Posted by: Vikram | June 2, 2010

The college culture of the United States and India: Part 4

Attending the graduation ceremony of the University of Texas is quite an experience. This university produces more graduates than any of the other great American public universities. But on graduation day, what is even more striking than the quantity and diversity of the graduates is the obvious connection between the university and the broader community. Three graduates were singled out and given the tremendous honour of rising before their graduating peers and the watching public. Not for perfect GPAs or GRE scores, or for admission to elite graduate schools, but for their outstanding contributions to their community at the young age of 21. One served his country in Iraq and graduated with degrees in history and drama. One came from an underprivileged community in Texas and was already using her Engineering degree to better their lives. Some others are profiled here.

Later that night my thoughts turned to what graduation ceremonies in India are like. Asking my friends about their graduations confirmed my worst fears. Drab, dull affairs with people being called to the podium to receive their degrees in the order of their ‘ranks’. Far from being honored, students who try to help their communities in Indian universities are ridiculed and demoralized by one and all. Part of this attitude is the fundamental flaw in Indian society, the lack of belief in a collective destiny. But a substantial chunk of it can be attributed to the nature of India’s higher educational institutions.

One thing that startled me when I started college in the US was that the university campus was completely open, i.e., there was no line or fence demarcating the university from the rest of the city/community. People could come on campus freely without having to go through checkpoints and guards. This is true across the US, I recently the visited the University of Washington which is even more mixed into the surrounding city than the University of Texas. It is hard for an outsider to exactly differentiate between the city and the university. People tell me univs like Harvard and MIT are even more integrated into the cities they are in. This is a far cry from IIT Mumbai, on whose outskirts I grew up. Even entry into the campus for the common folk was not allowed and the campus was surrounded by walls on all sides. It was as if a deliberate bifurcation was created, so the ‘elite’ students inside could be kept insulated from commoners like me and my friends. It would not surprise many that Indian universities barely think, study or teach about their surroundings.

I think this exclusionary nature of Indian univs and their campuses only adds to the narrow mindedness widespread in Indian society. At every stage, our education system reinforces the idea that those who succeed in certain exams are somehow different and superior to the ones ‘weeded out’. It is no suprise that such institutions do not generally produce graduates who consider it honorable or desirable to serve their communities. And then we wonder why America can produce leaders like Obama and we can only produce weaklings like the Congress ‘youth brigade’.

But to give another example of the strong relationship between American universities and the communities that sustain them, one of the most popular radio stations in Austin, ‘KUT 90.5‘ comes to mind. It is a joint effort of the university’s College of Communication and the national radio network NPR. The station features great programming throughout the day. The station benefits from the energy and talent of the university’s students and the university gives something back to the community. The Indian state does not even allow radio stations to broadcast news freely, forget nurturing young journalists with university operated radio.

Indian universities have received a welcome influx of money and infrastructure in recent years. Sadly, the objective has not been to make them better centers of learning that can produce an independent minded student body and genuinely interact with the vibrant communities that surround them. It has been to simply satisfy the demands of industry and corporates, and chase after the much vaunted ‘world class’ status. The structure of both admission and teaching in Indian universities inhibits them from becoming great universities. And much of this is due to their insulation from the same communities that house them.

This is the fourth in a series on my observations on university education in America and what India can take from them, here are the other parts
Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.


  1. I think the comparison is unfair. USA is a developed economy with great educational infrastructure, with something for (pretty much) everyone’s need. India, on the other hand, suffers from a terrible educational infrastructure. At the college level, there are hardly a handful of good/decent colleges like IIT/NIT/etc. And even these have infrastructure much antiquated when compared to even 2nd rung US colleges. Admission to colleges in India is like 200 players playing musical chair with 2 seats. By virtue of sheer mismatch in demand and supply, getting in to a good college is itself an achievement. Do you want to know why there are no social interaction between colleges and communities? Just ask the parents. When they don’t even allow their children to take branches other than engineering or medicine, forget sports and don’t even think about community interactions. American students do it because they CAN. Indians have to live with the bitter reality of an underdeveloped, corrupt economy where there is no carrier other than engg/medicine (as their parents and peers would have them believe).

