Approaching India - The Case for Competency-Based Higher Education

India is facing a Higher Ed recession! Okay, the students are still coming, as they always do in India, but the colleges have now started failing. There are some colleges in India with less than 10 students. The rapid expansion of private colleges, when at least 10 opened every day between 2006 and 2012, seems to be over. Business Schools are in even deeper crisis, with a crisis of confidence on MBA as it fails to fetch anything more than jobs undergraduates can easily do. So, the fees are falling, marketing expenses are rising, seats are going vacant and yet, the admission queues in the tried-and-tested colleges are getting longer.

This is a difficult time to talk about new ideas, and new ideas are sorely needed. Even those traditional institutions, enjoying a sudden popularity in the wake of widespread disillusion, have crisis of their own in their midst, not least the political interference and widespread corruption in the Public Education sector. While these may stand solid in contrast to the meltdown of the private sector, they represent the past, not the future, of Indian Higher Education. It is clear that the rest of the world is pulling ahead - the Indian President makes the point every time he visits an university - and Indian businesses, usually disconnected from community life, are making noises about education. 

In this context, one notices the excited talk about Liberal Arts. I have indeed done my two bits into it too. I wrote about Liberal Arts education, primarily because I was concerned about the over-emphasis on Engineering and Management Education. Indeed, some of the new University makers have now come to see Liberal Arts as good business, including one new private university where my friends were involved in the initial stages of planning. In many ways, employers are giving the same message - they have started recruiting BScs and BAs - as they become disillusioned with the output of private Engineering colleges. It is now reasonable to expect a wave of private Liberal Arts colleges in India.

However, whatever its merits, copying the US model of Liberal Arts colleges, as some of the newer Indian universities are trying to do, is surely a mistake. First, the ground realities of a large, poor country desperately seeking development is quite different from American colonies that developed Liberal Arts education. Second, the Liberal Arts colleges in America are themselves facing some existential challenges, particularly to keep costs down (and to build efficiencies). Third, the big opportunity in India is in the middle. The Liberal Arts universities coming up in India are designed to serve the top 1%, and justifiably so. These universities are aiming to attract Indian students and Indian origin students away from education in US and UK, which is a smart strategy. But the ever bigger opportunity of servicing the new middle classes and connecting them to jobs and opportunities, the task that the Engineering Colleges were supposed to so, is not their game.

This is why I would think that the new wave of successful universities in India will not be built around Liberal Arts college model, but along the lines of the more recent conversations about Competency-based Higher Education. My current work, working with employers to understand their challenges and connecting education with employment, gives me a great view of the Indian Labour and Education markets. And, this clearly indicate the scope of offering education around the key competencies that get the students a successful and fulfilling life.

Whenever I say this, or whenever this is mentioned by anyone, I get a push-back from those perfectly well-meaning people who claim that education should be about more than just getting a job. Their claim is that education should prepare someone to have a successful and fulfilling life. My point, of course, is that a Middle Class student may not have a successful and fulfilling life without a job, but I am in agreement that education should be about more than just a job. Competency-based Higher Education is just that, it is built around competencies for work and for life, some close-ended and some open-ended, some defined and some dynamic. I am arguing that following this model, an university will model itself to train students on specific competencies, some of them technical, say business analytics, but some of them behavioural, such as Learning to learn. It will further encourage students to have a critical disposition, but also be respectful and sympathetic to others, so that they can connect to, contribute in and lead their communities. 

This is not a conversation that Indian universities are having right now, but my feeling is that we are at the starting block. This idea currently falls in between the Indian definition of skills and education (and the implicit assumption that they are separate) and this is why Liberal Arts education, at least to some, seems more logical than Competency-based Higher Ed. But, the tipping point is not very far - as Students, their Parents and Employers are getting it now. 


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