Nasscom, the Indian software industry lobby group, has predicted that unless significant changes are made to India’s educational infrastructure, the country will not be able to adequately fill the estimated 2.3 million jobs that will have been generated by the start of the millennium’s second decade.
This deficit underscores a larger concern shared by Indian executives, academics and consultants about the need to improve India’s education system in order to attract more Ph.D.-level teachers to academia in a time of unparalleled economic boom.
Schools pop up daily to train workers to speak English like an American or transcribe a British doctor’s notes. But in the rush to meet that demand, the quality of teaching has decreased, says Anita Belani, the country head of Watson Wyatt India.
"Now there are MBAs coming out of the woodwork," she says. "Every school is offering an MBA. But what skills have you really acquired? I think that is something everybody wants to talk about: the quality of our education. We have lots of engineers and MBAs, but are they really ready to take on the issues?"
India’s biggest educational challenge is its paucity of Ph.D.-level college instructors, experts say. The abundance of high-paying jobs has diminished the allure of a career in higher education. With few Ph.D.s left to teach, India had to reduce new technical college admissions in order to maintain the prescribed student-teacher ratio of around 15-to-1, according to the All India Council of Technical Education, the federal regulator that controls India’s technical education.
"What has happened in Indian education is that everybody is busy plucking the fruit off the trees and no one is planting the trees," says Shyam Sunder, a professor of economics and finance at the Yale School of Management. "In a country of 1.1 billion, it’s not very hard to get 100,000 smart kids a year. But whether you can get 2 million a year without good education, that is my question; that is my concern."
Sunder worries that at a time when Indian companies are becoming increasingly competitive globally, not enough is being done by corporations to invest in the academic institutions, foundations and think tanks that produce innovative ideas, products and people.
"The most executives can see is ‘We can pick up the smart kids and give them two months of training so they can do a job in a cubicle,’ " he says. "But unless they recognize the need to invest in the educational system, that is not going to last."
He adds: "Who will develop new computer languages? New systems? New tools?"
The answer in the immediate short-term is not Indians, at least not in India, says Ashok Triverdi, chairman of technology outsourcing company, iGate Corp., based in Pittsburgh.
"Moving up the value chain will speed up the process of innovation," Triverdi says. "But in terms of new innovation, I don’t see any other place as the source of that other than the United States."
American universities are helping to create the kinds of institutions in India that have already led to innovation in the United States. In 2001, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, along with the London School of Business, formed an academic alliance with other institutions to launch the Indian School of Business.
The school’s new graduates seem to be in demand. The 416 members of the class of 2007, who averaged five years of working experience, had 581 job offers by graduation, according to the school’s Web site. Other American universities are hoping to meet some of the demand by getting approval to open campuses on Indian soil.
In the meantime, the job of training the current Indian workforce falls squarely on the shoulders of India’s human resource professionals.
To meet these challenges, Nasscom has developed a standardized skills assessment and certification program to improve the quality of entry-level workers and to reduce the cost of training them. The group has also proposed "finishing schools" for college graduates who study engineering. Undertaken with the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development, the schools will reinforce basic engineering skills and focus on developing "soft skills," such as communication and management.
But Sunder says the investments in education made by the Indian government and Indian corporations do not go far enough. He worries that the advances India has won as a leading source of offshoring business will be lost if the country cannot meet the demand for high-skilled workers.
"The reason the U.S. has the lead in technology is not only because of what the U.S. government does, but because of corporate support of higher education," Sunder says. "That support in India will have to be built up."