    Reminds me of those analysts who say that Haiti’s lax building codes were responsible for the great devastation of the earthquake, and compare it with 1989’s California Bay Area quake which had very little casualty.

    • @ Ambuj, of course everything you say is quite true. But in our conversations we have to separate out the contingent and structural factors. In India, the structure of the economy and education system inhibit community engagement as you rightly point out.

      But there are contingent factors at work as well. What I mean is that there is a whole set of individual attitudes and actions that we can hope to change. Something as simple as recognizing someone who has contributed to the community on graduation day. Professors encouraging students to take up projects that help the local community. The simple act of ensuring that new university campuses are open to the ‘general’ public (who btw are the ones who pay for everything). Structural factors take a long time and sustained effort to change but contingent factors we can sometimes influence by something as simple as a conversation.

      As for as Haiti is concerned. Suppose Haiti did have strict building codes and even 5 % of the buildings had followed those (say due to a few honest officials or a vigilant public somewhere). Lives would have been saved right ? I will quote Gandhi,

      “Hesitating to act because the whole vision might not be achieved, or because others do not yet share it, is an attitude that only hinders progress.”

  2. I agree with your point about how Indian colleges and universities act as if they are elite enclaves, and convert themselves into gated communities.

    But, but, …

    I want to give you a possible reason for why you find an impenetrable boundary wall around the campuses: illegal encroachment.

    Indian institutions — especially the federally funded ones such as the IITs and Central Universities — are granted large tracts of land, far larger than what they need at the time of their launch. This is probably to ensure that (a) they have space for future expansion, and (b) they can be green oases amidst the concrete desert that many of our cities tend to become over time.

    To protect this vast tract of land (most of which is empty during the initial years) from encroachment is a horrendous task. The odds are stacked against the institutions and their leadership: the illegal encroachers have the support of the local politicians, bureaucrats, and mafia / goons.

    A tall, thick campus boundary wall (a barbed wire fence won’t do!) is what this situation demands, and that’s what you see around all these campuses.

  3. A very thoughtful article. I agree, Indian students who get into ‘elite’ universities do have an eliltist attitude towards the common folk which is in no small measure due to the education system itself.

    As Ambuj rightly pointed out, compared to the huge number of plus two students we churn out every year, there are very few quality educational institiutions which give a standard education even to the middle class folks. In such a scenario anyone who manages to get into these institutions is given God like treatment by one and all (parents are a major culprit here). And most students who do get into these places have their eyes trained on getting into other premium institutes in developed countries for higher education or atleast to get a high paying job there. If that is the case why would they ever bother about community service and such other mundane matters when they could be earning in thousands of dollars in a few years…. (most of these students work hard with the intention of leaving Indian one day. And I don’t blame them for that at all, I can totally understand that).

    And yeah, in college the one who gets all the attention is a first ranker. Not someone who’d work for the community and contribute to its growth. This attitude is displayed by almost all teachers and parents. Reason enough for most students to shy way from such activities.

  4. @ Dr. Abi, you are certainly correct. Circumstances force our universities to be walled in. Of course, the real long term solution to the problems you have mentioned are not easy but we can atleast try and see where a difference can be made easily. Can universities in small towns and rural areas be made more open ?

    @ rags, in a country where money is scarce, it is natural that its pursuit drives most people as you rightly point out. But we are running the risk of institutionalizing this money mindedness and ingraining it in our culture. If we dont step in the right direction now, students will act this way even when money is not as big of an issue as it is today.

    • Allahabad University, one of the oldest in India, is as well as integrated into the city as any in the US. (In fact, going from a Science Department to, say, a Humanities department requires crossing several city lanes). Similarly, other older universities like AMU and BHU are big parts of the culture of their host cities. Further, many of these older universities have produced PMs and high ranking ministers (Allahabad university, again, has been specially prolific in this regard, but I am sure other older universities elsewhere have similar records.)

      It is true that IITs and IIMs are not as well integrated into their host cities as these universities, but that is to be expected: many of them were actually set up in the outskirts long after the main parts of the city were well developed. (In contrast to many of the US universities you list which are often almost as old as the cities they are in).

      • Thanks Ahannasmi. The example of Allahabad university is a good one and should encourage the IITs and IIMs to have more open campuses.

