The campus of the largest university in the world, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), in southern Delhi, is surprisingly small and modest. A cluster of nondescript, one-story administrative buildings line the drive leading to a brick library, where fans whip the stuffy air and a few students hunch over outdated computers. Further down the road, however, construction workers heave bricks at a building site, and across the Indian countryside, satellite campuses are cropping up.
IGNOU's enrollment has doubled in recent years, to as many as 4 million students, about 10 times the size of America's largest university, the University of Phoenix's online campus. Like American community colleges, admission at an open university is not competitive, but the schools offer a range of programs, including doctoral degrees.
The model tends to be an old-fashioned concept in a digital world: many students take courses through the mail or by listening to radio or television broadcasts. But it may also be part of the answer to India's modern higher-education crisis, which leaders worry could eventually put a crimp in the country's rapid economic growth. "Middle-class students are not getting enough opportunities in the universities or colleges," said Perumalsamy Renga Ramanujam, IGNOU's pro-vice chancellor, explaining the school's rapid growth. "And it goes beyond that. The poor people living in rural areas and slum dwellers, all of them have direct access" to IGNOU courses.
Other open universities are also ballooning in size. Nalanda Open University in Bihar, India's poorest, least-educated state, went from an enrollment of about 1,500 to 40,000 in the past decade.
India's economic growth may be staggering, but population growth has increasingly become a hazard to the country's financial future as it tries to educate a new generation to sustain the progress. India's population is projected to increase by about 25%, or 300 million people, by the year 2026.
A major push by the Indian government for universal K-12 education has made significant headway in districts where once there were no schools at all. Now, as millions of students graduating from high school along with older villagers across the country seek to take part in India's economic progress, the government is struggling to send more of them to college and beyond.
As India worries about getting more students to college, the Obama Administration has fretted about America's low college graduation rates, and both nations are worried about improving the research and innovation produced by universities. India and America have vowed to work together on improving higher education in the two countries, most recently at a summit last summer attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But India's efforts to boost its postsecondary system also represent a potential threat in less than 10 years as the number of college goers in India is expected to increase to 40 million, double the number in the U.S.