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In India, Engineering Success

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By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, January 2, 2006

The classroom of the future will feature electronic white boards. The teachers of the future will write equations on these boards with electronic pens. And the students of the future won't have to choose between concentrating on the teacher and scribbling the equations into notebooks. They will devote all their energy to listening, then download the equations straight into the laptops they've plugged into their desks.

Okay, that isn't quite right. The classroom I'm describing is not some figment of the future. It's the reality I visited a month ago at the Vellore Institute of Technology.

The what? Vellore is a small town in southern India, poor enough for some of its buildings to have thatched roofs rather than the rain-proof metal sort. Until a few years ago Vellore was notable only for its large Christian medical center, erected with the help of foreign money. But now it has sprouted this 9,000-student technical college, complete with a sports stadium, an incubator for start-up high-tech businesses and a bio-separation lab. Everywhere you look, fresh buildings are under construction: over here a new laboratory complex, over there a gleaming student hostel with its own swimming pool.

The college started out in 1984 with just 180 students, and its extraordinary growth is a symbol of the modern India as much as forts and palaces symbolize the India of old. Its success is part of the explosion of technical schools all across this country, which in turn is part of India's technology-fueled economic miracle. In 2005 India produced 200,000 engineering graduates, about three times as many as the United States and twice as many as all of Europe. But the really astonishing statistic is this: In 2005 India enrolled fully 450,000 students in four-year engineering courses, meaning that its output of engineers will more than double by 2009.

As striking as these numbers is the way India is getting there. What's made this engineering takeoff possible is not an increase in the supply of universities financed by taxpayers or foreign donors; it's an increase in demand for education from fee-paying students -- a demand to which entrepreneurs naturally respond. More than four out of five Indian engineering students attend private colleges, whose potential growth seems limitless. In 2003 the Vellore Institute of Technology received 7,000 applications. In 2005 it received 44,000.

Something similar is happening to the Indian school system, which has experienced a huge growth in private provision. Since the early 1990s the percentage of 6-to-14-year-olds attending private school has jumped from less than a tenth to roughly a quarter of the total in that cohort, according to India's National Council of Applied Economic Research. And this number may be on the low side. James Tooley of the University of Newcastle in Britain has found that in some Indian slums about two-thirds of the children attend private schools, many of which are not officially recognized and so may escape the attention of nationwide surveys.

The causes of this private-school explosion shed interesting light on debates about development, not just in India but throughout the poor world. The standard assumption among anti-poverty campaigners is that education leads to development; if you supply classrooms and teachers, progress will follow. Up to a point, India's success in brain-intensive industries such as software and pharmaceuticals lends substance to this theory: India's government has long invested in a few elite engineering schools, whose graduates are at the heart of the country's high-tech success. But it's also true that this elite pool of engineering excellence counted for little so long as statism stifled India's economy. It was only after market reform began in the 1990s that high-tech India took off.

Meanwhile, the recent private-education boom in India shows how causality can also flow the other way. Education may or may not spark development, depending on whether economic conditions favor it, but development certainly can spark an educational takeoff. Since India embraced the market in the early 1990s, parents have acquired a reason to invest in education; they have seen the salaries in the go-go private sector, and they want their children to have a shot at earning them. Private elementary schools improve kids' prospects because they teach in English, the passport to India's modern sector. Colleges such as the Vellore Institute of Technology promise the qualifications needed to work in the auto industry or in software. Once parents understand that education buys their kids into the new India, they demand it so avidly that public money for schoolrooms becomes almost superfluous.

Of course, India's progress isn't simple. The best engineers get snapped up by industry, so it's hard to find decent teachers to staff Vellore and other engineering schools. As a result, many of the new colleges teach kids little of value, and some science graduates end up unemployed. But the story of Vellore points to an important lesson. Apparently unconnected development policies -- cuts in tariffs and oppressive business regulation, or projects to build roads and power grids -- can sometimes stimulate new educational enrollment at least as much as direct investments in colleges or schools.

mallabys@washpost.com


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