Emergence of India as Educational Force

Emergence of India as Educational Force

The Indian higher education system has undergone rapid expansion. In less than 20 years, the country has created additional capacity for a mammoth 40 million students. While the scale of this expansion is remarkable in itself, what sets it apart from earlier decades of equally aggressive expansion is a deliberate strategy and an organized design.

India’s higher education system has finally broken free of decades of colonial overhang. In recent years, the country has undertaken massive structural and systemic changes that have started to yield encouraging results. About 15 years ago, India consciously moved to a differentiated academic system with a three-tiered structure comprising highly selective elite research universities at the top, comprehensive universities and specialized institutions in the middle, and an array of highly-accessible and high-quality colleges at the bottom. While the first tier caters exclusively to furthering India’s intellectual capital, the other two focus on delivering economic and social value respectively.

Top-tier research universities are centers of excellence for the creation of new knowledge, set up with the vision to emerge as national and international leaders in research output and intellectual property. They enroll a selective set of talented, research-oriented students to be taught by stellar faculty. Faculty and students at the university attract handsome research grants and exhibit the greatest international diversity. Going beyond traditional scientific and applied research, these universities have phenomenally broadened the scope of India’s research capabilities to new interdisciplinary areas of scholarship that present the greatest opportunity for the creation of new knowledge and hold most relevance for India in the new world. For example, Indian universities are at the forefront of research in bioscience, environment and climate change, inclusive development and leadership. Leveraging their cost and competitive advantage, Indian research universities have pioneered the model of blended research where they collaboratively produce cutting-edge research with other top-rung universities around the world. Further, despite directly educating only a small group of elite students, these universities have emerged as the indirect wellspring of content and curriculum for millions of other students who have seamless access to high-quality content from these universities through the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) model.

The second tier of industry-aligned professional education institutions has seen the greatest growth over the last two decades. Focused on quality teaching and producing highly employable graduates, these institutions are a passport to white-collar jobs in a knowledge economy. They impart knowledge and technical know-how on the one hand and broad-based critical thinking and problem-solving skills on the other to produce well-rounded industry leaders. Student learning outcomes are centre stage to this model. The ‘liberal’ component in this model of education is designed to correct for traditionally strict disciplinary boundaries, rigid departmental silos and narrow specialisations once characteristic of Indian higher education. In effect, when a civil engineer educated thus sets out to build a bridge he would not only approach it from an engineering angle, but would also assess the environmental impact of building the bridge, the socio-economic impact of improved infrastructure, the financing of the bridge and possibly all the related regulatory hurdles to be overcome to get the plans approved. The curricular focus in these institutions is on content delivery than on content creation, where faculty borrow from the best open courseware and customise it to the needs of their students. While a section of the faculty are academic researchers, these universities also draw faculty from experienced practitioners and industry professionals who are subject matter experts and can act as mentors to students in the early stages of their professional careers.

The last cluster of broad-based highly-accessible universities is designed to expand the reach of higher education to all eligible and deserving students in the country. They offer a wide range of courses aimed at providing a holistic education to India’s masses, and play a major role in promoting equity and access. Their distinguishing characteristic is a varied student population with significant regional and linguistic diversity and a balanced gender profile. They rely heavily on online methods of teaching and learning, enroll a sizeable number of mature students and offer both parttime and full-time options.

The differentiated system offers students a wider variety of unique and quality programs at both graduate and undergraduate levels. It clarifies student choices and effectively caters to a heterogeneous student population with varying needs and demands, while also providing them the option for inter-institution mobility through system wide credit transfer. In this way, while planned expansion has helped create capacity for ever-increasing numbers, the differentiated system has been instrumental in directing these numbers to the right stream and the appropriate kind of institution in order to effectively meet the needs of Indian society.

Lastly, planned expansion has also helped solve for the problem of infrastructure and resources. Riding the wave of urban planning, India earmarked tracts of land in many tier-II cities to create ‘education cities’ which have today emerged to be thriving inner-city university campuses tightly integrated with their host cities. Unlike the erstwhile ideal of a mono-functional and isolated greenfield campus removed from the city, providing academics and students the distance to reflect on humanity, these campuses are located in the heart of the city, with several universities collocating on a single campus. They share a close relationship with the host city and are embedded in ‘knowledge ecosystems’ enabling them to perform better.

Intensive use of technology

The Indian higher education system has undergone massive expansion to become the largest in the world enrolling over 70 million students. Such expansion would have been unimaginable without the extensive use of ICT tools. To illustrate, if India were to create this additional capacity through increase in brick and mortar institutions alone, it would have had to build six universities and 270 colleges each and every month in the last 20 years – a feat that would have been impossible to achieve with India’s limited resources. Instead, India chose to go the MOOCs way.

