The True Beneficiaries of Indian Education

Indian Classroom

The sun had barely risen on Tuesday, February 4, 2014, when an email appeared in the inboxes of Microsoft employees. “Many companies aspire to change the world. But very few have all the elements required: talent, resources, and perseverance,” the message read. “Microsoft has proven that it has all three in abundance. And as the new CEO, I can’t ask for a better foundation. Let’s build on this foundation together. Satya.”

The email, segments of which quickly appeared in news stories around the globe, came from the account of Satya Nadella, the new CEO of Microsoft and undoubtedly one of the world’s most brilliant minds. His message introduced himself, outlined the company’s past, and presented his vision for its future. Never once, though did it mention that Nadella is from India.

A native of the bustling city of Hyderabad, Nadella is also a graduate of the Manipal Institute of Technology in Karnataka, India. Like many other influential Indians in the world’s largest and fastest-growing democracy, Nadella is a product of the country’s institutions of higher education, which educate nearly 26 million students each year.

Nevertheless, Indian colleges and universities are not nearly as notable as some of the minds they educate. In fact, not a single one of India’s 436 universities or 27,000 colleges and polytechnics rank in the world’s top 200 universities on any major ranking.

This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed. “It is a sad reflection on us when the universal rankings of universities come out,” Indian President Pranab Mukherjee said in early 2013.

In a November 2013 article in the New York Times titled “Indian Universities Still Lag in World Rankings,” Gayatri Rangachari Shah discusses weaknesses of Indian Universities that account for their poor performance in international rankings. She points to Indian universities’ sparse research and infrequent citations, both of which rankings value highly. Shah blames the overwhelming number of Indian students and the government’s pressure on universities to increase the number of students they accept, depriving professors of time for research. Ultimately, however, Shah does not mention the word so often associated with India: corruption.

Employees at all levels of the Indian education system — from professors and library purchasers to Vice Chancellors and regulatory officials — are not held accountable for their actions. In 2011, Transparency International found that 94 percent of Indians believed their education system was corrupt. There are certainly many instances in which funds earmarked for education are blatantly misused. Observers on the ground in India report that the pernicious lack of accountability makes such corruption possible. Collectively, this damages the entire education system.

Teacher quality

The fact that faculty in public universities receive tenure upon hire largely explains why so little research is published by faculty at Indian Universities. “Once you got the job,” Dr. V. Rajagopal, a history professor at the federally-funded Hyderabad Central University (HCU) explains, “there is nothing that is going to keep you on hooks or keep you competitive. Even if I did not publish a single book or article, I can still keep my job.”

While years of work determine when instructors will be considered for a promotion, at which point their publications are taken into consideration, professors never have to answer for their performance in the classroom. Rajagopal explained that although students have the opportunity to evaluate their professors at the end of the semester, the professor collects these evaluations directly and is not required to submit them to the department head.

Sundararaman Mahadevan, the Dean of HCU’s School of Engineering Sciences & Technology, does collect evaluations. He says that the National Accreditation Council looks at them during visits to the University, mainly for the purposes of judging the University’s overall quality. “There is no official monitoring of how faculty teach,” he says. There is “no appraisal of performance at any stage, and really, nothing can be done [if subpar quality becomes evident.]”

Corruption in the Indian education system dismisses the students' welfare and holds back development and improvement.
Corruption in the Indian education system dismisses the students’ welfare and holds back development and improvement.

As an American spending a term abroad to study political science, history, and sociology at HCU, I have found experienced effects of this lack of accountability is in the classroom. It is neither unusual nor unacceptable for professors in India to fail to come to class without notice. Although the semester officially began on January 2, most of the faculty did not hold their first class until the following week. Even then, professors showed up only intermittently and had a habit of cancelling classes in subsequent weeks. A month into the semester, Sean Fergusson, another American student studying at HCU, told me that his Marxism and Capitalism professor warned the class that he was finishing a book: “Just don’t come to class next week. I will have too much work.”

