Home >education >news >Colleges that groomed Google’s Sundar Pichai mask Indian skills woes

Mumbai: After a failed attempt at making it to the elite Indian Institute of Technology, (IIT) Mudassir Hussain is giving it another go at the college seen as a ticket to a lucrative job in the US.

The 17-year-old is one of the 1.4 million aspirants who take a shot every year at these state colleges considered the Holy Grail of Indian higher education. Less than 1% of them succeed. A majority of the rest and 16.9 million more settle for lesser known schools, with many facing bleak prospects after graduation or even unemployment.

The fame of the top institutes that have groomed Google Inc.’s Sundar Pichai and Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan only masks the weakness of India’s education system, which dishes out diplomas that don’t match industry needs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won a decisive mandate in May with his pledge to create jobs, is seeking to fix that as the lowest labour productivity among Asia’s biggest economies threatens to derail his development agenda.

Modi’s government aims to create 500 million skilled workers, more than the population of US and Mexico combined, by 2022, according to the labour ministry. He plans to spend 1 trillion ($16.4 billion) over the next five years to fund the initiatives.

“There’s excess supply of graduates and that is a huge issue," said Himanshu Kapania, managing director of Idea Cellular Ltd, a mobile carrier controlled by billionaire Kumar Mangalam Birla. “We have engineers to maintain and guard fiber optic cables, a job meant for ordinary technicians."

‘Huge issue’

In a nation of 1.2 billion, where the World Bank says more than 800 million live on less than $2 a day, only the privileged with the right connections or the affluent can afford quality education. For the rest, it is government-or municipality-funded primary, elementary and secondary schools with poor infrastructure.

About 49% of Indian children drop out of school before finishing 10th grade, according to data from United Nations Children’s Fund, versus 7% before the 12th grade in the US, according to US government data.

Only about a quarter of the adult workforce is qualified enough to be hired at all even as the almost $1.9 trillion economy needs 700 million skilled workers over eight years, according to a report prepared by PeopleStrong, a human resources consultant based in Gurgaon near New Delhi, in association with the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Unskilled, jobless

About half of the 1.5 million engineers Indian colleges produce every year are unemployable, the report said, citing a sample survey. The starting income of a fresh desktop engineer is barely about 20% more than an unskilled electrician’s, and the gap may not diverge much even after eight years, according to TeamLease Services Pvt., a Bangalore-based staffing consultant.

In an Independence Day address to the nation on 15 August, Modi said India must develop its manufacturing sector and impart skills to provide meaningful employment to millions joining the workforce.

“Education and degrees without skills mean nothing," he said on 5 September, addressing school children. “We have so many educated youth, but they are unskilled, and hence, jobless."

Modi is overhauling the nation’s various skills development agencies, bringing them under one umbrella organization and making it easier for factories to hire and fix pay for interns. He is also drumming up investor interest overseas to help create manufacturing jobs at home. Chip makers such as Israel’s Tower Semiconductor Ltd are looking to set up factories in India.

Welders, masons

Finance minister Arun Jaitley, in his budget speech on 10 July, outlined the Skill India Mission that would focus on jobs like welders, operators, plumbers, masons, cobblers and artisans. Modi’s plans include training 10 million rural students for jobs in information technology, and providing electronic textbooks for students, according to a statement from the Indian government.

India is projected to have the world’s youngest population by 2020, with 64% of the people in the working-age group, spurring optimism among policy makers that the country will reap a “demographic dividend."

While that is good news, labour productivity data tell a different story. India’s labour productivity was 9.3% of that of the US, versus 63.8% for South Korea and Singapore’s 100%, according to a 2013 report by Asian Productivity Organization.

‘Exclusive society’

“The demographic dividend is actually a disaster," said Rajiv Kumar, an economist and a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. “Driven by elitist concerns, our government is creating an exclusive society in which the poor don’t have access to quality education."

While the IITs and other top schools have benefited a segment of the population, the majority have been left behind, Kumar said. That system needs to be changed, with more emphasis on primary and secondary education and skill development to help boost per capita income, Kumar said.

While it costs about $43,500 in tuition a year at Harvard College—and about $62,250 when fees, room, board and living expenses are included—the annual charge at the IIT in Mumbai is fixed at about $1,500 by the Indian government. Many graduates from IITs and the other top schools go overseas for post-graduate education and eventually land jobs abroad, causing “brain drain."

Work permits

About 64% of the work permits approved by US in 2012 were for Indians, the biggest group, according to the Department of Homeland Security. For student visas, Indians were the largest group after Chinese, US government data show.

The first of the current 17 IITs was set up in 1950, which the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called a “fine monument of India."

Arun Sarin, the former chief executive of Vodafone Group Plc, billionaire Vinod Khosla, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc., and Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of India’s Infosys Ltd, are among the graduates of the IITs. Pichai, who oversees Google’s Android operating system and Chrome search engine, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comments on education at IIT.

Less than three miles from the 550-acre IIT campus in Mumbai, which boasts swimming pools, private broadband networks, badminton, tennis and squash courts, stands a senior secondary school’s yellow, dilapidated six-story building. It’s located next to a landfill and opposite a slum.

Ranked 222nd

Further down that road, Tabassum Mushtaq Ansari, who teaches at an elementary school funded by the city administration, says the children have been waiting for an Internet connection for eight years.

India spent about 3.4% of its gross domestic product on education in the year ended 31 March, according to Kumar, less than South Africa’s 6.7% and South Korea’s 4.9%.

The lack of quality education in India hasn’t gone unnoticed globally. None of the top 200 universities in the world was Indian. The nation’s No. 1 was IIT, Mumbai, which was rated 222nd, according to QS World University Rankings for 2014.

In a study commissioned by HSBC Holdings Plc and conducted by Paris-based Ipsos in April 2014, 4,600 parents in 15 countries rated Indian universities behind those in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and France even though the cost was the least.

For Modi, this is both a challenge and an opportunity, said Narayanan Ramaswamy, a consultant at the Indian unit of KPMG LLP in New Delhi.

“If he manages to increase skilled manpower and jobs, that will be the biggest service to the nation," he said. “That will cement his position as the most popular leader and prime minister of this country." Bloomberg

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