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. 

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

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.

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.

Schools are already springing up across the landscape – from big campuses in suburban fields to one-room boutiques in teeming malls. As they do, Americans who feel inadequate about their education system can take solace in at least one fact: Indians are looking at US institutions as models. In the five-star hotels of New Delhi, delegations of presidents and deans from various American universities meet regularly with teams of Indian officials and administrators to set up partnerships, faculty mentoring, and study-abroad programs.

And yet – as in other sectors of rapidly developing countries – India isn't looking just to mimic the West in education. It is hoping to leapfrog it. In some ways, the country has no choice. "The way education is today in the global market is not scalable," says Sam Pitroda, an education adviser to the government. "The cost of education has really increased substantially, mainly because IT has not been used effectively the world over in education."

This means that India is not just trying to build thousands of American-style campuses with neat quads. Many of its new schools will be virtual, for-profit, and integrated closely with workplaces. It may, in fact, end up pushing the concept of online education further than any other country. As a result, what India comes up with will not only affect its economic competitiveness in the 21st century. It may become a petri dish for how to build an educational system in the Information Age.

Yet questions loom. Is India on the verge of a new renaissance or is this effort an overreaching bound to fall of its own ambition? How do you maintain any kind of quality control in such a massive scale-up of schools? Will the legendary bureaucracy of India stifle its quest to be the world's new cerebellum?

* * *

In India, where higher education is often specialized and rote, Sharma is something of a Renaissance man himself. He can shift easily between wearing an elegant Indian salwar kameez to an evening gala and showing up at a coffee shop in MBA garb – dress pants, button-up shirt, and neatly-parted hair. He can talk eruditely about education policy, then banter about the merits of Ozzy Osbourne versus Ronnie James Dio.

In many respects, he has the type of well-rounded persona that Ashoka University would like to produce. He doesn't put it that way, of course. He says the models for Ashoka are Harvard and Yale: Take top students, put them through a liberal arts curriculum directed by quality faculty, and offer sports, all on one sprawling campus.

"We are actually looking to give students an education rather than training," says Sharma.

It's an ideal as old as Oxford, but most of Indian higher education looks remarkably different. Currently, the best students jostle to get into one of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) – a group of engineering and technical training academies established after India's independence. The IITs pick about 7,500 students a year from a pool of 1 million exam-takers.

Most of the other new schools created since the British left are similarly focused on professional training. Top students looking for more of a liberal arts education reach for a few schools in New Delhi, some of which are so deluged that the rejects are showing up at US Ivies. Below these options, the quality drops off sharply in the remaining 600 universities and 31,000 colleges that make up the world's largest higher education system.

"There is a very thin layer of excellence at the top where you have the IITs," says Ben Wildavsky, senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which is based in Kansas City, Mo.

Until recently, new colleges wanting to offer degrees were required to be affiliated with a state- or central-government university. That's a heavy yoke because powerful – but stagnant – university regulatory boards control everything from curricula and exams to teachers' salaries.

Sharma's alma mater, the decade-old Indian School of Business (ISB), found the accreditation process so burdensome that the nonprofit school skipped it entirely. Ironically, the ISB is one of the few world-class institutions of higher education in India. No Indian school made this year's Times Higher Education ranking of the world's top 200 universities. But the ISB took No. 13 on a Financial Times list of global MBA programs. Yet it cannot grant MBA degrees – instead it awards certificates – as a penalty for its independence.

Some states, however, are starting to rework their rules to attract new schools. Ashoka will be private, unaffiliated, and able to confer degrees under a 2006 law in Haryana, a state bordering New Delhi. The state government acquired 2,000 acres on the edge of the capital; laid some pipes, wire, and asphalt; and carved it up for campuses.

Sharma was hired after the land was in hand. It's his job now to get all the government approvals to build and open the school. For all of the reforms, one constant remains: India's notorious bureaucratic web.

"Each day you deal with a government department it's frustrating," says Sharma.

Sharma's boss, Pramath Sinha, who also set up the ISB and a journalism institute, argues that Indian regulators have the system backward. "What [other] governments do the world over is they monitor the quality – they monitor the output," says Dr. Sinha. "So they don't make it difficult for you to enter the sector, but they do make it quite strict that whatever you provide is adequately rated."

Beyond bureaucracy, new schools face two competing shortages – land and instructors. India maintains fixed pay scales for faculty, which makes it hard to attract good professors. Salaries have increased dramatically over the past five years, says Vibha Puri Das, India's higher education secretary, though she admits the system is short 1 million teachers. Given such demand, teachers can be choosy about location.

"The dilemma is, yes, if you make a good university next to a metro you can attract students, faculty, corporates, but then the cost of land becomes a problem," says Jitin Chadha, director of the Indian School of Business & Finance, a private school in New Delhi linked with the University of London. Conversely, "I've seen private universities set up in the back-of-beyond that have everything but faculty."

His school, by contrast, remains a boutique, catering to just 150 students in one building on one acre of Delhi land.

Ashoka's backers hope they have the right location to surmount both problems: enough land to expand, but also a site close enough to Delhi, one hour away, that students and faculty will be willing to commute. The campus, now just a patch of dirt, lies along the fabled Grand Trunk Road that, in British colonial times, linked Calcutta to Kabul.

