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Education in India: Time to Connect the Dots and Look at the Big Picture

In the last few days, I read news reports that are seemingly unrelated on the surface. However, I think there exists a deeper connection for those willing to think outside the box. I thought I would use this article to articulate my thoughts on the connections and their possible implications for India. 

India’s New Education Policy expected to gain traction

The first item was about various initiatives announced by the Union government on the first anniversary of India’s National Education Policy (NEP). While internationalization, multiple entry/exit options, and digital education will be key pillars, one other important component is to enable students to pursue first-year Engineering courses in Indian languages.

In the context of the broad-brush changes envisioned to India’s education system, it is time to rethink the role of the UGC as a body that enables the nation’s higher education system in ways beyond disbursing funds to be recognized universities. There also ought to be more harmony between the various Boards that govern school education. The roles of bodies responsible for governing professional education in India- e.g., AICTE, NMC (which replaced the MCI), ICAI, ICSI, ICWAI, Bar Council of India etc. should also be redefined to ensure that India’s professionals remain in tune with the needs of a fast-changing world.

English will play an important role in our continued growth

The second report that caught my attention was on two main points made by Mr. Narayana Murthy (the Founder of Infosys), in a recent media interaction. He stated that it is high time that English be formally acknowledged and designated as India’s official link language, and greater emphasis is given to its teaching and learning in Indian schools. He said that his opinion is based on his first-hand knowledge of many technically qualified students in Bangalore/Karnataka who lose out in the job market largely because they lack a certain expected level of proficiency in English.

In the same interview, Mr. Murthy went on to say that on a priority basis, India needs overseas universities and vocational educational institutions to set up facilities in India to train students and teachers in key areas like nursing. This too makes sense because our healthcare infrastructure needs massive upgrades- and human resources will be critical.

China’s tightening regulations threaten its US$100 Billion EdTechc industry

The third report was on China’s recent decision to tightly regulate its online tutoring companies. The new rules bar online tutoring ventures from going public or raising foreign capital. There are also restrictions on the number of hours for which tutors can teach during weekends and vacations. In fact, the rules go so far as to make online tutorial businesses “not for profit”.

Different views have been expressed on why Chinese authorities have taken this step. Some see it as a means to reduce the cost of children’s education- and thus encourage couples to have more children. They point to this as a logical enabler of the recent relaxations in China’s two-child policy. Others view it as a step designed to clip the wings of Chinese tech companies that are deeply entrenched in many consumer segments, and have, over the past decade, acquired significant financial muscle.

To put into perspective the size of Chinese EdTech companies, consider this data point: Byju’s, arguably India’s largest EdTech company, was valued at over US$16.5 Billion as of mid-June 2021. Despite this high valuation, Byju’s would have been smaller than the top 5 Chinese EdTech players (on the basis of valuations that existed before the recent draconian rules came into effect).

Implications for India

The majority of China’s EdTech ventures are financed through significant venture capital investments from the west. Analysts expect that China’s sudden actions will, at least in the short run, divert capital to other locations. India could be a potential beneficiary because it already fosters a large EdTech ecosystem.

Given our demographics, we have a significant domestic market for education across all levels- primary, secondary, and college. Since digital education will likely become the norm, this space is ripe for newfangled innovations in the days ahead. If online education can bridge the gaps that employers currently perceive in our fresh graduates, unemployability rates shall notably decline. . This will not only contribute directly to our GDP but also indirectly stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship.

India has a large technical skill base. Some of these resources can easily be harnessed to develop next-gen education solutions using cutting-edge technologies such as AI, ML, Language Processing, Augmented Reality, etc. To begin with, Indian start-ups can build, test, and scale EdTech platforms and solutions for our domestic market. Over time, these can be refined and repurposed for global markets. Similarly, features built for the global market can be adapted to Indian markets, thus creating a virtual cycle. Such a trend will not only proffer legs to implementing India’s NEP but will also enable us as a society to improve access to education to underprivileged sections of the society. This is critical to sustaining our growth on the path of socio-economic development.

By taking the right decisions now, we can attract capital, talent, and world-famous institutional brands to this critical sector. EdTech in India has the potential to become a powerful engine of growth for our services sector. Done right, I have no doubt that in a few years, India can become a “Vishwaguru” not just in the spiritual sense, but also literally.

PS: As with many other sectors in India, the legal framework that governs education too needs to be made more contemporary and relevant, but that’s for another time.

Image Credits: Photo by Nikhita S on Unsplash

By taking the right decisions now, we can attract capital, talent and world-famous institutional brands to this critical sector. EdTech in India has the potential to become a powerful engine of growth for our services sector. Done right, I have no doubt that in a few years, India can become a “Vishwaguru” not just in the spiritual sense, but also literally.

