It’s difficult to avoid a sense of déjà vu each time one witnesses a debate on higher education on television. Highly articulate vice-chancellors and NRI professors pontificate about access and excellence, about research and relevance. But the ground reality is so stark that the discussants and our actual students could be on different planets. This feeling peaked recently when, the morning after watching such a debate, I made a field trip just 120km outside Indore.

Sandalpur is a village in Khategaon taluk of Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh. Khategaon is a bustling town and has dozens of schools. More than 8,000 students complete Class XII in this region every year. But, college enrolment rates have been historically low. Only the best students, and that too boys, attend colleges in nearby educational hubs in Indore or Bhopal. Farmers and traders question the value of college education, and local social and cultural mores are a barrier against sending girls in their late teens far from home. The local colleges have been more like degree shops.

Pranjal Dubey belongs to a family that has traditionally provided the head priest for the Sant Singaji Temple at Sandalpur. In 1996, he was thrust into that role after his father’s death. But with the blessings of village elders, he continued his career as a software engineer in Bengaluru, returning every year for the annual temple festival. On each visit, he found growing frustration among the village youth as they struggled to find jobs. Parents often asked Dubey how their kids could become like him, and he stressed the importance of education and getting a degree.

On one such visit, a parent along with his son came to Dubey and told him, “Here is my son with his degree, now get him a job like yours." On closer examination, Dubey found the degree to have been bought from a local education “shop". Getting a job for such a student was out of the question. But this set Dubey thinking about the local students and the quality of education offered in the region.

The outcome of such a concern is the Sant Singaji Institute of Science and Management (SSISM). Located at Sandalpur, SSISM is a co-educational college with more than 1,000 students on its rolls. In a short span of six years, it has achieved stellar results—14 students (incidentally, all girls) have obtained university ranks, putting Sandalpur on the education map of Madhya Pradesh. Some of its graduates work in software hubs of Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune, in companies like Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp., Infosys Ltd and SAP. More than 100 of its graduates are now teachers.

SSISM has many innovations to its credit to sustain motivation and momentum. Singaji Software Solutions is a small IT unit that provides opportunities to do software development for foreign clients. Singaji Business Solutions encourages students to become entrepreneurs. The Singaji Premier League is a college-wide contest that pits four teams against each other in an array of activities, supported by internal marketing and publicity. An annual college trip to big cities provides exposure to the wider world.

How did all of this happen? Dubey returned to Sandalpur, at first on a sabbatical, to set up SSISM. He was encouraged by Professor D.V.R. Seshadri of Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore, with whom he had done an executive development course. Dubey now has a team of dedicated faculty who work closely with him. Considerable emphasis is put on building confidence and communication skills in the students. SSISM has just started working with Head Held High, a Bengaluru-based social enterprise that has developed a specialized methodology to help uneducated rural youth rapidly gain English communication skills.

But, according to Dubey and his team, the greatest barriers to the positive impact of SSISM are social. Dubey told us the story of an outstanding BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration) student who appeared to have all it takes to get into an IIM for her MBA. She started preparation for the Common Admission Test with support from SSISM when, all of a sudden, her family decided it was time to get her married. This is a frequent challenge for SSISM and an issue that its faculty feels helpless about even though it has been successful in persuading several families to let their daughters study further.

SSISM has to offer a seamless end-to-end service to ensure that girls study there. It has a fleet of more than 20 buses that pick and drop students across the region—some students travelling more than an hour-and-a-half in one direction. Dubey’s brother takes care of the logistics. His mother is in charge of the welfare of the girl students and assures their families that it’s safe to send them to college.

The college’s other challenge is financial. The fee-paying capability of the students is low. Being part of the rural economy, incomes are a function of the quality of the harvest—the last two years have not been good for agriculture in this region and the ability to pay is constrained. Attracting CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds is difficult as higher education is not on the radar of most companies, and the region has little by way of large industries. SSISM’s building remains incomplete as the college faces a funds crunch.

SSISM’s vision is to be the best rural education society in Madhya Pradesh by 2025, imparting holistic education to 15,000 students at a time. Whether that vision is achieved or not, it has already demonstrated the importance of idealism, commitment and innovation if India is to make a mark in higher education. The success of higher education in India depends more on such efforts on the ground than on learned discussions in television studios.

Read an unabridged version on foundingfuel.com.

Rishikesha T. Krishnan is director and professor of strategic management at the Indian Institute of Management Indore.

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