By Manish Sabharwal & Shantanu Rooj
Orville Wright—one of the two brothers who gave us modern airplanes—responded emphatically to the comment “You and Wilbur are examples of how far a person with no special advantages can go” with the quip, “but it isn’t true we had no special advantages… we grew up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity”. From our vantage—we work for a company that has hired somebody every 5 minutes for the last 5 years but only hired 5% of the kids who came to us for a job—Orville was right; the most important decisions a child in India can make is choosing your parents wisely. Since this is impossible, a second-best choice for encouraging intellectual curiosity is going to college. We’d like to make the case that the new UGC regulations for online higher education not only end an apartheid but will enable massifying higher education.
India’s Gross Enrollment ratio (GER)—kids between 18 and 23 years old that are in college is 25%, i.e. only 30 million of our 120 million college-age kids are in college. This GER is much lower than South Korea (93%), America (50%) and China (48%). India’s traditional universities (750) and colleges (42,000) have grown in numbers but depending on the traditional classroom model for expanding GER seems inadequate given 65% of our population is less than 35 years old. Besides more cooks in the kitchen, we need a new category of universities that factor in cost, equity, and employability. The new UGC regulations enable this recipe of ‘University 4.0’.
India’s journey of distance education began in 1962 with Delhi University. But, over decades, regulatory cholesterol coming out of UGC stunted the expansion of higher education, held back the migration of distance education to online delivery, and created an apartheid by which global online universities like Coursera, University of Georgia, etc. could operate in India but Indian Universities couldn’t. The new UGC regulations are overdue, important and disruptive; they enable jurisdiction autonomy (allowing universities to operate without boundaries), allow online assessments (computer based multi-modal assessments that test both the knowledge and the skill) and catalyse digitalisation of universities (building smarter campuses that simplify and automate administrative and academic processes). This will encourage diverse institutional responses on purpose, structure, financing, delivery, modularity, governance, and much more. A small quibble: the regulations still depend on tired frameworks of accreditation that confuse university building with building universities. India must encourage innovation by allowing many statistically independent and genetically diverse ties; all universities should be permitted to teach students online since market forces are working better and information asymmetry is much lower (as shown by the 35%+ empty seats in engineering and management institutions).
Globally, higher education financing is in crisis. Average tuition costs in the US increased 498% in the last 30 years, student debt has soared to $1.5 trillion and national average graduation rates for 4 year degrees are about 45% (they rise to 55% with students being allowed 6 years to finish a 4 year degree). Consequently, think tank Brookings estimates that 40% of US borrowers may default on student loans by 2023. In 2012, UK replaced state funding of universities with a loan to students that they would not have to pay till their annual income was higher than 21,000 pounds and any outstanding debt would be written off after 30 years. Globally, higher education faces financing challenges because of unsustainable cost inflation in the traditional model.
Universities need to evolve. University 1.0 was driven by religion. University 2.0 was driven by the state. University 3.0 was driven by philanthropy. All three versions of universities will continue but we need University 4.0 (U4.0) that will consider cost, employability and equity as objectives besides excellence. U4.0 will have full flexibility; equivalence for learning on-campus, online, on-site, and on-the-job. U4.0 will encourage modularity between certificates, diplomas and degrees. U4.0 will have institutional diversity because the private sector has a trust deficit, the public sector has an execution deficit and non-profits have a scale deficit. U4.0 will rethink financing between students, banks, employers and government. U4.0 will have higher participation for outsiders like women, backward castes, and other minorities. U4.0 will rethink the role of apprentices and engage deeply with employers. U4.0 will fight for the separation of the role of the policymaker, the regulator and the service provider. U4.0 will advocate for school reforms because you can’t teach people in 4 years what they should have learnt in 12 years. U4.0 will need philanthropists to extend their time horizons because building a great university is the work of generations; the youngest institution in a recent list of the top 10 global universities is 125 years and only 4 institutions in the top 100 are less than 40 years old.
The great book, Wealth of Nations, by Surjit Bhalla suggests education is the greatest leveller of inequality and biggest driver of prosperity because educational wealth of $330 trillion is far more equitably distributed than the financial wealth of $256 trillion. India must sabotage the ovarian lottery by massifying higher education. UGC deserves recognition for an important step in that direction.
-Sabharwal is with TeamLease Services and Rooj is with Schoolguru Eduserve respectively