Selecting Qualified Graduate Students from India

Indian Enrollments in the United States by Level, 2005 to 2011
Year Undergraduates Graduates Other + OPT Total
2010-11 14,004 (13.5%) 63,624 (61.2%) 26,267 (23.7%) 103,895
2009-10 15,192 (14.5%) 68,290 (65.1%) 21,415 (21.4%) 104,897
2008-09 15,600 (15.1%) 71,019 (68.8%) 16,641 (14.4%) 103,260
2007-08 13,639 (14.4%) 68,069 (72%) 12,855 (13.6%) 94,563
2006-07 12,581 (15%) 59,570 (71.1%) 11,682 (13.9%) 83,833
2005-06 12,726 (16.6%) 56,397 (73.7%) 7,380 (9.6%) 76,503

Source: Open Doors 2011

More recent data [3] from the Council of Graduate Schools [4] suggest that graduate enrollments from India are set to rebound slightly in the coming years, with applications in 2011 and 2012 up by 8 and 2 percent respectively, and first-time enrollments increasing 2 percent in 2011 versus declines in 2010 and 2009 of 3 percent and 16 percent respectively. Meanwhile, student visa applications from India increased 20 percent in 2011 versus 2010, according to the American Embassy in New Delhi [5].

Regardless of the short-term fluctuations in applicant and enrollment numbers, India is, and is likely to remain, an exceptionally important market for U.S. graduate schools interested in recruiting from abroad, and especially so for schools looking to recruit in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and management, where a majority of Indian graduate students enroll.

The capacity of the Indian education system is currently under huge strain, while concerns over quality and infrastructure are real and ever present. Couple those capacity and quality concerns with a growing college-age population hungry to engage the global economy and you have the pieces in place for strong demand for educational opportunities overseas. Therefore, it is likely that growth in Indian enrollments will return to U.S. graduate schools, and especially so when the global economy returns to an even footing.

Given the predilection among Indian students for graduate studies in the United States (60-70 percent of the U.S.-based Indian student body over the last five years), it is important for graduate admissions departments here to be familiar with undergraduate credentials from India, and also to have confidence that they are selecting the best qualified students from their applicant pool.

In this article, therefore, we offer an overview of the Indian undergraduate system and advice on vetting applications to make sure you are selecting the best-prepared Indian candidates for your graduate programs.

Indian Education System by the Numbers
Number of Institutions
Elementary & Secondary 1,220,000
Higher Education
Universities & University Level Institutions 567
Colleges 25,938
Polytechnics 1,914
Number of Students
Schools (Grades 1-12) 222,000,000
Higher Education 20,740,740

Source: Ministry of Human Resource Development, Statistics of Higher and Technical Education, 2009-2010 [6]

Higher Education

Administration, Policy, Funding and Regulation

Higher education is the responsibility of both the Central and state governments. The Central Government, through the Ministry of Human Resource Development [7] (MHRD), is responsible for educational planning and policy, and the maintenance of quality standards.

The Department of Higher Education [8] (under the MHRD) oversees education and planning, while the Department of Labour [9] is responsible for vocational training. State governments, through their ministries and departments of education, are responsible for the administration of institutions of education.

In the university sector, the University Grants Commission [10] (UGC) is responsible for the distribution of funds and the maintenance of quality standards, while also serving as a link between the central and state governments and institutions of higher learning. The UGC determines and maintains quality standards through the National Assessment and Accreditation Council [11] (NAAC).

The All India Council for Technical Education [12] is responsible for standards, planning, and funding in the technical sector. Professional councils are responsible for the recognition of professional programs, promotion of professional institutions and the provision of grants to undergraduate programs. The statutory professional councils are listed on the UGC website [13].

Types of Institutions

University Level

The 567 university level institutions in India fall under three broad categories: Institutions of National Importance, Deemed to be Universities or Deemed Universities, and Universities (Central, State, State Legislature, Private, Agricultural/Specialist and Open). University status and degree-awarding powers are issued by state and central acts of parliament.

The geographical jurisdiction of each university is established by law and may change according to the educational needs of the region. For example, the University of Madras [14] describes itself as the ‘mother of almost all the Old Universities in Southern India,’ and its original jurisdiction covered the entire Indian sub-continent. Today, however, its jurisdiction is confined to just three of 30 districts in the state of Tamil Nadu, within which it maintains a network of 115 affiliated institutions. Indira Gandhi National Open University [15], on the other hand, maintains a national network of affiliated colleges. Other universities have statewide jurisdictions. Most commonly, however, universities have jurisdictions covering a number of districts within a state.