  5. Some response points to many articles u have written:
    – A thanks first ! The effort & intention is appreciated.
    – The Hindu religion/spirituality has ‘originally’ given the goal to the masses of ‘realizing’ that the world is an illusion and to not regard the ‘external’ world as real. That the inner world is more real (actually that means that the inner world is the cause of the external world, which is the effect).
    – Now many who realize that dont really make a lot of effort to change the external world. (because that was never the real goal !)
    – And many who dont actively take up this goal dont know how to (coz they dont have the power gained by knowing the ’causes’!)
    – Have u observed that in the Indian society, any suggestion of changing/improving the society/country is met with a lack of enthusiasm? (I dont mean anything here, just sharing an observation)

  6. Vikram, I agree with Abi sir as the only reason for physical exclusion is illegal encroachment. Most of the public universities (with /without hostels) in India have strong affect of local politics on them. And it dampens the intellectual growth as rigorous debate is suppressed under organized hooligans.

    And in comparison to American university, our state universities have dense local population studying in them. They don’t have diversity of Pan Indian identity in them. So they are now white elephants of “non -profit making education” sector of government of India. While following exclusion policy, the merit still exists in the IITs and IIMs. New IIXs are made and they are excluded from the regular life style of cities as fenced-off factory townships.

    Indian universities barely think, study or teach about their surroundings because talk of idealism, honesty and merit can be embraced better in isolated learning place. Ground realities are much harsh and different.

    Our universities don’t have national character and is only degraded by localism. I will go off the topic and tell you little about “doing PHD” in arts at a state owned university in east up. Give a person 2 lakh and your complete thesis will be written. 15 thousand to the clerks and date of your appointment with reviewers will be fixed. And the whole examination copy checking process is a big joke. Give some money and trace to the person who will give your marks. Remember, Marks are important as they help in getting jobs as teacher in government schools (1-12);

    Cut this crap and read Sanjeev Sanyal who is echoing with your thoughts:

    If you think by Hindu orthodox, they have concept of isolated Gurukul completely for teaching students in the confine area. That is my wild guess for this type of thinking…

    Vikram, Kudos to you for this post. You had pick up very unnoticed topic. Indeed, this is not even considered an issue worthy of attention among people here. I don’t have slightest idea what needs to be done and want more discussions on this topic.

    • yayaver, universities in Indian states simply dont seem to be a source of pride for the populace and populations. It is not surprising that the universities are in shambles. It is worth noting here that the main connection between a university and the local community can be built around the so called soft sciences like sociology and communication etc not the harder science like engineering.

      Thanks for the Sanjeev Sanyal link. He has hit the nail on the head.

  7. Vikram,

    Along with the encroachment reason, there is the “safety” reason for walling of large campuses. When i was in the Anna University Main campus in Chennai in the the late nineties, large part of the campus was covered in foliage and poorly lit during the night. Students were mugged now and then. Also with chennai in the midst of a drought, people from nearby areas started siphoning off water from the campus water supply worsening the situation (the campus had better water supply than the surrounding areas, but not adequate for the hostel inmates). The administration then built a 12 feet high wall topped with broken glass all along its perimeter shared with the Adyar river. Muggings and water theft did reduce after that.

    • @ bala, I agree that there are logistical problems. I feel people are taking my comparisons too literally. Maybe it is essential sometimes to have a gated campus (they exist even in the US), but my basic point is that Indian universities are rarely involved with the communities around them.

  8. This post was the best of the 4 that you have posted on the subject.

    Welcome Khagesh. Thanks !

    The point that you make about collective destiny and the insensitivity of the Indian youth is very correct. May I recommend Pavan K Varma’s ‘Being Indian’ and ‘The Great Indian Middle Class’. These two book point out the problem, tell us the reasons behind this problem.

    Thanks Khagesh, will definitely check these out. This is an important topic on which there is precious little work.

    The bit about lack of intellectuals and academic rigor in India, I would have to agree with you on that. There have been some really good academic-intellectuals who have worked in India and have made serious points but the main stream media either fails to report them and therefore fails to initiate a debate or the people just don’t care. For example Dr. Madhav Menon who has argued that the Bar Council of India (and of various States) has ceased to be a regulatory body and instead has become a representative body that was never its mandate thus the same be abolished. Or Prof. M.P. Singh (current VC of NALSAR, Hyd’bad) who had argued back in the mid 1990s (when he was a Professor in Faculty of Law, Delhi University) that there is nothing unconstitutional about reservations policy.

