India is in talks with the Department of Higher Education in the U.S. to adapt the community college model to meet its demand for vocational training

On the sidelines of the high-profile India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue in Washington this week, a quiet but potentially far-reaching conversation on higher education was set in motion between the two nations through a parallel Higher Education Dialogue (HED).

The HED may, in years ahead, revolutionise vocational education in India, for it aims to adapt an American institution of learning — the community college — to Indian job-market and workforce conditions. In doing so, Indian and American officials hope, that age-old problem of India having too many graduates with either no jobs or with mismatched skills for the jobs available, may eventually be resolved or at least mitigated.

“Indians are looking to open 100 community colleges by the end of 2013, said Meghann Curtis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Academic Programs, during an India-exclusive discussion with The Hindu. Molly Teas, Senior Advisor for Education in the Bureau of South and Central Asia, supplied context, noting that this effort really to foster a “win-win” for both countries and “not about the old narrative of America helping India or anyone else.”

Community colleges are institutes of higher education in vocational training that the U.S. has used with considerable success since as far back as 1901. Especially under the influence of rampant unemployment during the Great Depression years, American community colleges, which offered two-year courses supported by public funding, focussed on developing a workforce of “semi-professionals.”

The idea was to build up a cadre of workers who could “implement the decisions of the theoreticians,” including engineers and supervisors. This called for an educational delivery mechanism quite different to the traditional university that offered four-year degrees in the arts and sciences.

New buzzwords

With India's education system creaking under the enormous weight of demand from a young and burgeoning population, the community college model has clearly caught the attention of the nation's policymakers, in particular Kapil Sibal, Union Minister of Human Resource Development & Communications and IT.

In his discussions this week with Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, Minister Sibal said that by 2022 India needs to have a total workforce of 500 million skilled workers. He added that the capacity to provide vocational training in India today is for three million people and the current need was for nine million people.

“That is a big, tall order,” said Jim Moore, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia at the State Department, to this correspondent, adding that however the State Department saw itself playing the role of “facilitator and convenor” in such a venture and was seeking to bring associations, government leaders, academics and business leaders together under the HED.

It was not only Mr. Sibal who has engaged so deeply with U.S. educators on community colleges but a team of Indian Ministers and government officials working in education visited a number of U.S. states earlier this year and interacted with groups such as the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

In this regard Mr. Moore said the AACC “really came forward to play a leading role in this effort,” adding that it would “be for the Government of India to work with the AACC to move that forward.”

The bilateral discussions this week mark a good, solid beginning in these efforts. Cutting-edge concepts in education were discussed, including buzzwords that Mr. Sibal referenced on several occasions — “meta-universities” based on “open educational resources.” Meta-universities, according to the Minister fell into the category of “frugal innovation” that could provide low-cost solutions for the benefit of those at the bottom of the pyramid in India.

A meta-university, he explained was an innovation based on the idea of distance learning through cyberspace, wherein not one but a group of universities could come together to offer a teaching curriculum via the Internet. Not only would this avoid the need to develop more traditional, brick-and-mortar universities that in the U.S. typically cost around $120,000, such meta-universities would also offer enormous flexibility to the student.

This is where open educational resources enter the picture. With a strong focus on leveraging India's untapped potential for rapid infrastructure development in the IT space Mr. Sibal also touted a plan to set up data centres throughout the nation, the premises for which the government would provide to entrepreneurs free of cost.

It would however then be up to these entrepreneurs to hire software engineers and other physical infrastructure, he added, thus setting up data “hubs” that could be accessed by the “spokes,” including local universities or technical education institutes. The shared-access data sitting in the hubs comprise open educational resources and universities, both in cyberspace and on the ground, could pick and choose from a wide menu and thus build their own course curricula.

Regulatory framework

In response to a question from The Hindu on how the Indian regulatory framework for educational institutions, especially on accreditation issues could help control this aspect of collaboration, Ms Curtis said “I think there is a lot of other stuff out there that is open and it is up to the user to determine the quality. These are not, for the most part, accredited resources, but they are often resources that come from accredited universities.”

Arguing that the advantage of open resources was that it permitted the user to “mix, remix and re-use,” she admitted that “the formal or informal regulatory frame has yet to be fully formalised and is a little bit slow to catch up.” She added, however that the U.S. was still “cautious” in this matter.

With this caution in the background, however, India and the U.S. and steaming forward with a host of pilot cases that will no doubt highlight problem areas and success factors in equal measure.

Ms Teas said to The Hindu that the U.S. team had already had a very catalytic effect with very small targeted grants,” and for example a grant to Montgomery College in Maryland, along with assistance from the Wadhwani Foundation, has spurred progress on a public-private partnership aimed at starting 100 community colleges running.

While such encouragement from both governments will continue to be important, it is clear that at the end of the day it is the universities themselves that are stepping up the momentum on collaborations in the higher education space.

Alluding to this organic process of evolution in the backdrop of the Higher Education Providers Bill, Mr. Moore said, “It is for the Indians to determine the way forward on partnering with foreign institutions. But given the very active collaboration with a list of 100 or more serious partnerships... this is clearly institution-to-institution.”

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