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One man dreams of an empire, built on wreckage of India’s chaotic public universities

    EDITOR’S NOTE — It’s one of the fundamental challenges for colleges in the 21st century: How to make higher education serve a growing population without compromising quality. In India, where the economy is growing quickly but the public university system is on the verge of chaos, one man thinks he’s found the answer. This story is another in an occasional series.

    NOIDA, India — On the campus of Amity University, pretty much everything is a work in progress.
    It’s a place where eager students with corporate dreams step through tangles of extension cords and crunch bits of concrete underfoot on their way to class. It’s a place where lectures can be drowned out by the scream of electric saws, and where construction workers sometimes seem to outnumber students.
    Three years ago, this was nothing but 60 unremarkable acres on the fringes of an expanding New Delhi suburb — an expanse of vegetable fields and wandering animals.
    Today, it’s the pride of one of the fastest-growing private school systems in India. And if Amity’s founder has his way, in less than a decade it will be the center of a vast chain of private universities, feeding a ravenous middle-class appetite for education left unfulfilled by the public university system.
    ‘‘We want to have hundreds of thousands of students,’’ said Ashok Chauhan, the ever-upbeat businessman who has, to the dismay of many traditionalists, emerged as one of most powerful people in Indian education.
    Government universities, he said, ‘‘have not been able to deliver what people wanted. ... They are ruining the country.’’
    In many developing countries, governments are failing to satisfy the soaring demand for higher education. Even the United States is coming to rely increasingly on a booming sector of for-profit education companies, which are drawing customers with promises of better value and teaching. The latest government figures put for-profit college enrollment at more than 5 percent of the U.S. total, up from 1.6 percent a decade earlier.
    That same trend is playing out on a massive scale in India, with its enormous population and terrific economic growth. As a result, the nation is becoming a laboratory for capitalism’s potential to provide the answer for education, but also a showcase for possible pitfalls.
    India’s higher education system is so hobbled by underfunding, corruption, outdated teaching materials and bureaucratic infighting that — except at a handful of hyper-elite, brutally competitive institutions — it often seems on the brink of collapse.
    A government report last year found that just 8 percent of Indians of university age are in higher education. That’s half the average of the rest of Asia, with hundreds of thousands unable to find spots at schools.
    That’s where Chauhan comes in, a man far from the typical educator. He’s an industrialist, a businessman — and a man wanted in Germany on fraud charges. He’s a self-proclaimed philanthropist who is often surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards, grim-looking men in polyester safari suits.
    But a little more than 15 years after he began Amity as a small management institute, he and his schools have become ubiquitous. There are now 45,000 students, 2,500 faculty members and over 600 acres of campuses. There are highly competitive Amity grammar schools and university degrees ranging from interior design to aerospace engineering. The jingle from Amity’s ads has become background noise across the television spectrum.
    It can be hard to separate Chauhan from his university. Chauhan’s birthday is celebrated here with a monthlong sports festival. His wife’s birthday merits a weeklong discussion of ‘‘human values.’’ His son Atul is the university chancellor. Chauhan said he expects his family to control it for generations.
    Sitting behind a wooden desk in his oddly bare office, dressed in a natty pinstripe suit, his pride is obvious: ‘‘Everybody wants to know: ’What is this revolutionary thing that is happening?’’’
    The answer, he says, is simple: The free market brings him students in droves.
    ‘‘If someone is delivering a better good, a better material ... automatically the buyer will go to the place where the quality is better,’’ Chauhan said.
    This is how Chauhan talks. Students are ‘‘buyers,’’ at least when they’re not ‘‘raw products’’ and higher education is unapologetically a path toward corporate success.
    ‘‘We take a raw product, we train them, we make them capable of success in the industrial and commercial environments,’’ he said. ‘‘Our curriculum, our syllabi, is totally tuned to what industry requires.’’
    If that sounds crass, the students who fill Chauhan’s campuses say it’s the nature of getting ahead in modern India.
    ‘‘Money is everything,’’ said Mohammed Wasey, a 19-year-old law student, relaxing with friends outside the university gate on an autumn afternoon. ‘‘That’s why I’m here.’’
    And here’s another thing about Amity that students will tell you: It works.