    It is noted in ‘Mother India – A political biography of Indira Gandhi’ about the surprise of Mrs. Gandhi that she expressed when she imposed emergency that lasted for 18 months. The entire intellectual elite of India failed to respond to that dark period. I have written about it on my blog (

    Khagesh this sorry state of affairs is the result of many things, but principle among them is the attitude middle class India has towards social sciences. This is one of the issues I am trying to address in this blog. And in general I feel that even though middle India shuns social scientists there is a deep urge among many to understand what is wrong with their country and blogs of this kind can help.

    You have made good observations about the state of affairs. I have done by undergrad studies in Kurukshetra University which is a small town university. I lived with my parents as it is my home town. And there was virtually no debate about politics and social issues anywhere. The only political debate I was a part of was a discussion about student politics. The contents and style of discussion failed to capture my fancy.

    Then I made it to law school in Delhi University. That was the first place where I saw real political debates on social issues and met several people actually engaged in projects to help the under privileged and the disenfranchised. I met several Right to Information activists (one was a batch mate who really made the VC sweat a few times – this fellow was also instrumental in getting implemented the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations to student elections by filing RTI applications and subsequently a writ petition in Delhi High Court all by himself!!!).

    Khagesh, this is great to hear. But it also emphasizes a problem with our higher education setup, the segregation of ‘technical institutes’ and social sciences. People in the NITs/IITs/IIMs (who will form an influential chunk of the middle class/elite) are never exposed to such activism. Thus the cynicism and lack of understanding.

    By and large things suck, but there are pockets where one can find encouragement. Certainly that is not enough.

    You have written good posts. Would love to see more from you. Shatter more keys!!!

    Thanks. Will continue to write and interact.

  9. I think Khagesh has made an excellent point here. It is usually those who pursue law and such other subjects who are involved in such activism. Those who pursue traditional professional courses (medicine/ engineering) are clueless about the social set up of the country. I am hundred percent sure most in my med school wouldn’t know how to file an RTI or how to use it.

    This maybe because middle class parents actively prevent their children from developing any sort of interest in how the society or government works. They are simply taught to work hard, study well and get that dream job, society be damned.

  10. Contrary to what appears – there is actually quite a bit of really good work on Indian Middle Class. However, such books don’t exactly make bestsellers so one has to really dig them up. I can suggest some other books on this topic if you wish to.

    However, if one reads through the mainstream Indian english print media – one can find articles on this theme all the time. One of the good ones I actually read in Mint of all newspapers!!

    Otherwise, political commentaries and biographies make references to this phenomenon (shall we say!) but their references are not direct. So one has to be very careful while one reads though such material.

    Also, if you go the web site of McKinsey you can find they have commissioined studies on Indian Middle Class – though with commercial objectives in mind – sometimes these make for very interesting and insightful readings.

  11. “The Indian state does not even allow radio stations to broadcast news freely, forget nurturing young journalists with university operated radio.”

    Things are changing, in a small but sure way. It’s too bad I passed before I could make any good of this facility. My college (a Jesuit instituition) has a community radio called “Saarang”, read about it here:

    • Thanks Sindhu. It is great to see change and it gives an example of what we are trying to achieve. Small but sustained changes that will eventually become the norm.

  12. NSS is an effort to outreach into the community. However it is purely executed. NCC is an another effort. College festivals yet another. There might not be newspapers like in universities here, but every department has a bulletin board ( not for notices ) but for students creative efforts – economical way of student output. You are comparing Universities sustained by corporate endorsements with colleges (not IIT Bombay, ) with zero funding/sponsorships. here too it is difficult to enter inside university buildings – you need your ID in city universities. I have seen college premises in Bombay used as places for homeless to sleep at night. That is not a pleasant sight to see, you don’t have that problem in universities here. college teachers here are motivated by the corporate funding that one can recieve for projects for community in a large way ( CSR efforts ), these things are mostly reserved as rural projects in India . Since you have not personally studied in Indian colleges, you cannot say ALL is bad !! – which seems to be the essence of your post.

