India will do well to learn the US vocational education model

India will do well to learn the US vocational education model

New Delhi: India is a developing country with a developed talent— that’s what Jack Welch, then chief executive of General Electric Co. (GE), said a decade ago. That sentiment is behind education emerging as one of the key areas of collaboration between the US and India.

Sample this: Human resource development minister Kapil Sibal has travelled to the US twice in the last six months along with top bureaucrats and academics. Several US officials, including secretary of state Hillary Clinton and under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs Judith McHale, have reiterated the need for better educational tie-ups. In October alone, three top universities—those of Yale, Illinois and Cincinnati—have toured India to further academic collaboration.

Yale, a favourite among Indian institutes, signed an agreement on 28 October with the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Kozhikode, and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, for an academic leadership programme under the “Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative".

Richard Levin, president of the three-century-old university, also met Indian CEOs in Mumbai to boost Yale’s India-centric academic programmes back home. Illinois interim chancellor Robert A. Easter met Sibal and has shown interest in partnering with an innovation university on bio-science and biotechnology and agriculture. India proposes to open 14 innovation universities, which are research-oriented campuses that will enjoy a high degree of autonomy.

These developments strengthen the idea that Indian higher education is getting globalized. According to Sam Pitroda, adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on innovation and infrastructure, Indian education is passing through a phase similar to that of the Indian economy in 1990s: It’s time to “deregulate education" and push ahead with the reform agenda, he says.

The Indian economy, expanding at around 8% a year, needs a large, trained workforce to sustain the growth momentum. It will need to step up research and development (R&D) and innovation, which generally emerge from educational institutions, an area where India needs to catch up with the rest of the world. According to official statistics, India has 157 researchers per million people compared with 633 in China and 4,526 in the US.

Collaboration with the US should bring about a research orientation in Indian universities and other top institutions.

“Asia is rising in the 21st century both as an economic powerhouse and an intellectual hub. Higher education in India is on a reform path and it’s essential for India to maintain its economic growth," Yale president Levin said, adding that his university wants strong ties with the country. “The top Indian institutes have to become research-oriented while keeping their teaching excellence intact."

Debashis Chatterjee, director of IIM-Kozhikode, said that education follows disparate themes in India and the US— value for many and value for money, respectively.

“These two models have existed for long separately," he said. “But what we require is co-existence. While India has talent, the US has money to invest on them for a greater good."

He says the US can get more bang for its buck in terms of investment in research and innovation. “The Indo-US relation is a win-win proposition in higher education," he says.

The US has a good record on vocational education, which is something India can benefit from as the country faces a major dearth of skilled manpower. According to the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom) and human resources firm Ma Foi Randstad, less than 20% of the workforce that enters the labour market every year in India is skilled.

India’s target of training 500 million people by 2022 can get a boost if institutes in the country collaborate with those in the US. Vocational education should be integrated with higher education to do away with the mindset that skill training is all about making your hands dirty. For starters, Virginia Tech had announced on 20 September it will open three centres of excellence in Tamil Nadu, which are likely to be operational in two years.

“India has a huge young population and the economy is growing fast. This (India) is the right place to invest in now," said Narayanan Ramaswamy, executive director (education) at consulting firm KPMG. “They want (to be in) India as the country will be the hub of human capital for the world. You will see more partnership."

Last month, Cincinnati announced $1 million toward scholarships for Indian students gaining admission in the September 2011 session. Further, Ratan Tata and Anand Mahindra have donated a total $60 million ($50 million and $10 million, respectively) to Harvard University. The move came after their companies have taken significant steps in expanding their global footprint. “Reliance, Tata and Infosys are global brands now. You cannot ignore them," Levin said.

This also comes at a time when India has moved draft legislation in Parliament to allow foreign institutions to set up campuses in the country and provide independent degrees. Sibal, who has initiated a number of education reforms in the last 16 months, sees this benefiting Indian students.

Apart from students getting a quality education, the Bill will create a sense of competition among foreign and Indian institutions on quality, research and student satisfaction. At any given point of time, over 100,000 Indians are studying in the US. Last year, a little over 32,000 Indians got student visas to the US, and it is expected that the government will discussing raising this number during Obama’s visit.