Rajagopal suggests not all Indian professors are invested and interested in teaching. “This job is attractive to a poor person, not necessarily someone who is aspiring to be a historian or political scientist,” he says. “The university teaching job is still seen as providing a reasonable lifestyle.”

Indeed, the starting salary for an assistant professor is around ₹60,000 — or $1,000 — per month, while full professors can earn up to ₹120,000. This is certainly much lower than what professors earn in other countries, but it is comparatively high in India, where a multilingual department secretary earns ₹6,000 a month. Even this is high compared to the workers who bring office staff water and chai; they earn just ₹1,500 each month.

Quality versus profit

India’s private colleges are for-profit institutions that often focus on maximizing profits for their investors rather than on the quality of their education. “If you have a good business model, a private college can make a lot of money,” says J.R. Krishna, an associate professor working in the Vice Principal’s Office at Devarakonda Vitta Rao College of Engineering and Technology (DVR) in Andhra Pradesh, India’s fourth-largest state.

Most private colleges are named for their founder and chairman — in DVR’s case, a member of the 14th Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament. Founders are usually businessmen and politicians who can afford to bankroll construction. “Representatives from the state level to the city level — everybody has private schools of their own,” Sundararaman explains. “These are all the people who are supposed to formulate the rules for government to run! It’s a clear conflict of interest.”

Some private schools have misused the Fee Reimbursement Scheme — which pays scholarships directly to the school on behalf of disadvantaged students pursuing professional degrees — and have stolen millions of dollars from the government by submitting names of fictitious students. In 2011, authorities discovered that schools in Maharashtra submitted an estimated 135,000 fake names. That scam, alone, is believed to have cost the state ₹10 billion (a little over $16 million), and similar scams have cropped up all over the country. Since the Scheme was introduced in 2008, the cost to Andhra Pradesh has increased by 150 percent. Even though more students are enrolling in engineering and other professional degree programs, this alone cannot account for the dramatic increase.

The phenomenon is true across India, Aabha Sharma, a first year M.A. Political Science student, told The Politic. “Especially in Andhra Pradesh, every boy or girl is either in medicine or engineering.”

Engineering is viewed as a gateway to lucrative IT professions that employ many Indians, especially in cities like Hyderabad — Andhra Pradesh’s capital. “More than higher pay,” Aabha continued, “I think it’s about easy employment. Like I don’t know what I’m going to do with a M.A. Okay, I’m going to study more.” Aabha’s classmate, Rashid Modieen, added, “I’d like to do something I like, even if it means waiting a long time for me to start earning money. But it’s a very difficult choice, and not a choice the everyone has the privilege to make.”

Private engineering colleges have sprung up to accommodate the state’s new students. V. Dileep Kumar is an expert on the Indian education system whose Ph.D. focused on the role of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) in engineering education. (The AICTE is a national-level council for technical education, under the Indian Department of Higher Education.) He relays that in the early 1990s, Andhra Pradesh only had 35 engineering colleges. Since then, the number of engineering colleges in the state has grown to more than 700, all of which were approved by the AICTE.

In their haste to construct new colleges, he elaborates, opportunists have flooded the market. Only 127,000 students pursued their offers of admission for 338,000 seats this year — leaving more than 200,000 spots unfilled. In 2012-2013, 250 colleges had fewer than 100 matriculating students; 44 had fewer than ten students. Kumar says nearly 100 engineering colleges are expected to close this year in Andhra Pradesh alone.

To understand why the AICTE approved so many colleges, one need not look further than the collection of top AICTE officials who have been suspended on charges of corruption. Many have accepted money in exchange for recognizing private institutions. Even the former chairman, R. A. Yadav, and three other senior AICTE officials faced criminal charges for corruption.

