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Half-baked socialism to cagey capitalism

India has one of the most extensive education systems in the world but it is nowhere near meeting its burgeoning demand

india Updated: Jan 22, 2006 23:32 IST

It is a given that the knowledge industry will thrive only on mass higher education. We can't break into the big league without a highly skilled gen-next. Are we then headed in the right direction?

Indian higher education is stranded between selective notions of socialism and free enterprise. In the glory days of socialism, we promoted higher education at the cost of universal primary education. Now in the midst of reforms, we can't shake off our reservations against private investment in higher education. The result is that we neither have China's impressive early gains nor America's high quality.

HT research team analyses India's higher education in these columns. We begin by examining the mess our policy is in. The opening report looks at the implications of knee-jerk planning, flawed policies and court interventions. The second write up measures the Indian system against some of the most successful global models. In the end, we try to offer a simple road map on the basis of several important studies.

With 342 universities and over 5,000 recognised colleges, India's education system is among the largest in the world. The same numbers look ridiculous when seen against the backdrop of our immense challenges. All these institutions cater to only 4.2 per cent of the country's youth. As India churns out 2 million graduates every year, another 28 million young people are added to its population.

Out of its 2 million graduates, only 5 per cent are of international quality, another 20 per cent are barely employable with training and the remaining 75 per cent are seriously sub-standard. Indians may be poor but at 50 per cent, their share of household expenditure on education (as percentage of total national expenditure) is very high compared to 3.5 per cent in Netherlands, 5.1 per cent in France and 24.1 per cent in United States, according to UN figures.

Private funding for higher education allows more government funds to go into primary and secondary education. The students expect and get higher quality when they pay for education. Higher expectations fuel competition, which improves quality and lowers costs. The government can be the main facilitator and regulator of quality. It can address the issue of low-cost education for the weaker sections by giving targeted subsidies and loans directly to the needy.

Technology has already revolutionized the concept of distance learning. Imagine virtual universities without classrooms, campuses or fixed faculty-student ratios. Teaching material in public domain rules out bad teaching and on-line exams handle dramatic numbers with ease. The NIIT provides specialized teaching services to 5 lakh students in 30 countries including the United States. Another Indian company, Aptech, has taught 4 million students in 50 countries in less than two decades. The time has come, perhaps, to replicate our own success stories besides learning from others.

First Published: Nov 28, 2005 02:55 IST