Indian higher education – opportunities and transformation

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Indian higher education – opportunities and transformation

By Dr Rajan Saxena
Vice Chancellor
NMIMS University, India

Traditionally India has been known as “Gyan ka Kendra” or a knowledge centre. It earned this tag because the tradition of education and training dates back to the time when the Hindu scriptures were written, and subsequently to the days of Nalanda and Taksashila, where we have had one of the most celebrated teachers known for his political, economic astuteness and understanding of the warfare, namely Chanakya. Today his work is widely referred to in matters of state, economy, and governance, much the same way as Machiavelli. The foundation of modern education system in India was laid by Lord Macaulay in 1835 during the British regime. Soon the universities at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were started in 1837 and thereafter higher education spread rapidly in India. Three medical colleges came up in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, and   an engineering college in Roorkee in 1857. After the independence, the country’s first prime minister, Pandit Nehru, understood the importance of education in the development of the nation and therefore the first education policy sowed the seeds for modern universities and national institutions like IITs, IIMs, Indian Institute of Science, All India Institute of Medical Sciences etc. With the dawn of the 21st century came an explosive growth in higher education, primarily driven by an aspirational society and entrepreneurial activity. Today the forces driving change in education are demography, technology and economic growth. At the same time, it is also driven by the changing value systems and a renewed vigour to make India a knowledge superpower.

Demographic shifts

The world today is far more populated than in the 1990s, with over 7 billion people. By 2050, another billion will be added. The largest contributors to this will be the emerging nations, especially Africa, India and China. While today Europe has aged, China and India continue to remain young nations in the world with India being the youngest at a median age of 26 years. In the age group of 15 to 24 years, which is the relevant age group for university education, it is estimated that there were 241 million people as of 2015. There has been a continuous growth in this age group. The next major relevant segment is 25 to 35 years which has another 285 million. Together these two segments account for almost 30% of the country’s population. This makes India the largest labour market and a global supplier of workforce by 2025. This demography is powering economic growth and making India a global hub for talent and  a consumption economy. It also makes it the hot spot of innovation and entrepreneurial activity and one of the largest education markets in the world.

Another significant change is the Income shifts. A large proportion of population is coming out of the shackles of poverty largely due to the globalisation of trade and services and occupation changes. India’s per capita Income grew to US$1,497 in 2013 and, on the purchasing power parity basis to US$5,350. Today, India has a large and growing middle class which comprise of 35% of the total households. This is likely to increase   to 45% by 2025.

The above changes in the income and the emergence of the middle class is also largely due to the changes in job market. New jobs, particularly in the services industry, have today created opportunities for graduates and those with professional qualifications. Even in rural India, one witnesses these occupational shifts as smaller number of boys and girls come to till the land. They are more interested in working in organised sectors, especially services sector. The consequence of these changes in occupation and income is that the middle class exists both in rural and urban areas.

Growing urbanisation has meant a change in the lifestyles and aspirations of individuals. Though still a large proportion continues to live in rural areas, there is  a  continuous  growth  of  urban  agglomerations  leading  to the birth of new towns which are generally on the outskirts of mega cities. Reaching these markets through non-conventional distribution alternatives is now an imperative which no organisation can ignore.

Migration is also from one region to another. The mobility of  labour  across states, a rare phenomenon in the 1980s, is today a reality. It gained momentum post 2000 largely due to education and job opportunities mismatch between the regions. For example, the north-eastern and eastern region of India has dearth of opportunities.  Consequently,  a  large number of students migrate to the north especially to NCR or Pune/Mumbai or Bangalore /Hyderabad. The  student  mobility  across  the  country  is  also  explained  by  the  absence  of  quality  institutions  in the home state. Given the fact that for an average Indian, the value of education is in the improvement of their lifestyles and incomes, demand for higher education especially quality education will continue to grow and so will the student mobility. Even when the government and the private sector are today establishing institutions across the county, there is still a wide quality gap between institutions.

