Home >opinion >online-views >Reshaping India’s higher education landscape

A few months have elapsed since then human resources development minister Kapil Sibal introduced his higher education Bill. The immediate brouhaha now having subsided, I feel it might be worthwhile to point to three generalized inadequacies in our higher education landscape that I hope this Bill, with its spirit of fostering openness to educators and educational institutions from outside India, might address. Indian higher education suffers from inadequate competition among the better institutions, inadequate experimentation, and inadequate measurement of outcomes.

First, consider inadequate competition. There are sufficiently few institutes in India that merit the appellation “excellent", so that their institutional feet are not held to any individual or collective fire. The mainstay of their effort is the running of a competitive examination and ensuring it does not “leak". The sheer numbers of applicants will result in a critical mass of highly qualified candidates meeting some stringent benchmark, and end up educating each other. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) fit this bill. But why can the IITs and IIMs not also produce world-class research? A simple hypothesis is that their mission is not currently compromised by not doing so. Were there other credible institutions of engineering and business—the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad is one example, though we need many, many more—the super-smart attendees of the IITs and IIMs would have options, and the IITs and IIMs, and the regulators who have oversight over these institutions, would have to work smarter to earn their keep.

Another way to say this is that the severe competition among striving, smart youngsters allows institutions themselves lacking competition to live the good life. If credible global institutions enter India, it will make their professional lives harder. Expect India’s “best" institutions, therefore, to resist.

Second, there is inadequate experimentation. The Indian education system reminds one of the hamster endlessly rotating its hamster-wheel with no end in sight. There is a certain mind-numbing uniformity to the path that the average upwardly aspiring family desires for its progeny. This is, to put it mildly, sad. All the ample research on education, not to mention common sense, suggests that the phrase “different strokes for different folks" is a better description of what India’s youth needs. Institutions should specialize not just in classroom learning, but also in vocational skills, in experiential learning, in experimental learning, among other modes. While there are localized pockets of such experimenting in India, they are sufficiently scarce as to not to make much of a difference (yet).

There are some experiments outside of higher education—Pratham comes immediately to mind, reaching out to millions of underprivileged kids across India; so does the much-newer Teach for India, a spin-off from the intellectual parent Teach for America. No reason why experimentation shouldn’t spread to higher education, as it has in many settings outside India. Look at the success of the Khan Academy in the US, with more than 2,000 video tutorials on all sorts of topics, already having delivered more than 50 million lessons speedily. Or Seoul-based Megastudy’s attempt to disproportionately reward successful teachers (and implicitly penalize those who are ineffective). