Adam Smith once spiked an argument, “Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to regulation of the conscience.” Indian higher education faces the intricate challenge of managing growth and scale (improving GER, or gross enrolment ratio, from 25.2% to 30%) and infusing quality (skill development) as the government reduces budget allocation per student and tries to achieve all this under an over-regulated hierarchy. No doubt, we owe the intensity of the current regulatory environment to the past misdeeds in the education system, which, in fact, led to the near collapse of distance education in the country and an acute distress a few years ago. However, the new over-regulated environment is serving no good.
The regulator seems confused about ‘distance education’ as it tries to bring about a differentiation in the online and offline worlds of education. E-commerce would have never happened if regulators in finance insisted on separating the offline and online worlds. For consumers in India, payments are almost free (marginal cost), while in the US separate regulations have kept payments a protected space with huge margins for Visa, Mastercard, Amex, etc. The revolution Amazon is causing for WalMart is shaping the future of retail across the world.
Indian regulations are impacted by two forces that make them too complex. The first is hubris. Many legislators seem to believe that they can lay down rules to regulate every eventuality. Examples range from the merely annoying (for example, a proposed regulation to define the type of web links the institutions must show on their website) to the delusional (for example, the conceit of the regulators that you can anticipate and ban every nasty trick scamsters will dream up in the future). Rather than preventing abuses, too much complexity creates loopholes that the shrewd and cunning can abuse with impunity. The other force that often makes Indian regulations complex is lobbying. The government’s over anxiety to micromanage so many activities creates a huge incentive for interest groups to push for special favours.
Online education, with the recent advancements in technology, seems to be the angel in the shining armour that can make this dream come true. India’s improving broadband network, the falling smartphone prices coupled with the several developments in language processing and machine learning hold promise to build a more flexible, nibble, effective and an efficient alternative.
Institutions would benefit a lot from a favourable regulatory regime that can help them innovate and flourish. The recent flip-flop of the regulator in terms of indecisiveness on how should an institution run its distance education is doing no good. The latest regulation that came after a humongous delay seems short-sighted. More important, rules need to be much simpler. When regulators try to write an all-purpose instruction manual, the truly important dos and don’ts are lost in an ocean of verbiage. Far better to lay down broad goals and prescribe only what is strictly necessary to achieve them.
Indian education needs a smarter approach to regulation. The system won’t benefit from an evolutionary approach that tends to repair a broken-down model; what Indian education needs is revolution—an entirely new way to impart distance education. We just need clear guidelines to make this revolution happen. India needs to build a system that is all-encompassing—formal education, skill development, on-the-job training, and career guidance and support.
What we definitely need more is a better governing architecture with clear goals and then let the revolution happen.
The author is founder & CEO, Schoolguru, the online learning services company. Views are personal