Digital education: the mahamantra
Over the past 8-9 years, Indian schools and students have demonstrated that their ability to adapt to digital technology is no less than anybody else in the world. Today, many private schools in India which use products like Smartclass are way ahead of the technology adoption curve than many other schools in the US, Singapore and even Japan. There is a great opportunity in front of us to take to e-education and spread it across the country.
The advantages are obvious. One, we will be able to deal with the critical teacher shortage problem and also the teacher quality issue. Two, we will be able to make education contextualised, localised, relevant and consistent across the country. It has been proven that when kids are exposed to multi-sensory and multimedia education, they are able to retain the learning content. One of the perennial problems has been the huge drop-out ratio because students do not find education relevant or contextual to their surroundings. Using digital means will ensure that every learner will find it a joy to go school and that can immediately cut down the drop-out rate.
When you consider it has taken about 60 yearsto create 1,200-odd Kendriya Vidyalayas, you know that your strategy is not working. What is needed is to supplement new schools and institutions on a war-footing. For decades, we have limited the supply of schools due to self-imposed constraints on volumes by keeping private investment out of education. Estimates suggest that if private capital is freely allowed to participate in education, it can unleash an investment of over R10,000 crore over the next 12 months. Thats a huge sum and is the equivalent of building 1,000 new schools.
But what prohibits private capital to enter education Current regulations only permit non-proprietary and non-profit bodies from getting recognition or affiliation from state education authorities or national education boards. What is interesting is that this is not the law, this is merely the fine print of regulation that has created a whole bunch of anomalies in the education sector. With one stoke of a pen, allowing all kinds of bodies to set up educational institutions, will overnight create an investment environment that will attract capital from across the world. The lure of providing high quality education to 560 million consumers who have traditionally spent their own savings for education is too great toignore.
A progressive regulatory regime
The education sector is beset by multiple, conflicting, parallel and superfluous regulation. Once we recognise that education is a legitimateserviceindustry, the need to have an education regulator will start making sense. The regulator will put inguidelinesto regulate quality and not have a fixed asset/input-based approach to education quality. It will not specify what size of a land you need or how many square feet of construction you need or what should be the size of tables and toilets. It will rather talk about teacher training, accreditation, industry-academia relationship, continuing education for professors, curriculum, innovation and research. A licensing-based approach to education that only seeks to perpetuate mediocrity and limit education choices would be done away with. Regulation will replace licensing, encouragement will replace corruption and, over the next 12-18 months, we would able to set up a platform that can shape the huge human capital resource that India is endowed with.
Allow foreign education
It is time to rid ourselves of the phobia of the foreign, which in any case seems to be a bit hypocritical since its well known that India, last year, became a largest exporter of students in the world. It sounds silly that we would be okay with Indian students spending over $4 billion in foreign universities rather than permitting JVs and collaborationsand the opening of foreign institutions in India. We could perhaps create a gradual door-opening strategy to allow Indian institutions a transition period to compete so that the fears of a flight of students to foreign universities are quelled. It could be specified that a foreign university must come in with a local partner. It can also be specified that there must be local equity to the extent of either 50% or more for the first three years. But we should do away with restrictions on repatriation, recognition of foreign degrees and so on.
With over 30% professors in leading universities being Indian and close to 30% of the student population being Indian, it is strange that the education transaction between the teacher and the student, both Indian, is being carried out in the US or UK, rather than in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore. We must create a mindset forour institutions to become globally competitive and start targeting first-world students. We must give our existing universities a direct incentive or cash credit for attracting non-Indian students. For example, for every non-Indian student who comes and earns a degree in India, the government can provide a 20-25% cash incentive. This will encourage our institutions to set up marketing centres to attract students from the unbanked parts of the world. The more foreign students we get to India, the more credibility of Indian education would be established worldwide, professors will come back to India and Indian students will not need to travel abroad.
Strengthen PPP initiatives
Lastly, there is a need to create viable PPP initiatives. The government has to encourage education rather than run educational institutions directly. It should stop building new schools and better invest that money in PPP ventures and bring in credible private sector partners. There are any number of stuck in the middle PPP schemes floating or sitting frozen in the files of the central and state governments. A buoyant capital market and a robust FDI regime is the right ecosystem for us to attract serious capital to setting up and running educational institutions.
This simple and straightforward six-point agenda can set the ball rolling towards transforming India into a 21st-century powerhouse of human capital. The next few steps of this government will set the trend. The next generation will reap the rewards.
The author is chairman & MD, Educomp Solutions Ltd