 

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Sports and Business: Long Term Thinking is Vital for Success in Both

India’s sportspersons have returned to India after a fantastic performance at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Neeraj Chopra’s javelin throw gave India its first ever gold medal in athletics (and second in an individual event). Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu and wrestler Ravi Dahiya won us two silver medals, while boxer Lovlina Borgohain, badminton player P V Sindhu, wrestler Bajrang Punia and the men’s hockey team won bronze medals. Our overall tally of 7 medals is the highest at any Olympics. Overall, a very creditable performance the nation should be proud of.

As a proud Indian, I too am hopeful that the exposure and “big stage” experience gained by our sportspersons in Tokyo, combined with better training, practice infrastructure and facilities will help India better its 2021 performance. However, I worry about the flurry of speculative discussions in the media about how many medals India will win at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

The media is full of expert analysis and recommendations on what the government and sports federations need to do to ensure a higher medal tally in 2024. Sportsperson I am not; nor am I a seer. Therefore, I do not know what individuals and teams need to sustainably enhance their performance and win medals for India in the future. But I do know that ad hoc actions will not suffice.

A structured, long-term approach is essential for sustaining success in sports and business

I see a clear parallel between the world of sports and the corporate world, with which I am more familiar. No matter how talented and skilled an individual athlete or player is, skills alone are not enough to win him/her a medal. They need the right coaching, top quality training facilities, regular opportunities to compete with the world’s best, the right nutrition, inputs on biomechanics, mental conditioning etc. Having all this also does not guarantee a medal-winning performance, because, on the day, anything can happen.

Similarly, individual brilliance or an innovative new idea or product alone will not guarantee success in business. India needs to strengthen its ecosystem for business, with a particular emphasis on startups and young ventures. Coaching and mentoring to give better shape to business ideas, access to risk capital, support during the early stages of the business, tax breaks, the right kinds of sector-specific laws and regulations that will help businesses become viable sooner are all elements of what our business ecosystem requires.

Just as world-class sports infrastructure cannot come up in every state or city in the next year or two, incubators cannot come up everywhere. Junior talent identification and nurturing programs too can take 8-10 years to produce top-class sportspeople who are ready to compete on the global stage. Even if physical infrastructure comes up, finding equally qualified coaches for all locations will not be easy.

Although we know that Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity, Clean Energy, Electric Vehicles etc. are all critical emerging areas, it is naïve to expect that overnight India will become a leader in these sectors. The same is true of our performance in sports as well. Countries prioritize participation in those sporting events that afford them their best chances of winning medals; India is no exception. This same thinking needs to be applied to business as well. The first step is to mindfully identify sectors that are critical to our future- for example, clean energy, healthcare, space, drones, defence equipment (aircraft carriers, submarines, 6th generation fighter aircraft, anti-missile systems), electronic chips etc.

Then, just as countries identify individuals with promise in the “priority sports”, the government of India (and the private sector) must identify/agree on ventures with the potential to become world-class and nurture them. Within the national business ecosystem, smaller regional ecosystems need to be created across the country, based on resource availability and other strategic considerations. Individual states must compete with each other to build such ecosystems and attract the best entrepreneurial talent. Doing all this will definitely give India a stronger and more vibrant domestic industry, besides acting as prime movers for overall socio-economic development, employment generation and GDP growth.

Spotting and nurturing young talent in various sports must be part of our education system

Also, our education system has focused on academics, with sports and other activities labeled as “extra-curricular”. This needs to change in two ways. First, right from the primary school level, children must be encouraged to participate in different sporting activities. Trained teachers and specialist staff must spot talent and at the right ages, enable specialized training. This obviously must be done with the parents’ active cooperation. Second, for super talented children who wish to pursue sports as a possible career option, specialized institutions must be set up (either by state/central governments or in PPP mode). Children in these institutions must be given extra coaching and training, while also being allowed to pursue a basic level of academics that will help them once their sporting careers end. Seasoned athletes must be invited to train at these facilities so that young aspirants can learn and benchmark against the country’s best. The National Education Policy 2020 seeks to make sports and physical fitness more central to school education, but the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Only time will tell how seriously this is taken in a country that values grades and marks over excellence in a chosen field.

Concerted action is essential not just for a US$5 Trillion economy but also a richer medal haul in the future

Winning in sports is not easy- and neither is succeeding in business. If we are not quick to act, flight of entrepreneurial talent to other countries is a distinct possibility, and in time, our businesses (and athletes) may end up competing with rivals who also had their origins in India- and could perhaps have been part of our sports contingents and GDP. What is worse, we may be ranked as poorly on innovation in critical areas as we have been in world sports.

Just as countries identify individuals with promise in the “priority sports”, the government of India (and the private sector) must identify/agree on ventures with the potential to become world-class and nurture them. 

