Unaccredited and often entirely fake colleges have sprung up all over India as demand for higher education accelerates. In the booming New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, there are dozens of one-room shops offering degrees in engineering, management, pharmacy, nursing and computers. (Rama Lakshmi/WASHINGTON POST)

After studying for two years to be a teacher, Anam Naqvi found out that the degree her school offers is worthless. Now, instead of attending classes and finishing a mandatory internship, she and her classmates protest every day outside the gate to their university in the northern city of Aligarh.

It is a story being replayed across many Indian cities. Poorly regulated, unaccredited and often entirely fake colleges have sprung up as demand for higher education accelerates, driven by rising aspirations and a bulging youth population.

“New colleges are mushrooming everywhere, but many are flouting norms,” said Nilofer Kazmi, director of the government’s regulatory commission for higher education. “Many are conducting courses that have no approval or accreditation from the government regulators.”

More than 5 million Indians enter the 15-to-24 age group every year, adding a demographic thrust to the demand for more colleges and universities. Properly educated and employed, these young people could bring the country a demographic dividend, the sort of surge in growth that buoyed many of the Asian “tiger” economies from the 1960s to the 1990s. But if India does not create high-quality colleges for its youths, it risks reaping a demographic disaster.

The higher education commission recently released a list of 21 “fake universities,” many of them no more than a mailing address or signboard hanging over a shop, temple or hole-in-the-wall office space. A government regulator that focuses on technical schools named 340 private institutions across India that run courses without its accreditation. Of more than 31,000 higher education institutions, only 4,532 universities and colleges are accredited.

“India’s university system is in a deep crisis,” said Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, who has written extensively on the subject. “There are so many regulatory barriers to setting up a college or university that it deters honest groups but encourages those who are willing to pay bribes. Millions of young Indians will have high expectations, paper credentials, but will be poorly educated. We can be absolutely sure that it is not going to be pretty.”

A need for more schools

India aims to raise its college enrollment rate to 21 percent in five years, up from 13 percent now. In contrast, the enrollment rate is 23 percent in China and 34 percent in Brazil. Kapur said that to reach its target, India would have to open one new college every working day for the next four years.

With much of the government’s money directed toward combating rural illiteracy by boosting primary school education, the private sector has filled the gap for colleges. Even so, many of India’s colleges and universities — both private and public — face acute shortages of faculty, ill-equipped libraries, outdated curricula and poor infrastructure, according to a report last year by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Ernst & Young.

The government is working on at least nine higher education bills to reform the sector, including one that would enable international universities to set up campuses here. But two Indian rules — that universities operate as not-for-profit entities and that foreign universities must start with seed money of more than $11 million — might prove prohibitive. So far, only a few universities, including Virginia Tech and the University of California at Davis, plan to set up research centers in India.

Meanwhile in Aligarh, Naqvi and other students are consulting a lawyer to take Mangalayatan University, a private school, to court.

“Where do we go now? People laugh at us and say, ‘Oh, you are the ones with the useless degrees?’ ” said Naqvi, 22. “The university has played with our dreams. Now we are not even capable of dreaming.”

The university’s vice chancellor, S.C. Jain, said a delay in getting government approval for the teaching course was causing “anxiety among students.” But Vikram Sahay, a senior official in the education department in New Delhi, said that the university should not have begun classes without the approval and that the degrees are not valid.

Guaranteed ‘success’

The problems are not exclusive to private colleges.

In 2010, a government probe revealed that the state-run Rayalaseema University in southern India had awarded 2,660 doctorate degrees in just two years for subjects not taught there.

In the booming New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, call centers and glitzy malls sit side by side with dozens of one-room shops offering degrees in engineering, management, pharmacy, nursing and computers through online courses with state and private universities. Workers roam the alleyways handing out pamphlets that promise quick and easy degrees. “Study centers” are often tiny, dimly lit offices. Executives frequently tell applicants there is no need to study.

“We guarantee 100 percent success,” Ram Babu, an executive of @IBM education center told an elderly man who had stopped by to ask about a business management degree for his niece. Babu showed the man brochures from private and government-run universities. “No matter what, we will place a business management degree in your hand from a reputed university that we are affiliated to.”

“You can go abroad, apply for jobs with these degrees. The certificate will not even say the words ‘distance education,’ ” Babu said.

Last month, activists in six states launched a campaign calling for a greater government role in monitoring higher education.

“The government must not abdicate its responsibility in creating knowledge. It must not turn it all over to profiteering businessmen,” said Anil Sadgopal, a leading education activist. “So many parents are selling their farmland and spending their life’s earnings to send their children to colleges that are nothing more than private shops.”