Monday, June 23, 2014

Waiting for A Tipping Point in Indian Education

I am deeply interested in the developments in the Indian Higher Education system, simply because this is the world's greatest opportunity and greatest challenge in Higher Ed today. It is not simply the number of students, which is massive, but also the sheer complexity of it, linguistic, political and economic, is equally fascinating. The comment I used to make in jest - that India is education's El Dorado, because everyone wants to go there and no one knows how - had indeed more than just a grain of truth.

This has now become a full time occupation for me to study and talk about Indian education. I cherish the opportunities of talking to people who are already working in Indian Education, and usually end up pontificating about the billion dollar opportunity they have in front of them. Some, if not most, of these conversations are usually frustrating. They prove another of my lighthearted observations: That demand corrupts, and huge demand corrupts hugely. Despite the fascinating opportunity and complexity in the Indian Higher Ed, most of the players are usually satisfied to play 'low ball': Their offerings are low quality and they are obsessed with making the short term money than going for the big opportunity. None of the Indian players seems to be wanting to take the opportunity of the huge domestic market and come to the global stage to compete with the likes of Laureate; they are quite content to live with lower ambitions just as their counterparts in IT are quite happy to their position in the global value chain.

However, to be fair to Indian providers, one of the biggest issues they had to deal with is crippling regulation. It is not just that the Indian regulators are intrusive; they are also incompetent, inconsistent and corrupt. The fact that Indian education industry is afflicted with low quality providers is indeed primarily due to its regulators. However, there is hope that this is going to change.

The new government in Delhi promises 'minimum government' and this may imply change in the way education is regulated. Indeed, a free-for-all system isn't desirable, given where the Indian Higher Ed is today. But surely the government's advisors will make the case for a more streamlined and efficient regulator to encourage private investment. Indian IT industry may not be ready to produce a Google or a Facebook, but riding on the domestic demand, Indian education may produce the equivalent of one. And, if that company could master India, they would garner the strengths of being one of the world's best.

Indeed, there are lots of discussions in India about creating 'world class' universities, but that won't create the world-beating formula that could potentially emerge within the Indian Higher Ed. The discussion about world class education is not about any innovation - it is about a mad attempt to copy the American University, as if Harvard could be built within a generation.

In fact, the conversation about creating a Harvard-like Liberal Arts University in India is symptomatic that the Indian education entrepreneurs still have to come of age. They are still pursuing a model where they have no strengths and indeed many handicaps, and which does not leverage the biggest strength they are sitting on - abundant demand! The Indian education paradigm, which Phil Altbach calls 'Tiny at the Top', has proven to have failed, but yet, it refuses to die. No one seems to be ready for Googlesque ambition for the Indian education market.

This is perhaps because India is the ultimate disruption territory for Higher Ed. The margin-driven Western thinking (which centers around the vacuous claim of educational quality) can not just handle India: Its rough-and-ready students who can't pay much isn't interesting enough even for Laureate. This is the classic non-use territory, and one knows clearly that if someone can break the circle of doom of low price and low quality, something wonderful could happen. And, if the regulators are put on a leash, something of that nature may now just happen.

I see this disruption coming from a smart combination of learning technology, distributed campuses, employer interfaces and innovative curriculum, which is offered without the vanity prices of the Western institutions. All the elements are already present in India, but the services mindset, the obsession with somehow getting some teacher to teach some students without thinking through the 'graduate attributes', the values, or even the proposition, dominates all. So, instead of seeing the building blocks of a world-beating enterprise, visiting an Indian school is like visiting a museum of Jugaad, a display of the inadequate and the irrelevant.

Indeed, I see this as an opportunity and I know that this is going to happen. This is just too inviting an opportunity for the requisite ideas, capital and people not to come together. Education gets crowded out by other opportunities in India, the returning migrants usually do shopping malls, restaurants or IT companies, rather than touching educational enterprises, fearing the complexity. But the reduction of the complications, a general optimism about India's economy and a friendly state government may quickly facilitate a tipping point.

 

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