Approaching India - No Country for Education Innovation

I promised to write about my travels in India in an earlier post (see here) and here is an update. I have completed a week in India, traveling through Mumbai and Bangalore. Just as I expected, travels in India are always full of surprises. Once I open my mind, I always do, I can find anything and its exact opposite in India. This time, I was looking out for hope. I got hope and despair in the same measure.

India is, indeed, no country for someone looking for new ideas in education. And, it is not just because the country can not lift itself up from the colonial hangover of privileged classes. It is also because Indian education is, at least mostly, deeply corrupt. The new private universities in India, which have expanded rapidly, have come about mostly through a rigged accreditation process, oiled through donations to whichever party remains to be in power in a given state (and indeed, if you are too sympathetic to the opposition, you dont get a license). But, also, public universities, at least in particular parts of India, have systemic corruption. 

At the outset, it made no sense to me that the University Grants Commission (UGC) and other regulatory bodies in India were so opposed to Distance and Online Education. In a country like India, newer formats of education are common sense, the only way to educate the aspiring millions fast and well. However, it all made sense to me when, during this visit, I got to understand the dynamic of online education better. 

Before I get into it though, here are two disclaimers. First, my information is derived from people who knows, the providers of Online Higher Education who work closely with these universities. I can not claim this information to be any more authoritative than the credibility and experience of my sources, and while I fact-checked this with several sources (everyone shrugged so as to indicate this is common knowledge), I did not have the resources of a professional journalist to verify these observations beyond a certain point. Second, I do not mean to generalise my observations. Given the nature of my sources, these observations, even if they are true, relate to systemic corruption in specific universities. While my key argument - that the skepticism about the value of all online degrees come from existence of such corruption - remains valid, I am hopeful that these corruptions are exceptions rather than the rule (though I got the opposite impression).
So, here is what I learned. A Vice Chancellor's post in a public university in some Southern States is usually sold at about $1 million, going up to about $5 million for bigger public universities. Now, once this money is paid, and the position secured, the VCs are often in the running to earn back multiple times the investment. Online education, for them, provides the perfect opportunity to do so. The university gives out franchises to private providers to do online education, and a part of the money is paid to the VCs privately. This amount is often greater than the amount paid to the institution itself, but the VC ensures that the university efficiently supports the Online degree, which often means that no questions were ever asked. 

Notwithstanding the hypocrisy of these university functionaries as they rail against profit motive in education (the Association of Indian Universities remain steadfastly against For-Profit universities), this is good business. The fact that these are some of the most respected regional universities working as Diploma Mills shows that the students are not asking the questions about the value of a degree. This is the Demand Curse. In India, whatever you do, you get students, and therefore, the need to innovate or do something interesting does not exist.

The point, of course, is that the message I want to give is hopelessly lost in the middle of this. I am frustrated when the students come and ask whether our degrees are recognised. It is even more frustrating when some of my Indian colleagues ponder over such issues, even though they have full knowledge what recognition is. It is the lack of courage to change, or speak the language of change, that mark my Indian educational experience. In fact, in India, I am told that I am an idealist because I talk about changing this paradigm. Being a realist, in India, necessarily means accepting all the shortcomings of reality. Elsewhere, it merely means recognising the constraints while having the courage to challenge the practises as they stand.

This defines my engagement with India, in a way. I am seeking out people who wants to change the system, and have discarded the Not-Invented-Here mindset. They are seekers of good ideas and practical solutions, those who wish to make India happen. And, as in the case of India, once I start looking, I find them in abundance. Good, intelligent people from all walks of life, young and matured, with great dreams and unrelenting resolve, undaunted by the challenge and inspired by the possibility. As I sunk deep in despair about what I now see as the most corrupt education system in the world (perhaps), I started finding those people who are trying to change it from the inside as well as outside. They are speaking a different language and they are doing different things. This, somewhat, defines the focus of my work, seeking out these people - executives, educators and learners - who want to, as I said, make India happen.



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