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A new breed of philanthropists is changing India's education system.
Photo caption: Using their own fortunes, India's new millionaires are re-inventing higher education. (Indranil Mukherjee/Getty Images)
NEEMRANA, India — Bright-yellow mustard fields line the roadside along National Highway 8, about three hours from New Delhi in the state of Rajasthan. In the distance, tiny plumes of smoke float into the sky from the mud huts of local farmers.
For a hundred miles, the silence is broken only by the long-haul trucks, whose blaring horns discourage stray dogs and livestock from darting into their paths.
Then, suddenly, the towering tollbooths of a 12-lane expressway loom on the horizon, transforming the rustic Gandhian idyll into a scene straight out of the American Midwest.
Just a few miles from here, up a pristine blacktopped road, is the 100-acre NIIT University. Founded by two multimillionaires who earned their fortunes through a successful multinational computer-training and consulting company, NIIT represents a new kind of university sprouting up across India — one generated through private philanthropy.
Rajendra Pawar said he and Vijay Thadani started NIIT University after it became clear to them that the Indian government does not have enough money to take on the myriad challenges facing the country's education system. Their company, also called NIIT, has a 29-year history in the region and is well-known across Asia, the Middle East and in many African countries as a reputable provider of industry-ready computer education.
"We were in search of a new problem and we realized India lacks a self-sustaining model of higher education and started thinking about creating such a model," Pawar said.
He adds that if India does not do something about its shockingly low college-enrollment rate — it now stands at just 12 percent — "it will be a time bomb that will explode on us a few decades down the line."
In the last decade, a rising stream of wealthy industrialists like Pawar and Thadani have started up a few of the 1,500 universities that education experts estimate India will need to fuel its economic growth.
With deep pockets and solid reputations, these business executives promise to revamp the reputation of private higher education in India by offering better pay to faculty members, setting high academic standards and tailoring programs to industry needs.
They also hope to offer an alternative to what they see as a misguided public higher-education system, in which students are encouraged to think narrowly and learn passively.
"According to industry, of students coming out of universities currently only 10 percent are employable," said Pawar. Even the better students don't have a well-rounded education, he added.
Many of these new institutes offer just a handful of undergraduate degrees in industry-focused fields such as engineering, or graduate programs focused on management education. But most plan to scale up to become multidisciplinary universities.
To build a comprehensive university with up-to-date equipment and facilities requires space, however. And many of these new campuses are being built in suburbs outside major cities, close to industries in which their graduates might one day work.
NIIT is no exception. Capitalizing on Rajasthan's desire for a "knowledge corridor" similar to Route 128 in Massachusetts, Pawar and Thadani persuaded state officials to build the road and develop the electricity connections from the main expressway that they needed to create their institution.
Built as a walking campus, the university's fresh, airy buildings follow the site's natural ups and downs and are built of the vibrant red brick taken from the stony ground of the site itself.
Most classrooms have views of the hills. One of the natural depressions in the site has been developed as an amphitheater and another will be the sports arena.
"People said, My God, to level it will cost a lifetime,” Pawar recalls. "I said, why level it? This is an opportunity do something with this crazy land."
The university opened last November with 29 students and offers three engineering undergraduate degrees, a master's degree in educational technology and a doctoral program in biotechnology.
This September the university plans to enroll 450 students and eventually aims to house as many as 7,000.
Within the next 10 to 12 years, said Pawar, the university will develop a range of programs to provide students with a broad base of knowledge.
"A mechanical-engineering student will also study some literature and social sciences. And a psychology student will also study some mathematics and economics because it is important," he said. "We believe that in the 21st century, setting the distinction between science and the arts has to go."