India's Business Leaders Applaud Progress on Higher Education

November 11, 2010

This year has been a landmark one for Indian higher education, with the government finally offering legislative proposals that go right to the core of the system's problems, said speakers and attendees at a conference Thursday.

At the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry higher-education summit here, participants acknowledged that more work needs to be done to revitalize the country's beleaguered and somewhat antiquated higher-education system. Parliament has yet to approve the proposed reforms, for example. But many offered optimistic assessments.

"What a giant step from last year to this year," said Sushma Berlia, president of the Apeejay Stya Group, which runs private schools and colleges. "There is a sea change in the debates across the country." She said that while India's higher-education problems have been talked about for years, in 2010 the discussions became more focused on a specific framework based on the government's proposals.

As a sign of the heightened interest in India, the meeting attracted high-profile international speakers, including John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, and David Willetts, Britain's minister of state for universities and science.

Referring to the recent visit by President Obama to India, Mr. DeGioia said, "U.S.-India, like the president said, will be the most important partnership" of the future.

Other American university administrators echoed his sentiment.

In India "there is an apparent new flexibility and a sense that there is a reaching out to foreign universities," said Kathleen Hewett-Smith, assistant dean of international studies at Bard College. Ms. Hewett-Smith was one of 130 foreign academic delegates attending the conference.

Kapil Sibal, the minister in charge of higher education, has introduced a slew of bills to overhaul the higher-education system, including changes to the accreditation process, the way fraudulent providers would be punished, and rules under which foreign universities would be allowed to operate in India. (Vibha Puri Das, secretary of higher education for the Indian Ministry of Human-Resource Development, said the bill approving the entry of outside universities could be voted on in Parliament's next budget session in February.)

Help From the Private Sector

At the conference, Mr. Sibal spoke less about the change he wants to bring about and more about the challenges that lie ahead for India. The government's goal of raising India's gross-enrollment rate from 12.4 percent to 25 to 30 percent in 10 years is easier said than done, he said.

"We need 800 more universities in 10 years, and no government in the world will have the resources or the know-how to build these," he said. To achieve the lofty goal, Mr. Sibal said, the government needs to encourage the private sector to step up investment in higher education and foster partnerships between both Indian and international players.

The conference not only examined Mr. Sibal's proposals, but also looked at how India's bureaucratic system compared with its counterparts overseas.

Speakers from abroad explained how their universities worked and ways partnerships could be used to improve the quality of faculty and to build new institutions or new departments. Speakers from India explained the intricate workings of the Indian system.

For instance, in a session on faculty development, Venkataraman Lakshmi, a professor at the University of South Carolina, talked about how professors are promoted at most American universities to a packed room of about 70 Indian academics,

Mr. Lakshmi said promotion often hinges on the publication of research papers and on student evaluations. However, in India, students don't evaluate faculty members, and many professors resist the idea, although a few university vice chancellors have talked about the need for it.

"Do you weigh all student evaluations equally?" asked Bijendra Jain, vice chancellor of the Birla Institute of Technology & Science, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. Mr. Jain said that in India, evaluations would probably differ vastly, for example, from a student who attended half the classes to a student who attended almost all the classes.

Mr. Lakshmi was momentarily nonplused but answered that essentially that one student's evaluation is not weighed differently than another's when it comes to promotions.


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