Montgomery College Provost Dr. Rai on India’s 200 pilot community colleges initiative.
By Deepak Chitnis
GERMANTOWN, MD: Dr. Sanjay Rai is the current vice-president and Provost of the Germantown Campus of Montgomery College in Maryland.
Rai received his B.S. in statistics, physics, and mathematics from the University of Allahabad, then went on to receive his M.S. in mathematics from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. After that, he earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Arkansas.
Before coming to Montgomery College, he was the chair of the mathematics department at Jacksonville University in Florida, where he was a fully tenured professor. He has been a champion of introducing new and innovative techniques into the teaching environment in order to make education more engaging and, ultimately, long-lasting.
Rai has received several awards for his work in education, and has published books on mathematics, the most recent of which — Pathways to Real Analysis — was published in 2009.
Rai sat down with The American Bazaar to discuss The India Initiative, a bold plan to introduce a community college model, similar to the one in the US, in India.
Please tell us about your India Initiative.
Before we discuss the India Initiative, let me first tell you about US community colleges – beginning with the fact that you are sitting in one of the leading community colleges in the country. The community college model is specifically designed for affordable and accessible education – we are an open-access institution. Anyone can come to our campus and say “I want to be an engineer” or “I want to be a doctor” or “I want to be a welder” or “I want to be an automotive technician” and we can help them meet that goal.
If you look at India – a country that has about six hundred million young people under the age of 35 – it has a serious need for a model of education that goes above and beyond what they currently have. There are critical questions that need to be addressed to begin designing a model that would meet India’s needs. How do you educate that many people in a cost-efficient manner? How do you ensure that those students learn employable skills that are required by local industries? This is the challenge that India faces; and because of our success in efficiently educating a large population of students, the Indian state of Haryana contacted us for assistance in developing a community college model that would work for them. This was the impetus for MC’s India Initiative. Eventually, we want to introduce this model in other countries, but we’re starting with India because the time is right. Their economy is doing well, the government and private sectors are both supporting the initiative, and it’s the right time for us as well – if you look at the growth in this country over the past few years, a lot of it is attributable to companies doing business in India, China and Brazil. This initiative gives us an opportunity to understand their current system and help students receive global skills at the same time.
There is a sense in India, as well as in the US, that education at the higher level has to be refashioned to meet the needs of the shrinking global jobs market, that the cost of education has to have value in a job market driven by globalization. How do you intend to meet this challenge at Montgomery College?
In terms of affordability, we have kept our tuition low. In spite of various financial situations in the region and in the country, our tuition has not increased. In terms of accessibility, we are spread out well throughout the county, and we are also making serious strides in distance education. About 20 percent of MC students take distance education classes in one format or another. Almost all of our courses are online in at least one or two sections. In terms of employable skills, we are continuously talking to industry leaders to constantly assess what they need in new employees. For example, if you come to this campus and are interested in biotechnology, you will find one of the best programs available because of the number of such companies located around our campus. Many MC students come here looking for the skills to get a job, take the necessary classes, and they quickly find employment. Another industry of focus on this campus is cyber-security. In fact, we have been declared a “Center of Excellence” for cyber-security education by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency. Right now, cyber-security only relates to the defense industry, but looking ahead, it’s going to be in the healthcare and financial industries as well. Imagine the jobs that will be created then.
Montgomery College is also very strong in engineering – we have 1,400 students spread out across approximately 12 disciplines of engineering.
India has to add hundreds of thousands of more jobs than the US, every year, to cope with the number of graduates it churns out. But the economy seems to be slowing there. What are some of your suggestions to India in the education sector?
We first need to understand why the Indian economy today is what it is. In 1991, India opened its markets and allowed for direct investments in various areas, which jumpstarted the Indian economy. Recently, India allowed for FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in the retail sector in order to keep inflation low, but it didn’t work out as well as expected because, even though the federal government allowed it, the state governments did not. In terms of education, the Indian education system needs to be changed because the current system was adopted by the British and has remained largely unchanged over the past 65 years. Even though India has some very good institutions like IIT and others, they serve a very small portion of the population. India needs a mass education system, and to do that, they need to open up the education market space just as they did their economy in 1991. India will need to allow for foreign direct investments in higher education, to pass the varsity bill, and to make it easier for foreign education providers to come to India to offer their expertise for the betterment of the country. India is the highest importer of higher education – about 100,000 students from India come to the US every year for post-secondary education, and then return to India for employment. Indian industry is very interested in changing the country’s education system; and the Indian government is doing wonderful things, especially in the Ministry of Higher Education. They are headed in the right direction; change just has to happen faster.
