Monday, October 31, 2011

Case for A 'New' Higher Education in India

In course of my visit in India, I am starting to get an idea of its new higher education landscape. This is why I came, and as I see things, I am excited by the opportunities it presents to education entrepreneurs. 

Indeed, the Indian higher ed has gone through significant transformation in the last few years, with an expansion of public and private investment, a few significant 'education scandals' and a new aspiring middle class knocking the doors vigorously. India is one major country in the world where the Government is still investing in Higher education: Understandably so, as the country is riding on its demographic dividend and looking to up-skill its huge young population. Indian industry is hungry for skilled workers, and as I understood from my several conversations, there are abundant middle level positions which are still unfilled despite the surge in graduate population.The private sector expansion has been fast, perhaps too fast, but broken legislation and flawed models affected real progress so far. The private sector participation has expanded the degree granting seats, but not much else, because the sector has been dominated by follow-the-herd thinking, everyone trying to offer in demand skills, and very little leadership and new thinking have been in evidence. 

For Indian Higher Education, this is best and worst of the times at the same time. Here is a case of bottomless demand, huge capacity expansion and a complete demand-supply anachronism. The reason is, like other things in India, lack of planning under the guise of overplanning. If the government had a plan for higher education, other than looking away and let some marauders make some money, it is not evident. The government's own investment was primarily channeled into creation of elite Engineering and Business colleges, though the general education colleges are the ones which serve most students and needed most funding. On the private investment side, the government tried to control the quality of education with the tool of land ownership - the regulation more or less is that you can get a college license if you own land - which completely subverts the ownership and incentives for an education business. Education has become a convenient way to employ real estate in recessionary times, and most of the surge in Higher Education, which further expanded the seats in Engineering and Business Management, is guided by this thinking rather than any strategic foresight. Indeed, the supply-demand gap is only to be expected in this situation.

The response of the industry so far has been curious. In India, you don't expect the government to do anything right, and rather try to fend for yourself. So far, instead of pressurizing the government to get the education infrastructure right, the industry has focused on setting up in-campus schools. Widely feted, this is the wrong model though: As the export-based industries face the recessionary pinch and competitive pressures from countries like Philippines, the cost of in-company training and wastage of human capital through general education that does not work, is making India Inc uncompetitive. As we come to know the limits of in-company training, the Indian industry has fallen in love with 'employability training'. These days, employability certification is being talked about at the expense of higher education. This is indeed a dirty fix, if it ever works: There is no other solution India can find to compete and succeed in world economy other than getting its Higher Ed right.

So, stage set for Higher Ed 2.0 in India? Possibly, and we have no choice but optimism. This year, MBA and engineering seats are going empty and promoters are waking up to the fact that education can be an expensive way of holding real estate. We may have failures of some educational institutions on the cards, which should finally make the regulators understand that having land is not any indicator of serious educational intention. This should throw open the business to serious educators, who should bring new innovation in the field. I can predict three things that will change in Education, for better, in the coming months.

First, the focus will shift from land and building to people, promoters and tutors, their credibility and whether they are serious about education and has the capability to teach.

Second, we shall see curriculum innovation and offerings in areas beyond Engineering and Management. Surely a society will need its teachers, accountants, artists, journalists to function, and they will become paying careers for many people. The expansion of such positions have been underserved by education sector so far.

Third, creative capacity of an individual - his or her ability to deal with diverse situations and problems - will make a comeback in education. It has been pushed out by the demands of narrow functional specialism, and now that the model does not expectedly work, we are seeking a yet narrower solution. Surely, it is time to wake up and get the model of education right.

So, that's my take-away from India - a quest for a new Higher Education. This is indeed a worthwhile thing to spend time thinking about. 

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