Friday, October 05, 2007


Yes, India is rising fast as a tech power and turning out 280,000 engineers a year, but according to various analysts, as few as one in 25 is ready for international competition.


Today that are an estimated 5,3 million university graduates in India who are unemployed, having been left behind by the increasing rigorous demands of the tech-driven economy. While India’s top universities - such as it seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and a few other elite institutions – turn out world-class graduates, fewer than 1 percent of India’s 3 million annual grads attend those schools. “There is a need to make India’s institutions of high education and research world-class,” said Indian Prime Minister Mammohan Singh last August as he launched a Knowledge Commission to advise him on how to fix the broken universities.

For all the hype about India’s rise as an Information Age power, its higher-education system is largely antiquated and grossly underfunded. Not a single Indian University is among the top 10 in Asia, let alone the world, according to the National Association of Software and Service Companies, an umbrella organization for India’s $5 billion outsourcing industry, which scrambles to fill the 150,000 new jobs it creates each year. “The graduates you see on the outside, in places like Silicon Valley, are the cherry on the cake,” says Shekhar Gupta, CEO of Indian Express Newspapers, “but underneath the cake is largely rotten.”

For starters, there are not enough Indians attending universities. While 82 percent of college-age youth in America attend a university, only 7 percent (a total of 10 million) do in India. For India to become a “global power” in the next decade says Sam Pitroda, the Knowledge Commission’s chairman, it needs to begin attending to its vast underclass and send 25 percent of its youth to universities - good universities. “We eventually need 70, not just seven IITs,” he says.

The rub is money. India spends only 3 percent of its budget on education - compared with 17 percent spent on defense - and less than one third of that goes to its 342 public universities and their 17,000 affiliated colleges. Most Indian university students face overcrowded lecture halls and classrooms, dilapidated buildings and inadequate labs, computer banks and libraries. Many facilities and teaching practices date to colonial times when, Indian critics say, the British set up universities to turn out babus, or loyal clerks. To this day, critics say, there are way too many “soft” courses such as Sanskrit and philosophy. “The higher-education indication system is very much cut off from reality” and the needs of today’s labor market, says Father Ambrose Pinto, principal of Bangalore-based St. Joseph’s College

Besides the IITs, a few top universities do serve the job market well, marrying academic excellence to the needs of a rapidly modernizing India. At New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, the first to set up a biotechnology center, many students major in interdisciplinary life sciences, international relations or economics and finance. But like all public universities - there are only a handful of the good private universities - JNU is wholly funded and largely governed by the central government’s University Grants Commission.

Because of India’s egalitarian outlook, the commission doles out its budget more or less equally to all 342 public universities, whether they are in expensive cities or remote Bihar. Faculty salaries start at a little more than $400 a month, including perks, and the rise to just over $1,000 for a full professor, whether one teaches Sanskrit or economics. A top graduate in economics can start at $2,000 in the private sector, so it is no wonder that senior faculty are fleeing for the business world. “Forget hiring new faculty for emerging academic fields like biotechnology,” says M. S. Thimmappa, vice chancellor of Bangalore University. “I don’t even have the funds to fill 150 teaching posts that have been vacant for years.”

All university students, regardless of their school or major, pay the same tuition of about $10 a year. Educational reformers argue that fees should be hiked for the wealthiest, but New Delhi has not heeded the call.

Already, educators and business leaders say that the quality of university graduates is in decline. According to the umbrella association for software and service companies, only about 10,000 of the 280,000 engineers who graduate annually, or just 4 percent, are of international caliber. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute rated 25 percent of Indian engineering grads as qualified for work in multinational companies, compared with 50 percent of Hungarian or Polish graduates. JNU vice chancellor B. B. Bhattacharya says the top 10 percent of Indian grads are world-class but the remaining 90 percent are “almost unemployable.”

Nor are private schools necessarily the answer. In 2003, Chhattisgarh state, with two public universities for a population of 21 million, passed a law allowing private universities. Over the next 18 months, more than 100 such schools opened for business, charging high fees. But many were run out of tenement apartments and of little educational value. Eventually the Supreme Court stepped in, shutting most of them down.

More funding is not likely. The government’s spending priorities are defense, popular subsidies and property programs. Bhattacharya can see one rosy budget scenario: Indian strikes a surprise simultaneous peace with China and Pakistan, freeing defense funds for higher education. That unlikely vision shows, says Bhattacharya, that plans for improving India’s universities are in the “dream stage.” That’s a pity, because without a topflight higher-education system catering to a wider swath of Indian youth, the county’s dreams of becoming a First World power one day may never be realized.

Moreau, Ron; Chatterjee, Sumeet - The Unemployable Masses, in «Issues 2006», Nova Iorque: Newsweek, 2005, p 94-5.

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