As a frequent traveller, it is true that I am grateful for the convenience and comfort of the new airports in Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai. But it is also true that many travellers, including me, would settle for a nice but less fancy airport for lower fees—regulators, it appears, force us to pay for fancier airports than many of us want. Does the airport saga hold any lessons for education?
Individual colleges and schools may choose to compete on employability, placement outcomes, faculty quality and much else. But education regulators don’t know how to regulate output so they measure input—for example, RTE; confusing school building with building schools.
Research around primary schools suggests that hardware, teacher qualifications and teacher salaries have little correlation with learning outcomes. I’d like to make the point that competition in education requires moving away from a hardware regulatory regime to an output one.
In higher education, this needs allowing competition from non-traditional universities like skill universities (SU). How is an SU different from a normal university? Curriculum in a traditional university is set by academics but an SU has one god, i.e. employers. In a traditional university all students are on campus; in an SU only 10% are on campus and the rest are on apprenticeships, online, etc. In a traditional university 100% of the students are doing degrees; in an SU only 20% will be pursuing degrees while the rest will be on three-month certificates, one-year diplomas or two-year associate degrees with the flexibility of going all the way to a three-year degree. Massively expanding the number of SUs needs four regulatory changes.
One, we need to revamp distance education regulations that allows Indian universities to compete with MOOCs. It is ironic that a student in India can take a degree from a foreign university through an online course while the distance regulatory architecture places heavy physical and state boundary restrictions on Indian universities. MOOCs provide a powerful learning platform and the increased internet penetration is a unique opportunity to tackle challenges such as faculty shortage, affordability, equity, weak infrastructure and lack of employability.
Two, we need ‘for credit’ apprenticeships. The learning-by-doing and learning-while-earning models of apprenticeships can be made more powerful when combined with accumulation of credits which can be used towards the fulfilment of a degree. Allowing accreditation of prior learning can create an incentive for the apprentice for vertical mobility. Today, lakhs of ITI graduates who have joined a job have no scope for further education. It is time the government, which is focusing on Make-in-India and Skill India initiatives, takes concrete steps in this direction. In countries such as France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, progression route from apprenticeship to degree level has been successful.
Three, regulators are stuck in a mindset that use land, buildings, etc, as a proxy for intent. Hardware demonstrates the ability to spend money but is weakly correlated to quality or outcomes. While traditional universities need campuses, the framework for university recognition needs to allow for multi-modal delivery that allows universities to focus more on outcomes than inputs. The recognition of universities needs to move away from the colonial mindset of being a matter for the central or state legislatures and shift to regional accreditation bodies. These bodies should be independently managed and can be publicly funded till they become self-sustaining. Higher education accreditation in many parts of the world is a peer review process coordinated by accreditation commissions and member institutions.
Four, we need to create a corridor between certificates, diplomas and degrees. While the ambitious NSQF defines the various entry and exit levels, it is important that a corridor of vertical learning leading to certificates, diplomas and degrees is created. The social signalling value of a degree seems to matter and vocational university is often for “other people’s children”. The option for students to climb the whole ladder will substantially increase the adoption of vocational education without regulatory fatwas.
The massification of higher education is a wicked policy problem because of the impossible trinity of cost, quality and scale. Many educators believe that you can get only two of three rights in one institution. The policy perspective should be to encourage biodiversity; a number of genetically-diverse but statistically-independent tries that innovate in delivery models. Research and teaching universities have their place but they are a child of western needs of quality for countries with small populations that grew rich before they grew old. The 10 lakh kids joining the labour force every month for 20 years need something different.
The author is provost, TeamLease Skills University