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India’s university challenge
June 25, 2015, 1:49 pm
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If your five-year-old starts school in India in 2015 she will be ready to enrol at university in 2028. That is also the year when India’s population should pass 1.45 billion and become the world’s largest. By then, will there be enough high-quality graduates to ensure the country’s prosperity? No chance—unless a rotten education system is fixed first.

With some 240 million children in school, India will make some gains in basic literacy. But most education remains poor. College-level studies are especially weak, though the sector is booming. The share of school graduates going on to higher education leapt from 11 percent in 2004 to 23 percent in 2011. By 2015 India will have some 35,000 colleges, plus 700 universities, with more to come. Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has promised several new institutes of management and technology. His government plans to open 60 new universities, including medical and engineering colleges. But most expansion will be in the private sector, which already caters for 60 percent of students in higher education.

The problem is a lack of quality. In 2015 don’t expect any Indian university, private or public, to make the top 200 of any global ranking of universities (though India will do better in MBA league tables). Too few colleges care about teaching standards, let alone research. The worst private outfits serve, in effect, as money-launderers. Even honest ones emphasise marketing over teaching: glitzy ads lure students with swimming pools, marble foyers or guarantees of jobs. Colleges often devote over a fifth of revenue to acquiring new students, more than they pay faculty. Students care little for study, as few are ever allowed to fail exams.

So outcomes will disappoint. Around a third of Indian graduates will remain unemployed, despite employers bemoaning a lack of skilled recruits.

Varun Aggarwal of Aspiring Minds, a company that surveys student capabilities, estimates that if university exams were run properly, 70 percent of students would fail. Of 700,000 engineering graduates in India each year, he reckons only 3 percent are employable without many months of post-recruitment training. Only 15 percent of computer-engineering graduates could complete a basic task set in one assessment, he says. Language and other “soft” skills are often poor.

Some signs of quality may emerge. Competition to attract students should eventually drive up standards. A few philanthropists are launching new institutions aspiring to excellence. Ashoka University, near Delhi, is one. It is intended as an Ivy League-standard liberal-arts college. One founder, Ashish Dhawan, a former venture capitalist, says the first goal is quality, to “set the bar really high”.

It eschews marketing, has foreign partners (including the University of Pennsylvania), offers visiting faculty decent salaries and limits entry to relatively few bright students. It is a couple of years old, and applicants vastly outnumber available places. Other new private universities have similar goals. But still there is no serious funding for research. Only when that is in place will an Indian university make it into a global top 200. Not in 2015, but with luck before 2028.

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