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In India, the challenge of building 50,000 colleges

To become an economic powerhouse, India needs to educate as many as 100 million young people over the next 10 years – something never done before. 

By Staff writer / January 16, 2012

This is the focus article from the Jan. 16 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

Melanie Stetson Freeman photo

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New Delhi

Here's a job most 27-year-olds never get: starting up a new university – from scratch. Like an Athenian at the dawn of Greece, Dhawal Sharma is converting 25 acres of farmland outside New Delhi worked by man and ox for millenniums into the kind of marble-and-grass campus that launches odysseys of the mind.

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But Mr. Sharma, a recent business-school graduate, is also young enough to still be in a band. He drums in a metal-rock group that plays the songs of 1970s headbangers like Judas Priest.

"I really wonder if any other person who is doing the same job is as inexperienced as I am," says Sharma, who is the project manager for the future Ashoka University. "I've been told this in a number of government offices as well – 'you look too young.' "

The truth is India needs the young, the entrepreneurial – and maybe especially the headbanging cymbal-crashers – to help carry out what may be the most ambitious experiment in higher education in the world today. It may also be the most daunting.

Consider just these statistics:

•Rippling through India's education system are giant waves of young people who by 2020 will swell the country's labor pool by 100 million workers. And more will be coming behind them: Half the 1.2 billion people here are younger than age 25. By contrast, China, Europe, and other major economies face shrinking workforces because of aging populations.

•To accommodate this crush of young people, the Indian government says the country must build 1,000 universities and 50,000 colleges within the next decade. By comparison, the total number of colleges in the United States, including two-year institutions, is 4,200.

Simply put, this country needs more institutions of higher learning if it is going to be an economic powerhouse in the 21st century. It also needs better schools. And it needs them now.

A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute, a consulting firm, found that less than 17 percent of India's graduates were immediately employable. As a result, top Indian firms often have to put new hires through months of in-house schooling to train them for jobs for which they were supposed to be qualified.

Granted, this is not the image of Indian students that many outsiders, particularly Americans, hold. US medical schools and engineering programs seem to be full of Indians excelling in the theoretical math and biochemistry courses that many other students often struggle with or shun.

Yet this shouldn't be surprising. The Indians who come to the US are usually the top "1 percenters" – the sons and daughters of doctors and computer scientists who have the wherewithal to send their kids to the best primary schools and then abroad to the best universities.

Some of these students end up attending schools in India, eventually working for top firms like outsourcing giants Infosys and Wipro. What India wants to do now is expand that 1 percent club, plus open up higher education to a far broader section of middle-class families as the country's youth population rises dramatically.

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