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It’s no secret that India’s education system is greatly lagging behind its rapid economic growth, booming population and ambitions as a global power.
But India’s richest man has a simple solution: change the law and let the private sector build the world-class universities the government has so far failed to fund and create.
India’s education gap has long been considered a major hindrance to the ascendance of Asia’s third largest economy to the world stage – its inability to provide a basic, let alone world-class, education to many of its citizens means it may not be able to capitalise on its much-vaunted demographic dividend.
As beyondbrics recently reported, Indian universities – because of a lack of funding, more stringent government regulations and an inability to accommodate student demand – are far behind their western couterparts.
Even with only 14 per cent of India’s roughly 97m people of higher education age enrolled in university, the country’s schools are overwhelmed.
Many top-ranked international institutions in the US and elsewhere have annual expenditures of over $3bn dollars. The Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, India’s highest-ranking university, has total research funding, on the other hand, of just $36.6m for 2010-2011.
And so India’s government and industry need to work together to meet the aspirations of the country’s young, and growing, population. The best way to do that is “building a world class university,” Mukesh Ambani, billionaire chairman of Reliance Industries told investors and policymakers at the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit on Sunday.
“Now in India, by law, private sector cannot build [such institutions],” he added. “We’ve talked about how important education is, and if you really want to build a not-for-profit education university, the framework doesn’t exist for that, the rules don’t exist for that, the legislation [doesn’t] exist”.
Ambani is already putting his money where his mouth is. He’s in talks with the London School of Economics to set up universities in India in conjunction with Reliance Foundation, his company’s philanthropic arm, which is run by his wife, Nita, according to the Economic Times.
He praised the efforts of Prithviraj Chavan, the chief minister of Maharashtra – the state in which lies India’s commercial centre, Mumbai, which hosted the summit – in fast-tracking the legislation that would allow Reliance and LSE to move forward with their plans.
Chavan, also seated on the panel, said the very vastness of the population such world-class universities might serve is actually what keeps the government from being able to pass legislation that will allow them to be built.
“The big challenge before the political system in India is managing the diversity in the country,” he said. “We have already got that legislation through [in Maharasthra] … the difficulty is now what kind of social justice parameters do we add into that.”
Chavan said that affirmative action programs – which reserve seats for students from historically oppressed tribes or castes – would need to be included, but that such social programs might come at the cost of high-quality investment in the field.
“International universities do not want any shackles by affirmative action programs, but how do I reconcile the two?” he said. “That is the diversity and the contradiction [of this system].”