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Colleges in India
Ravi Sarma, an assistant professor of property law, points out new buildings going up at Chanakya National Law University, one of several new higher education institutions in Bihar, India’s poorest state. (Photo by Sarah Garland)

PATNA, India – On the outskirts of this sprawling city in one of India’s poorest states, the whitewashed columns and domes of Chanakya National Law University rise next to a deep and murky swamp. To get there, visitors bump along potholed streets lined with idle men sipping tea and cows rooting through piles of garbage.

Despite its inauspicious location, the 4-year-old university has high aspirations.

“We’re in a position to be a leading national law school,” said Ravi Sarma, an assistant professor of property law, who moved to Bihar from a nearby state to teach at Chanakya.

The university, which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, is part of an ambitious plan to expand higher education to India’s most destitute corners, where the country’s vast population of young people is concentrated.

Of 1.2 billion Indians, one third is under the age of 14. In Bihar, 1.7 million children under the age of six were added to the population over the past decade, a 10 percent increase. (In contrast, less than a quarter of the U.S. population is under the age of 18, according to the 2010 census.) Realizing that the country’s youth bulge could be an asset in its efforts to become a world power, or a disaster that drains its resources and fuels social unrest, the Indian government has responded with an ambitious university building spree.

The effort could help India in its economic competition with China and the United States. While the United States may have enough post-secondary institutions, the Obama administration has warned that the country’s higher education system is falling behind. Poor graduation rates plague the lower-tier schools that educate the vast majority of students, even as budget cuts and rising tuition are making it more difficult for American students to enter college and graduate.

Lessons From Abroad

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Dozens of new public universities are opening in India’s cities and towns, and officials say 374 new “model” colleges, meant as demonstration projects, will be constructed in more remote areas. The plan is to increase the enrollment rate for 18- to 23-year-olds in postsecondary education from an estimated 18 percent now to 30 percent by 2017, said Ved Prakash, chairman of India’s University Grants Commission. The enrollment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States is 41 percent.

“It has never happened in the history of India, this massive expansion of higher education,” Prakash said.

In 2009, the Indian government estimated that 13.6 million students were enrolled in post-secondary schools, compared to 19.5 million in the U.S. If India reaches its goals, 40 million students will be enrolled in higher education by 2020, surging past the 22 million American students expected to be enrolled by then.

The construction boom is transforming Patna, a city of nearly 5.8 million people long written off as a poverty-stricken backwater, into a college town, and the state of Bihar, which borders Nepal, into a hub of higher education. Bihar’s population is slightly less than Mexico’s, and more than that of the Philippines.

The government is doubling the number of its renowned and selective Indian Institutes of Technology to 16. IIT Patna opened in 2008 and is waiting to expand into a 500-acre campus in a nearby village.

A National Institute of Fashion Technology opened downtown in the same year, and in 2006, a state technical college opened an expansive new campus near the city’s airport.

Colleges in India
A laborer loads bricks for a new building at Chanakya National Law University in Patna, the capital city of Bihar, India’s poorest state. It’s unclear whether Bihar’s poorest residents will benefit from the university building boom. (Photo by Sarah Garland)

The Central University of Bihar, one of 15 new government-sponsored universities that aims to compete with the global elite, opened in 2009 and has been allocated 1,000 acres on the edge of the city. Administrators plan to grow enrollment over the next decade from 200 students now to as many as 40,000.

Sixty miles south of Patna, down a two-lane highway clogged with rickshaws, motorcycles and idling trucks, plans are under way to open Nalanda International University. The campus will be located near the ruins of a Buddhist university that, in the fifth century A.D., drew students from around the world. The hope is that the new school will do the same.

For some poor students in Bihar, the universities are turning farfetched dreams of higher education into reality.

Abhishek Ujjwal, 18, grew up in a small village in Bihar where most people worked on farms and the roads out of town were unpaved. His father has a small business selling the milk of local cows and his mother is a housewife. Neither went to college. But in middle school, Ujjwal decided he would aim for admission to an IIT.

“It’s a very global brand,” he said. “You can go anywhere.”

A tutoring program for the poor called Super 30 helped him prepare for the entrance exam. This summer, he qualified for IIT Bombay, a branch opened in 1961 with a stronger reputation than the one in Patna.

Ujjwal enrolled in IIT Patna instead, because he wanted to be near his family as he embarked on the intensive coursework. “They gave me moral support,” he said.

The founder of Super 30, Anand Kumar, said that for many in Bihar, the universities remain out of reach. One-room schoolhouses lacking basic amenities like toilets are often the only options for children in slums and villages, even though the government is investing in elementary and secondary education. Many drop out as early as age 10.

“With more and more institutions coming up, they will certainly increase access,” Kumar said. “For the poor students, however, it is tough as always to make the most of these opportunities.”

Besides increasing access for poor students, the new universities have another aim: keeping Indian students at home. More than 100,000 Indians now choose to study abroad, including more than 80,000 in the United States.

Ravi Prakash, 22, a middle-class Patna native, might have chosen to study in Delhi or abroad. Instead, he opted for the Chanakya law school.

“Law is a means to bring social change, and I’m interested in developing my state,” he said.

His classmate, Sanchay Srivastava, feels differently. If he had been accepted at a more established school outside of Bihar, he would have left. “New Delhi is the place where the person can progress and have opportunities. In Patna, the opportunities are less,” he said, reflecting an opinion expressed by many students in Bihar.

Colleges in India
The new campus of Chanakya National Law University is inspired by the Taj Mahal but located next to a swamp in one of India’s poorest areas. (Photo by Sarah Garland)

The Indian government hopes the new universities will fuel job development in poor regions and that gradually these perceptions will change.

Even if Bihar becomes known as a center of higher learning, officials acknowledge that the rapid expansion of public institutions will not come close to meeting growing demand for post-secondary schooling in India.

Privately run colleges and universities offering distance education are filling the gap, and often their offerings are of lower quality, said Devesh Kapur, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Corruption and nepotism are also rife in the post-secondary system.

“Hardly anything done is for the median institution that the average guy goes to,” Kapur said.

India also faces a faculty shortage as educated Indians opt for better-paying jobs in the private sector or teaching opportunities abroad, and it’s unclear where the country will find professors to fill its new schools.

Pawan Agarwal, an adviser to the federal government’s planning commission on higher education, said that in 2012 the Indian government will start to shift its attention “from rapid expansion to quality expansion,” although he acknowledges that solutions will be elusive.

India’s new institutions are fulfilling one mission already, however: raising the expectations of a new generation of Indians.

“All the Biharis, now they are dreaming that I will go for this institution,” said Ujjwal, the IIT student. “We are imagining what we could be.”

A version of this story appeared in The Washington Post on January 2, 2012.

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