    Unlike many public universities, as well as dozens of fly-by-night private diploma mills, Amity gives its students the basics. It’s far from the best university in India — it has a reputation as a respectable, if hardly outstanding school — but it has well-tended buildings, laboratories filled with equipment and professors who take time for their students. There are job seminars and professional counseling for soon-to-be graduates.
    In India, such things count as serious accomplishments.
    ‘‘In the public universities, nobody cares about you. You just go to class and labs,’’ said Tony Premu, a second-year Amity biotechnology student. ‘‘Here, they take care of us.’’
    While India’s public university system has occasional bright spots — the Indian Institute of Technology, for instance, is among the best in the world — horror stories are far more common.
    There’s the University of Lucknow, where police had to be deployed after a new administrator announced a ban on cheating. At Stanley Medical College, students occupied the dean’s office after a wave of illness swept through garbage-filled dormitories, leaving 18 students sick and one dead. There are the dozens of universities where professors regularly skip classes, and dozens more where student elections often lead to violence.
    Government advisers say there simply aren’t enough students in higher education. India, they argue, needs to more than double the number of students in colleges and universities, to about 15 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds, in order to keep up with the global economy.
    It is, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a speech earlier this year, ‘‘a dysfunctional educational system.’’
    Meanwhile, the economy in this once semi-socialist country of 1.1 billion people has grown explosively over the past decade, with technology and outsourcing leading the way. While India still has hundreds of millions of people living in poverty, by some estimates it also has some 250 million middle class citizens developing a taste for consumer culture. Higher education has become the pathway to that prosperity — and entrepreneurs are tapping into the dreams of young people and their parents alike.
    ‘‘Get MBA!!!’’ scream a series of posters plastered along a highway in New Delhi, India’s sprawling, crowded capital. ‘‘We Can Get You In!’’ promises a billboard for a tutoring company, the photograph showing a young man in a graduate’s cap and gown.
    Cram schools for university entrance exams have become a multimillion-dollar business, and murky brokers can now be found in most cities, promising acceptance letters to less-than-stellar students in exchange for arranging ‘‘donations’’ that can range upward of $25,000.
    Amity has become one of the biggest players in this industry.
    It may remain small by Indian standards — the University of Delhi, for instance, has some 220,000 students — but Amity’s exponential growth shows no signs of slowing.
    ‘‘My mission is, by 2015, we have become the biggest education provider in this country,’’ said Chauhan, who hopes to have 1.5 million students and colleges or universities in every state.
    That’s a good thing, some observers say, arguing that private institutes of higher education — places like Amity, Rai University and Manipal University — are an urgently needed piece of the educational puzzle.
    ‘‘We need help from anywhere and everywhere we can get it,’’ said Sam Pitroda, a telecommunications baron who heads the National Knowledge Commission, an education advisory group established by the prime minister. ‘‘The government alone can’t do it.’’
    But for Chauhan’s critics, private schools are little more than moneymaking schemes.
    ‘‘It’s all about profit for him,’’ said Vijendra Sharma, a Delhi University professor who studies Indian higher education. ‘‘Without the profit motive, there would be no private universities.’’
    Certainly an enormous amount of money flows into Amity. Including room and board, Amity University charges about $5,000 a year — about 10 times the cost for a public university — and a decent-sized fortune to the vast majority of Indians.
    And Chauhan, Sharma notes, has his murkier side. Chauhan and his brother, who ran a network of companies in Germany, were charged with fraud after allegedly cheating two banks out of nearly $2.2 million in the early 1990s, said Doris Moeller Scheu, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor in Frankfurt.
    Through a spokeswoman, Chauhan denied the charges. ‘‘This is some wrong information,’’ said Savita Mehta, Amity’s vice president for communications. She did not respond to repeated follow-up calls.
    Chauhan, though, clearly knows about money. His family has made fortunes from businesses ranging from petrochemicals to herbal medicines.
    While Indian law requires private universities to be non-profit, most — including Amity — are widely believed to be money-making machines. With financial disclosure laws largely unknown in India, there is little public data about the university’s finances.
    Chauhan insists his wealth has nothing to do with Amity
    ‘‘I don’t take a cent’’ from the school, he said. ‘‘I don’t take a salary.’’

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