Why Am I Optimistic About New Universities in India?

University making in India is entering a new phase. The rushed expansion of the Higher Education system is perhaps over, with many of those new colleges and universities in crisis. There is a definitive shift in the regulatory environment: The unrestrained and often useless Distance Learning Study Centre business has been effectively shut down, the unregulated institutions have been challenged and there is greater clarity and order. However, university making in India has not stopped - there are new institutions being built and planned every day - and more and more serious philanthropists and entrepreneurs are entering the fray. I see these developments with some optimism, and believe that we are at an inflexion point, from which a new Higher Education system would emerge.

This may be overtly optimistic and there are a number of things that can go wrong in India. For a start, we now have a nationalist turn, and the 'not-invented-here' syndrome has become all pervasive. That regulators have become more effective is a good thing, but the regulatory structure is bureaucratic and punitive, and the regulators are often used to carry out a political agenda. Many new universities are tottering on the brink of failure - a recent one has just enrolled less than 10 students - which is not a good thing for the sector as a whole. And, though the business of Distance Learning helped to create 'diploma mills' and undermined the overall credibility of Indian education, the current regulation is meant to take distance out of distance learning, and rule out any online learning innovation for years. However, the changes signify that Indian Higher Education would stop being a 'market for lemons' - a marketplace where corrupt operators thrive and can marginalise or drive out the more honest ones - and sheer demographic logic would ensure that Higher Education sector continues to grow, with more serious operators.

From the statements I made above, it is also quite clear that I see Indian Higher Education to be a 'mixed' sector, perhaps with more private institution than public ones. I know this isn't how one would perceive growing a Higher Education system, at least in Western Europe. In India, however, this is the way the rapid growth of Higher Education will have to be achieved. And, indeed, Private Higher Education growth does not have to be For-Profit, subservient to the analyst sentiments and stock markets in a get-rich-quick country: There is enough private wealth in India that can fund Not-for-Profit institutions and enough inventiveness to channel other sources of 'patient capital' into more socially responsive forms of organisation. But, overall, the sector will be driven by private initiative and enterprise, just like the Japanese or the Korean Higher Education systems (and like the modern-day developments in Chinese Higher Education).

Also, in India, the key challenge has been all-out vocationalism in all parts of the Higher Education system, accentuated by rapid expansion of Engineer and Business schools that came to overwhelm it. I say this not as a purist believing in 'Education for Education's sake' but rather by being aware of the danger of vocationalism, which focuses the mind too much on the immediate outcome - a job - at the cost of the long term perspectives. Higher Education, an once in a lifetime activity (for most people), should afford someone, particularly in today's world, an ability to adjust with changing realities; Indian schools hardly attempt to do this, organising themselves solely for an entry-level job. This is ineffective for several reasons: The supply-demand asymmetry means that only a few students are eventually successful while other sectors and jobs go unfulfilled; and this makes for poor progression, which means that the labour market is flooded with poorly skilled people who can't move up, making it more difficult for the newcomers.  On top of this, with deep structural changes in global commerce which threatens Indian IT Services industry, this system is totally out of sync, and its graduates are struggling to find jobs.

However, it would be wrong to assume that vocationalism in Indian Higher Education is a private university problem: It was part of the origin story of modern Indian Higher Education, and even in Independent India, Higher Education was never slated to take the responsibility of making citizens (as in the United States). It is only now that a conversation about Indianness is focusing minds on what role the universities should play, though this conversation, at least so far, is conducted in a tone and style unwelcoming to critical enquiry and new thinking. However, such conversations open the possibility, even if it is just a possibility, of new thinking and new models.

The big opportunity in India, in the next decades, will be in the domestic market, as the reform programmes such as value-added taxation, infrastructure building and rapid expansion of digital services (India has added 100 million new Internet users in the last 12 months) would create many entrepreneurial and job opportunities. This would need a new imagination, which the narrowly focused schools, living in a bubble of testing and campus placements, sorely lack. And, surely an M Sc in Innovation from a school which don't want to break the mould and don't want to commit itself to anything new is a clear non-starter. This is where the big change indeed is: The new universities emerging in India are looking at the Post-IT world more intently than the previous generation of the universities, and they are taking on the challenge of innovation more willingly than their predecessors. 

Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to engage in different conversations about new universities being planned and set up, and the differences are quite clear: The conversations are very much about innovation and differentiation, about putting together high calibre management teams, about planning ahead strategically and defining scale and scope appropriately. It may seem strange to more established universities, but these are new things for Indian universities: The enterprise, thus far, was opportunistic, and were run by uninspired retirees closed to new ideas. My recent engagements tell me this is changing, and I am very excited to be part of these new projects.


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