The University Of Competition

To make the best of the next decade, our education system needs to be set free
Two years ago, when Mayur Patil joined the Masters of Engineering Management programme at Duke University, he had visualised leveraging his US education into a permanent position in North America. He already had two years' work experience as an ERP consultant. Arming himself with a graduate degree from a top American school, Patil believed, would push him up the employment ladder to a good position in New York, San Francisco or some other economic hotspot. But today, he has a different plan. The economic malaise in the US has considerably reduced job prospects for Indian students. Wall Street, previously a significant destination for smart, capable students with degrees from top schools, like Patil, has completely stopped hiring. Rather than seek work in America and fight the economic tide, Patil plans to return home. "The opportunities for work in the US have become more limited. I perceive the Indian market offers better possibilities. I want to go back to India," he says.

Patil's gameplan underscores the new reality for India's brightest. By almost all estimates, the Indian economy is expected to grow in the coming decade at a rate far faster than that of the US. And this growth won't be achieved just through call centres or information technology. The types of opportunities available to young Indians emerging from universities with a freshly inked sheepskin will continue to evolve and become more interesting.

Multinational corporations now see India and Asia as the key market for the new century. As a result, there is a growing demand for local knowledge. At the same time, MNCs increasingly rely on cost-effective Indian teams to carry out R&D for a wide range of products to be sold in global markets in sectors such as aerospace, appliances, clean technology and semiconductors. Lastly, Indian companies themselves are becoming global players with unique products. Tata's sub-$3,000 car, the Nano, is a preview for a wave of innovation targeting local markets and mindsets that will be conceived, designed, built and marketed by Indian companies for the regions they know so well.

As a result of these three key trends, the type of technology and engineering work performed in India will generally be more interesting and creative. What's more, western education will become more valuable for both Indian companies seeking global expertise as well as for MNCs seeking Indians who can operate equally well in Pune and Palo Alto.

But for India to truly grab hold of its future, the education system needs to shift its centre of gravity. The Indian government has constrained innovation in the education sector by creating and maintaining unreasonable barriers to the expansion of privately operated universities. Such limitations are a major factor holding India back. Stanford, Duke, MIT, Harvard and Georgetown are all privately operated not-for-profit academic institutions and are among the best in the world. It is the competition between private and public universities for students and faculty that has made the academic system of the US the leading research machine of the world. This is a lesson that India needs to study and act on if it hopes to foster better academic research capabilities and prepare its graduate students better for homegrown opportunities, which, by all projections, seem set to brighten.

And none of this is to say that tremendous opportunities do not remain in America. Thousands of Indians still should—and will—go abroad for education. The difference will be that there will be other, equally valid options to buying a one-way ticket to America. In the future, Mayur Patil will be just fine staying home for his education, going to the US and coming back, or going away and staying there. All these are good outcomes for India.




(The writer is a senior research associate at Harvard Law School)
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