    • 2nd sentence -” However it is poorly executed”

  13. To Anrosh (and others as well!) –

    I would agree with Anrosh and take this one step further. If one is carefully reading the newspapers, recently there were a lot of news stories, editorial and op-eds in mainstream Indian print media (The Times of India and The Hindu) about foreign universities coming to India to set up campuses. Though what became of it is not clear because the stories suddenly stopped – even those that are buried deep inside news papers stopped.

    But there was one comment but the current head of Oxford (or was it Cambridge, I could not be sure – I could find out and leave a link for the story later) that was critical. This was followed by a few op-eds by senior professors of Indian origin currently teaching in US universities.

    The most important of this commentary was this – Universities in the USA are based more on public endowments. Yale and Harvard for example were set up be individuals. In India, however, universities and educational institutions set up on public endowments are as rare as an honest Indian cop (pardon the pun!). Without going into the reasons for the same – it is because of this reason the ‘people’ tend to be more involved with their colleges, schools and universities.

    I find this is a correct observation. The universities and colleges set up by private individuals are almost all set up with only and exclusively commercial considerations. We have plenty of private engineering college, business school and recently law school (eg. Jindal Global Law School) that are set up by private individuals. And almost every time, the people behind these projects are businessmen.

    Quite obviously then the culture that results is commercial and what gets neglected and eventually dies is a culture of academic rigor. And then the vast divide in Indian society between the proverbial ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ results in these colleges and schools being looked at as elitist institutions.

    Not to sound biased, but I have personally observed a lot of academic arrogance in graduates of these elite colleges – and the more elite the college and more academic arrogance they have.

    I’m not sure what happens in US culture but I suspect that what I term as ‘academic arrogance’ is not quite as apparent as it is here in India. Furthermore, academic arrogance might even be justified or acceptable in cases where the person really has something to boast about (say a research assistant in MIT working or some big project or a Harvard Law grad) – but in India they are arrogant just because they made it to an IIT or IIM. This I think is also one of the important things that deeply separates Indian and American academic cultures.

  14. khagesh:

    The elitist attitude or behavior of kids who made it to top ranking universities is very much present in the US.

    Again Vikram’s experience is from one of the top ranking universities in the US and a very prestigous too. Financial Backing ( oil money is plenty in the state and UT Austin has extremely good funding in many departments. Because of the moolah, Faculty gets more than enough money to take on projects and extra curricular projects and the freedom to do so. Most of these projects become publications. Actually the tenure/seniority of faculty members depend on these factors and others.

    Now there are different tiers of Universities – the funding for a community college is very tight and Industry funding will be considered as a lottery. Faculties are heavily loaded on teaching and does not have time to lend to other projects .

    So What vikram has written about a “vow” community outreach can NOT be generalised to all colleges/Univesities in the US.

    You might find The chronicle of Higher Education interesting.

  15. @An. I think a lot of people have misinterpreted this post. I am not proposing open campuses or community radio as a cure all for India’s higher education woes. I am trying to use certain specific examples to highlight the lack of community engagement by Indian univs.

    This community engagement does not have to come with open campuses. I spent my entire childhood near the IIT Mumbai campus, went to a nearby school, but not once were school kids invited to see an engineering lab inside one of the country’s top technical institutes. Not once did I hear of an IIT or University of Mumbai prof engage him/herself in the community. What about UT ? Heard of Robert Jensen,

    I agree that this is not the case in all Indian schools and I agree that there are many different ways to engage in the community. But my point is that Indian univs predominantly dont even think along these lines. And the result is that the community loses out on an important intellectual resource and produces a student body which is mostly unconcerned about the broader society.

  16. […] Read this article: The college culture of the United States and India: Part 4 […]

  17. vikram i hear you – You should know by now that Indian schools have no time table reserved for projects such as what you are saying – Teachers think , ” the kids are young, they won’t understand” . And most teachers/school principals do not have the motivation – who wants to take the “khatpat”

    “Not once did I hear of an IIT or University of Mumbai prof engage him/herself in the community.” – This is not correct, may be they did not get the PR they needed. All these things do not make news in India as it should because media knows that covering bolly wood news in media is the selling point

    Another important factor- Even peers of professors do not think that engaging in community efforts is something to be applauded on – You will get more brownie points if you work something that leads to western validation, than community efforts – This is basically the indian psyche. Only those who are jobless/or do not have any better to do does “social work” – read that with a “condescending” tone.

