BANGALORE (Reuters) - Come June every year, and Infosys Technologies, India’s second-biggest software services exporter, turns trainer for the nearly 30,000 students it recruits from top engineering colleges every year.
Its training campus in Mysore, a two-hour drive from its sprawling headquarters in Bangalore, can house about 15,000 people. New recruits spend up to six months honing their skills as Infosys attempts to fill the gaps left by inadequate college education.
Goldman Sachs counts the lack of quality education as one of the 10 factors holding India back from rapid economic growth. Analysts say it raises costs, including salaries as firms vie for the best IT recruits, and reduces firms’ competitive edge.
“Ideally, education should happen in colleges, it should not be happening on company campuses,” said Srikantan Moorthy, head of education and research at Infosys, whose Campus Connect program in 430 colleges is aimed at “industry ready” recruits.
“But a gap does exist, and we can’t wait for the government to put in place an education system that addresses our needs.”
There are growing cries to revamp India’s education system, which focuses on learning by rote. The calls for reforms include opening up primary and secondary education to private investment, easier entry of foreign universities seeking to establish campuses in India and better monitoring and evaluation systems.
Nasdaq-listed Infosys, which develops software applications, spent $175 million on training and education in the year to March 2009, at a time when an economic downturn crimped margins.
It is not the only one: rival Tata Consultancy Services has a faculty development program in 150 engineering colleges, while Wipro founder Azim Premji has set aside some of his personal wealth for primary education and Anil Agarwal, chief of Vedanta Resources, has committed $1 billion to a university.
India’s Tata Group and Aditya Birla Group set up colleges years ago as acts of social responsibility. Now, multinationals such as SAP, IBM and Cisco are designing curriculum and training faculty to meet their needs.
“The talent gap is compromising their growth big time,” said Janmejaya Sinha, managing director of Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which estimates there was a 30 percent rise in IT salaries from 2004-06 because of a war for talent between firms.
“It is one of the biggest operational risks they face.”
More than half India’s billion-plus population is below the age of 25, a section referred to as its demographic dividend.
But about 40 percent of its work force of about 400 million people is illiterate and another 40 percent comprises school dropouts, said BCG in a recent report.
Demand for graduates over the next five years is likely to be 13.8 million. But with only 13.2 million students graduating over the same period, India will face a shortfall of 600,000 graduates.
About 1.3 million unskilled and unqualified workers will also weigh on the economy over the same period, BCG estimates.
“More than 1 million people lacking the ability to participate in the workforce has the makings of a potential demographic disaster,” Sinha said.
“We will have an army of young people left behind and increasingly frustrated with their lot. They not only have the potential to derail India’s growth prospects, but also challenge the basic fiber of our society,” he said.
With a literacy rate of 61 percent, India scores poorly compared to other BRIC nations in terms of average number of years in secondary education. Rival China already produces more than three times the number of PhDs every year.
Home to one of the world’s oldest universities, now only 10 percent of the roughly 20 million who enroll in the first grade every year finish high school. Female participation is abysmal.
With the education sector deemed “not for profit,” and limits on private investment in primary and secondary education, there is a thriving cottage industry of coaching centers and tutors.
Hundreds of private tertiary colleges charge high fees. Yet, according to critics, many students graduating from these expensive colleges are practically unemployable. The best colleges, including Indian Institutes of Technology and Management were set up more than 50 years ago.
“Without hundreds of millions of Indians receiving a better basic education, it will be virtually impossible for India to achieve its ”dream“ potential,” the Goldman Sachs report said.
For the new Congress party-led government, education is a priority: Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (universal education program) helped bring 20 million children into school. It also plans to quadruple the number of universities to 1,500 in 10 years.
A Right to Education Bill, passed by the parliament this month, provides children aged 6-14 years the right to free and compulsory education in a neighborhood school.
These are vital but inadequate measures, companies say.
“Of all the big issues challenging corporates, education is the starting point,” said Dilep Rajnekar, chief executive of Azim Premji Foundation, which plans to set up a university.
“If we manage to get the education bit right, then a lot of things can go right in this country.”
Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Megan Goldin