Friday, June 03, 2005

higher education proves no match for india's booming economy

(From the Chronicle of Higher Education, issue dated June 3, 2005)


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 Universities here use archaic teaching methods and outdated syllabi, and their emphasis on rote learning produces graduates who know little about their field of study and even less about how to relate that knowledge to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 drivers!"

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.

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 says.

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 program.

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."
Section: International
Volume 51, Issue 39, Page A32
Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education