The New York Times has a piece today critical of India’s version of affirmative action, known as reservations, which may help wealthy students take slots meant for the disadvantaged. But a new study suggests the opposite.
"The program in India is a vast system of political patronage that increasingly works to reward the powerful rather than uplift those in need," Gardiner Harris writes.
India’s reservations system sets aside a certain number of seats in public institutions of higher education—which tend to be the highest quality, most competitive, and cheapest options there—for members of so-called “backwards” castes and tribes. It is a widely-held belief in India that the system ends up helping members of those castes and tribes who might not actually need it (known as the “creamy layer”), leaving the poorest members of society out of luck when it comes to college admission.
It’s a similar argument to the one made by those who oppose race-based affirmative action in the United States.
Harris does not cite statistics showing that more-affluent individuals are helped by the reservations system than low-income individuals, however, probably because there may not be much data out there. But there is some. A small-scale study published this year found that quotas for backwards castes and tribes at one elite engineering school “eﬀectively target minority students who are poorer than the average displaced non-minority student.”
The study isn’t an endorsement of the policy. Its authors, Veronica Robles and Kala Krishna, of Pennsylvania State University, also found that students who benefited from quotas fell behind academically. At a recent panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, Krishna said her findings didn’t mean quotas should be ended, but suggested they should push institutions to do more to help disadvantaged students succeed.
"India has an immense potential. You have a huge number of young people, the demographic dividend we often talk about, the billion brains ready to come into the workforce. That is a huge advantage over many other ageing and smaller countries. What does India need to do to get its workforce to be able to compete globally? Of course it has to educate its young people. You look at what India is trying to do in the last few years and what it plans to do in the coming decade or so. There is a lot of money going into education, there is a lot of people profiting on education. The government is spending a lot of money on skills development, lots of money going into schools, but the quality of education in India is still nowhere near high enough. The real need for India is to get high quality education to get skilled and capable workers into good quality jobs. So far if you look around at the standard of the secondary school education, the standard of higher education, the standard of vocational education, it really isn’t there."
— Adam Roberts, author of an Economist special report on India.
"I think we have to be very thoughtful about how to make the most of these efforts, because, to be very frank, some of what passes for distance learning and computerized instructions is really bogus. It doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make a difference. Some of it is brilliant and effective. How do we begin separating the wheat from the chaff? How do we have standards that move us in the right direction and don’t leave open a broad field for the exploitation of students because we don’t have the right standards and expectations in place?"
— U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an address at the opening session of the US-India Higher Education Dialogue
A program pioneered by India’s poorest state, Bihar, is spreading across the country in an effort to keep female teens in school. When girls reach ninth grade, they can get a bike paid for by the state, reports the Associated Press.
This seemingly simple act is making a big difference. After the first four years of the program, which began in 2007, the number of girls enrolled in ninth grade tripled from 175,000 to 600,000.
"We found that the high school dropout rate soared when girls reached the ninth grade. This was primarily because there are fewer high schools and girls had to travel longer distances to get to school," Anjani Kumar Singh, Bihar’s principal secretary overseeing education, told the AP. "The results are remarkable. The school dropout rate for girls has plunged”
Across India, unaccredited universities are springing up and giving out essentially meaningless degrees to the hoards of students that enroll in them, reports the Washington Post. The country’s higher education system is faced with the need to educate millions of young people, creating the perfect climate for private universities to open their doors. But experts warn the poor quality education this universities deliver will have lasting effects.
“India’s university system is in a deep crisis,” Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Post. “There are so many regulatory barriers to setting up a college or university that it deters honest groups but encourages those who are willing to pay bribes. Millions of young Indians will have high expectations, paper credentials, but will be poorly educated. We can be absolutely sure that it is not going to be pretty.”
Kapur estimated that in order for India to meet its goal of a 21 percent college enrollment rate in five years (up from 13 percent today), the country will have to open a new college every working day for the next four years. Yet already the higher education sector faces regulatory issues. Out of more than 31,000 colleges and universities, just 4,532 are accredited.
