|Photo: Pranay Parab|
Online education programmes can change that, as they make it possible for students to study in a virtual classroom with live interaction. University of the People is an online university that allows students to pursue a tuition-free, accredited US bachelor's degree for with a one-time application fee of $50 (roughly Rs. 3,300) and then a $100 (roughly Rs. 6,600) fee to appear for each examination. The classes are all free, but you can't get the degree without exams, so you do have to pay some money. Even so, the price is a lot closer to what most people can afford and the university offers scholarships to those who can't. The university is non-profit and offers two bachelor's degrees - in business administration and computer science.
The university was accredited by the Distance and Education Training Council (now known as Distance Education Accrediting Commission) in 2014. The degrees are also recognised by the US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
"Around 25 million Indians are unable to pursue higher education. We don't just offer higher education. It's high quality education," says Shai Reshef, president of the University of the People, who met Gadgets 360 on a recent visit to Delhi. "India is probably the number one country that needs us."
Reshef has fond memories of his visits to India. On a previous visit he met the former President APJ Abdul Kalam, who passed away recently. "[President Kalam] volunteered to teach for us. I don't know if he had the time or if he meant to do that but I felt very flattered that he wants to do so. He said India needs you," Reshef says. "I was really sad to hear about his death. I think he was a great person and a great leader."
Any online learning programme faces steep challenges in India. The biggest barriers are availability of an Internet-connected device, reliable Internet access, and, finally, language. Reshef says solving the first problem requires finances that University of the People doesn't have. "Haiti is the only place where we set up a student computer centre after the  earthquake. We offered free education to 250 students," he says. "It is expensive. We are unable financially to do it [in other regions]."
On the other hand, as smartphones and 3G Internet become more affordable, access might not be as big an issue, provided University of the People can actually demonstrate the value of its offering.
Breaking the language barrier is a lot harder. It requires teachers and course material both to be available in the language that students speak. That's why the university's programmes are currently limited to students proficient in English. In spite of these barriers, 90 Indian students have enrolled with the University of the People. The university says it has a mix of youngsters and older students, many of whom are juggling jobs with studies.
Santu Guin is one of those students. "After I finished my 12th [standard exams] and ITI [a course in an Industrial Training Institute] I was looking for a job because there is no other person to take care of my family. I wanted to study, but there is no chance to get a job when I was studying," Guin, who is pursuing a computer science degree, tells Gadgets 360 via email...
To keep working as a non-profit, University of the People relies on volunteers, and Reshef says the university has 4,000 volunteering professors. "We only ask a small percentage of them to become instructors. In order to become an instructor you have to sign a contract. You'll receive an honorarium and will have to spend 10-15 hours per week in the class," he says. "They can't leave us in the middle of the course. Most of them when they start teaching with us, they don't leave. They continue to teach for years," he adds. The three students Gadgets 360 interviewed were happy with professors and said that they're very responsive to student queries.
Reshef says the university has begun attracting plenty of students since it received US accreditation in 2014. Attracting talented students or teachers isn't the university's biggest challenge. "Our biggest challenge is that people don't know about us. If we spend a big marketing budget then we can't remain tuition-free," he says, adding that the university is in discussions with India's HRD Ministry, in order to reach more students.
Reshef says he wanted to introduce HRD Ministry officials to University of the People and speak to them about the status of online learning in the US. "There is a huge shortage of seats in quality academic institutions in India, and yet there is a huge demand for better access to quality higher education - online learning is the only way to bridge the gap," says Reshef.