Growing female population also characterises India’s burgeoning population. This has created an opportunity for the development of institutions and programmes dedicated or customised only for the women market. Responding to these demographic changes and making education more inclusive, the University Grants Commission (UGC) proposed 20 exclusive universities for  women  in  2012.  It also planned to start 800 constituent women colleges under central universities to ensure equity. In addition to these there are several women colleges, including professional ones, which have been set up primarily to ensure that women, too, get equal opportunity in education. In 2015, NMIMS board decided to increase the capacity for women in management programmes  to 30%.

Technological changes

Technology is today disrupting the  business  and  operations  model  in all economies of the world. Mobile internet, social networks, and open source architecture have today created new opportunities. Information flows freely empowering individuals in decision making. This has assisted in diffusion of technology at a much faster pace than hitherto.

According to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), India had 936 million active mobile connections in March 2016. Of these, 220 million are smartphone users. This number is estimated to reach to about 300 million. By 2019, it has been estimated that there will be 2 billion users of smartphones in the world. India will continue to be a major contributor to smartphones market. Compared to the mobile, is the case of internet users. As of today, almost 35% of Indians are internet users. India’s share of internet users in the world is 14%. Both mobile and internet penetration  is an opportunity for developing education models that are relevant, meaningful, and reach out to a very large segment of population which still remains outside the formal education system. Digital and Mobile internet today can make education far more inclusive.

Technology has also disrupted learning models. These disruptive models are impacting the education landscape. Student engagement has today assumed a different meaning. No longer it is restricted to the classroom engagement only. It  increasingly  goes  beyond  and  often  stretches into the personal time of the faculty. MOOCS, Khan Academy, Learning Management Systems like Blackboard and Moodle today challenge faculty’s ingenuity in the classroom. In order to reach out to a larger segment of engineering students, IITs have created a Digital Learning Platform. Similarly, Government of India has created a platform (SWAYAM – India’s version of MOOCS) to upload the course contents  and  the  faculty lectures, so that the students anywhere in the country can access and learn. Such digital models, whether supported by the government or otherwise, challenge the faculty to creatively integrate them in the classroom. This can make learning process far more enriched. In a country like India, where the number of mobile connections exceeds 1 billion, offering education programmes on the mobile phones is the way forward.

These technology developments present a new world of competition to the formal education system. As mentioned earlier, MOOCS and therefore platforms like Coursera, Udemy and Edcast are challenging education delivery models. Likewise, are the videos on YouTube, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook etc, which challenge the conventional models of course design, delivery and student engagement. The future developments in this area will be in regional languages. Khan Academy for example offers tutorials in 23 languages in the world which includes Hindi, Bangla, Arabic, and Urdu, besides English. Google is available in nine major Indian languages. This helps in connecting with the local population for whom English still continues to remain an alien language.

Economic growth

The sustained growth of the Indian economy in the last one decade has created new opportunities. In fact, it has spurred entrepreneurial activity in the country and has also given a boost to innovations. Most of these innovative solutions are technology enabled.

These innovators are individuals who have experienced the shortcomings of the conventional business models and have therefore tried to provide convenience and a more efficient solution at an affordable price. Globalisation of trade and services, besides fuelling entrepreneurship, has raised student aspirations for a world-class education. This has made India an important student market for foreign universities.

The  globalised Indian economy also offers research opportunities to Indian Institutions and organisations. Collaborations, research infrastructure, funding opportunities and even establishment of research institutions to work with the world’s premier research institutions has gained momentum. Over the years, this will make India recognised as a research hub.

Global outreach in higher education is the way forward for Indian Institutions too. Many universities and institutions in India are reaching out to world market through an off-shore  campus  strategy.  Manipal,  BITS Pilani, Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala, IMT, and S. P. Jain are examples of institutions which have reached out to the world through    off shore campus strategies. Institutions like NMIMS reached out to world market by actively encouraging exchange partners to send their students to study in India, especially in its Mumbai campus.

 India’s opportunity

Given the above changes, India is today one of the most attractive destinations for higher education.Today all income groups are substantive in terms of the size offering opportunities for education programmes at all price points. Further, with almost about 70% of the population still living in smaller towns and rural areas, there is an urgent need to develop delivery models which will enable them to acquire a university degree or  a diploma at a nominal price. This is an arena of innovations.

