By Manish Sabharwal & Shantanu Rooj
on a recent US investor roadshow, a portfolio manager at one of India’s largest foreign investors asked us, “How do you get something done in India after everybody important in the government agrees with you?” His rhetorical question is relevant; the gap between India’s performance and potential is not a lie, but a disappointment. For example, most policymakers agree that a $5 trillion economy needs ‘mass-ifying’ higher education because our farm to non-farm transition is happening to services, not manufacturing. The agreement that some traditional universities do a poor job of balancing cost, quality, scale, and employability triggered a re-examination of a one-size-fits-all education regulation that stifles innovation, and led to lifting a ban on online higher education in July 2018. Yet, not one of the 35 universities that applied has been licensed, and the posture and tone has scared off another 150 eligible universities. This gap between intention and execution must end; it handicaps Indian universities over global ones, holds back expansion of our gross enrollment ratio (GER), and sabotages our $5-trillion-economy ambition.
As context, the University Grants Commission (UGC) banned online higher distance education in 2015 in the name of consumer protection. Granted, that there were surely some fly-by-night operators, yet drunk driving is not an argument against cars. But, UGC has no jurisdiction over global universities who continued to enroll over 1 million Indian students annually in various courses. The need for reform was recognised, and UGC reviewed its decision in July 2018 by inviting universities to apply for licences. In January 2019, more than 35 applied, but not one has yet received the go-ahead.
Besides, immediately issuing online licences, we would like to make a case for six policy changes:
End two separate regulations: Separate regulations for open and distance learning (ODL), and online programmes is unnecessary, complex, and akin to friendly fire. The frontiers between ODL and online education are blurring; an on-demand, on-the-go, always-on, modular, and multi-modal education system is where they both are headed. The regulator should evolve a single regulation that sets basic benchmarks, creates a framework for self-governance, and dumps the licence raj by allowing all universities to launch online programmes.
Allow capacity expansion: The monopoly of brick-and-mortar higher education has been challenged by online learning and competency-based education; more and more students are turning to online education to pursue degrees that may have been otherwise—geographically or financially—out of reach. However, UGC’s newfound approach to control quality, which allows only universities with a NAAC grade above 3.26 and NIRF Top 100 rank to apply for the licence, places huge amounts of red tape in the way of online learning expansion, and blunts the expansion of GER in the country. Parameters of quality should apply to all formats of education, and not only to online offerings. Blocking universities from launching online programmes murders the multiple statistically independent and genetically diverse tries that lead to innovation, competition, and better value.
Move from regulation to supervision: UGC’s online regulations permit universities to launch only those courses which have one batch of graduates—this thwarts innovation, autonomy, and competition. Regulations should focus on providing a framework, and permit universities to think anew, collaborate with industry, and launch new-age student focused, self-paced subscription models in online education. Universities will, then, not only innovate for fresh students but also for those already in the labour market who would come would bring their aspirations, past experiences, qualifications, and current jobs. Repair and Upgrade need a different thought world than Prepare.
View technology as the medium: Current online regulations require universities to recruit many employees before launching their online programmes. But, advancements in technology, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and bot-based services mean universities can use their existing ecosystems as the academic home for their distance and online courses, and their existing administration teams to manage the online students. This would mean a standard experience for students irrespective of their mode of learning. Leveraging technology shall help optimise student service, improve governance, fix accountability and control costs—the benefits of which will surely be passed on as lower course fees because of competition.
De-regulate admission cycles: The stereotype of a university student as a privileged, 18-year-old, urban male, who will spend three years, full-time, physically at the institution, no longer holds. Today’s students are just as likely to be female, older, from rural areas, and studying part-time, concurrent with full-time work. The line between corporate training and higher education is blurring, and traditional models of provision no longer work for these students. A recent research report suggested that the number of employed-learners is expected to surpass that of traditional learners in the next four years. Clearly, labour market and education outsiders need more flexibility in admission processes, criteria, and deadlines. This needs rolling admissions, and on-demand exams.
Encourage employability: Automation, artificial intelligence, and intangible assets are transforming the employment landscape; nobody can predict the future, but we can make ourselves worthy of it. Employability is a function of qualifications, work knowledge, experience, job search strategies and signalling value, amplified by networks; E = (Q+WK+E+JSS+SV)N. Micheal Spence’s Nobel prize winning work on the signalling value of higher education has important implications for recognising apprenticeships as a classroom, having multiple on- and off-ramps, and thinking differently about the regulatory regime for skill universities that focus on employability over buildings, and research.
Education, employability, and employment change lives in ways that no subsidy ever can, and India’s problem is not jobs, but productivity. De-regulating online education will enable employers, universities, and students to combine apprenticeships, degrees, and learning in ways that are currently banned. The poet Iqbal once said, “Dhoondh koi nayi raah khud ke liye. Kab tak qadeem raahon par chalta rahega?” (Find a new path for yourself; how long will you keep walking on ancient paths?). Time to take his advice in higher education.