In India, students aplenty but a lag in quality

If half of India’s universities were to shut down today, the world would continue unaffected by such a mass closure, Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Studies of India, told an audience of about 15 yesterday in Luce Hall.

The student population in India has grown significantly since the nation gained independence in 1947, but the quality of Indian education is shamefully lagging behind the rest of the world, Kapur said at the talk, entitled “Higher Education in India.” The low quality of India’s universities results from higher education’s status as one of the three most regulated sectors in India, Kapur said. It is a huge source of money for politicians, he said.

Devesh Kapur, a University of Pennsylvania professor, spoke yesterday about the lagging quality of Indian universities.
Divya Chari
Devesh Kapur, a University of Pennsylvania professor, spoke yesterday about the lagging quality of Indian universities.

“The heart of the matter is that the government and regulation structure is not being changed at all,” Kapur said. “With extremely centralized regulation, higher education provides fertile ground for rent-seeking and patronage politics.”

Even with a large student population — which today consists of about 12 million students — the universities’ poor teaching makes the degrees virtually worthless, Kapur said.

“Almost all taxi drivers in India have a bachelor in arts,” Kapur said, “but most cannot even write three sentences in English.”

Kapur is not alone in his concerns about Indian education.

Manmohan Singh, the current prime minister of India, said in a speech at Mumbai University in 2007 that “almost two-thirds of universities and 90 percent of colleges in India are rated below average on quality parameters.”

One possibility for improvement has already debuted in India, Kapur said, with the founding of new private universities. But this option is often reserved for the elite, he said.

Another alternative to public universities is expanding corporate campuses and work-force training, Kapur said.

“There is a large investment by firms in workplace training and development,” he said.

About a million students take an entrance exam for corporate campuses every year, and only about 15,000 of them are selected, according to Kapur. Corporate campuses are institutions that specialize in educating students in specific professions. Admission is based on attitude rather than knowledge, Kapur said, and companies take it upon themselves to educate the selected students.

Indians also receive high-quality education by studying abroad, he said.

“The number of students leaving the country is massive relative to the past, not relative to higher education,” Kapur said. “Indians are attracted to countries like Australia, which currently has about 60,000 foreign Indian students, because if they get a degree there then they can work there. Parents see it as a kind of down payment for a green card.”

But those who are unable to opt for these alternatives must make due with India’s poorly funded institutions, Kapur said. India’s contribution to higher education expenditure is comparably little to the rest of the world. India has a yearly budget of about $4.3 billion on education, whereas Harvard, a single private institution, spends about $3 billion, he said.

India’s difficulties in reforming its educational system are not all India-specific, Kapur said.

Shreeyash Palshikar, a post-doctoral fellow in the MacMillan Center who studied in India as an exchange student, said he agreed with Kapur’s insights on the quality of higher education in India.

“He reinforced some of my observations of the general decline in higher education,” Palshikar said. “He gave specific data that backed up how I felt.”

But some other attendees said Kapur’s talk contradicted their previous views about Indian education.

“Frankly, for me it’s turned my views on India academia upside down,” Cecil Conton, who works in applied science at the University, said. “I find that [my Indian friends] are a more intellectual breed than most from developed countries.”

Devesh Kapur is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a book called “Democracy, Death and Diamonds: The Impact of Migration from Indian on India.”

Comments