Indian Middle Class Makes Mission Out of Sending Children to College

By Vaishali Honawar — November 29, 2005 12 min read
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In one of Chennai’s ubiquitous academic-coaching classes, a hundred 12th graders are crammed into a purple room, about 30 feet long and 25 feet wide.

The energy-sapping temperature is well over 100 degrees despite the constant whirr of overhead fans. On a wooden dais, Muthukrishnan Arulselvan draws a triangle on a blackboard, marks angles inside it, and explains a geometrical formula into a microphone. The students listen, rapt, although it is nearly 10 p.m.

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When Mr. Arulselvan asks a question, the students rush to reply in a chorus. When the tutor poses a problem, they bury their heads in notebooks, chewing on pencils, eager to finish before everyone else.

This intensive, seven-days-a-week class represents life as usual for these Indian high schoolers, who are hoping to earn an engineering slot at one of the colleges here in Chennai, formerly known as Madras. When they return home, most will gulp down a cup of strong, sweet coffee to keep them up studying several hours longer.

American business and political leaders are sounding the alarm that U.S. students’ interest in pursuing math and science studies is dropping, threatening the United States’ lead in science and technology. They point to countries such as India, which appear to attract students effortlessly to fields such as engineering and medicine.

In India, putting a child through engineering or medical college is, for many middle-class families, a life’s mission in a way that is almost unknown in the United States. In the country that invented the decimal scale, such long-dead geniuses of mathematics and science as Srinivasa Ramanujam and Aryabhatta are still revered, and children who do well in those subjects are considered especially prized.

Though middle-class families in India have long steered their children into professions like engineering and medicine, the trend has taken off over the past decade. It’s been spurred by the demand in the 1990s for software workers in the United States and other Western countries, and more recently by the phenomenon of outsourcing by Western multinationals to Indian shores.

A Growing Demand

“There is a perception among students that taking engineering or medicine in college is a guarantee for survival,” said M.S. Ananth, the director of the Chennai campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, an elite institution with an international reputation.

Malathy Balakrishnan, left, the principal of Sri Sanara Vidyalaya, talks with a parent about his child's drawings.

Tutoring classes such as Mr. Arulselvan’s, which drill students in math and science to prepare them for entrance exams for engineering and medical colleges, are so in demand they can handpick students. Madhavan Prasad, who manages what are called Arul’s Coaching Classes, said only 700 students from more than 2,000 applicants are admitted to the privately run special classes. Students are tested rigorously, almost daily. “By the time our students take the entrance exams, they have already taken 150 similar tests in the coaching class,” Mr. Prasad said.

Schools consider it a matter of prestige when their students get into top engineering schools. At the Sri Sankara Vidyalaya in Chennai, all 11th and 12th graders who choose the computer-science track, which prepares them for careers in engineering, are also tested daily, said Principal Malathy Balak- rishnan. More than 80 percent make it into engineering colleges.

In 1997, Tamil Nadu, of which Chennai is the capital city, had fewer than 100 engineering colleges, including six run by the state government. By 2005, that number had shot up to 232. All the new colleges are privately run, though they require government accreditation. For the 2003-04 school year, 48,000 students were admitted to those colleges.

“Lots of parents are pushing their children into medicine and engineering, particularly in the middle class,” said Dilip Thakore, the editor of India’s only education publication, Education World, based in India’s “Silicon Valley” of Bangalore. He calls the trend an “unhealthy phenomenon.”

Republic of India

Population: 1.08 billion

Form of government: Democratic republic

Area: 3.2 million square kilometers, slightly more than one-third the size of the United States

States: 28, plus seven union territories

Official languages: 16, including English

Literacy rate: 65.4 percent (76 percent for males, 54.3 percent for females)

School-age children: 200 million

Population below poverty line: 25 percent

Annual per-capita income: $800

SOURCE: CIA’s The World Factbook; Census of India, Department of Human Resource Development, India

Indeed, it is not unusual for students to rechart their own dreams to suit their family’s wishes.

Sabarish Natarajan, an 11th grader at the Sri Sankara Vidyalaya in Chennai, wanted to join the Indian Police Service after college, but his ambitions changed when his uncle convinced him that engineering was a better option. “There is a career-based future in engineering,” said Mr. Natarajan. “The [information technology] industry is doing well, and people are making good salaries.”

While stories like that abound, Mr. Thakore said the perception that a large proportion of Indians are gravitating toward engineering is inaccurate.

