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22 Dec 2020

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 a powerful force 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 shortage in 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 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!


Image Credits:   Photo by Mohammad Shahhosseini on Unsplash

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