Higher Education Proves No Match for India's Booming Economy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Jun 3 13:41:23 UTC 2005

Higher Education Proves No Match for India's Booming Economy
More young people pass up university degrees, once a key credential


Cochin, India

One recent afternoon in this peaceful coastal town in Kerala, India's
southwesternmost state, a 22-year-old shopkeeper is giving a group of
British tourists the hard sell. Hawking his tiny shop's collection of CD's
and DVD's, M. Sajjan cleverly gauges their tastes and plays a collection
of tabla-heavy trance music.  "Just like Buddha Bar, no?" he says,
mentioning the hip Parisian nightspot. He points out that his DVD's of
films like Trainspotting and The Beach cost much less than in England. The
tourists leave with several purchases, and Mr. Sajjan, who opened his shop
three years ago when he was 19 -- even though he could instead have been
in college -- happily records the sale.

Unlike many of his former schoolmates who did go on to higher education,
he is making money. "I could have, college is cheap enough, but it is no
use," he says.  "Better that I started a business early and started to
make money than do a useless degree." In India in general, and especially
in Kerala, where the literacy rate is 91 percent, compared with India's
national average of 65 percent, higher education has long been considered
the key to a better life. But Mr.  Sajjan has a point. India's antiquated
higher-education system has not kept up with the needs of its rapidly
growing economy. Universities here use archaic teaching methods and
outdated syllabi, and their emphasis on rote learning produces graduates
who know little about their field of study and even less about how to
relate that knowledge to the outside world.

Though starkest in the state of Kerala, the skyrocketing number of
unemployed graduates is beginning to worry administrators across India.
The problem is expected to worsen as other states catch up to Kerala in
literacy and send more students to universities. Kerala has fascinated
development experts because, while its per-capita income is extremely low,
its adult-literacy rate, birth rate and infant-mortality rate rival those
of many Western nations. In 1957, Kerala democratically elected a
Communist chief minister (like an American governor), and since then the
state's efforts to empower the poor through universal literacy have been
highly successful.

Despite Kerala's gains, the fraying of its social fabric is beginning to
show. Of India's 5.3 million unemployed university graduates, Kerala has a
disproportionate half a million. By ensuring basic education and schooling
for all, Kerala, unlike other states in India, has had -- and still has --
more students pursuing higher education. It isn't uncommon to find bus
drivers who are engineers or who hold multiple master's degrees or law
degrees. They have no choice but to take more menial jobs. It is better
than being unemployed.

The problem is not simply a shortage of white-collar jobs in Kerala, which
has little or no industry. Interstate migration is common in India, and
Keralites often work in more industrialized states. By not paying the same
attention to the quality of higher education or to market-relevant higher
education, Kerala has offset the gains it has made in literacy. "All this
chest-thumping about how literate Kerala is!" a woman with a master's
degree recently told an Indian newsmagazine. "Postgraduates are hankering
for a Rs 3,500 [about $80] job! We'd make more money if we were illiterate

In the last three years the proportion of high-school graduates pursuing
higher education has fallen at least 25 percent, according to Sister
Tessa, dean of St. Teresa's College, in Ernakulam, Kerala. The problem has
ignited a curious debate in developmental circles.  Skeptics often cite
Kerala's high unemployment to argue that education doesn't solve economic
problems. The Indian economist Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate, holds a
different view: He believes the higher-education system must be revised to
suit the demands of the contemporary age, including a focus on India's
rapidly expanding information economy.

The country's 300-odd public universities serve 9.3 million students, or
about 7 percent of India's 18- to 24-year-old population. The central
government has said it wants to increase the college-going rate to 10
percent by 2007, which would mean four million more students in the
university system and even more graduates looking for work. Ironically,
the problem of unemployed graduates is growing at the same time that
Indian industry -- making rapid strides toward an economy based on
technology, knowledge, and services -- is experiencing an acute shortage
of skilled workers. India produces some 290,000 engineers a year, the
source of much pride here and much heartache in the United States and
Europe, which have lost technology jobs to India. But in India, that
number is small compared with the total number of university graduates in
all fields.

Producing 'Babus'

Only 17 percent of Indian students are enrolled in professional courses
such as engineering and medicine. The remaining students are pursuing
degrees in the sciences, the humanities, and commerce. (The last, which
includes business and economics, is not considered a professional field in
India.) Meanwhile, job opportunities in growing sectors of the economy --
such as media, entertainment, fashion, advertising, investment banking,
and tourism -- are increasing, and face personnel shortages.

Indian higher education is still geared toward producing babus, says
sociologist Shiv Visvanathan of the Center for the Study of Developing
Societies, a New Delhi-based think tank. (Babu is a pejorative term used
to describe clerks and petty bureaucrats, a class developed by the British
colonialists who encouraged education for Indians to create legions of
career underlings.) That mentality has lingered in independent India,
where acquiring a degree -- or several -- has become an end in itself,
says Mr. Visvanathan. M.A. Oomen, a scholar at the Institute of Social
Sciences at Thiruvananthapuram, agrees. "College education is neither
job-oriented nor research-oriented," he says. "It has created a false
notion of knowledge and ego in people's minds."

