The Universities India Needs : An Opinion

If India is to build up its Higher Education sector, it needs imagination rather than imitation. Its new universities are unlikely to be built in Ivy League model. The success of these new institutions will not depend upon the partnerships they build with the great and the good abroad, but its own vision, strategy, and most importantly, will to do it well. These universities will need less of the shiny buildings and acres of land, and more of an idea what an Indian university should be like. We should be talking less about the valuation and more about values. In one way, these universities must go back in time and embrace the basics: In another way, they must leapfrog into the future.

Even the best university projects in India, those sponsored by large business groups, partnered with the best universities in the world, suffer from the glamour trap. The idea is to attract the students somehow through the lure of the facilities or the plaques on the wall: These come at a cost, that of an own, consistent view of what this university for and what kind of future it envisions. Like many other things in India, at their heart, they are built around a Jugaad strategy: Offering courses that may happen to be available through a partner, pulling partners who may happen to be looking for a foothold in India, pulling students who may be looking for a degree.

In a way, Indian universities reflect the attitude Indian IT Companies have so well demonstrated in building service businesses but failing to make the transition to the product stage. One needs entrepreneurial opportunism, grabbing what is most obvious; the other needs a view of the future. Indian universities are built around the first, but offers no idea of the future. However, universities are different kind of organisations than IT Service businesses: They build brands, create impact and make money much more slowly than IT businesses. Their strategic horizons should be essentially long term, for them to be notable. None of these are on offer from the current breed of universities.

Which is a shame, because Indian education should be about the future. India's demographic window of opportunity is just opening. Here is a country with abundant people and limited capital, and an awaited miracle that, if it happened, would become a model for all other developing nations to follow. India is unlikely to follow the same trajectory as any of the industrialised nations, because it has such a starkly different reality: Its development, if it has to happen, will happen through unleashing the talents of people in a way that builds an unique model of development among nations. This would not happen by copy-and-catch-up. This, if anything, needs a new playbook, which must come from its burgeoning universities.

India policymakers are indeed sleepwalking. Unlike the Chinese, who seem to have committed themselves to a particular vision of the future, however long term, Indian policy-making was about tinkering at the edges and letting friendly business people have licenses to build universities, without any substantial debate about what kind of universities India needs. Like many other policy areas, the university making was left to natural selection, or God's will, depending on which version of government is in power. And, as one would expect when essentially future-oriented institutions like universities are built with sole dependence on the here-and-now wisdom of the markets, India is building an education sector that is already passe. 

This is so because of two factors: One, the confluence of IT and Globalisation, aided by a technological tipping point; and, two, because of India's changing role and economic requirement in a sharp break with its recent history and a renewed confidence about its own culture and a requirement for a more grounded identity.

First, because of the new technologies of work and collaboration, the existing models of learning, careers and production are fast becoming obsolete in the West. One may argue that India needs washing machines first, but when Indian homes get them, they would not go backwards in time and start with dumb washing machines: By the time it arrives in India en masse, washing machines will appear in their smart avatar. In fact, as seen in mobile phones, technology curves in developing economies can be drastically different from the developed ones: It may actually be FASTER. All those Indian businesses suffering from the lack of professional talent may adopt the programmes which could write, prepare powerpoint and translate, much faster than the Western businesses which may already have people doing them. Indian education sector has not woken up to this reality yet.

At the same time, India is being transformed through an economic revolution. Indian companies are competing globally - and this creates unique needs for capabilities and expertise - and millions of Indians from Inside India are joining the modern economy. This creates an unique challenge of finding an Indian way, a requirement to reconcile modern economy with Indian values, as well as developing a more grounded sense of identity. In essence, this is about escaping the post-colonial mindset which draw upon a certain master culture and fails to imagine its own. Surely, this is not about a 'saffron' curriculum of the kind the current Indian government may want to impose - that would be going back to the past - but rather thinking in terms of what an Indian future may look like, democratic, multicultural (in which Europe has tried and failed), based on harmony with nature rather than in opposition with it. 

One may argue that the technological futurism and Indian values can not be reconciled, but this is precisely the challenge university makers must take up. There is no easy way out: This is why imagination is needed than a borrowed formula. This is why making universities are different - and the task of such examination and reconciliation must fall upon those who make it - and needs more effort than building a business to exploit a present market opportunity. Indeed, there may be more than one answer, and a conscious exploration will give India the diverse sector it needs. That will be a welcome break from the current conversation which is mostly about implanting alien models which are well past their prime.   


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