The campus of the largest university in the world, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), in southern Delhi, is surprisingly small and modest.
A cluster of nondescript, one-story administrative buildings line the drive leading to a brick library, where fans whip the stuffy air and a few students hunch over outdated computers. Further down the road, however, construction workers heave bricks at a building site, and across the Indian countryside, satellite campuses are cropping up.
IGNOU’s enrollment has doubled in recent years, to as many as 4 million students, about 10 times the size of America’s largest university, the University of Phoenix’s online campus. Like American community colleges, admission at an open university is not competitive, but the schools offer a range of programs, including doctoral degrees.
Lessons From Abroad
This story is part of The Hechinger Report’s ongoing series on what the U.S. can learn from higher education in other countries.
The model tends to be an old-fashioned concept in a digital world: Many students take courses through the mail, or by listening to radio or television broadcasts. But it may also be part of the answer to India’s modern higher-education crisis, which leaders worry could eventually put a crimp in the country’s rapid economic growth.
“Middle-class students are not getting enough opportunities in the universities or colleges,” said Perumalsamy Renga Ramanujam, IGNOU’s pro-vice chancellor, explaining the school’s rapid growth. “And it goes beyond that. The poor people living in rural areas and slum dwellers, all of them have direct access” to IGNOU courses.
Other open universities are also ballooning in size. The Nalanda Open University in Bihar, India’s poorest, least-educated state, went from an enrollment of about 1,500 to 40,000 in the last decade.
India’s economic growth may be staggering, but population growth has increasingly become a hazard to the country’s financial future as it tries to educate a new generation to sustain the progress. India’s population is projected to increase by about 25 percent, or 300 million people, by the year 2026.
A major push by the Indian government for universal K-12 education has made significant headway in districts where once there were no schools at all. Now, as millions of students graduating from high school—along with older villagers across the country—seek to take part in India’s economic progress, the government is struggling to send more of them to college and beyond.
As India worries about getting more students to college, the Obama administration has fretted about America’s low college graduation rates, and both nations are worried about improving the research and innovation produced by universities. India and America have vowed to work together on improving higher education in the two countries, most recently at a summit last summer attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But India’s efforts to boost its postsecondary system also represent a potential threat—in under 10 years, the number of college-goers in India is expected to increase to 40 million, double the number in the United States.
Although experts often question the quality of the country’s open universities, they may be one of India’s best hopes for reaching its goals. The schools educate more than 15 percent of India’s higher-education students, most of whom are poor and from rural areas.
Elsewhere in the world, the open-university model is also expanding, including in the United States. Some companies and nonprofit organizations, along with a handful of traditional universities, are also putting more college-level courses online, sometimes for free, in order to increase access. MIT, for example, announced last December that students could earn a certificate after taking free online courses through a new initiative dubbed MITx.
India’s open universities tend to offer practical training—in computers and agriculture—or preparation for the country’s civil-service examination, which can lead to a stable government job. But IGNOU has also expanded its offerings to advanced degrees in technology and engineering, along with liberal arts subjects like French and women’s studies.
Rajesh Kumar, 26, is from a small agricultural town in Bihar. He works part time doing data entry and in his free time he takes education courses through the Nalanda Open University, which is based in Patna, the capital of Bihar.
“I wanted to get a teaching qualification,” he said. “Here, it’s easier.” Unlike India’s competitive public universities, open universities accept all applicants, and they’re cheaper than private institutions. A year of tuition for a bachelor’s in education at Nalanda is 1,800 Rupees, or about $37. In an effort to boost the number of female graduates, women only have to pay $27 a year.
On a humid summer day, Kumar stood among hundreds of other students at Nalanda’s cramped headquarters in the city’s sole high-rise building, waiting to complete an end-of-course exam. Taking an open-university course is generally a lonely endeavor, however. For computer and science classes, students must attend labs, and they can contact faculty at one of the university’s 32 study centers around the state if they are struggling. But for most courses, students study texts printed and mailed to them at home.
India’s open universities are increasingly piloting new methods and materials, however, such as online wikis, where students and teachers can share material, and digital libraries. IGNOU makes its content available free on the web so students can learn without paying fees, and faculty at other schools can borrow ideas or replicate entire courses. IGNOU is also experimenting with brick-and-mortar classes, so that students can benefit from interacting with professors and classmates.
Outpacing the United States in the number of students enrolled will mean nothing if they don’t finish or graduate underprepared, however. IGNOU doesn’t track dropouts, and experts worry about the quality and the outcomes of distance-education programs where students who lag behind may receive less support than at traditional schools.
“In some places they’re doing a wonderful job where the traditional schools cannot be set up,” said Pawan Agarwal, an advisor on India’s Higher Education Planning Commission. Nevertheless, “they’ve expanded very fast and there could be some concerns.”
Open-university administrators are aware of the doubts and reservations some might have. “Quality is one of the major focal points,” Ramanujam, of IGNOU, said. But, he added, the country’s open universities are “gradually getting more acceptance and more prestige.”
This story appeared on Time.com on February 19, 2012 as part of an exclusive partnership. Reproduction of this story is not allowed.