Anam Naqvi spent two years studying to be a teacher before learning that her degree was worthless. “Where do we go now? People laugh at us and say, ‘Oh, you are the ones with the useless degrees?’ ” Naqvi, 22, told the Post. “The university has played with our dreams. Now we are not even capable of dreaming.”
India has a tough task ahead of it. In order to keep up its economic growth, the country will need to educate 100 million young people by 2020, reports the Christian Science Monitor. This translates into a need to build 1,000 more universities and 50,000 colleges in the next ten years, according to the government.
"India is not just trying to build thousands of American-style campuses with neat quads," says the Moniter. “Many of its new schools will be virtual, for-profit, and integrated closely with workplaces. It may, in fact, end up pushing the concept of online education further than any other country. As a result, what India comes up with will not only affect its economic competitiveness in the 21st century. It may become a petri dish for how to build an educational system in the Information Age.”
The Indian government is being strategic about its building. For instance, they’re planning 374 “model” colleges in remote areas to serve as examples. The Hechinger Report recently took a look at India’s building boom in Bohar, its poorest state and a future college hub. There, the government has opened the Central University of Bihar - “one of 15 new government-sponsored universities that aims to compete with the global elite.”
But there are many issues still to tackle, including finding qualified faculty to teach at these new universities. “According to a government report published last year, a massive expansion in higher education combined with a poor supply of Ph.D.’s, delays in recruitment and the lack of incentives to attract and nurture talent has led to a situation in which 40 percent of existing faculty positions remain vacant,” according to The New York Times. “The report’s authors, mostly academics, found that if the shortfall is calculated using the class size recommended by the government, this figure jumps to 54 percent.
More high-achieving India students, locked out of their country’s top-tier universities, are finding refuge at American Ivies, according to an article in the New York Times today. Even the most prestigious U.S. schools have lower standards than their Indian counterparts, so students turned away from Delhi University are settling for places like Dartmouth and Brown as second or third choices:
"With about half of India’s 1.2 billion people under the age of 25, and with the ranks of the middle class swelling, the country’s handful of highly selective universities are overwhelmed. This summer, Delhi University issued cutoff scores at its top colleges that reached a near-impossible 100 percent in some cases. The Indian Institutes of Technology, which are spread across the country, have an acceptance rate of less than 2 percent — and that is only from a pool of roughly 500,000 who qualify to take the entrance exam, a feat that requires two years of specialized coaching after school.”
Sending children abroad can put a strain on middle class families, who, the Times notes, can have salaries below the poverty level in the United States. At the same time, American universities have been clamoring to set up campuses in India to reach more of this market, something that the Indian government is considering. At a Washington, D.C. summit this week, the Indian and U.S. governments talked about ways of partnering together. For India, there may be more urgency: the United States, starved of students who want to go into STEM fields, is potentially gaining crowds of future engineers, while India’s brain drain accelerates.
India and the United States are putting aside any rivalry in the worldwide race to have the most college graduates to talk about higher education partnerships at a conference today and tomorrow in Washington, D.C. We wrote about the summit over the summer when it was announced. Now, the U.S. Department of State has posted an agenda for the meeting. Among the things leaders and educators from the two countries will be talking about: student and faculty exchanges, research partnerships, quality assurance—a major problem in India, and the responsibility of higher education in developing the workforce—something institutions in both countries are grappling with.
Indian company Datawind announced a $35 dollar tablet computer yesterday aimed at connecting the rural poor to modern technology. While not as powerful as other tablets on the market, the Aakash, meaning sky in Hindi, is far less expenive than the Apple’s iPad ($499), Amazon’s Kindle Fire ($199), and HP’s TouchPad ($99), according to The Christian Science Monitor. It can do word processing, web browsing, and has video conferencing.
The hope is that this technological advance will help India with its goal of having 30 percent of youth go to college by 2020. Currently, only 7 percent of kids graduate from high school, according to an article from the AP. Datawind can produce 100,000 Aakashs a month, not nearly enough to supply India’s 220 million children access to the technology in a timely fashion, according to The Washington Post (at this rate it would take almost 200 years to meet demand).
A question still remains how useful this device would be to rural communities with no access to electricity, let alone WiFi capability. Nonetheless, it seems a step forward for a country with a huge digital divide.