Monday, May 13, 2013

Indian Higher Education: Notes from a Field Trip

In the last two weeks, my colleagues and I have gone around India, from Mangalore to Meerut, from Mumbai to Kolkata, meeting a cross-section of institutions, understanding the work they are doing and indeed, seeking to establish partnerships to offer our Global/Local programmes. We have visited Central and State institutions, Deemed Universities and State Universities, Technical colleges and Skills training companies, as well as publishers, international schools and corporate training organisations. It was impressive to see the education enterprise in India in action, the massive build up of teaching institutions, the sprawling campuses, libraries, sports facilities and the like. It was educative to understand the nuances of the regulatory system, what these institutions can or can not do, the rhetoric of the policy and the reality of its implementation. We also saw a system in crisis, curriculum that was not changed for many years, a student population focused narrowly on employment outcomes and missing somewhat the point of education, a teaching pool massively strained at the wake of massive expansion and no formal structure of skills development, and unsustainable business models too heavily dependent on bank borrowing and funding from investors mostly with a short term time horizon. We saw institutions who are doing well - who are confident about the future and filled their seats easily - and those who are on the brink of insolvency.

In a previous post, I expressed my joy at the lack of student demand affecting the sector, as if students are voting with their feet and expressing dissatisfaction with the system. In one way, this is the very visible hand of the market sorting out the good from the bad, a systemic cleansing that always follows the mindless expansion. I also celebrated the fact that the regulatory system seems to be in crisis, and because this is a system which has failed the students, that is good rather than bad news. Now, at the tail end of this visit, as I wait in the Bangalore Airport to board my flight home, it is time for me to reflect and perhaps strike a cautionary note: While I believe that the current crisis will cleanse the sector of the institutions that have clearly failed and shake up the regulatory system, there is a further back story to this back story, that of the conversation about what an Indian university should be and what it should do. The crisis at private technical school end and the complacence and decay in the public sector aren't automatically going to create a better education system: It may as well spawn a terminal crisis and undo even the foundation of good technical education that was built in the aftermath of Independence. It may stop, rather than start, the conversation about reforming the education system, discourage rather than encourage innovation and clear the space for mercenary education predators rather than creating a new breed of education entrepreneurs.

There are some evidence that this is already happening. Business Today's cover story last week was about Broken IITs, how the expansion of IIT system (for political reasons) are breaking the system itself. Same can be said about IIMs, as the conversation about lack of placements at IIM Kozikode and IIM Indore persistently come up in discussions. The once coveted institutions, Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu, Bengal Engineering College in West Bengal, Osmania University in Andhra Pradesh, and many others, have all declined with erosion of academic authority, over-politicisation of its student body, rejection of meritocracy in faculty appointments and student recruitment in favour of affirmative action. It is obvious that while access to Higher Education has become a buzzword of the modern Indian nation state, excellence in Education hardly ever gets discussed.

The same is true in Skills training as well, despite the government's efforts to inject a large amount of Cash through National Skills Development Corporation. While the money meant there is a lot of noise about skills gap, and a number of companies which will be doing something else in the absence of this money has gone into skills training because of it, the fact that this has had any impact on the national skills base is doubtful. In most cases, this money has been used by large employers to fund internal training facilities for dead-end jobs, rather than enhancing the candidates' skill. However, the negative effect of government intervention in the skills training market is the subversion of one efficient segment of the training market, which thus far operated without government support, and helped, in a large measure, to produce workers for India's other industries, such as IT, hospitality and aviation. With the lure of government money, suddenly everyone's business model is different and dependent, and a new class of people, who know how to get government money, has cropped up. So, in summary, things have somewhat got worse, not better.

The biggest problem perhaps is the sudden rise of private universities, which various state governments have started promoting. These degree granting institutions can potentially de-legitimise education rather than expanding access. The state governments have set criteria, in terms of infrastructure and money required, as well as how governing boards should be constituted, and left the rest to shape itself up. The mission and the purpose why a new university was to be set up was not discussed at all. In at least one state, the Ministers wanted to set up universities because they thought their prospects with heavy industry is really bleak, and the private universities will bring 'infrastructure investments' and 'create the jobs'! Indeed, the universities that are being set up following this policy are equally absurd - they know what they need to do in terms of building and infrastructure, but have absolutely no idea what they are going to teach.

My attempts to steer the discussion into areas such as pedagogy and graduate attributes were usually met with disdain, as these are not the subjects the new private universities are discussing. They wanted to discuss, in most cases, how to recruit students from 'abroad'. Even a nuanced discussion about where the students may come from - my broad point being South Asian students may feel more comfortable studying in India - was not part of the strategy making: The only business model that seemed to be making sense is an agent-driven model for recruitment of students, just because these universities will offer 'affordable education'. The fact that the most expensive education one could get is the one that does not work have no resonance with these new breed of universities.

Indeed, there are exceptions to this general stereotype, and we met very smart people trying to do a good job at setting up new universities, but these are few and far between. Being the optimist, I shall always count on these few new universities to set the standards and define the agenda: but it is equally plausible that their efforts will be rendered to be insignificant in the face of this general mayhem. The private universities are all For-profit businesses in the end (though they may have been set up as non-profits, their operating principle is, as an 'university owner' reminded me, to 'write one-zero-zero than zero-zero-one') and the courage to stand apart from the crowd and create a brand is difficult when the regulatory environment is so broken and promotes idiocy. The only differentiation some Indian private universities have done is to create a luxury version of education, with five star student accommodations and learning facilities, with a few trips abroad thrown into the mix, reflecting adequately the chasm in the Indian middle classes and creating a poor student/ rich student divide based on the ability to pay. The existence of these luxury universities, therefore, is a cause for concern rather than examples of 'good education': They, more than anything else, illustrate the broken state of Indian Higher Education and why the current education will be regressive rather than progressive in nature.

This rather pessimistic note is an attempt to correct my own 'hand of the market' optimism as expressed in the earlier post. Besides, education is not like buying a samosa, not even like buying a TV: One can not really buy another if the first one had gone wrong. For all the celebration of the market corrections, one has to be conscious of broken lives that a broken education is destined to cause. It is indeed timely that The Economist sounds the alarm bells that India is getting it wrong (read here) and my experiences indeed corroborate the fears expressed in the Economist article. In the final count, I am still the optimist who sees an opportunity in the broken state of affairs, but also know that the problem is big and beyond the realm of a single business to solve. The magic wand of education can surely solve the problem by creating an involved, conscious citizenry: But this is precisely where things are broken and broken badly.

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