Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Inflection Point in Indian Higher Education

2015 will be something of a watershed year in Indian Higher Education. This is the year when the children from new middle class families, as opposed to India's predominant 'government' families (meaning where the primary breadwinner worked for the government or a government supported entity), starts getting to college age. This is exactly a decade and half after the great expansion of English medium schools, call centre jobs and a sudden mobility in population enabled by the rise of Hinglish, the mixed dialect Indians invented and made their own. With China's college age population falling, India's will grow by 5 million in five years. The trouble is - their expectations of higher education will be entirely different from their predecessors.

This is the third wave of modern Indian Higher Education, if we count the nationalist expansion of higher education after the Independence as the first, and the expansion of corporate higher education in the nineties as the second. The difference between the second and the third is the emphasis: The earlier expansion was driven by the demands of the Indian industry, and the rhetoric was about employability. This suited the government families. However, the first generation corporate higher education failed to deliver this stated goal completely, as they did not understand or anticipate what the industry's requirements will be, and had to mainly work with academics steeped in the values of the past, of that of nationalist, public sector education specialists.

The coming third wave will be different as this has to now meet the requirements of the new middle class. Relatively affluent, the college applicants will look beyond employability: It will be something around meaningful employment rather than just any opportunity. The students will now demand greater freedom to choose their subject areas, and will look at diverse careers, not just engineering and management. If there is a watershed moment for this coming transformation, that was signified by the application of closure by more than 100 MBA colleges last year, led by lack of demand for hat they offered.

Indeed, the point is that not all of this will suddenly happen on 2015. This trend was already under way, if the global mobility of Indian students is to be taken into account. The numbers have grown manifold, but this went largely unnoticed in India as the regulatory regime tried its best to keep the foreign providers away. However, the students are now growing more numerous just to go away from India: Besides, a number of countries, primarily the UK, are making it very difficult for students to come. The Indian HE now must absorb the new demand, which means it must now change.

The history of India's schools may have some pointers to the coming transformation of higher education. From few excellent English medium schools to unrestrained proliferation of low quality, privately owned English medium schools, to the advent of world class, expensive schools, indicate the same shift of demand which the Higher Education must now capture. Indian government is acutely aware and is therefore fumbling with legislation to encourage private investment and greater cooperation with foreign providers. However, despite the latest, knee-jerk, liberalisation by University Grants Commission extending the invite to a poorly defined league of Top 500 global universities, it is still far from an exciting and open field. Time is fast running out, though, to build a global provision for the new middle class joining the party.

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