Walker's World: India's brain food

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  March 19, 2007 at 12:26 PM
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MUMBAI, March 19 (UPI) -- Last year more than 50,000 Indians who won admission in principle to U.S. universities were unable to obtain visas. So following the principle that if the mountain would not come to Mohammad, then Mohammad would have to go to the mountain, there is a sudden boom in U.S. universities looking to set up local campuses in India.

This now has White House backing. Karen Hughes, U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and a close aide to President George W. Bush since his Texas days, will lead a delegation of senior U.S. officials and university chiefs to New Delhi and Mumbai.

The problem is that Indians have taken a careful look at similar operations by U.S. universities in Europe and the Middle East, and have been less than impressed. They recount anecdotes of these places being fobbed off with second-rate American faculty members or visiting professors who see their trip as a subsidized vacation rather than a real teaching job.

"We are not second-class citizens of global education, and we will not settle for the leavings of Americans' faculty clubs," Professor Madhav Nalapat of Manipal University, one of India's new private colleges, told United Press International in Mumbai. "Indian education is sound and has been improving, but most have tended to turn out competent graduates rather than world-beaters. What we really need is to nurture excellence, which means that we want world-class centers. We need geniuses, and we cannot afford to settle for less."

And now that top-class Indian businessmen are getting involved in launching new universities, their standards are also high. Take, for example, the Akruti Group, one of the fastest-growing property-development groups in India, which has started the new private Akruti University outside Mumbai, hired the last director of India's university grants commission to run it, and is now in detailed negotiations with six U.S. universities to see which one will get the partnership deal to run the faculty.

"We have Indian companies going global, and they need top-level research to cope with the global competition," Vimal Shah, Akruti's chief executive officer, told UPI. "The existing universities are state-controlled, often with a conservative and complacent faculty, with strong labor unions. And the massive demand for university places means there is little competition or incentive to drive excellence. So with our background in property development and construction, we thought we would do it ourselves." Akruti's background in Mumbai over the past 15 years suggests a company that likes to think outside the box. Vimal Shah and his brother Hemant dreamed up a win-win system to tackle Mumbai's slum problem -- and with half of Mumbai's population of 14 million living in slums and shantytowns, the problem was acute. Their plan was to use the development potential of the slums to generate the finance needed to build permanent housing for the slum dwellers.

They have now provided almost-free housing for more than 50,000 people. They secured approval from the Mumbai city authorities to level a slum and provide temporary housing for the inhabitants while building permanent housing. The deal was simple. The cleared land was divided, usually into thirds; one-third for permanent accommodation for the slum dwellers, one-third for up-market residential housing to be sold or rented, and the remaining third for amenities like gardens, schools and shops.

To get started, the Shah brothers had to persuade at least 70 percent of the slum-dwellers to sign up for the deal. It took more than a year to sign up the first slum, but when word spread that this was a good deal, it became easier. The slum dwellers get ownership of a large room of 225 square feet, plus kitchen and bathroom -- with solid property rights.

"When we started to do this, our competitors in the property business said we'd soon become slum dwellers ourselves," Vimal recalled. "But it worked both financially and socially. Being property owners has transformed these families. Their homes are immaculate, and then they get customized with built-in furniture; balconies become extra rooms and the kids go to school, and within one generation after arriving from their villages as squatters, they're clambering into the middle class."

The Shah brothers believe they can turn the same double trick again, doing well by doing good, and are putting $1 billion into the construction of a 2,000-acre campus with 12 different schools and more than 20,000 students. They want to enroll the fist class within two years. While Indian students are paying up to $40,000 a year for a U.S. education at a U.S. campus and close to $30,000 a year at a British one, the Shahs aim to provide a similar-quality education for less than $15,000 a year, and maybe a bit more for a medical student.

"We aren't looking to make money, just so long as we don't lose any," says Hemant Shah, just back from a course at the Harvard Business School. "That is why we want the American partner to put some sweat equity into the project. They have to believe in this the way that we do: that it is vitally important for Indian universities to move up to the next level, to innovate, to conduct world-class research, to cross-fertilize between disciplines and to build a culture of creativity. That's why we want humanities courses, literature and the creative arts, alongside and with the scientists and engineers and business schools."

A new study by Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering found that China is racing ahead of both India and the United States in the production of Ph.D.s in science and engineering and thus in the capacity to perform basic research. Building research-and-development capabilities is the key to competitiveness, the study found, and China now graduates more M.A.s and Ph.D.s in engineering than the United States and India combined. India's engineering Ph.D. numbers have remained flat -- less than 1,000 per year -- while China graduated 9,427 in 2005 and the United States graduated 7,333.

"This country could disintegrate within 30 years if we don't upgrade our education system fast," says Vimal. "We need a whole new attitude toward education, a realization that the student is the customer, that research is the key, and that we want to build a world-class faculty. Right now, there is not one Indian university in any list of the world's top 50. It's our goal to make Akruti the first."

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