How do you train forty million tigers?

There has been much discussion of the potential change that MOOCs and other recent developments will bring to higher education in the US. But the country with arguably the greatest opportunity and need for transformation of higher education is India.

As is usually the case with India, the scale is breathtaking. There are already nearly as many Indians enrolled in post-secondary programs (roughly 19 million) as in the U.S. And there is no question that number will increase dramatically in the coming years. The government has set a goal of roughly doubling the gross enrollment ratio to 30% by 2020 and the working population is expected to grow by 76 million over the same period (growth that dwarfs most of the other regions of the world except Africa) as a demographic bulge comes of age. Projections of what the growth in the number of students will actually be range from 9 to more than 30 million. Whatever the specific number, the challenge is clearly immense: imagine if US institutions had seven years to double the students they serve.

Yet providing enough spaces is probably the least of the challenges India faces in this higher education boom. The number of institutions has already risen dramatically in recent years to roughly 610 universities and 33,000 colleges. There were more than 2,000 applications for new colleges in 2010 alone, though this reportedly slowed along with the economy in recent years. Most of the growth has been in private institutions: 76% of those pervasive colleges are private. That growth has clearly come at the expense of quality. A McKinsey report found that only 25% of the engineers in India were fit for work in multinational companies. And there is a constant flow of stories of quality undermined by corruption and profiteering: my personal favorite is of one new university that issued more than 2,500 PhDs within two years, some of them in fields the institution did not teach.

Improving equity will be a similar struggle.  Student loans have taken off over the past decade and many families are already struggling with their burden: roughly 2% of loans are non-performing. The government has put forward proposals to ease the financial burden, but it is unclear when they will take effect and the impact they will have.

Devesh Kapur calls this the “trilemma” of higher education – volume, quality, equity – in an excellent overview piece and asserts that India will only be able to address two priorities at a time. That is likely true with traditional models. But we believe that Kepler and similar models have the potential to transcend that trade-off. Regardless of where you stand in the online education debate, it is clear that higher education models can and will change substantially. The low base from which India is starting could be a major asset – building anew is always easier than reforming, particularly in a tradition-bound sector like higher education – but only if the country is willing to pursue new models from the start. Instead of pouring money into traditional models, India could embrace the current wave of change and spring past over other countries in quality and equity as well as sheer numbers.

That innovation is already underway. Breaking from the country’s focus on technical education, a group of prominent business leaders and educators are building what has the potential to be India’s first great private liberal arts institution: Ashoka University. They have a vision of providing students with the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills they will need to be truly transformative leaders of the countries’ businesses and governments in the future. Importantly, they are simultaneously developing their own MOOC – AshokaX – to extend their reach far beyond the physical limitations of their initial campus north of Delhi. It will be exciting to watch where they take that model. A range of smaller start-ups have also sprung up to fill critical gaps such as enabling firms to robustly assess the abilities of graduates of the endless institutions.

Unsurprisingly, byzantine regulation is a potential major impediment to the necessary widespread innovation. The hoops that a new university has to jump through to receive approval to grant degrees include:

  • An initial dense proposal in order to trigger an invitation from the government to begin investing to try to meet later requirements;
  • Securing a minimum volume of land (100k sq. ft. in one State) and buildings and at least $1 million each of both books and computers;
  • Initial review and approval by a technical committee;
  • Approval by the State parliament to be written into legislation (an existing private universities bill in some states and a bill unique to the institution in others);
  • Approval by the State governor;
  • Review at approval by one or more of the 13 current federal regulatory bodies, such as the University Grants Commission in the case of a general university;

Reform plans have been mooted, such as consolidating the national agencies under a single oversight coordinator, but it is unlikely the overall red tap will diminish in the near future. As the frequent corruption stories show, these hurdles are likely to serve as more of a deterrent to innovators than as a bulwark against exploitation and poor quality. But it is heartening to recall that similar labyrinths have existed in other sectors in India and have not prevented growth and innovation.

There are further barriers to contribution to this change from abroad. Foreign institutions have been technically prevented from granting degrees in the country to date, though this has not prevented productive collaborations such as one where the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offered full degrees through a local partner around the turn of the millennium. New national legislation on foreign institutions has been in the works for years, but nobody has been able to tell me precisely what that will change if and when it passes.

Despite the inevitable headaches these regulations will create, the opportunities are immense. And the need is equally large: the rapid growth of the country in recent decades has been attributed partly to the excellence of the IITs and other top institutions, but the country will need much broader advanced education to realize its potential in the coming decades. The efforts to rise to that challenge will be a massive and fascinating challenge. We will continue to watch it closely and explore whether Kepler and similar models can play a role in that experiment.

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One thought on “How do you train forty million tigers?

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I think two other factors that are really limiting higher education in India, even amongst the top universities, are the reliance on rote memorization and the pure focus on the sciences and engineering. The style of learning seems to be a deep set legacy. Many top execs at biotech/pharma firms say that it takes years of training for any new grad to participate in a R&D unit as they graduate with a tendency to follow directions but not to apply their knowledge to problem solve.

    And of course high quality STEM programs are critical in any country, especially in India, but the way that the current system is set up it’s most often the students whose scores are not sufficiently high for engineering programs who filter into the social sciences and humanities. As a result, the fields relying on those graduates are faced with second tier graduates or bright people who think of themselves as below the bar.

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