The figures are staggering. India’s government speaks of increasing the proportion of young people going to university from 12% at present to 30% by 2025 – approaching the levels of many Western countries.
It wants to expand its university system to meet the aspirations of a growing middle class, to widen access, and become a “knowledge powerhouse”.
It will mean increasing the country’s student population from 12 million to over 30 million, and will put it on course to becoming one of the world’s largest education systems.
While more than 95% of children now attend primary school, just 40% attend secondary school, according to the World Bank. That in itself will limit growth in university enrolment.
“What is achievable is adding perhaps 10 million students to existing capacity in the next five to seven years,” he says.
That would still be a major achievement, but some way from making India an education superpower.
KN Panikkar, vice chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council, describes India’s higher education spending as undergoing a “great leap forward”.
The amount of money in the central budget for higher education in the current five year plan (2010-2015) is nine times the amount of the previous five years.
But there is a steep hill to climb. India’s National Knowledge Commission estimated the country needs 1,500 universities compared to around 370 now.
Hundreds of new institutions are being set up, including large new public universities in each state. The number of prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Management (IIMs) are being expanded from seven to 15.
The World Bank has said India’s economic success cannot be sustained without major investment in education, including higher education, with public spending on the sector still lagging behind countries like China and Brazil.
But the gold-rush mentality has dissipated. The Foreign Providers Bill is stuck in a parliament that has done little business since a telecommunications corruption scandal erupted last year.
“There has been some toning down of expectations of foreign universities,” said Rahul Choudaha, associate director, World Education Services in New York and a close observer of the sector.
“The public university system in many countries is in crisis, facing serious budget cuts. They are not ready to invest money in partnerships.”
The prestigious US institution has teamed up with India’s Shiv Nadar Foundation to open an engineering college in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
But these joint ventures are not fully-fledged overseas campuses. “Only a handful of overseas universities are thinking about that seriously,” said Mr Agarwal. “But even if they go ahead it will not be enough. They will only increase capacity for hundreds of Indian students, not millions.”
That means huge public spending on colleges outside the cities, says Mr Panikkar who has written extensively on social justice in higher education. He believes the enrolment targets are too ambitious given limited public resources and bottlenecks in staffing and infrastructure.