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Higher education: India's own Ivy League?

In an effort to keep up with other world powers, India tries to grow its own Ivies.

Furthermore, the students who traditionally have had access to higher education have come from only certain segments of society: notably, the urban, wealthy and higher caste, according to G.G. Wankhede, a professor in the Centre for Studies in Sociology of Education at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

“The majority of the Indian population,” he said, “has been historically, traditionally deprived of higher education.”

That is slowly changing as various government programs try to provide more seats to disadvantaged groups, but implementation problems often prevent these schemes from enabling the lower classes and castes to graduate from elite schools, Wankhede said.

While education specialists welcome the Ivy League proposal, they said they fear this too will face implementation problems.

“For all intents and purposes, with the kind of regulatory environment we have today, there is no possibility of that ever happening,” said Pramath Sinha, founding dean of the Indian School of Business.

He attributed India’s “regulating and over-regulating” of higher education to a vicious cycle that began with the government deciding education should be a publicly funded, not-for-profit activity. Any university or college that grants a degree must now be a not-for-profit. The government, however, could not meet the demand for education, and “fly-by-night” businesses and politicians began setting up schools that they claimed were not-for-profits but were making money on the side.

The government has attempted to keep these unethical players out of the system by regulating the industry. But in effect, the unethical ones continue to operate by beating the system, and the ethical ones fear entering the system because they cannot compete with stricter and stricter rules.

In addition to regulation challenges, the Ivy League schools will struggle to secure enough funding to develop world-class research facilities and attract the top academics. India already faces an acute shortage of professors, according to Agarwal.

The American Ivy League universities have large endowments to support themselves. But in India, philanthropy has not yet taken off, and restrictions can be so tight that people do not want to donate.

“If you want to create excellence,” Sinha said, “excellence doesn’t come cheap.”

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