Indian Higher Education: A Map to El Dorado

India is the world's most exciting Higher Education market. One may receive this with a tinge of skepticism, simply because one has heard this before. But it would be wrong to think that India was always the world's most exciting Higher Education market. That would have been China in the past, and America before that: India's moment is coming now.

Part of it is simple demography: National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2030 (see here) highlights some of the fundamentals. In terms of what it calls the Demographic Window of Opportunity - the years when the proportion of Children (0 - 15 years) is less than 30% and the proportion of the seniors (65 years and above) is less than 15% - India arrives now: Its DWO stretches from 2015 to 2050 (see page 24). This closes in Russia and the United States in 2015, and China, which remains a relatively youthful country, has only 10 years left (till 2025). The other exciting demographic opportunities may be much smaller (notably, Brazil or Iran, from the same chart) or disrupted for other reasons (Sub-Saharan Africa, which has a relatively youthful population, but will face a food production challenge to maintain the same, apart from political turmoil).

However, India's demographic opportunity was always rather well known. Other challenges, regulation and complexity, were always daunting. This is where the elections of 2014 may be put in context. Whether or not the current Prime Minister is acceptable to everyone, the electoral mandate is mostly towards an unified, national idea of India. The country is united in aspiration, and is driven by a strong middle class participation (66% of the eligible voters voted). The electoral platform they voted for is one of reducing regulation and government interference, and this may actually happen. The administration has a clear mandate - the first administration to have that since 1984 - and can impose its will. Whether such powers will be used for productive purposes, or will be frittered away instead in pushing an obsessive social agenda of creating a majoritarian state, remains to be seen. But, if the new administration stick to the message of the mandate rather than succumbing to the hubris (and, as pragmatic politicians, they may as well make the most of this once in a lifetime opportunity rather than indulging in megalomania), the new administration will do just as it was told - step aside and reduce complexity. 

Higher Education will be a key battleground. It is currently inefficient, ill-equipped, understaffed and lack technology and innovation. Not just it matters that the neighbour and competitor China is making huge strides in Higher Education, the Indian government's immediate challenge - the downside of demographic opportunity - is to be able to absorb an additional 10 million people who will arrive in the workforce every year. Since all this will happen within the context of a changing workplace, economic and technological shifts, this is a hugely complex issue, and will require the state to go beyond the simple prescriptions of either more state investment or complete abdication to private interests. As the new government starts building roads, ports, airports and energy infrastructure, it would need to give equal importance to building India's education infrastructure all over again. This will mean both an opportunity to build new, private education provisions, as well as opportunities for innovation, of public-private partnerships, of innovation, of introduction of technology, for enterprise in education.

The conversation in the West about India's Higher Education opportunity often centers around a piece of legislation called the Foreign Education Providers' Bill. This legislation has been languishing in the Indian parliament for more than a decade, and despite the Cabinet approving it and the bill going through several modifications, it has failed to pass. Despite all the euphoria about the business-friendliness of the incoming government, this is one piece of legislation they are unlikely to do anything about. This is not just because that the current mood in India is social conservatism, but also because of implicit anti-globalising electoral mandate. The policy climate in India is likely to be dominated by preference for Indian businesses and institutions taking the lead, rather than a preference for open to all liberalisation which the previous regime preferred (but failed to deliver). 

This patterns actually create advantage for private sector investors in education over the publicly funded institutions in the West. So, the canvass for the British universities will remain mostly unchanged, but exciting opportunities may open up for Laureates of the world, who are looking to put money and expertise in Indian institutions for a decent return. They will surely cash in as India will become friendlier to foreign investors, but will keep the education sector firmly in Indian hands. So, the much rumoured campuses of foreign universities are unlikely to happen in India anytime soon, but we can expect an uptick of foreign investment going into Indian education.

If I said India is education's El Dorado - a place where everyone wants to go but no one knows how - I was correct. But a map to El Dorado may just be emerging for education investors, which seems full of allure and promise.



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