Only 7 percent of Indians go to college, and of those, only a small proportion study engineering, he pointed out. Because of India’s large population, which now stands at more than 1 billion, even a small percentage, though, means the number of engineering graduates is large. India produces as many as 350,000 engineering graduates each year. But the quality of many of the engineering colleges that have opened in India in recent years is poor, according to Mr. Thakore, with only 20 percent producing top-notch engineers.

The rush toward engineering education is primarily an urban phenomenon, said Vandita Sharma, a Bangalore-based project director for the Education Development Center, in Newton, Mass., and a former official with the Indian education department.

“In rural areas, the schools are very different. They have roofs that are leaking, no furniture,” she said. Such schools cannot think of focusing on subjects like math and science, Ms. Sharma said, and children cannot afford to attend private coaching classes.

In the state of Tamil Nadu, whose capital is Chennai, the chief minister, J. Jayalalitha, attempted earlier this year to scrap the entrance exams, contending that the system is unfair to rural students. The state’s highest court struck down the ban earlier this year. Most states in India, like Tamil Nadu, now use entrance exams to determine eligibility for medical and engineering colleges.

In 2002, India’s constitution was amended to make education mandatory for all 6- to 14 year-olds—a goal the nation hopes to achieve by 2007.

The Class Divide

Current estimates show that of the 200 million children in that age group, 59 million—almost 30 percent—are not in school, 35 million of them girls. Nearly half the students who are in school will drop out by the time they reach 5th grade.

Mr. Thakore points out that funding for higher education, particularly for institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, is disproportionately high when compared with the amount of funding for elementary education.

“Because of the heavy subsidies to higher education, elementary education is being neglected,” he said, arguing that the disparity is improper. “Higher education is a private good, but elementary education is a public good,” he said.

The government pays for and runs nearly 90 percent of the schools in India. But many lack such basic infrastructure as classrooms, toilets, and drinking water. On any given day, nearly 25 percent of teachers are absent.

Poor Indian children end up attending the government schools, while middle-class families send their offspring to private schools, which, although not cheap by local standards, are fairly affordable.

At the private Sri Sankara Vidyalaya in Chennai, tuition runs about $11 each month. In return, students get access to one of the city’s best schools, with modern facilities, including a computer lab, and well-qualified teachers. The computer lab is a necessity for all schools today, said Principal Balakrishnan.

Even government schools are trying to keep abreast of the times. N. Rajasekharan, the principal of the Chromepet Government High School for Boys in Chennai, said the state now requires government schools to provide computer science as an optional subject for 11th and 12th graders.

Using a government grant, the school has bought 10 computers. Despite their financial situations, Mr. Rajasekharan said parents with students in his school want their children to acquire computer skills, and have some hope of sending them to engineering college.

Students line up at Sri Sanara Vidyalaya's front gate at the beginning of the day. More than 80 percent of the school's computer-science students make it into engineering colleges.

Government and private schools alike must follow a curriculum set either by the state or the central government’s education department. Although the mandatory subjects also include social science and three languages, including English, students who aspire to become engineers direct their focus almost entirely on math and science, particularly in high school.

The educators who craft the syllabus strive to stay on top of current needs.

“Back in the ’60s, we were learning surds [irrational numbers] and indices in the 9th and 10th grades. Today, students learn it in the 6th. We have to take the explosion in knowledge into consideration,” said Hemlata Parasnis, a math expert and a member of a committee that drafts the primary and secondary school syllabuses for the state of Maharashtra, one of India’s largest.

Ms. Parasnis said the committee tries to incorporate ways to improve the skills of students who fall behind in math and science, given the importance of those subjects in higher education.

“Teachers are asked to identify students who are weak and give them additional worksheets,” she said.

Schools are also encouraged to use other tools to foster an interest in math, such as group tutoring and peer tutoring.

In grade 1, pupils are introduced to numbers and begin learning such basics as addition and subtraction. By 2nd grade, they are already memorizing the multiplication tables, said Jaya Krishnan, a math teacher at the Sri Sankara Vidyalaya.

According to Kannan Iyer, who runs a coaching class for high schoolers in Thane near Mumbai, “Indian students do well in math because parents take care of their education and exercise control over what they learn.” These days, he said, some students are sent to coaching classes as early as grades 1 and 2 to get a head start on the competition they will inevitably face when they try to enter college.

The ultimate destination for any Indian pursuing engineering are seven campuses of the Indian Institutes of Technology, which are financed almost entirely by the central government.