While private colleges close their doors for lack of enrollment, many AICTE-approved colleges operate with a poor quality of teaching and subpar facilities. Sundararaman says private colleges often focus on expanding sports and extracurricular programs to attract students while failing to provide an adequate education. “These colleges give a degree, but whether they impart the requisite skill [it should represent], I have my own doubts.”

Despite the assumption that engineering students can acquire IT jobs that, as one M.A. student told me, “fetch more,” many graduates are not prepared for opportunities after college. According to The National Employability Report — Engineering Graduates 2014, less than two percent of engineering students in Hyderabad are hired for IT jobs. The Hindu, a the most popular newspaper in southern India, reported that 36 percent of engineering graduates in Andhra Pradesh have “no chance” of earning an engineering job. Ultimately, the paper concluded, it comes down to a lack problem solving, technical, and communication skills.

Trickling Down

Far from just provincial administrators or small-time decision-makers, corruption occurs at the highest levels of public academic institutions. The President of India appoints the Vice Chancellors of central universities. “To get a Vice Chancellorship, people are ready to pay one or two crores (10 to 20 million rupees),”  Roja Lakshmi, a Ph.D. student working with the AICTE expert V. Dileep Kumar, told The Politic. “They can gain money from construction bribes, for example. They will favor a contractor, who will give him some amount of money.”

If a university’s highest official is corrupt, or even just subtly biased, an entire university can suffer. To Kumar, partial and corrupt university officials are to blame for faculty underperformance. “They are appointing by favoritism, rather than by merit,” he says. When Seyed E. Hasnian was HCU’s Vice Chancellor from 2005-2011, “he appointed only Muslim candidates,” Kumar claims, rather than evaluating candidates on that basis of “excellence, work, or subject.”

“If a qualification is specified by the government of India, it is not implemented by the authorities,” Kumar adds. Krishna, the administrator from DVR College, remarks, “There are rules, but rules can be bent.”

Because employees are not held accountable for their actions, whether or not someone abuses their power for personal profit, “all depends upon the basic integrity of a person,” Sundararaman says. Small-scale corruption not only reduces the efficacy of funds for education, but diminishes the quality of university resources, like its infrastructure and library collections.

“You and I are looking for books for our courses. We look in the library and don’t find our books there,” Rajagopal, the HCU professor, points out. The campus library receives about ₹12 million ($192,000) each year, which “can be used to buy a lot of good books.”

“But there is corruption everywhere,” he continues. “A bookseller or publisher strikes a deal with the person who signs on the contracts for supplying books, and they get pretty pointless books. They sell them expensively and the bookseller gains. The librarian who makes the purchase gains, too, because he gets a percentage out of that expenditure.”

It all Adds Up

It is no secret that corruption is rampant across India. Still, while 23 percent of Indians reported they had paid bribes to educational institutions, this was the lowest percentage to any sector. (The percentage is much higher for the judiciary, medical services, police, permits, utilities, tax revenue, land services, and customs.) Evidently, Indians are frustrated by corruption and inefficiency in their country; just a year after the anti-corruption party Aam Aadmi formed, Delhi residents elected it to the second most seats in the 2013 elections.

What’s more, many weaknesses of the Indian education system — comparatively low salaries, shortage of faculty, the relative youth of universities — cannot be attributed to corruption. Indian universities do need more money, but attempts to improve Indian universities solely by giving them more funding have had underwhelming results. The federal government’s Eleventh Fifth Year Plan increased public funding for higher education nine-fold, but the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry reported that there was “no significant improvement in terms of quality of higher education delivery.” Simply providing money can never be effective, at least as long as slices of these funds do not reach the intended beneficiaries.

According to the students and professors I spoke with, corruption in the education system ought to receive more attention from the Indian government. Increasing transparency and holding employees at every level of the education system accountable for their actions could dramatically improve the Indian institutions that educate the second highest number of students in the world—and perhaps produce more graduates like Satya Nadella. Just imagine what that could do.

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