Even as India struggles to educate its burgeoning population, it faces a second pressing challenge: better preparing its college graduates for a competitive global work force.
It's not enough to simply focus on expanding educational access in the world's second-most-populous nation, said speakers at an international-education conference here, organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. India, as a rising economic and political power, must also improve the quality of its higher-education system.
Close to a million students graduate from Indian institutions with engineering degrees each year, said Shiv Nadar, a technology entrepreneur. "How many of them are industry-ready?" asked Mr. Nadar, who is also the founder of a private university that bears his name. "None. Absolutely none."
Companies must spend months preparing new employees for their jobs, said Ajay Kela, president and chief executive of the Wadhwani Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has supported the expansion of vocational education. That's a "lose lose" situation, for both students and corporations, he said. Students spend time earning a degree only to find it hasn't properly prepared them, while "companies aren't getting the right talent."
Mr. Kela advocated the expansion of vocational education to better equip students with the precise training they need. Just 4.8 percent of Indian students are enrolled in vocational education, while nearly half of American students attend community colleges.
But today's students do not simply lack job-specific skills, said another speaker, Manish Sabharwal, chairman of TeamLease, a company that provides temporary staffing and human-resource services. Graduates do not have the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to succeed in today's global marketplace.
"Plumbing is different than poetry," Mr. Sabharwal said to the audience of 650, which included Indian and international educators, government officials, and business leaders. Companies can teach skills, he said, but they can't teach creativity.
"We're not asking you to train plumbers," Mr. Sabharwal said. "We're asking you for curious, confident risk-takers."
But India faces enormous headwinds in making change, other speakers acknowledged. Half of India's 1.2 billion people are under the age of 25, and while the country's middle class is growing, much of the population remains in poverty. India spends just 1.2 percent of its GDP on higher education, compared with 3.1 percent in the United States and 2.4 percent in South Korea.
What's more, India is home to roughly 33,000 colleges and universities, more than half of the world's postsecondary institutions, noted Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center of International Higher Education at Boston College and author of a recent book on Indian higher education. It's "impossible" to monitor so many institutions and ensure quality, Mr. Altbach said.
And there are structural issues that hamper progress, said Pawan Agarwal, a senior Indian government official. For example, teaching and research may often be carried out by separate institutions here. By contrast, in the United States faculty members are expected to do both, allowing research to inform their teaching and giving students opportunities to work in laboratories.
Two of the biggest impediments to change, Mr. Agarwal said, are "legacy and culture."
The Missing Minister
The annual education conference brought together public and private education, Indian and international delegates, and academe, industry, and government. While the pursuit of quality was a theme running through the conference, sessions touched on issues including international partnerships and collaborative research, distance and online education, and whether India could one day become a global education hub.
One face notably missing from the two-day meeting was that of Kapil Sibal, who was, until a week ago, India's minister in charge of higher education. Amid a widespread cabinet shakeup, Mr. Sibal lost his post as minister for human-resource development, although he remains in the cabinet, continuing his work overseeing telecommunications issues.
Many observers here believe scandal within the telecommunications sector had distracted Mr. Sibal, who took over in 2009 with an ambitious reform agenda, from his education efforts. Measures he championed to revamp higher-education regulation and to open India to foreign university campuses have stalled in Parliament.
Nonetheless, over the past three years, Mr. Sibal has been a high-profile ambassador for Indian education abroad, traveling to the United States and elsewhere to promote increased academic collaboration. The Harvard-educated Mr. Sibal has tried to woo the Ivy League institutions to India, while at the same time enlisting international expertise to build up the country's nascent vocational-education sector. A series of high-level talks between Mr. Sibal and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton helped lead to a $10-million bilateral commitment to expand joint academic work.
Mr. Sibal may be gone, but his successors are giving every indication they will stay the course on his higher-education policies. In remarks opening the meeting Monday, the new junior minister for human-resource development, Shashi Tharoor, pledged action on the foreign-university bill and some 20 other pieces of higher-education legislation currently held up in Parliament, leading one conferencegoer to joke that Mr. Tharoor, a former United Nations under secretary general and Tufts University graduate, was "reading Kapil Sibal's speech."
Mr. Tharoor pledged to get the higher-education "reform agenda back on track," adding that, "for India to sustain its growth momentum and strengthen its competitiveness, a world-class higher-education system is an important prerequisite."
He tried to make the case for urgent action, echoing other speakers in sounding an alarm about the academic quality of graduates of Indian institutions. Many employers, he said, consider current graduates "not ready for prime time." And while the country's elite Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management produce top-notch students, they are "islands in a sea of mediocrity."
India, Mr. Tharoor suggested, is undermining its competitiveness by remaining closed to foreign campuses. "Our national education policy in the past has remained out of step with the time. Whereas countries in the Middle East and China are going out of their way to woo foreign universities to set up campuses in their countries, India turned away many academic suitors who have come calling in recent years," he said.
Whether Mr. Tharoor and M.M. Pallam Raju, the new minister overseeing higher education, can succeed on the foreign-university bill and other measures where Mr. Sibal could not is an open question, given the political gridlock besetting India's Parliament.
"Everyone is saying they want change," said one attendee, Vasu K. Saksena, president of Manipal Global Education Services, a private education provider. "But change is very difficult to do."