Online platforms and ICT tools have helped take higher education to millions of deserving students in far-flung areas who would otherwise have no access to university education. Online education has become the first port of call for many students who were earlier left out of the higher education system, or had to settle for lower quality alternatives. The MOOCs model made it possible for the country to provide a quality education to the masses despite poor facultystudent ratios. Students today increasingly learn from leading faculty at elite institutions beyond the four walls of their classrooms as top-tier institutions have donned the mantle of being content generators. Professors collaborate across universities to collectively create and distribute for-credit curriculum for an online semester.

Technology has not only been instrumental in addressing the demand-supply gap for quality education, but has fundamentally changed the nature of several educational processes. Gone are the days when students had to gather in a large hall only to hear a lecture. Today, classroom lectures and pre-recorded and uploaded to be accessed by students at their comfort. Class time is instead used for creating more in-depth learning experiences through group activities, problem solving and interactive learning. Online analytics provide faculty with data on how and at what pace each student is learning, enabling them to provide personalized support to aid student learning outcomes. The model also acts as a great democratize, allowing students to learn at their own pace – for instance, slow learners can go over certain content and exercises multiple times with special tools to aid their learning. Finally, the hybrid model (where part of the program is taught online and part in person) has become particularly popular among adult and working professionals looking to gain additional credentials. The model provides them with the flexibility to access course material as their schedule permits.

Reforms in governance

The imperative of the previous decade towards ‘good governance’ in all realms – business, administration and politics – has resulted in dramatic changes in the governance framework for higher education in areas both internal to institutions (their management and leadership structures) as well as areas external to institutions (the regulatory framework). While much has been done towards ensuring quality, instituting accountability, enabling private participation, promoting internationalization and so on, there are five salient trends that deserve particular mention when talking of governance reforms since 2013:

Diminishing role of government in governance

Over the years, the government has gradually withdrawn from direct management of public institutions, devolving governance to boards compromising academics, alumni and external members. Instead, it exerts indirect forms of control based largely on mechanisms such as performance-linked funding and quality recognition. The erstwhile regulatory regime of multiple bodies with conflicting and overlapping mandates has given way to a single independent regulator that is largely hands-off, with the regulatory focus shifting from ‘high barriers to entry’ to ‘high standards for accreditation’. Self-regulation and self-critique has now become the norm. The government’s role as a provider of funding has also seen some shifts. Over the 13th and 14th plan periods, the funding model has moved from funding for institutions to funding for individuals (including faculty, students and researchers). As a result, institutions can no longer rely solely on government monies for operations and expansion, but are increasingly taking greater responsibility for sourcing funding, further increasing their autonomy to plan their own futures.

Moving from monitoring inputs to regulating outcomes

Traditionally, regulatory bodies in Indian higher education have been focused on monitoring inputs. Universities were assessed on the size of built-up land, number of books in their library, funds spent on computers and so on instead of on student learning outcomes, their employment readiness or performance in standardized tests. A conscious effort to reverse this anomaly has been made over the years by linking public funding with performance variables. Attempt has also been made to shift the thrust from consumption of allocated funds to outcomes from utilized funds, effecting, at the same time, greater autonomy in the use of allocated funds as well as greater institutional responsibility towards their effective utilization.

Compulsory accreditation

The move towards regulating outcomes has been accompanied by the introduction of a more sophisticated quality assurance system based on the establishment of a national accreditation agency for higher education and also several other agencies with a specialized focus. As a result, claims to quality can no longer be based on internal judgment by institutions themselves but have to be justified by an external process of peer review and assessment by quality rating agencies. While the model has been in practice for many years before India adopted it, what is rather distinctive about the Indian accreditation system is that each tier of universities has a different rating scale, allowing stakeholders to make comparisons across like variables. Periodic assessment and review allows institutions to move up or down the hierarchy of grades within their tier, or even move across tiers. Further, in order to prevent an oligopolistic scenario from building inadvertently, the accreditation system allows fledgling institutions to grow and find a foothold before subjecting them to extensive scrutiny.

Enabling environment for private and foreign participation

About ten years ago, the distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’ among universities had effectually started to blur, with recommendations from the Narayana Murthy Committee Report being a first step in this direction. Thanks to lower barriers to entry and the evolution of a mandatory accreditation system, quality benchmarks have become the sole basis of differentiation among universities within a certain tier. Today, foreign education providers are also treated on par with Indian institutions, they too being subjected to the same accreditation norms.

Thrust towards internationalization

Lastly, much of the 20 years of reform –including in aspects of governance— was underpinned by the desire and commitment to emerge as a globally competitive education system. Internationalization has been a powerful driving theme, enabling the Indian higher education sector to both be in consonance with global standards as also emerge a leader in higher education globally. India’s higher education institutions are today global in all senses of the word, not least of which is leadership. Today, institutional leaders are selected in an open and competitive process, and as many as 100 of our universities are led by international academics and administrators, a trend that could perhaps be traced back to the appointment of Dr. Ashish Nanda of Harvard Law School as Director of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad – a first of its kind appointment in its day

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