The UGC lists 130 recognized [16] Deemed Universities on its website. Deemed universities tend to be specialist in nature, rather than multi-faculty, and award their own degrees. The Central Government awards the status on the advice of the UGC. Generally speaking, deemed universities are considered to be of a superior standard than most public universities.

The Institutes of National Importance (INI) are considered the pinnacle of the Indian higher education system. They receive funding directly from the Central Government and tend to be focused on technical, medical and engineering disciplines. All are extremely competitive to get into and administer their own entrance examinations.

Known for their incredibly competitive entrance examinations and talented student bodies, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) are the shining light of the Indian higher education system. Legislation was approved in 2008 to add an additional nine institutes to the existing seven. Granted degree-awarding powers in 2011, these new institutes are currently in various stages of development, with most operating out of temporary facilities and awaiting the completion of purpose-built sites. A recent parliamentary committee, however, has raised question marks about the viability of the new IITs due to a lack of qualified faculty members.

In addition to the now 16 IITs, 20 National Institutes of Technology (NIT) were also upgraded to INI status in 2010. There are an additional 10 institutions on the INI list, four of which have been upgraded in recent years along with the new IITs and NITs:

The third category of degree-granting institution, the University, is further divided into five sub-categories: Central, State, Open, Private and Specialist.

Central Universities are established by individual acts of the National Parliament. Funding comes from the Central Government and is administered by the UGC. The UGC currently lists 44 [27] Central Universities on its website.

State Universities are established by acts of state parliaments. All 285 [28] (Nov 2011, UGC) State Universities receive funding from the respective state governments, and just under half (131) receive additional funds from the UGC. A majority of the universities maintain, run and award degrees at a large number of affiliated colleges that generally offer teaching at the undergraduate level. Graduate and postgraduate instruction is usually offered via the university’s constituent colleges or through the university faculties. There are a smaller number of unitary institutions that do not have affiliated colleges and offer both undergraduate and graduate-level programs themselves, and are self-governing. In this respect they more closely resemble North American universities.

There are currently 10 Open Universities in India: Indira Gandhi National Open University [15] (also considered a Central University (IGNOU)) and nine State Open Universities. Headquartered in Delhi, IGNOU was established in 1985 and offers a broad range of programs from certificate to master’s level in both the academic and professional tracks. IGNOU is responsible for coordinating and monitoring distance education throughout India.

Private Universities are approved by the UGC to grant degrees but they are not allowed to have off-campus affiliated colleges. The UGC lists 110 [29] private universities on its website (April 2012).

In addition to affiliating multi-disciplinary state universities, most states operate and fund an Agricultural University with statewide jurisdiction, in addition to other specialty institutions in areas such as law, medicine and architecture. Although agricultural universities are largely non-affiliating, most have a relatively small number of constituent colleges within the state.


The vast majority of colleges operating in India do so in affiliation with a degree-granting institution, which in essence franchises its programs to the college. Colleges operate with varying degrees of affiliation depending on whether they are affiliated, constituent or autonomous.

Affiliated colleges are generally affiliated to universities as arts, science or professional institutions and the affiliating university maintains control over curriculum and examinations. The affiliating university is also the sole awarding body. The role of the college is to offer instruction and to prepare students for the examinations of the affiliating university. Most colleges offer first-degree programs only, although in some cases the university approves the teaching of master’s-level programs. Although nearly all degree-granting institutions are state owned, 80 percent of colleges are privately managed and funded by student fees and subsidies from the central and state government.

Educational standards are generally considered to be better at constituent and autonomous colleges than at most affiliated colleges. Constituent colleges are normally located in close proximity to the main university campus and associated infrastructures, and therefore enjoy a closer association with the university than the more geographically dispersed affiliated colleges. They tend to offer more master’s-level programs than affiliated colleges, but a majority of their offerings are still at the undergraduate level.

India’s 374 [30] (May 2011) autonomous colleges, which are only permitted in 19 states, have a much higher degree of control over the design and structure of their curriculums and assessment methods, in addition to having the right to set their own admissions standards. While the affiliating university still awards the degree, the name of the college appears on the degree certificate and mark sheets, and the college awards provisional certificates before final degrees are issued by the university. Autonomous colleges offer programs from certificate to postgraduate and M.Phil. The UGC must approve the establishment of an autonomous college and it also maintains a degree of quality control over academic standards, which are generally considered to be very high.


The University Grants Commission founded the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) in 1994 to undertake quality assurance procedures through the evaluation and accreditation of India’s universities and affiliated/autonomous colleges.

