Indian students protest affirmative action plan

Miranda Kennedy May 12, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Indian medical students are protesting today against a proposal that would reserve half the seats at the country’s most prestigious universities for the people from the lowest rung of society. Why the outcry? The six Indian Institutes of Technology or IIT are among the most competitive schools in the world. And graduates are virtually guaranteed a fast track to the top of industry worldwide. From New Delhi, Miranda Kennedy has more.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Ankur Jain, a computer science major at IIT shows me around the slick new Advanced Networking Lab where he works for 10 or 12 hours a day on his final project: a sensor network system.

ANKUR JAIN: So this is the base station where the laptop is present, and all these are sensor nodes . . . “

Ankur says, for his last two years of high school, all he did was cram for the entrance exam to get in here.

ANKUR: I used to study a lot. Almost, if you can say, 24 hours. Not 24 hours exactly, so my mother used to always say, “Come on, go to sleep now. You got to go to sleep now. It’s too late.”

Competition for a spot is intense. Kids all over India grow up hearing that if you make it into IIT, you’re made for life. Graduates become tech gurus and top investment bankers and heads of multinational companies. This year 300,000 students will take the entrance exam. Only 3,500 will be admitted. Sandipan Deb has written a book about how hard it is to break into the schools.

SANDIPAN DEB: The IITs are the toughest schools in the world to get into. Not only engineering, but across all disciplines, they are simply the toughest schools in the world to get into. Harvard takes 1 in 13, the IITs take about 1 in 120.

Deb says because of the bad odds, Indian kids apply to MIT and Harvard as a back-up plan. So why DON’T they just go to Harvard? Well, for one, the government subsidizes the IIT schools, so students pay all of $550 a year for the best education in India.

Nandan Nilekani is one of the Institute’s most famous alums. He’s head of India’s second biggest IT company, Infosys, and was just named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. Nilekani’s used his degree to show that IIT grads can be global players.

NANDAN NILEKANI: For someone who is high on intellect and hard work but low on money, it’s a great route for getting a very high quality education which really opens doors to all kinds of jobs and opportunities. So, in that sense, it’s a terrific tool for upward mobility for young Indians.

The schools give out full scholarships to lower-caste students who can’t afford the meager fees. Now, the Indian government is talking about saving almost half of the places for low-caste students. But there’s a lot of resistance from students and alums. Krishna Rupanagunta graduated 10 years ago. He thinks setting quotas is unfair to the other students who have to work so hard to get in.

KRISHNA RUPANAGUNTA: It’s almost like you make it to a party by really struggling, and then there’s somebody who walks in through the side door.

Ankur, the computer science major, says the schools are so special that everyone should have an equal shot at getting in. He’s unequivocal about what it’s done for him.

ANKUR: I think this was the best thing that could have happened in my life. Basically, I have learned a lot from here. The environment that we get here . . . they make you a global engineer rather than just a local engineer.

Every year, nearly all of the students get jobs before they’ve even graduated. Some go on to huge success in the US — like Vinod Khosla, who co-founded Sun Microsystems. Ankur’s already landed a high paying job with Bell Labs. After he graduates later this month, he’ll join a small, elite team of guys working on cutting-edge security research in India.

In New Delhi, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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