    Have you heard about taking your kids to work day? Minus the modern day yuppies, how many parents have wanted to take their kids to work – Is it because Indian society want to lead disengaged lives ?

  18. What in particular you wanted me to note on the website ? What Jensen writes about are only but a dream in india.

  19. Yet again sir…I think ur a bit behind times…

    The main reason why institutes have walls is for safety. One thing is for sure, that if the campus was indeed open,surely the rates of use of alcohol,cigarettes,drugs etc is surely going to rocket. Students would wander here and there at late night, leading to an obvious rise in cases of theft,mugging,rape,accidents etc.

    About a thing about politics which you mentioned in a prev, post of yours, i believe its best we let young students to just concentrate on their careers for the moment, let them have their moments of peace and complete a happy complete transition to an independent adult.

    Politics, is definitely not a very nice career prospective is it? The present image of politicians has anyways disillusioned the youth a lot.

    Its best we separate the students from political parties…unless you want fights between factions of different parties in the campus…and the youth participating in riots and bandhs…
    (seriously…do think about it)

    Returning to the present post,
    Many institutes in the country have organization chapters and clubs, devoted to social work. The students aren’t blind to not notice.

    In my institute itself, BITS Pilani,Goa Campus, there are prominently two major and popular organizations- Nirmaan (this does social work like helping and educating the people in slum areas,providing alternative means of employment to esp. women like paper bag making and selling through a safe profitable channel etc )

    and Abhigyaan [In this initiative, 4 times a week,and on special occasions. children from poor families come inside the classrooms (its actually a great thing for them you know…to visit a classroom meant for higher education in such an insti…their smiles are indeed so beautiful…),and are taught on a one-to-one basis by Student volunteers…(once allotted the pair remains together). Contests are also organized at Government schools, and prizes awarded in the college auditorium, in front of a crowd of more than 2000 youngsters, who just can’t help applauding and encouraging them(esp. those with butterflies in their stomach) up on the stage =) ]

    There are a few other organizations related to social welfare, like an NSEF chapter etc

    And believe me sir, a person or a group of persons who is recognized leading an independent start-up organization, esp. if its related to social welfare,or winner of some award, is very highly regarded and respected by many, compared to a guy with CGPA 10.

    Even the faculty appreciates and tries to participate in such things.

    In fact, many senior students are starting such enterprises, which wish to involve the under privileged and improve their lives, too.

    Actually I even hope to join & assist a friend of mine, in his endeavor…(I have just finished my first yr :))

    And regarding the Institute-community interaction, many college fests including our very own tech fest “Quark”, often has a whole bunch of events for school students, with tours of labs and facilities.

    Things are different in India sir…just like life in India is diff…in fact diff even from city to city, town to town,village to village…you might live a highly westernized life in metros, but still…you remain Indian…the festivals,the language etc

    Same is the case with the college culture…”Its Different!” 😉 (quoting from a famous tomato ketchup ad)…yes, its just different…and we need to accept that…not mimic another country’s culture.

    Good Day! =)

  20. I would like to add some more things I noticed here in the usa: schools starting from pre-school place emphasis on teaching students about compassion(charity) or giving to the under-privileged. These teachings are not just talk, but actual practice where they ask students to donate used toys, clothes or new clothes, food etc. to a local charity. Local police, fire-fighters etc visit schools and the kids get field trips to fire-stations, local farms, parks etc. Civic sense is taught at a very early age and awareness about the community at large is instilled at a young age(starting from pre-school). So, I think it’s a difference in culture. Indian schools are kind of closed to the community around them. When I studied in school in India, we did not get a visit from the local fireman or police man nor did our school emphasise on civic values or giving back to the community. We did not get to go on a field-trip to any place in our town. So, I guess we cannot expect universities in India to suddenly start doing something that is alien to the culture…

  21. […] The busiest day of the year was June 3rd with 537 views. The most popular post that day was The college culture of the United States and India: Part 4. […]

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