India Asks Why Its Students Must Study Abroad

You know India-Australia relations have reached a nadir when Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bacchan, who has ruled over India's film industry since the 1970s, turns down an honorary degree from an Australian university. "My conscience is profoundly unsettled at the moment," he wrote to Queensland University of Technology in a letter he posted to his blog on May 30.

The action superstar has good reason to be upset. For weeks, Indian and Australian media have focused on an alarming number of Indian students in Australia who have been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. On May 24, a 25-year-old student from India was stabbed in the head with a screwdriver during a mugging in Melbourne, leaving him comatose. On June 2, an Indian student was robbed by a gang of five men, who slashed his chest with a box cutter after demanding money and cigarettes. In Melbourne's western suburbs, one-third of all violent attacks target Indians. According to a report by Australian police authorities, the state of Victoria (of which Melbourne is the capital) reported 1,440 attacks against Indians in the 12 months ended June 2008, up from about 1,000 attacks in the previous 12 months. About 50,000 Indians live in Melbourne, a city of 4 million, according to government estimates,

In India and elsewhere, the reaction was immediate: On May 31, close to 1,000 Indians took to the streets in Melbourne and about 300 protesters ringed the Australian Embassy in New Delhi. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the day before the protests and condemned the attacks, but said they were criminal, not racist in nature. Indian newspapers and television channels leaped on the story, accusing Australians of racism and the Australian government of doing little to protect its guests. Typical of the reaction in the Indian media was a story in The Economic Times, India's largest business paper, with the headline, "Australia, Land of Racists."

Better Protection Needed

Fresh from their humiliating defeat in national elections, opposition parties have seized the opportunity to score some points by criticizing what they called the failure of Singh's government to do something concrete to stop these attacks. "The dreams of Indian middle-class parents who mortgage their lifetime savings and obtain education loans to send their children have fallen astray to racist manifestations," the Communist Party of India wrote to Prime Minister Singh.

Indians aren't the only ones concerned about the safety of young Asian students Down Under. Australia has about 415,000 foreign students, according to government estimates, of which Indians make up 90,000. That's second only to the 130,000 Chinese. Beijing has taken note of the uproar. A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Canberra told the Sydney Morning Herald on June 2 that "it is hoped that the Australian government will provide better protection to international students from China and other countries."

For India, this news has also generated a time for introspection. Why, some in the Indian media are asking, are so many young Indian students going to Australian universities anyway? India, with world-class IT services outsourcers like Infosys (INFY) and Wipro (WIT), is supposed to be a new knowledge superpower, besting more developed economies with an endless supply of educated young workers. However, most Indian universities are inadequate. Few have the staff they need to operate at full capacity, computer labs are mostly nonexistent, and syllabi are out of date. By 2011, according to one estimate by the All India Council of Technical Education, Indian universities will have 231,000 fewer teachers than they need, and 90% of that teacher gap is in engineering, one of the sectors that has propelled India's economy forward in the last decade.

In India, a few elite universities make global lists of excellence, but the vast majority are decaying, state-run institutions that can barely hire enough teachers and buy new computers. Nearly one-third of them are operating with 20% fewer teachers than they need, and none have as many PhDs as needed, according to a survey by India's accreditation council done in May 2008. The investment needed to catch up? At just the 1,500 engineering colleges, at least $5 billion.

Deep Educational Deficiencies

That money is not likely to come from a government hobbled by an economic slowdown and a high deficit. In the recent elections, higher education barely featured in the campaigns. India still has less than half its young children in primary schools, so college education is low on the priority list. On June 4, Indian President Pratibha Patil released the list of goals for India's new government, the Congress-led UPA coalition, and while primary education and free food for the poor made the list, higher education did not.

Fewer than 1 in 4 of India's engineers are immediately employable, estimates the National Association of Software & Service Companies (NASSCOM), the lobbying group for India's IT sector. Others barely speak English or graduate from universities where nearly 65% of the students fail, as in Tamil Nadu state's 150 engineering colleges, according to a study by the accreditation council of India. "This is a serious problem for the entire country," says the human resources head of Infosys, Mohandas Pai. Infosys typically hires tens of thousands of engineers every year, only to have to train them for 16 weeks at a cost of $5,000 per student before they are ready to work. "We could add two or three [percentage points] to our growth figures," he says, "if the government just invested intelligently in our largest resource, which has always been manpower."

Wealthy Indians have always migrated for opportunities, both for education and employment. In 2008, about 95,000 Indian students left for the U.S. to study, with Britain and Australia close favorites. Australian universities recruit aggressively in India and China, with education fairs packed with university officials and eager students. In 2008, foreign students added more than $12 billion to the Australian economy, the second-largest earner of foreign exchange after exports of minerals like iron ore and coal. The revenue from international students has increased about tenfold since 1997 as visa restrictions after the September 11 terrorist attacks made studying in the U.S. more complicated.

As India's economy continues to grow, some Indian students return after graduation, but at least two different studies indicate that many engineers and doctors will stay on because they possess skills that are in great demand in the West.

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