Mr. Oomen recalls his association with universities in Kerala as a
professor of economics at University of Calicut and Mahatma Gandhi
University in the late 1970s. "For the first time in India we offered
several options in addition to basic courses in economics, like forestry
economics, the economics of fishing, transportation, etc., all relevant to
Kerala's economy," he says. "This was the only way to initiate students
into the world of real opportunities, instead of focusing just on
neoclassical economics. I was pooh-poohed, but I managed to make these
courses last three or four years."

After he left, such courses ended, he says. He blames the teaching
community for not wanting to try new approaches, and government officials
for hiring candidates whose political connections were stronger than their
job credentials. India has chosen to emphasize public higher education to
ensure that the poor are not left out. But the dominance of federally
subsidized universities has led to corruption and the politicization of
universities.  In some states professors can bribe their way into jobs,
says Babu Joseph, a former vice chancellor of Kerala's Cochin University
of Science and Technology. "You can bribe someone at the examination
center and have your marks changed. All this has become endemic to the
system. No wonder we have such poor-quality graduates."

Educators also blame India's university system, another relic of British
colonialism. Like the Universities of Oxford and of Cambridge, every
university in India has affiliated colleges. In India, that relationship
causes serious problems. "The university sets the syllabus and the
examinations, and the colleges have to follow it," says the Rev. Ambrose
Pinto, principal of St. Joseph's College, in Bangalore. He believes
colleges should be given complete autonomy, so that they are still
affiliated with the university and thus eligible for state funding, but
are free to set their own curriculum and examinations. The current system
offers little room for innovation. "There is a lot of resistance to
autonomy because the authorities are afraid they will lose control and
power over colleges," Father Pinto says. "This is a very feudal outlook."

In India's education system, students choose their "stream," or area of
study, after the 10th grade. In the 11th and 12th grades, students take
only subjects in their chosen fields, so that a humanities student could
not, for example, take a physics class. That system continues in college.
As a result, a decision to specialize made at the age of 15 or 16
determines a student's life. "Shouldn't a science student study some
humanities and vice versa? We need well-rounded graduates," Father Pinto

Studying Silkworms

Faced with declining university enrollments and looming competition from
foreign universities, the Indian government is finally realizing that
drastic changes are needed. The University Grants Commission, India's
higher-education regulatory body, has said that Indian universities should
allow students to combine traditional education with skills-oriented
education. In addition, India's Planning Commission, the country's main
economic planning body, has directed the university commission to
supplement degree programs with job-oriented diploma and certificate
programs. A pilot program is in place at four universities and 43
colleges. It allows students to choose electives outside their academic
specialty and tailor their studies to suit their personal needs. "This
system will be extremely beneficial for narrowing the gap between
university education and employment," says S.P. Thyagarajan, vice
chancellor of the University of Madras, which is taking part in the pilot

Some universities are wasting no time in adopting the proposals. In June
Bangalore University will introduce four-year (instead of the usual
three-year) integrated-honors degree programs in the humanities and the
sciences. The university plans to introduce courses in industrial
chemistry, water management, apparel technology, and sericulture (the
raising of silkworms). Course work in practical, job-training subjects
will make up 50 percent of the syllabus.

A New Mentality

Several colleges affiliated with the University of Mumbai, in Maharashtra
State, have also added undergraduate programs in such fields as
management, mass media, and information technology. "Right now demand for
basic sciences and humanities is declining because they aren't
skill-oriented," says M.S. Thimmappa, vice chancellor of Bangalore
University. "These new courses will give students an understanding of
industry and improve their chances of employment. "I believe this could
reduce the number of unemployed graduates by 50 percent," he adds.

The University of Madras has also reorganized syllabus committees in all
its departments so that one-third of the committee members work outside
academe. The university also plans to submit to Indian higher-education
officials a report on the potential of community colleges. Currently there
are very few such colleges in India. The state of Tamil Nadu, where the
University of Madras is based, has 60 such colleges -- far more than most
states. Mr. Thyagarajan says the report examines how community-college
programs can be linked to university degree programs. "This will serve the
dual purpose of increasing the numbers seeking higher education and also
ensuring that students have employable skills," he says.

But in a country so steeped in the culture of acquiring degrees for their
own sake, community colleges and vocational courses will require a major
hard sell. Indians view a degree as the route to a white-collar job, no
matter how poor the degree. "Little by little this attitude is changing,"
says S.P. Gupta, former chairman of India's economic-planning commission.
"People are realizing that if salaries are good it doesn't matter if the
job is blue collar. For example, in the rural sector, the money in
trucking services is quite good. But it will take some time for that
mind-set to change."

For that kind of revolution to occur, most people agree that the economic
liberalization that is on the rise throughout India must be extended to
higher education. "It takes a new kind of imagination, one that is not
geared toward collecting degrees," says Mr. Visvanathan, the sociologist
who worries about India's babu mentality. "People have to change, higher
education has to change. It will take a couple of meltdowns for the tool
kit to become cool."


SOURCE: Chronicle map
by Daphne Sterling

Section: International
Volume 51, Issue 39, Page A32


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