For some time now, the search for the next education superpower has turned its sights East, but while we have been looking in the right continent, perhaps it is has not been the right place.
Far from China or Singapore, let alone Japan or South Korea, from being the ready to challenge the Western establishment, it is India that is looking best placed to take up the mantle.
Asian university rankings published today show that it is India that has made the greatest strides in recent years.
While the Asian big five of Singapore, China, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong monopolise the top 20, Indian colleges are not just knocking on the door, they are threatening to break it down.
Although its highest ranked university is at a comparatively lowly 27, it is the sheer weight of numbers that is impressive.
After having just 16 representatives in last year’s top 200, India has 33 colleges in this year’s list of 300 universities.
That ranks it third in terms of number of entries, behind Japan with 69 and China with 54, although it has by far the largest growth.
Although including more universities this year has been a factor, there is little doubt that India’s rise is one of the big talking points of this year’s list, according to Phil Baty, editor of Times Higher Education rankings, which produced the table.
“Part of this is due to expanding the table to include 300 universities, up from 200 last year, but its performance at the top of the table has also improved,” he said.
For some, this will come as little surprise. Although India’s economy was notoriously sluggish in the decades after independence in 1947, recent years have seen a completely different picture.
Growth has averaged around 7% over the last two decades and outstripped China’s in 2014. Its economy is now the seventh largest in the world and, helped by a young population, is forecast to become the third largest by the end of the next decade. Its population is expected to exceed China’s by 2030.
Given this increasingly impressive outlook, it is no surprise that India’s universities are rising to the challenge of helping to fuel one of the world’s leading economies.
One of the most significant short-term effects of this rise in quality could be in re-orientating the destinations of Indian students.
Enormous numbers of Indian students have traditionally enrolled in American and British universities, anxious for the prestige that a Western degree will bring. India accounts for around one in seven international students enrolled in U.S. colleges, with the 165,918 admitted in 2015/16 more than double the figure of a decade ago.
Although the number of Indian students heading to the U.K. has fallen in recent years, largely due to more stringent visa restrictions, India is still one of the main sources of overseas students in U.K. higher education.
These students are not only a significant sources of income for Western universities and their local economies, but they also help export Western values when they return home, a classic case of soft power in action.
But as India’s universities gather strength, the West’s days of being the world’s university magnet may be drawing to a close.