The quantum jump in enrolments in institutions makes it one of the largest education systems in the world. As of 2012, almost 29 million students in India enrolled in higher education as compared to just 11 million in 2002. This is expected to rise to 42.1 million by 2020.

Source: FICCI –EY Report – FICCI Higher Education Summit 2014

According to QS Higher Education System Strength Ranking 2016, India   is 25th among top 50 higher education systems in the world. This shows the potential for improvement and augmentation. Given the demography, the talent, entrepreneurship and commitment of the government to make Indian education globally competitive, today is just the time to innovate and develop excellent institutions of world-class level. It is a rare opportunity.

The challenges and therefore the innovation opportunities lie in expanding access, developing excellence in institutions, making them more equitable and at the same offering education at affordable prices, as shown below:

Indian institutions’ response

In order to reach out to market segments, which are hitherto not tapped,  a large number of public and private universities have developed an outreach model of campuses located in different states. For example, NMIMS, Symbiosis, Manipal, BITS, Amrita and others have today reached out to different states through their own campuses. Similar strategy is     at work in government of India’s thought process, when it decided to establish national institutions in all states of the country. This has made Central Government a significant player and investor in higher education. Even though, the government and the private sector are gearing to establish campuses in each and every state of the country, the challenge still remains of educating millions of students, who still may not be able  to access these institutions, either due to price, distance or academic reasons or personal interests. It is here that an online strategy can deliver better results. The combination of physical campus and online education can enable a wider penetration which can help government reach its universal education goals in a much lesser time period.

One of the significant learnings from growth strategies adopted by different institutions is that one programme time does not fit the needs and the aspirations of young India. For example, in order to reach out to tribal young boys and girls and to a large segment of the poor population in North Maharashtra, NMIMS established the Centre for Textiles at Shirpur in Dhule District. Factors contributing to this decision were the presence of textile industry in the region, large cotton growing areas in Shirpur taluka and the size of the population. Even when there was an engineering college, NMIMS felt that it would need to create a programme which would not only educate the young population in this region at the diploma level but also enhance their employability. With this perspective, it created a textile programme at a diploma level. The differentiating feature of this diploma was a one year of the three- year course being spent in a textile mill where the student could learn the entire process from cotton procurement to garment making. This education and training in the entire value chain of a textile mill made these young boys and girls employable in almost all textile companies of the country. Today, each and every student of this batch gets placed   in a textile firm at salary level which brings them and their family out of the shackles of poverty. Through this programme, NMIMS has become instrumental in creating a generational change. To be noted over here is the fact that NMIMS started as a management school in 1981, in Mumbai, and had no exposure to rural India and technology education. It was only after it earned the Government of India’s University Mandate in 2003 that diversification started. It was only in 2007 when it started establishing various schools in different disciplines. This strategy today exhibits how an institution can reach out to different markets and also make education inclusive and more equitable. Most of the students studying in this programme are offered “freeships” or a highly subsidised price.

Indian institutions are also reaching out to the world markets, thereby tapping the foreign students’ market. Manipal University is one university which has reached out to the world market, through its campuses in Malaysia, Dubai, Nepal and Antigua. As of today this university has 27,000 students across its three universities and nine campuses. It also supports more than 300,000 students through its EduNxt Module. The Indian School of Business draws foreign students through GMAT and also reaches out to the global faculty from the best B-Schools from US, Europe, Australia and Asia. Today the school has two campuses one at Hyderabad and the other in Himachal Pradesh.

The large and diverse market size today is an opportunity to develop innovative products. Several young entrepreneurs are today in this space of offering technology-enabled delivery platforms. As mentioned earlier, EduNxT from Manipal is one example of entrepreneurship.  MOOCS plus model are today being offered even by the government of India. Today, the adult learning technology has to be a combination of media, continuous engagement through quizzes, polls, chats, blogs, simulations, field based projects and case discussions. The diversity of the market also means the varying needs. Some are looking for certification at diploma   or degree while others are interested in upgrading their knowledge and skills. Today technologies can provide all this and hence the innovation opportunity that can pull in the best faculty from the world market into a physical or virtual class; and simultaneously give feedback to the students on how well he or she has done. Such new learning models can reduce the cost of education as two significant components of the cost – faculty and space requirements – are minimised. Technology is enabling institutions to leverage their learning resources and investment over a very large student base, as reflected in the Manipal example.

