India Education Conference: 'A Case For Changing Higher Education Paradigm in India'

A Conference is being held to discuss Indian Post-Secondary Education in London on the 2nd and 3rd of October. About 100 delegates, from India and UK, comprising of University Representatives, Indian Educational Institutions, Education Innovation Companies and Private Equity Organizations, are expected to attend. Here is an opinion piece I wrote at the Conference Website outlining a case for change in Higher Education in India. For more on the Conference, visit

 “India has an examination system, not an education system”: Prime Ministerial Advisor C N R Rao used these words in April 2011 to argue for a plan to introduce an American-style common university admission examination across India, but he also managed to capture deeper maladies of the Indian Education system well.

Indian education, evolving from its colonial roots, still centered around social prestige through a good job and entry into a privileged class: a good education may indeed inflate the amount paid in dowry, and in case of women, result into marriage in a prosperous family.

After Independence, the education system India built was “Tiny At The Top”, as Education Researcher Phil Altbach calls it. The discussion about education in India is still centers around this tiny top – the IITs, the IIMs, a few elite colleges – institutions that attract the best talents in India and prepares them, effectively, for jobs and careers abroad. About 40,000 IIT graduates live in the United States alone, a significant number considering that even in 2002-3, the yearly undergraduate output of total IIT system in India was only 2,274 students (excluding Postgraduate and Doctoral students; the system has been extended to about 7000 seats a year from 2008) The rest of the education system in India, massive, underfunded, left to the negligent and variable care of its state governments, largely produced graduates for the jobs and careers in the public sector economy, which has started vanishing with the “extraordinary fiscal contraction” in the last few years, bringing deficits down from 10% of the GDP to about 7%. With India’s current economic woes, there will be further contraction: these jobs are not coming back.

The government tried to solve through the problem through expansion. The extraordinary expansion of Higher Education capacity, that took place since 2006, saw 10 colleges being set up in India, on average, every day, mostly by private business groups. With more than 33,000 colleges now, India can boast the largest Higher Education system in the world in terms of number of institutions, though, arguably, the size of these institutions are very small, only 600 students on average compared to China’s more than 8000 students per Higher Education institution.

Many, millions, Indian graduates sleepwalk through college education. The saving grace in the first few years of the new millennium was English Language: the growth of outsourcing offered an opportunity, limited and often with a dead end, for anyone who could speak decent English. Then, since 2004, after a massive fiscal shift to rural job creation, the new opportunities were in the Inner Market: in Banking, Insurance, and in the industries taking modern consumer habits to rural India. This expansion, however, with hindsight, was not about opening up of new sectors, but a shifting mirage of job creation. It was more “the charge of light brigade” than the usual happily ever after kind of narrative: waves and waves of new graduates were absorbed into the industry of the day, only to be left stranded, with stagnant salaries or no jobs, leading to disillusionment, desperation, even poor health.

At this very moment, a mini economic crisis brings perhaps an opportunity for reflection. Indian Education seems to be at a crossroads, yet again. Its students seem to be stricken by the curse of narrow skills, clueless in a shifting job market. Its employers seem to be facing the problem of a “skills hour-glass” – a good pool of talented and well-educated (read, educated abroad) senior managers, but a dwindling skilled middle and front-line management pool, as well as shortages of good researchers, teachers, designers, programmers – inducing them to go to Krakow, Manila and Dublin looking for talent.

In short, a “change-or-stagnate” moment has come to India, and Indian Higher Education must pick up the gauntlet. Policy-makers must stop referring to the economic development models of the West, played out centuries ago against the backdrop of imperialism, and start looking for ideas in contemporary success stories, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore: tiny nations which were successful in transformation and an extraordinary economic rise in a fiercely competitive world. Their tininess should not matter given their gigantic success: the educational models in these nations – one to develop broad range of real world competencies, and citizenship values – may better suit India to face the impending economic transformation. Education should not be about the entry into privileged class anymore, but should be about enabling the individual citizen to live a productive, healthy, engaged life.


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