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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. 

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They are also banking on a new expressway and shopping mall, currently under construction, to boost the area's fortunes, as well as the exurban creep of Delhi toward their coming ivory towers.

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It is in name, at least, a university, even though it operates out of only two small rooms, a few doors down from a Domino's Pizza and above a tailoring shop. Students learn how to navigate the Internet and the New Economy here amid the thrum of daily existence, with its chatter of sewing machines and scent of pizza topped with capsicum and paneer.

Oceanic Eduversity, a newly opened academy on the second floor of a small shopping center in the city of Ghaziabad, may symbolize the future of India's grand education experiment more than Ashoka. Given the country's limitations with faculty, accreditation, and land, many of the new school seats India will create over the next 10 years will be bootstrap operations like Oceanic. Call it education on the cheap and flexible.

The idea behind the schools is to be accessible, with challenges set low. Everything about the institutions, from the faculty to curriculum to classroom space, is usually borrowed from other sources. One such school across town actually operates out of the basement of a Domino's, offering law classes for aspiring judges next to a pile of pizza boxes.

Dr. Chadha says, in effect, these are degree-buying institutions. "You buy a pizza and get a degree free."

But for all the shortcomings, schools like Oceanic are at least giving some training to students and showing how to start up new schools despite the overwhelming obstacles.

Teachers? No problem. By holding weekend classes, Oceanic can get moonlighters from local colleges – as well as professionals from its parent company, a small software outsourcing firm called Sunasa IT Solutions.

When Bhuwan Mittal, a former Wipro employee, joined Sunasa as a computer programmer, he was offered the chance to teach a Java course as well. Mr. Mittal agreed. But because teaching isn't as "prestigious," he has no intention of making it a full-time career – for now. "When my kids grow up, they will need more of my time, and a teaching job may give me more time," he says.

In a nearby classroom, one of Mittal's co-workers writes computer terms – but very little programming code – on a small white board as five students take notes. Some of the material for this master's level course seems a bit elementary. "What are some languages?" the teacher asks at one point, with students rattling off a few like Java and C++.

Mittal admits that some of his students entered his course not knowing how to program any languages. "We have to start with the basics," he says.

And the basics in Indian education mean first defining a lot of terms and concepts before applying them to a problem – in contrast to how it is often taught in America, where concepts are explained through problem-solving. Oceanic officials say the school does take a practical approach, noting that students get exposed to real world issues that crop up in the firm's outsourcing work.

Vinod Bisht seems pleased with the school for his own pragmatic reasons. The 23-year-old Oceanic student works full time as a network technician around Delhi. His family now depends on him to send money back home, meaning he can't quit his job to study, but his employer is enticing him with more money if he gets an advanced degree.

"It does not matter to them if it's a regular college I attend," says Mr. Bisht. "But it does matter that I get a degree from a university."


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