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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Not everyone is enthralled with the idea. Sinha, the builder of colleges on the classic model, agrees that higher education in India will go more virtual, but he's not celebrating it. "I just feel doing [student-teacher ratios of] 1 to a 1,000, 1 to 500 is unfair to our students. They deserve better than that," he says. "We are being forced to resort to these things because we have no possibility of creating the bricks and mortar. The challenges are so staggering."
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How successful India is at educating its next generation of youth will shape the country's standing in the world over the next few decades – and perhaps the pace of progress elsewhere around the globe as well. Kapil Sibal, the country's human resources minister, calls it nothing less than India's shot at being the workforce of the world.
"This will be a great potential resource only if they are empowered with education and skills to leverage available global opportunities," he said in a speech in October. "If we fail to do this, our demographic advantage will be lost and our youth alienated."
Others put the cost of failure more bluntly. "If they are not skilled and trained to be absorbed in industry, the Libyas of the world will be a joke [by comparison]," says Ajay Kela, president of the Wadhwani Foundation, which is bringing the community college concept to India.
India is striving for a skilled workforce of 500 million by 2022 to sustain its economic growth. To reach that, Mr. Sibal is trying to raise higher education enrollment among college-age students from roughly 12 percent to 30 percent by 2020. That's how he arrives at his dizzying goal of 1,000 new universities and 50,000 new colleges.
Achieving that, however, will require the country to build schools at 10 times the rate it has been since independence. Sibal says frankly that the Indian government cannot do it alone.
"I don't think any government in the world has the resources and expertise to set up higher education institutions in those numbers," he says.
In its quest to try, the government is pursuing many approaches. It is trying to squeeze out more capacity from existing schools by upgrading some colleges to universities, allowing campuses to be used at night, and encouraging schools to add seats through distance learning.
It is trying to pass legislation to attract foreign university investment and is giving states more power to open schools. Sibal has refused to allow for-profit colleges. But he has given the go-ahead for two-year community college degrees. The numbers sometimes seem "daunting," admits Ms. Das, the higher education secretary, but new schools are "increasing by the day."
Many analysts are skeptical that the country can reach its goals. "If they go at the current pace, I don't think this could happen," says Arvind Panagariya, an economics professor at Columbia University in New York. "The ramifications are that the transformation of India into a more modern country will be much slower than one might think."
In 2000, 8 percent of China's youth went on to college, compared with 10 percent in India. By 2007, China's enrollment rate had risen to 23 percent versus 12 percent in India. Dr. Panagariya's conclusion: "The Chinese don't worry so much about these issues of quality. [They just say] we need to provide some education."