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.

* * *

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."

Oceanic can deliver that because it's affiliated as a "distance education" program with a state university located across the country. Distance programs like Oceanic have surfaced all across India, offering some 2 million students everything from degrees in law and computer science to MBAs. It's a loose partnership: The home university sends courseware to the local schools, which hire their own teachers and administrators. Students take tests at special exam centers, the results of which are sent back to the parent university for grading.

Boosters of distance education expect the sector to double its enrollment over the next decade, though these schools face looming competition from one other emerging trend in Indian education – the digital professor.

* * *

On this day, Kama Koti is teaching his usual class on electronics at one of India's IITs. He paces in front his students, occasionally scrawling an equation on the chalkboard. His students, dutifully attentive, take notes and raise their hands. He closely polices their level of interest. There is plenty of interaction.

This wouldn't be unusual for a college class, except in this case Dr. Koti is in the southern city of Chennai while 20 of his students are sitting in "virtual classrooms" 400 miles north in Hyderabad and 1,600 miles away in Mandi.

As much as any of the attempts to solve India's higher education crisis, the Internet may hold the potential to transform the system the most. This is in part because the country embraces online learning more than many Western nations. It's also because the technology is improving so fast.

No longer do students squint at a professor on a grainy TV screen, while talking on their cellphones or thumbing text messages to friends just off camera. With this setup, as Koti strides back and forth in front of his chalkboard, a camera broadcasts his image on 55-inch, high-definition screens in the three connected classrooms. The chalk on his fingers is visible as he gestures. When the spirited professor strides to the board to write something, the feed cuts to a close-up shot with a second camera.

Nor is this just a one-way broadcast. "I am able to catch people with a mobile phone" sitting in the far-off classrooms, says Koti with a grin.

At one point in class, a student in Mandi interrupts him. Audio sensors pick it up, and the feed automatically cuts to a view of the student. The teacher and student talk naturally, a one-on-one exchange made possible by a new nationwide network of gigabit-speed cables.

Known as the National Knowledge Network, the $1.5 billion government-built system links the IITs and premier universities, and will soon bring on state universities and other institutions. Right now it's being used mostly to fill faculty gaps as new IIT campuses are built. But the network's promoters believe the system could take India's impossible school-building needs and make them possible.

"Ultimately, to my mind, we will be running virtual universities and virtual colleges," says B.K. Gairola, head of the National Knowledge Network. "This is 10 years, 15 years down the road."

Dr. Pitroda, an education adviser to the prime minister, sees the Internet fundamentally reshaping how colleges function. "You can begin to share teachers," he says. "If you have a good professor at an IIT, he can be seen and heard by 600 other colleges." Eventually, he adds, "the teacher as we know today will not exist."

Teachers, he says, will no longer be re-creating individual curricula – that will be done by a few top scholars. Nor will they be delivering it – that will happen by the most effective lecturers over the National Knowledge Network. "The teacher will be the role of mentor," says Pitroda.

"If I were to start a university of 2050, would I build it the same way as Harvard, or Cambridge, or Delhi University?" he asks. "I wouldn't."

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."

* * *

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."

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.

"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."

Yet Indian universities, by most accounts, need just the kind of problem-solving and innovation that is a hallmark of American schools. Saranovitz puts much of the blame for the roteness here on university regulatory boards.

"Eighty percent of the curriculum is decided by these boards and that curriculum hasn't changed since the 1970s," he says. The faculty and the students work off decade-old class notes. "The professors have no incentive to teach anything new, and there's no reason to go to class."

Instead, most students do nothing until the final weeks when they memorize the notes for final exams, which are also set by the boards. He noticed no real difference between students coming out of full-time university programs and those from distance programs like Oceanic. While India has increased funding for PhD students in order to bring on new faculty, Saranovitz worries that will just result in more of the same kind of teaching.

To get more Americans to teach here, Saranovitz suggests that US universities start by encouraging faculty to come for six-month sabbaticals and other exchange programs. US schools are already thinking that way. Many rule out setting up satellite campuses or even joint degree programs the way they have in the Middle East, where the initiatives have been bankrolled by oil-rich governments. No such funding is forthcoming in India.

"We would certainly have no presumption that there was something we could do here on our own," said Jack DeGioia, president of Georgetown University in Washington D.C., on a recent visit to New Delhi. "I do think the model of partnership is going to be the defining model."

Western partnerships have helped establish the credibility of pioneering private schools that operate outside India's burdensome accreditation. ISB got a boost from ties to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and with the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Many would like to see more US students studying in India, too. On a recent visit to New Delhi, Michael McRobbie, president of Indiana University, touted his success at getting more American students to study abroad. But he bemoaned how most focus on Europe rather than Asia.

More cross-cultural education may be just what is needed to help solve the pressing problems of the future. As Sibal, India's human resources minister, put it in his recent speech: "Nations are defined by boundaries, but in the 21st century nations will have to transcend them in thought and action for sustainable and affordable solutions. Food security, global warming, and the environment; demands on energy, water; security in physical and virtual spaces; health care are all matters that we need to address together."

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