Higher Education In India

MUMBAI - It would seem a good time to be Kinjal
Bhuptani. She is a college student studying business
in the financial capital of one of hottest economies
on earth.
But she has no illusions of sharing in India's
newfound prosperity when she graduates from Hinduja
College this spring. While others land $100,000-a-
year jobs at Goldman Sachs and Microsoft, she is more
likely to make $4 a day selling credit cards door to
door.
Bhuptani's mistake, if you can call it that, was not
getting into one of India's most elite universities,
like the Indian Institutes of Management or Indian
Institutes of Technology. Those who are admitted go on
to enjoy big paychecks on Wall Street and to manage
some of the world's largest companies.
In the shadow of those elite institutions, most of the
11 million students in the 18,000 Indian colleges and
universities receive starkly inferior training, heavy
on obeisance and light on marketable skills, students,
educators and business leaders say. All but a tiny
handful of graduates are considered unemployable by
top global and local companies.
"We might as well not have studied," Bhuptani said.
The Indian educational system is locking millions of
students in the bottom berth of a two-tier economy,
critics argue, depriving the country of the fullest
expression of their talents and denying students a
chance to share in the fruits of reform.
The problem, experts say, is in a classroom
environment that infantilizes students well into their
mid-20s, emphasizing silent note-taking and discipline
at the expense of analysis, debate and persuasion.
Students at second- and third-tier colleges suffer not
because of a dearth of technical ability or
intelligence, critics note. Most simply lack the "soft
skills" sought by a new generation of employers but
still not taught by change-resistant colleges: the
ability to speak crisp English with a placeless
accent, to design and give PowerPoint presentations,
to write in logically ordered paragraphs, to work
collegially in teams, to grasp the nuances of
leadership.
"It's almost literally a matter of life and death for
them," said Kiran Karnik, president of the National
Association of Software and Services Companies, an
influential trade body that represents many of India's
leading employers. A study that the group published
last year concluded that just 10 percent of Indian
graduates with generalist degrees were considered
employable by major companies, compared with 25
percent of engineers.
"The university has become a placeholder," said Pratap
Bhanu Mehta, a former Harvard professor who recently
resigned in frustration from the National Knowledge
Commission, a panel advising the Indian government on
overhauling its education system.
India is one of those rare countries where you become
less able to find a job the more educated you get.
College graduates suffer from higher jobless rates -
17 percent in the 2001 census - than high school
graduates.
But even as graduates complain of the paucity of jobs,
companies across India lament a lack of skilled
talent. The paradox is explained, experts say, by the
poor quality of the undergraduate experience. India's
thousands of colleges are swallowing millions of new
students every year, only to spit out degree holders
that no one wants to hire.
The differences between elite colleges and those
attended by the majority can be striking. St. Stephens
College in New Delhi, one of the country's best-known
colleges, counts among its alumni a well-known
novelist (Amitav Ghosh), a top United Nations official
(Shashi Tharoor), and a former president of Pakistan
(General Muhammad Zia-ul- Haq), and offers an
illustration, through contrast, of what lesser
institutions lack.
P. Jacob Cherian, the acting principal, said the
essential difference was a focus on leadership and
communication skills, neglected at most other
institutions. As on leading Western campuses, the
students have frequent chances to meet and attend
speeches by prominent leaders.
"It's when you practice the skills that you actually
learn them," Cherian said.
But outside elite enclaves like St. Stephens, tertiary
education is an exercise in drudgery. Take, for
example, Hinduja College in Mumbai. It is in one of
India's richest enclaves, but it is a second-tier,
no-name school, exemplifying a middling college
experience.
Between lectures, dozens of students swarmed around a
reporter to complain about their education.
"What the market wants and what the school provides
are totally different," said Sohail Kutchi, a commerce
student.
The students said they were not learning to
communicate effectively, even as mainstay activities
in the Indian economy evolve from pushing papers to
answering phones and making presentations. There were
few chances to work in groups or hold discussions. And
in this purportedly English-language college, the
professors used bad grammar and spoke in thick
accents.
Education experts argue that students are also
graduating without the ability to assess problems and
find creative solutions, in large part because their
professors encourage them to be meek and obsequious.
"Out! Out! Close the door! Close the door!" a
management professor barked at a student who entered
his classroom at Hinduja two minutes late. A second
student, caught whispering, was asked to stand up for
the duration of class.

At Hinduja, the mode of instruction is often more
evocative of a communist re- education camp than a
modern campus.
That is bad news for Indian companies, which are on a
hiring binge. Infosys, a leading outsourcing company,
will take on 25,000 new people this year, from a pool
of 1.5 million applicants.
The rejected are likely to include many smart
graduates who merely lack skills like communication,
poise and global exposure, said Mohandas Pai, director
of human resources at Infosys.
"You might be very bright," he said, "but since you
are studying in the vernacular you cannot speak good
English. You are not taught presentation skills in
your college, so you lose out."

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