 

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Unshackling the Education Sector - A Surefire Way to Accelerate Development

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, said former South African President Nelson Mandela. I believe his prescient observation is timeless in its relevance. In the world that we live in, there are two major factors that will shape how education will be consumed in the future. The first is the reality of ever-increasing digitization. The second is the huge changes to lifestyles forced upon us in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In many ways, these two are closely intertwined in the context of education. We as a nation today stand on the threshold of a historic opportunity to transform our education system. The New Education Policy has set the ball rolling, but much more needs to be done to enable our institutions to deliver the kind of education that our nation needs. This is especially true for higher education. We have hundreds of universities and higher education institutions (HEIs) that cater to the entire gamut of academic fields. But the fact that even the best of our HEIs do not rank among the top 100 globally is telling. By comparison, several Chinese universities do- and have got there only in the past decade.  

Innovations around the world, powered by digital technologies, are enabling better remote teaching and learning experiences. In India, mobile/internet penetration is increasing rapidly and becoming ever more affordable. Together, these are powerful forces of change. For many courses, virtual classes can easily be conducted by teachers from their homes- provided they are equipped with the right digital infrastructure. Students too can attend these classes from the comfort of their homes. Of course, for certain courses such as Medicine, Engineering, Agriculture, etc. it may not be possible to fully replicate the experience of a laboratory or a field- although I think sooner rather than later, Augmented Reality will enable even this gap to be bridged. This means that unlike in the past, universities and HEIs no longer need large areas of land to build physical classrooms or other on-campus facilities. 

Given India’s legacy of teaching in English and the relatively lower fees and costs of living, our universities have, for the past many decades, attracted students from Africa and Middle Eastern countries who pursue various undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. To be fair, some of this is also the result of “education diplomacy”. Why not take advantage of this and work towards making India the education hub of the world for the new era? Given India’s own linguistic diversity and the needs of foreign students, multilingual support too can be provided digitally, to improve learning outcomes and hence increase the attractiveness of our HEIs.  

We have the talent to develop the right curricula and teaching methods. Just a few weeks back, Ranjit Disale, a government school teacher from Maharashtra won the Global Teacher Prize for his revolutionary contributions to the education of girls by leveraging QR code technology. There must be hundreds of other teachers in our HEIs with innovative ideas on how to enhance learning efficacy in their subjects.  

If asset-light, “virtual-only”, for-profit HEIs are permitted, private capital will more legally and transparently be attracted to the education sector. Investors such as PE funds will be more willing to fund the development of next-generation technology-based delivery infrastructure, hiring quality teachers, and development of new, digitally deliverable content that enables students to develop core knowledge as well as critical thinking skills and gain exposure to emerging fields that will become more and more important for India and the world. These knowledge assets can be used to scale up the education venture, thus lowering the risk for capital providers.  

 

Allowing asset-light virtual universities to be established in specific disciplines will also address the challenge of a shortage of qualified and motivated faculty. By allowing faculty to teach courses on multiple platforms, even students affiliated with different HEIs can get access to top-notch teaching. Digital content can be updated more easily, without the costs associated with printing, distributing, and updating physical textbooks. 

Naturally, such a massive transformation will need a radical change in the mindset of parents, teachers, and students. It will also need changes to the laws that govern the country’s education sector. Under India’s Constitution, education was originally a State subject. In 1976, the 42nd Amendment transferred some aspects to the Concurrent list. Visionary state governments can take the lead in amending the necessary regulations or enacting new legislation so that the education sector is able to attract adequate capital and has the ability to innovate around new courses, curricula, delivery models, testing mechanisms, etc.  

The pre-condition that Universities/HEIs can only be permitted when those who wish to set up such institutions have adequate land available is a major structural impediment. This is especially true for courses where there is no need for laboratories or hospitals etc. Per prevailing law, even private education institutions in India are supposed to be “non-profit”. But the reality is very different- and this is what breeds corruption. Trusts are set up to acquire large land banks on the outskirts of cities ostensibly to establish a school or college/university campus. The funds used to acquire these large tracts of land sometimes have questionable provenance. If the HEI clicks, well and good. If the institution does not gather the desired traction, that’s no big deal either. Over a period of time, these land banks are used for commercial or residential projects.  

In cities that have grown rapidly in the last decade or two (Bangalore is an example), educational institutions whose campuses were established say 20 years ago, are now located in the middle of the metropolitan area. These institutions shift to new areas on the outskirts. The prime real estate thus freed up in the city centre is used for other projects. In some cases, developers build a school as part of a large gated community, thus seeking to satisfy the conditions of land grant or conversion.  

Such new-age virtual universities can benefit students from India as well as overseas and allow underprivileged students to access high-quality education. Even in the current setup, there are several examples of talent from underprivileged backgrounds coming up with innovative ideas. Imagine what might be unleashed when virtual universities are able to channelize the creative energies of millions more of the world’s youth!  

 

Image Credits: Photo by Mohammad Shahhosseini on Unsplash

Even in the current set-up, there are several examples of talent from underprivileged backgrounds coming up with innovative ideas. Imagine what might be unleashed when virtual universities are able to channelize the creative energies of millions more of the world’s youth!  

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