The accreditation process is voluntary, with 167 universities and 4,529 colleges having undergone a quality audit as of November 2011. Institutions first prepare a self-study report and are then visited by a peer team who make assessments based on curriculum standards, teaching and student assessments, infrastructure and resources, and institutional management. Institutions are graded in each area on a scale of A-D, and an overall cumulative grade point average is awarded at the end of the process. Positive accreditation results are good for five years. A list of accredited institutions is available from the NAAC website [11].

NAAC Levels of Accreditation
Cumulative Grade Point Average Letter Grade Performance Descriptor
3.01 – 4.00 A Very Good (Accredited)
2.01 – 3.00 B Good (Accredited)
1.51 – 2.00 C Satisfactory (Accredited)
<= 1.50 D Unsatisfactory (Not Accredited)

Background on the Indian Three-Year Degree

The three-year bachelor’s degree from India has traditionally been regarded as comparable to three years of undergraduate study in the United States. Holders of the degree were generally not eligible for admission to U.S. graduate schools and typically advised to take additional courses through bridge programs and the like in order to qualify for graduate study.

The Indian university sector has struggled with high rates of failure in university entrance examinations, as well as with a high dropout rate. The rapid growth in the number of students enrolling at postsecondary institutions has impacted quality standards at Indian universities, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. In the 1990s alone, the number of students attending universities almost doubled from 4.9 million to 9.4 million. Still, Indian higher education continues to include several centers of educational excellence, and has introduced a qualitative institutional accreditation process that helps distinguish the country’s best institutions of higher learning.

Major UK universities have taken note of recent changes in Indian higher education and updated their admission policies accordingly. Research universities such as Bath, Exeter, Manchester, Reading, Sheffield, Southampton, Sussex and others admit very strong candidates with three-year bachelor’s degrees from India directly into masters degree programs.

In the United States, there are many other three-year degrees that are generally regarded as equivalent to the U.S. four-year bachelor’s degree, including from the United Kingdom, Israel, Singapore, and European Bologna-compliant programs.

With these facts in mind, in 2008 WES changed its policy on three-year degrees from India, and now considers them as comparable to the U.S. bachelor’s degree if the following criteria are met:

  1. The awarding institution is accredited by the NAAC with a grade ‘A’
  2. The degree was earned in Division/Class I or II.

All other degrees are considered as equivalent to three years of undergraduate study.

WES Three-Year Degree Equivalency Scenarios
Scenario 1 Scenario 2 Scenario 3
NAAC Grade A A B
Division / Class First or Second Division / Class Third Division / Class First or Second Division / Class
Equivalency Bachelor’s Degree Three Years of Undergraduate Study Three Years of Undergraduate Study


For more on WES’ policy toward Indian three-year degrees, please see: http://www.wes.org/ewenr/08sept/practical.htm [31]

WES Document Requirements

WES requires that the applicant submit clear, legible photocopies of all final or provisional degree certificates issued by the institutions attended. In addition, the applicant must request that all mark sheets indicating all subjects taken and marks obtained for all years of post-secondary study be sent directly to WES by the institution responsible for conducting the examinations (e.g. university or autonomous college).

Or, the applicant can have photocopies of original mark sheets attested by the Controller of Examinations or Registrar’s Office. Attested photocopies should be placed in an official sealed envelope before being sent to WES/ U.S. institution.

NOTES: WES does not accept college-issued and attested mark sheets unless from an autonomous college. Please see this FAQ page [32] for specific instructions on documents from the University of Mumbai and University of Gujarat, in addition to other frequently asked questions about required documents from India.

Mark sheets attested by persons outside the Controller of Examination or Registrar’s Offices, such as individual professors or external notary publics, are NOT accepted.

A list of autonomous colleges is available here [33].


Students who have successfully completed 12 years of secondary education and have passed the Higher Secondary School Certificate (or its equivalent) are eligible for admission to university first-degree programs. Entry to certain disciplines and institutions is by competitive entrance examinations. For entry to medical or engineering programs and some agricultural and computer science programs, students must sit state or national examinations.

Admission to the prestigious and highly competitive Indian Institutes of Technology is based on the results of the centrally administered Joint Entrance Examination (JEE).

The Central Board of Secondary Education conducts the All-India Engineering/Pharmacy/Architecture Entrance Examination (AIEEE) for admission to degree-level programs in engineering, pharmacy and architecture at Central Universities, National Institutes of Technology, Deemed Universities (other than those covered by the JEE), and at some State Universities. States conduct the State Engineering Admission Test (SEAT) for admissions to engineering programs at State Universities.

At the graduate level, admission is normally based on the completion of a relevant bachelor’s degree with a second-class pass or better. The most competitive institutions admit students with first-class degrees only. In the fields of engineering and technology applicants are normally required to take an admissions test such as the Graduate Aptitude Test for Engineers, or an institutional equivalent. Many business schools require students to take entrance examinations such as the Management Admissions Test (MAT). The six highly prestigious Indian Institutes of Management conduct their own admissions test known as the Common Admissions Test (CAT).

