Aug 22, 2008

India - How to save India's overcrowded schools

On the sprawling campus of Delhi University, the fear in July was as palpable as the excitement. For several weeks, prospective students rushed from college to college desperately combing admission lists for their names. Never before has India offered a better chance at a comfortable life after graduation. But never has getting a seat at one of the nation's universities been so hard. And for those who do land a spot, the troubles are just beginning.

Although India's economy and its job markets are booming, the nation's university system, which has been struggling for years, has recently hit a full-fledged crisis. The country's post-secondary schools currently offer only enough spots for about 7 percent of India's college-age citizens—about half the Asian average—and face a crushing faculty shortage. Already 25 percent of teaching positions nationwide are vacant, and 57 percent of professors lack either a master's or a Ph.D., according to a recent regulatory report. Curriculums are outdated, forcing companies to spend millions of dollars on "finishing schools" for new employees. Infrastructure is crumbling even at top schools like the famed Indian Institutes of Technology, where once cutting-edge laboratories have grown obsolete. And incompetent (or, as many allege, corrupt) regulators have let fly-by-night colleges proliferate while keeping out elite foreign universities keen to break into a potentially lucrative education market.

There is one ray of hope: for the first time in decades, the nation's leader has finally recognized the gravity of the problem. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called India's university system "dysfunctional" and embarked on the boldest educational reform program since Jawaharlal Nehru. But hamstrung by India's unwieldy bureaucracy and by ideological opponents, Singh may manage to dramatically expand the size of the country's higher education system without addressing many of its underlying problems.

Singh, himself a former economics professor at Delhi University, has promised to open 72 new post-secondary schools over the next five years, including eight new Indian Institutes of Technology, seven new Indian Institutes of Management, five new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research and 20 new Indian Institutes of Information Technology. To fund them, he's promised to boost the government's higher education spending ninefold, to $20 billion annually, during the five-year period that began in 2007.

But these changes may wind up addressing India's quantity problem without affecting its quality crisis. Already up to 75 percent of India's 400,000 annual technology grads and 90 percent of its 2.5 million general college grads are unable to find work. That's not due to a lack of jobs, according to the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom)—it's due to a lack of skills. "For a long time after Independence, we were trying to solve the employment problem. Now we're trying to solve the employability problem," said Vijay Thadani, head of the Confederation of Indian Industry's committee on education. Loosening the purse strings will help Singh improve infrastructure and expand access for students, but it will take more than money to solve the faculty shortage, revamp outdated courses, encourage innovation and crack down on diploma mills. Indeed, rapid expansion could make these problems worse.

To be fair, Singh has tried to address the quality crisis. In 2005, he appointed a dream team of academics, planners and business executives to the National Knowledge Commission with a mandate to redesign India's entire education infrastructure by this October. Led by chairman Sam Pitroda—the architect of the nation's telecommunications network and thus no stranger to bureaucratic hurdles—the commission published a comprehensive set of recommendations in January 2007, focusing on "expansion, excellence and inclusion." Among its proposals, the commission advocated not only expanding the state university system but also diversifying sources of financing to include private participation, philanthropic contributions and industry links. It also suggested introducing frequent curricular revisions, moving away from the present system of standardized university-wide exams in favor of internal assessments of students by their professors, and setting up an independent regulatory authority. Yet while Singh's government has allocated a huge sum for building more universities and improving inclusiveness by expanding the quota system, it has yet to make progress on the crucial regulatory elements of the commission's plan.

That could prove disastrous. At present, India has no less than 16 different supervisory bodies for higher education, few of which are independent and all of which are of questionable efficacy. Mostly due to bureaucratic inertia, they've so far blocked attempts to modernize curriculums and methods of evaluation. They haven't done a good job at policing, either. Shoddy for-profit colleges have proliferated even as internationally respected foreign providers have been barred from opening up branch campuses and have struggled to get their joint programs certified. The All India Council of Technical Education, for example, has approved thousands of substandard private engineering colleges—many of them founded by profit-minded politicians. But it has refused to recognize the Indian School of Business, a private institution founded by former McKinsey & Co. managing director Rajat Gupta. And political wrangling at the parliamentary level (engineered by Singh's erstwhile communist coalition partners) has stymied legislation to allow foreign universities to set up campuses, even though Cornell, Columbia, and Stanford universities have all sent high-ranking delegations to the country on exploratory missions.

The will to reform remains strong, at least at the top. But the prime minister and his allies haven't succeeded in actually getting much done. In his introduction to the National Knowledge Commission's second report, published this January, Pitroda warned, "there is still resistance at various levels in the government to new ideas, experimentation ... external interventions, transparency and accountability, due to rigid organizational structures with territorial mindsets." If those obstacles can't be overcome, he wrote, "increasing resources could well result in more of the same." In other words, India could end up throwing good money—a lot of it—after bad, something this nation and its students could ill afford.

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