What is your specific involvement in all this?
We basically started the whole conversation of higher education at the community college level in India. We hosted a conference at which we educated decision-makers from India about the US community-college system and how they should be thinking about applying it in India. India has a problem in that, unlike most countries, its population is getting younger instead of older. That is an advantage, but if they don’t take advantage of that situation in the next 10-15 years, it’ll become a demographic disaster because they’ll have a lot of young people with nothing to do. Where would that lead? They will need to take this demographic situation and turn it to their advantage. The only way to do that is to bring in an affordable, accessible and meaningful model of post-secondary education.
What is the status of the initiative at the moment?
Two hundred pilot colleges are being planned. In terms of cooperation from other countries like the US and Canada, the idea is to provide curriculum development in regard to what to teach, how to teach it, and who will teach it. This is not the first time the US and India have worked together – IIT came into being with the help of MIT in the US, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business assisted in establishing the Indian Institute of Management. My hope is that Montgomery College will similarly help establish community college systems in India. We have to succeed; there is no room for error here, for both countries and for the world.
Has this program already started? Is there a time frame in place?
They have the plans mostly in place and are working to finalize them, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The original timeframe [in India] was to have some of the pilot schools set up within a year, so they started moving very quickly but now have slowed down. They are still hoping to have the first schools open, in existing institutions, for students by fall 2014.
Will there be job training at these community colleges?
The community colleges will begin primarily as workforce development units. We have targeted specific sectors of the job market – like healthcare and nursing – that need employees and have jobs to fill, for the students.
How will these colleges be regulated in India? By a single, centralized body? Or another way?
They will be state-run, similar to us. We are autonomous at Montgomery College, but we still need other institutions for activities like accreditation – if we don’t, our degrees have no value. Those kinds of activities will be handled by individual state governments. We will help India develop the necessary accreditation agencies that will be independent eventually, but initially they will be managed through state government.
Where will the funding for these colleges come from in the long run?
We have suggested that they should all be state funded. We have some private donors helping to get some of these colleges off the ground – companies like Jindal Steel have been very helpful in that regard – but ultimately this will be a state-run and state-funded model like we have in the US.
What kind of budget do you have for each pilot school?
The budget is dependent on how many programs the schools will have, how many students we project they will have, and similar factors. The plan in India initially is for 200 pilot colleges, with roughly 500 students in each. They have five-year plans for the community colleges. What they want to do with these colleges and the budgets they have outlined [based on the five-year plans] are very good. Money is not the issue, surprisingly, at least in that regard.
You obviously have a lot of experience in both the Indian and American education systems, but how has India reacted to a foreign agency coming in to establish this community college system?
I understand both of the systems, but I also know that India has a lot of pride. You don’t want to go in and tell them “you should do this” or “you should do that.” If you go in as a collaborator, as an equal partner –and, frankly, America has a lot to learn from this effort as well because of how critical a player India is becoming globally – India sees that you are trying to help rather than simply dictating and they are more than welcoming. When two democracies like ours work together, it will always promote a good result.
Coming now to the issue of the comprehensive immigration bill before Congress, which is in favor of granting permanent residency to students who pursue STEM subjects. What kind of signal does that give to students pursuing other subjects of study? Does it mean that a developed nation like the US only values math, science and technology, not the arts?
No, not at all. Initially they will start in workforce development, but you will see that there are engineers that are unemployed and there is also a lack of good writers out there for other fields. I think “job” and “STEM” do not necessarily mean the same thing. I very strongly support the immigration bill that you’re referencing. The bill is saying that students who come to MIT or other universities for doctoral work in engineering or other STEM fields will have an easier time gaining residency and citizenship here in the US. I think that’s necessary. I think if the US wants to keep bringing in the best and brightest from around the world, we need to make it easier for them to come here and stay here long-term. You don’t want them to come here, learn, and then go back to their home country to compete with us. If we simply keep putting obstacles in their way [in terms of immigration and naturalization], why would they want to come here?
Updated at 5.53 pm, August 5, 2013.
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