Grading Scale

Most final degree classifications are awarded based on the average percentage marks over the course of the whole program, although there are some institutions that decide final classifications based on final examinations.

Most Common Grading Scale Degree Classification WES Equivalency
60-100 First Division/Class A
55-59 Second Division/Class B+
50-54 Second Division/Class B
43-49 Third Division/Class C+
35*-42 Third Division/Class C
0-34 Fail F

* The minimum passing grade varies depending on the institution. Minimum passing grade in engineering and in graduate programs is 50%

Degree Structure

Structure of Tertiary Education


Programs and Degrees

Undergraduate: Programs leading to the award of Bachelor Degrees in arts, science, commerce and social sciences are typically three years in length. Bachelor awards are defined as Pass (general) or Honors degrees. The award of Pass degrees in the arts, sciences or commerce is based on the study of English and one Indian language in addition to two or three other subject areas. Students who complete the three-year program are awarded a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Commerce (BA, BSc, BCom). In Honors programs, students focus on an area of specialization in the third year after completing core courses in the second year. Honors programs are not offered at all universities.

Professional Bachelor Degrees require longer periods of study than the standard arts, science or commerce degrees. Degrees awarded following these programs are professional as well as academic qualifications. With the exception of the bachelor of education, laws and library science, all are first degrees. In education, law and library science, applicants must hold a first bachelor’s degree in order to be admitted to the second-degree program. Four- or five-year professional bachelor’s degrees are awarded in the following fields:

Degree Level Length Qualification
Architecture First degree 4 or 5 years Bachelor (BArch)
Dentistry First degree 4 years Bachelor (BDH, BDM, BDS)
Education Second degree (Honors) 1 year Bachelor (BEd Hons)
Engineering/Technology First degree 4 years Bachelor (BSc – Eng/Tech, BE, BTech)
Law First/second degree 5 years/3 years Bachelor (BL/LLB)
Library science Second degree 1 year Bachelor (BLSc/BLib/ BlibSc/BLISc)
Medicine First degree 5.5 years (includes 1-year rotation) Bachelor (MBBS, BAMS, BUMS, BHMS)
Pharmacy First degree 4 or 5 years Bachelor (Bpharm)
Veterinary science and animal husbandry First degree 4 or 5 years Bachelor (BSc – Vet.)
Agriculture First degree (Normally) 4years Bachelor (BSc + area of specialization)

* For a complete list of the degrees specified and recognized by The University Grants Commission: www.ugc.ac.in/inside/acad_mobility.html [35]

Master: Programs leading to the award of Master Degrees in arts, science and commerce (MA, MSc, MCom) require two years of full-time study and prior completion of a bachelor’s degree. Most programs are assessed on the basis of coursework and end-of-year examinations only, and do not require the completion of a thesis.

Most of the Master of Engineering (ME) and Master of Technology (MTech) programs are one and one-half years in length and require a bachelor’s degree in engineering for admission. Engineering programs frequently require candidates to qualify through the Graduate Aptitude Test for Engineers. Master of Laws (ML) programs are two years in length and require an LLB for admission. Master of Computer Science and Applications (MCSA) programs are always three years in length. Master of Education (M.ed) programs are always one year in length and in most cases the Bachelor of Education is required for admission. Most Master of Agriculture (MAg, MScAg) programs are two years in length. The Doctor of Medicine (MD) and Master of Surgery (MS) degrees are normally two or three years in length and build on the MBBS.

In contrast with the non-research based arts, science and commerce master’s degrees, the Master of Philosophy (MPhil) is a one-year degree based on examination and thesis. Entry to the MPhil requires the completion of a regular master’s degree and may be required by some universities for admission to a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) program, which requires a minimum of two years of study.

Sample Documents

Click here [36] for a PDF file of the academic documents referred to below:

  1. Anna University Provisional Certificate and Mark Sheets (B.E. Mechanical Engineering)
  2. University of Mumbai (B.Sc), St. Xavier’s College (affiliated to U. Mumbai)
  3. St. Francis College for Women, an autonomous college of Osmania University. Provisional Certificate and Mark Sheets.
  4. University of Madras, Provisional Certificate, Master of Commerce. The copy of the degree is a ‘Provisional Certificate’ accepted by WES in lieu of the final degree certificate. Indian universities can provide immediately upon graduation a Provisional Certificate, which is adequate proof of completion of the program, if the final document is yet to be issued. This particular student graduated with a ‘First Class’ classification (above 60% average grade), as noted on the degree certificate.