS, Georgetown University) is Director of Institutional and International Strategies at Keeling and Associates, a higher education consulting firm located in New York City that specializes in student support infrastructures and institutional assessment strategies. He is currently involved in managing the International Center for Student Success and Institutional Accountability (ICSSIA), which aims to set international standards for quality assessment, with a particular focus on institutions of higher learning in developing nations. The issues they discuss below are examined more comprehensively in their article, ‘Developing Globally Compatible Institutional Infrastructures for Indian Higher Education’, submitted, Journal of Studies in International Education (Sage).


Much has been written in recent months on the challenges facing India in her efforts to develop an expansive university system that is capable of educating a larger subsection of the growing population. We consider here a different, oft-overlooked challenge confronting institutions of higher learning in developing countries like India – namely, the cultivation of an academic environment that is focused on the holistic development of globally conversant students (Keeling, 2004). In North America and Europe, numerous studies have suggested that a dominant factor that contributes to the success of the most highly ranked universities is the attention afforded directly to the student and complementary support structures that exist for the primary goal of maximizing the productivity of the student experience (Schulz, Lee, Cantwell, McClellan, & Woodard, 2007). Most of these schools demonstrate a strong commitment to addressing student needs and issues that affect student learning and engagement.

As a general rule, Indian universities – especially publicly funded institutions – have not been held to any systemic level of accountability when it comes to student support structures. Attention to the individualized learning needs of students has historically been lacking in India, as well as in most other developing countries. However, within the past several years, a small group of Indian institutions have begun to prove themselves the exception to this norm. These institutions appreciate the benefits resulting from delivering comprehensive student services. They understand how these services can be integrated throughout every level of the institutional infrastructure. Moreover, they acknowledge that offering student services can provide them with competitive advantages they need for success in a rapidly evolving, increasingly global educational landscape.

Strikingly, these changes have not typically been made by traditional public universities, but rather among privately funded schools, which are trying to fulfil a national demand and distinguish themselves among the elite world institutions. Through their introduction of student affairs programs and services, these newly created, non-traditional institutions are fostering the development of a generation of socially, developmentally, and globally competent Indian graduates.

Here, we profile one such innovative private institution – Heritage Institute of Technology (Heritage) in Kolkata – to illustrate what is rapidly becoming a new trend in the Indian higher education landscape. Heritage is a premier privately funded educational institution, created and financed by the Kalyan Bharti Trust, which was established by a consortium of successful North Indian entrepreneurs and professionals. Heritage has only been in existence for seven years, but in that short time, it has become a model for the new generation of private Indian institutions of higher education, even pulling faculty away from prestigious government funded universities (Probir Roy, Vice Chancellor, Heritage & Pradip Agarwal, CEO, Kalyan Bharti Trust, personal communication, October 28, 2007). Heritage has focused on enhancing the overall student experience and creating structures and metrics that will accurately gauge student success. Some examples include the formation of a functional Alumni Association, creation of a Student’s Council consisting of committees like Cultural, Academic, Magazine, Games, and Sports, and approval of student chapters of the Computer Society of India (CSI), the Instrumentation, Systems, & Automation Society (ISA), the Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers (IIChE) and the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers—which frequently organize seminars and workshops.

Heritage is also in pursuit of very progressive student support systems, which are modeled closely after the most popular student support models currently employed in the US and Canada—inclusive among these models are the best practices for primary health care and mental health services. The school provides medical insurance for all students (virtually nonexistent among Indian public universities), disseminates free textbooks and laptops, and operates a sophisticated information technology and communication infrastructure that is supported by private industry. Heritage maintains a strong relationship with students in advancing their academic standing in a global setting: students have received prestigious awards such as the World Wide Topper distinction, and won international engineering contests. Due increasingly to administrative efforts that promote civic engagement, Heritage students are encouraged to reach beyond the walls of the institution to partake in integrative and service learning programs, such as teaching computer software skills to underprivileged children in India.

Perhaps most importantly for the globalization of Indian higher education, progressive institutions like Heritage have a substantial advantage over public institutions in developing partnerships with Western schools, primarily because of their flexibility and willingness to adopt student support infrastructures aligned with Western models. Many foreign universities have begun to contact private Indian universities in search of collaborative student exchange programs. For example, the London School of Economics (LSE) and New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) entered into negotiations with Heritage in 2007, and this year, Heritage is sending a consortium of students to take courses for a semester at NJIT. In turn, Heritage seeks to offer international students an academic experience on its own campus similar to that of Western institutions.

The accelerated development of such private Indian institutions – and their ability to outpace public institutions even in their relative youth – was recently underscored by the remarkable ascent of the Indian School of Business (ISB), located in Hyderabad. Like Heritage, ISB was founded by a consortium of Indian professionals. In February 2008, ISB was listed as one of the top 20 global business schools by the Financial Times (FT) annual MBA 2008 rankings—even above Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business. Although it has only been in existence for 6 years, the ISB is the first Indian institution (public or private) to rank within the top 300 schools in its category at an international level. The FT ranking criteria include international mobility and career progression of alumni. In this regard, ISB has developed a career advancement service that supports students in career choices and works with employers to help make job placements.

While Indian institutions such as Presidency College, the University of Mumbai, and the University of Delhi are the analogues of top-tier western universities, they lack serious channels of horizontal communication across schools and departments (Keeling, 2007), and vertical communication between students and faculty. For example, students interviewed at Presidency College cited depression and career questions as commonly overlooked issues, and expressed frustration at the dearth of places to turn for advice or counselling. A small number of Indian public institutions – including the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) – have taken preliminary efforts to establish such communication channels. As of the time of this writing, these services are proving inadequate to deal with the rising stress at Indian universities. For example, between 2005 and 2008, five students at IIT Kanpur (often regarded as the nation’s top engineering school) committed suicide. Such incidents have focused international attention directly on the quality of the student experience at Indian public institutions.

As competition in the Indian higher education market grows, it will become increasingly difficult for top Indian institutions to globalize without student support services and internationally recognized methods for gauging student learning outcomes. Although in the West the value of a degree from a top traditional university holds a value with which for-profit institutions are unable to compete, institutions of higher education in India operate on an increasingly level playing field where integrative programs can make even the newest university an attractive candidate for international partnerships, exchange programs, and domestic demand. With minimal international standards for assessment and student support services*, such progressive institutions could witness a growth far exceeding that of similar institutions in the West, where the target audience is much smaller and more limited in scope.

* International consortiums, such as the recently founded International Center for Student Success and Institutional Accountability (ICSSIA), may play an important role in the development of such compatible infrastructures


Keeling, R.P., Underhile, R., and Wall, A.F. (2007). Horizontal and vertical structures: The dynamics of organization in higher education. Liberal Education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Keeling, R.P., ed. (2004). Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience. Washington, DC: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and American College Personnel Association.

Schulz, S.A., Lee, J.J., Cantwell, B.J., McClellan, G. & Woodard, D. (2007). Moving Toward a Global Community: An Analysis of the Internationalization of Student Affairs Graduate Preparation Programs. NASPA Journal.

Raj Chakrabarti (rajchak@princeton.edu) and Augustine Bartning (augustine@keelingassociates.com)