Mumbai/Bangalore: Sri Vardhan Arya, a 28-year-old who runs a cargo and transport firm, was already in touch with fellow alumni of Deakin University in Australia. But last week, as the university held its first-ever formal gathering of Indian graduates in Bangalore, Arya saw a chance to expand his network.
“I hope to explore business opportunities,” the proprietor of Economic Transport Organisation said, in between card exchanges with officials who liaison for Indian and Australian companies.
Deakin University has had an office in India for more than a decade, but it has just begun tapping alumni in a major way, holding meets in Bangalore and Mumbai last week. Another is scheduled for New Delhi on Wednesday.
Foreign schools are increasingly wooing their alumni in India—for donations, ideas and contacts; to conduct interviews and hold information sessions with prospective students; and to spread brand-name awareness.
In some cases, the graduates are helping the universities overseas set up South Asia studies programmes; business schools leverage alumni to design curricula on outsourcing and globalization, even place students into internships or exchange programmes.
While domestic and prestigious schools as the Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology are also seeing alumni growing increasingly active, the foreign schools’ interest reflects an about-face. Not too long ago, Indians were not considered top donors or brand ambassadors for their alma maters.
None of the schools interviewed quantified Indians’ donations compared to overall alumni, but noted a surge in activities overall, from fund-raising to sponsorship of activities and programmes. They credit India’s growing wealth and increased two-way traffic: more Indians are leaving home to pursue an education, even as foreign schools grads come back. In fact, much of the fund-raising among alumni focuses on helping fellow Indians fund overseas education.
A recent survey by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said China and India are the top sources of international students. In 2004, the Chinese accounted for 14%, and India made up 5%, or 123,559, international students.
Even schools that are household names in the East and West are rallying alumni. Harvard University, for example, boasts 1,118 graduates here.
The New Delhi-based Harvard Club of India has been raising funds for various causes, including aid for local students to attend Harvard. There is interest in organizing a similar group of alumni in Mumbai, home to both the Harvard Business School Association of India and the Harvard Business School Research Office.
Kate Ryan, director of international alumni affairs for the Harvard Alumni Association, said alumni help identify potential research partners and host visiting faculty.
Last year, the Harvard Alumni Association and the Harvard Club of India held a conference in New Delhi of 500 alumni and leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen.
“I think that the increased activity is a result of Harvard reaching out to its international alumni more proactively than it has in the past,” said Ryan, adding that alumni numbers in India are growing as more Indians attend Harvard and more return home.
Deakin, which was established in 1974 and has six campuses among Melbourne, Geelong and Warrnambool, has witnessed the same trend. It plans to open a placement office in early 2008 in India for students returning home to work , said Ravneet H. Pawha, India’s country director for Deakin. More than 1,000 Indians attend Deakin now.
Deakin timed its alumni meets last week with another announcement: A new Deakin India Research Institute will be set up in Bangalore. Deputy vice-chancellor John Rosenberg said the school is in discussions with the Karnataka government to open a research institute in nanotechnology and biotechnology. A similar project is planned in Pune for the automobile industry.
“The effort is to bring expertise from Australia for fundamental and transnational research,” he said.
This year’s century anniversary of the UK’s Imperial College London included a visit to India from rector Richard Sykes. He helped the alumni start the Imperial College India Foundation to focus on fund-raising and to help future Indian students study at Imperial. The college’s new Rajiv Gandhi Centre, aimed at improving innovation management in the UK and India, was also launched. It has more than 2,500 alumni in India.
“Imperial’s Indian alumni have played a large part in getting this off the ground, so it’s a great tribute to their appetite to remain involved,” said Sir Richard.
The Oxford and Cambridge Society of India (OCSI) formally awards scholarships to Indian students. This year, four such scholarships were awarded, and it is considering raising funds for more.
The London School of Economics (LSE), whose alumni include former president K.R. Narayanan, has had an alumni association for 30 years in India, but is seeing greater momentum in activities sponsored here. About 400 active members are in the National Capital Region. The group sponsored the LSE Asia Forum and a reception for new entrants, said Ashwajit Singh, chairman, LSE Society (Alumni) Delhi.
Foreign-educated business leaders who gain prominence are also fuelling the trend, as younger alumni turn to the groups to network.
Sheetal Jhunjhunwala, a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the US, said alumni host events for visiting professors, sponsor information sessions for prospective students and raise money. “The funds will be raised for a charitable cause to benefit people in India itself. However, alumni do contribute on a personal level to U-Penn,” she added.
Fanny Chu Fong, director of the global alumni network at the University of Pennsylvania, said alumni across the world sit on various boards. And activities like conferences and exchanges are also funded by donations, she added. Penn’s first Indian student graduated from the university in 1910.
Alumni numbers can be small, but significant, said Ranjan Pal, president of the year-old Princeton Club of India. The group has just about 200 alumni, but has been active in conducting interviews and holds receptions for new admits. “The passion and the commitment is all there and I am proud of what we have achieved with so little,” Pal added.