India's got talent - but too few places where it can grow

Private help is needed to upgrade the country's higher education sector, business college chief tells Rachel Williams

March 29, 2012

Bright future: Indu Shahani calls India 'a country of aspiration'

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that Indu Shahani, the principal of a Mumbai higher education college, has the academy in her blood.

Her maternal grandfather was the head of an engineering college; her father, who was a reader in economics and a university department head, went on to found HR College of Commerce and Economics, the institution she graduated from and now leads.

But if Shahani's upbringing - which she is quick to point out had nothing to do with her current role or her gaining an undergraduate place - led her to enter higher education, her experience since has been no less of an influence on her outlook.

The 60-year-old, who has been at the University of Mumbai-affiliated college for 22 years and has served as its principal since 2000, is a passionate advocate of collaboration between business and academia. She believes that private provision is the way forward if India is to make even a dent in its plan to treble university places by 2020.

She credits her husband, who heads the Indian operations of pharmaceutical company Novartis, with inspiring her focus on encouraging academia-industry link-ups, the subject of her PhD.

In fact, she nearly went into industry herself. "I had a very lucrative offer of a corporate job," she recalls, "but somehow my mother convinced me that the smiles of the students would give me far better returns than I would get selling soap and shampoo."

Increasing the number of university places in India from 13 million to 40 million will require 800 new universities, she says. In addition to forging links with industry, opening the market to foreign institutions will be crucial, Shahani adds.

"India is the youngest nation in the world; 50 per cent of the population is under 25. No amount of education given by the government is going to be able to keep pace with the demand.

"We'll have to do everything possible: bring in corporates, foreign players, and give more and more incentives to people to set up educational institutions," she adds.

Demand outstrips available places

Shahani knows at first hand the desperate shortage of places in India. Her state-funded institution, founded in 1960, has been growing in prestige; the University of Mumbai has just judged it the best of its 625 affiliates for 2010-11. But like other higher education colleges in Maharashtra state, it educates not only undergraduates but also pupils in the final two years of high school.

Pupils who are accepted for study at that level are automatically offered an undergraduate degree place at the college, so competition is fierce. Last year the institution received 37,000 applications for 800 places at this "junior college" level.

The infrastructure of higher education, she says, is "crumbling" as demand grows: HR College of Commerce and Economics currently educates 6,000 students (1,800 of them school-age) on an 18,000 sq ft campus in three daily shifts.

She is frustrated that the Indian government's foreign providers bill - which would allow overseas universities to award degrees independently and set up campuses in India - has yet to be passed after two years before the Indian parliament.

Online distance learning could be another solution, but Shahani is critical of the Indian government's reluctance to give equal weight to qualifications delivered this way.

A brain drain of talent to Europe and North America is not the problem it used to be, Shahani says, but she notes that Indian higher education lacks vision and needs to focus more on research, which is currently limited to the major public universities. Affiliated colleges such as hers are teaching-only.

India is, she observes, "just putting the train on the tracks; we're not really creating direction for our institutions. We're not creating new knowledge, we're just delivering it. We don't get time to sit down and think about where we're going and what we need to do - we're overwhelmed with numbers."

Shahani does not share the concerns of some in the sector that increased privatisation will have a negative impact on quality as providers try to make a quick profit.

"If you're not giving quality education, if you're here on a commercial venture, people see through that. It's not going to be sustainable if you're coming in trying to cheat people...I'm sure the market throws out such people."

Training on tap

She is worried, however, that the focus on boosting higher education provision is ignoring a yawning gap in vocational training, and she calls for the "McDonaldisation" of education with courses being offered anywhere they are accessible, including shopping malls.

"We need to have these educational hubs where people can be skilled up everywhere," she says.

Higher education is not Shahani's only passion. Since 2008 she has been sheriff of Mumbai, an honorary role intended to link citizens and the government.

And for all her concerns about the education sector, it is the people Shahani meets that give her confidence for the future. "Our supply side is facing a number of challenges.

"But the difference I'm finding wherever I visit is the brightness and the motivation of youth. India today is a country of aspiration. That's the good thing."

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