Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Great Indian University: A Rejoinder

Since writing the post on The Great Indian University earlier, I received an email from Mandeep S Bakshi, a valued colleague and co-traveller, someone who is interested in Indian Education, both as a concerned citizen and a parent of someone taking career decisions. These views were put on an email because it was longer than the word limits allowable for comments on posts, for some reason which I don't understand. However, I thought it was appropriate to publish the email in full for public consumption, and make a separate post, as this email enhances my understanding and previous statements regarding the issues involved.

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Hi Supriyo

With reference to your blog on A Great Indian University on August 5, I would like to pen my thoughts. These are based upon my understanding and appreciation of the issues involved.

If you recollect, in one of our earliest interactions, I had expressed my intent to get meaningfully associated with the education sector. Unfortunately, this interest could not get converted to a full time involvement – either as an entrepreneur or as an employee. This is not so much as my interest in the sector dwindling, but more because of not getting an entry point that would satisfy me –lesser from the financial perspective, but more from getting that “Eureka” moment that serendipitously would tell me that it is the right time and opportunity. All my interactions in the sector, either to identify business opportunities or as an employee in management cadre were, to say the least, disappointing. All I could see was that it was the same rat race of getting more revenue, opening up more units and getting more enrolment. Nothing wrong in these objectives – but these could not be the ONLY objectives – without any focus or commitment to address the quality issue or, most importantly, the core issue of churning out graduates with degrees (or should I say competencies) that had no relevance to the corporate sector – or even, the society at large. So, I continued in the rat race in the sector, where, at least, I had some domain knowledge.

However, this did not mean that my interest diminished. I tried to keep myself abreast with the happenings in the sector by reading (including your blogs - although must confess, not regularly and not all of them), helping my daughter & nephews who were finishing high school / graduation in their search for higher education and jobs – this gave me the student perspective, and undertook few teaching assignments as a visiting faculty in a couple of “B” level management institutes in the country – this gave me the academia perspective.  So penning my thoughts on, what, I think are the key issues for this sector in India. Before I start, would like to mention that these thoughts are at the best an outside – inside view into the sector.

1.       The Indian higher education sector has 3 players – Government: that has the job of policy making, regulating and ensuring that the education reaches the masses; Educational machinery: Universities, colleges with its infrastructure- passive (buildings, equipment etc) & active (Teachers, content, softwares etc); and Industry (corporate & social sector) - who consume the output of the education system- the students and provide feedback to the first 2 entities. Needless to say, all 3 have to work in tandem – but easier said than done. Enveloping all these 3 is the technology that is changing at a pace that adds a totally new and critical dimension to the entire sector.

2.       Technology is the piece that is running much faster and ahead of the entire ecosystem. Picture it like the 3 pillar ecosystem being in a box and technology is the wind, or should I say  hurricane, that is blowing the box away and the 3 elements inside the box are all turned upside down and disoriented. Developments in content aggregation and delivery methodologies & mechanisms are running far ahead of other elements.  One can see the active infrastructure catching up, but what is really struggling to keep pace is the passive infrastructure, the policy framework and the industry – academia interaction platforms. While, there is plenty of work happening in the areas of policy formulation and facilitating industry – academia interaction, although limited by the government’s inability and probably, unwillingness to implement these, it is the way forward on passive infrastructure that is the piece that does not fit in. In this regard, I would refer to one of your posts, where you questioned the continuing relevance of universities as they way they have existed till now in wake of growth of MOOCs (notwithstanding the challenges) and building of online learning communities. Not that the physical infrastructure will lose relevance, but it will have to change and move towards sharing of infrastructure (more like it happens in telecom companies).

3.       Another area that requires urgent attention is the industry – academia interface. Today there is just not enough of it happening, with both blaming the other for lack of interest and understanding. I have interacted with the academia in a few institutions, and can say while there is a good amount of appreciation of the need to have much greater interaction with the industry, there is an appalling lack of urgency in driving initiatives to do so. They are still content on just filling in seats for their courses and churning out graduates. There is almost, a shocking gap between what the graduates perceive their place to be in the industry (in terms of job content, salary package, position) and what the industry thinks of their capabilities. Result is just a ballooning number of unemployable graduates, which is getting highlighted in study after study. The problem is that the culmination of this gap is going to be felt most by society at large, and could, in its extreme form, be in shape of social unrest.

While in the above comments, I have highlighted what is not happening right, I must also mention, what I think, are  encouraging trends. First of these is the just developing trend of liberal arts program. This program, at least partially, aims to address the issues of employability as outlined in your blog of 7th August.  While evaluating various options for my daughter (post her completing 12 grade from Mumbai CBSE board), I went into this in certain depth. This course differs from other “mainstream “courses in four aspects. Firstly it is a 4 year course as against 3 year graduate course, with the first year being devoted exclusively to foundation courses required for every student, irrespective of specialisation he/she chooses. Secondly this course allows the field of specialisation to be decided in 2nd year, thus allowing more time for student to decide away from the influence of parents ‘choices.  Thirdly the program builds in internship program and actual industry experience as a part of curriculum- thus attempting to bridge the industry – academia gap. Fourthly it allows the students to mix and match courses (double major, major-minor etc) thus allowing multiple skills to be acquired in line with changing industry requirements.

These programs are still very exclusive with a course costing anything between 3-5 lacs per annum and offered by institutes like Symbiosis, FLAME (both in Pune) and now being offered by Ashoka University and OP Jindal University. The last 2 are starting off this year. (Was quite impressed by Ashoka University for variety of reasons – but would leave an exclusive discussion on this to when we meet later this month). 

Another exciting and related development – which subsequently turned out to be a big disappointment, was the 4 Year under Graduate program (FYUP) of Delhi University, that aimed to provide the very frame work of Liberal Arts to the masses, which none of the universities mentioned in previous paragraph could.  Unfortunately, this initiative was scuttled, thanks to political interference. (We have already exchanged views on this in earlier interactions).

Notwithstanding the collapse of the FYUP, this probably shows the framework of a program that may work and could be developed further to convert an idea of higher education into an implementable venture that could have the backing of all concerned – academia, Government and Industry with meaningful participation from all.

Look forward to your views and discussions on this when you are in Mumbai later this month.

Thanks & Best Regards

Mandeep

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