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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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Indian employers, however, are deeply worried about quality because so few graduates are employable. S. Nagarjuna, with outsourcing giant Wipro, tells the story of an electrical engineering graduate with good marks who came in to interview.

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"They asked him basic questions about electricity in the home, and this boy was quite unable to answer," says Mr. Nagarjuna. It eventually came out he had never replaced so much as a fuse. "If you can't relate the theory to small practical situations at home, it's very difficult for you to relate to applications in industry like hydroelectric projects."

Wipro decided it had had enough. The company started a nonprofit venture called Mission10X, which provides mentoring to faculty members. Nagarjuna heads the program, whose vast network of advisers now works with 17,800 teachers at 1,074 engineering colleges. The program teaches professors how to capture students' attention in the opening minutes of class and how to get them talking and problem-solving by breaking into teams.

"We realized in our research that there were some students who never spoke during their entire education career," says Nagarjuna.

Many Indian employers, in fact, worry as much about the lack of communication skills among young people as gaps in technical know-how. Denise Ireland, an Indian who has set up corporate training programs for top multinationals, describes how she would give new employees case studies and make them work in groups. The goal was to instill a problem-solving attitude. More often than not she would end up telling them, "Stop giving me the 99 ways it can't happen; give me the one way it will."

These days, when recruiting for her own small consulting firm, she looks for a particular type of worker – Indians who have studied in America. "They are able to better understand what it takes to work in a start-up," she says.

What Indian employers are searching for looks a lot like what American education excels at. And what Indian higher education needs is something America produces in abundance: professors.

Eric Saranovitz was an American scholar comfortably teaching at various colleges in the Midwestern United States when he decided he'd like to try something different – something more urban. So the international communications professor made a bold move: Rather than take another job in a place like Des Moines, he went to Delhi, to head a new media studies institute called the 9.9 School of Convergence.

His students, graduates of Indian college programs, had little exposure to any subjects outside their degree and no practice applying or connecting what they learned. It unnerved a professor whose style was to jump between disciplines like art, film, and journalism. "I used to think of creative thinking as the ability to create something from nothing," says Dr. Saranovitz. "Now, after working with their students, I realize that creative thinking is taking two elements and understanding the connections between these two elements."

For decades, bright students and faculty from India have gone to the US to study and teach but relatively few Americans have come here. Saranovitz is one of the few to make the reverse journey. Differences in culture and compensation are two major reasons.

"With kids here, it's been a real strain in terms of finances," says Saranovitz, the associate dean of the School of Convergence (where this reporter taught a course for one semester). Time abroad also interrupts efforts to get tenure in the US, and the challenges inside and outside the classroom in India are different – and daunting. "I can't see this mass exodus of Americans going abroad," he says. "And if I hadn't lived in Israel, I don't know how well I would have adjusted to here."

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