Dream Destinations

The institute’s lush Chennai campus sprawls over 630 acres of forested land, once reserved by the British for foxhunts. Centuries-old trees with thick foliage provide students on bicycles some relief from the city’s unrelenting heat. Monkeys swing from branches and perch on stairs, pleading, wide-eyed, for food.

The School System in India

Schooling starts with optional kindergarten at age 3 or 4 and is divided into four stages:

Primary School: 1st to 4th grades
Middle School: 6th to 8th grades
Secondary School: 9th and 10th grades
Junior college or, in some states, higher secondary school: 11th and 12th grades

Minimum age for enrollment in primary school: 5 or 6 years (varies by state)

Number of school days: More than 200

Language of instruction: Native language of the state; or English, as in most private and some government schools

Curriculum: Schools can follow a curriculum set by the state or the central government’s department of education under the Ministry of Human Resource Development

SOURCE: Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development

Only 4,000 of the 200,000 hopefuls in India score high enough each year on the institutes’ grueling entrance exams to enter its elite portals.

Those who do are set for life, assured the best jobs in the field.

“When you go to the IITs, you can set your own standards,” said V. Ganesh, 20, a student of aerospace engineering at the Chennai IIT. Even better, he said, he pays less than one-fifth of the cost of his education. Taxpayers pick up the rest of the total tab of more than $25,000 for the four-year program.

Mr. Ganesh said he will seek a job in India once he graduates, but nearly one-third of IIT graduates, according to the Chennai campus’ director, Mr. Ananth, emigrate to other countries.

Education World’s Mr. Thakore argues that the exodus is essentially wasting the government’s contribution to students’ education and causing a brain drain.

Students who don’t get into the IITs have the option of entering other government-subsidized colleges or the hundreds of private engineering colleges throughout the country. In India, the number offering a degree in engineering has shot up from 157 in 1980 to nearly 1,400 today, including 200 that are government-run.

Students pay between $2,000 and $6,500 over four years to attend those colleges, a fortune by Indian standards. In recent years, though, banks have started offering engineering students loans.

Even those who cannot pass the entrance exam or meet other academic requirements for engineering college can get in if their parents are willing to shell out a large “donation” to help improve the colleges’ facilities.

Observers say the influx into engineering is affecting other colleges adversely, especially those offering bachelor’s degrees in the core sciences.

Continuing Growth

Yogesh Gulwadi, the head of the department of physics at Sathaye College in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, said he has seen the number of students taking core science courses dwindle over the past decade as students enrolled instead in the engineering colleges, many of them unaccredited.

The quality of workers produced by some of the new engineering colleges is often poor, he said. “Many do not even have lab facilities,” he said, “and not enough teachers.”

But the demand for computer and information-technology courses has forced Sathaye College, which offers undergraduate degrees in science, the arts, and commerce, to change: In 2000, it introduced a bachelor’s degree in information technology for students who cannot afford engineering college. For the 60 available slots, the college receives as many as 600 applications each year, Mr. Gulwadi said.

Graduates of the course can easily land jobs in the IT field, partly thanks to Sathaye College’s solid reputation, he said.

According to a 2002 study from the National Association of Software and Service Companies in India, the chamber of commerce for the information-technology and software industry here, employment in the computer and IT sector is expected to rise to 2.2 million in 2008, from 180,000 in 1998.

Even students who attend not-so-premium engineering colleges say they are confident employers will be lining up around the block when they graduate. Sreeram Ramani, 18, a first-year engineering student in Chennai, says that although his college is not as well known as some others, he is certain that many employers will be eager to hire him when he graduates in four years.

“My motto was to find a job without any risks,” he said.

Mr. Arulselvan, who runs the coaching class in Chennai, says that the trend of students flocking to engineering also shows no signs of tapering off.

Last year, he expanded his classes from two rooms to a brand-new three-story building that dominates the block it stands on. The number of applications keeps growing, and he even has a special class just for girls whose parents don’t want them learning in the same room as boys.

“Earlier, people thought it was a difficult dream to become an engineer. But today they see cousins and other family members doing it, so they think it is very possible,” he said.

Five years before she’s even eligible to apply to an engineering college, Shruti Pardesh, an 8th grader who already attends a coaching class similar to Mr. Arulselvan’s, rattles off her ambition to go to one of the city’s leading engineering colleges.

Her parents are paying $400 a year to hone the 13-year-old’s math and science skills.

“I wanted to go into animation, but my mother thought I had better skills in technology,” Shruti said. “Now, I want to be an engineer.”


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