Developing excellent institutions

Institutional excellence goes beyond just the quality improvement. It is a function of the processes and the impact that an institution makes on the society. One of the indicators of excellence is the global ranking of universities or higher education institutions. The three major international ranking agencies by and large have almost the same criteria for ranking the universities. However, QS considers academic and employer reputation, both of which taken together account for almost 50% of the total weightage. Invariably, Indian institutions lag behind their global peers on research, citations, international diversity and faculty student ratio. However, they are moderate on academic and employer reputation. One of the reasons of institutions lagging in research and citation is the quality of PhD programmes and their delivery in Indian institutions. The conceptual and research rigour that needs to get developed at this stage is somehow not given adequate importance. Course work, which today UGC insists, in many cases, is not up to the mark. Many institutions consider this as one of the compliance requirement of the regulator. But the experience from world-class universities, especially the top 100, reveals the significance they attach to their PhD programmes and the coursework. The PhD programmes in these universities are richly funded, thereby taking away the worry of a research scholar of meeting the two ends and also pay the fees and bear research costs. The fact that the PhDs are not richly funded in India leads to the brightest of the scholars leaving the country and joining PhD programmes, either in the US or Europe, and particularly UK. Essentially, the university should be looked upon as the thought leader for which, besides seminal research, it needs to pursue research to develop innovative products and solutions. This will also contribute to the body of thought. A thought leader institution is respected by society and therefore its reputation goes up dramatically. It also earns the confidence of employers and potential investors or donors. On the processes side, Indian institutions need to focus on admissions, academic, industry connect and faculty and non-faculty recruitment, selection and induction processes.

It is here that the opportunity for partnering with the world’s best institutions emerges. For one of the top 500 universities in the world it is an opportunity to research in India and develop innovative solutions which can be transported to the rest of the world. It is an opportunity for the global peers to jointly develop educational programmes. ISB which partnered Kellogg, Wharton and London Business School is an example   of how an Indian Institution can be developed at the world level, only if it has partnership with the world’s best institution in its domain.

Technology today is enabling a large number of institutions to emerge in the top 500 universities over the next decade. Already we have 7 science and technology institutions in the world’s 500. The government of India’s current initiative of selecting 10 institutions from public and private sector for making them world-class is a commendable initiative. Another initiative relates to establishing innovation universities. Already many institutions in the public and private sector have the potential to emerge as innovative institutions and become world-class over the next one decade. The fact that today, global rankings have become an important part of the campus dialogue is an indicator that India is today serious in making its mark as a world-class system.

Challenge of equity

Inclusive education has to be an integral part of the higher education agenda. This will improve the diversity quotient and make universities more socially relevant. The inclusive education is not just merely reaching out to the poor but also to segments like women, who have remained underserved. As mentioned earlier, NMIMS developed textile programmes for the tribal students in Shirpur in North Maharashtra. Likewise, Banasthali Vidyapith has been in the forefront of developing girls in all disciplines, from school to the doctoral level. Located in dusty rural settings of Rajasthan, it has today a glorious history of contributing to the development of girls from mid the 1930s onwards.

All these initiatives at institution building today put India at the cusp of a major change – a change that will propel her as the education destination. The new young leaders who today are directing the destiny of Indian education are far more conscious of the need to make the system of a global repute.

Dr Rajan Saxena is the vice chancellor of Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS) (Deemed-to-be-University u/s 3 of UGC Act) since 2009 and a former director of IIM, Indore, S. P.  Jain Institute of Management and Research, and dean of Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai. He has over 44 years of professional experience in management education, research, consulting and institution building. Dr Saxena’s teaching and research interests are marketing strategy, services marketing and customer relationship management. He is widely respected in India as a marketing educator and institution builder. He has consulted over 50 Indian and multinational companies and published over 60 articles and authored two books titled Marketing Management and International Marketing Concepts, Cases and Text, both published by McGraw-Hill. He has been conferred several awards by different organisations and media and is an independent director on corporate boards and Chair, FICCI Higher Education Committee and BOS of AIMA’s CME.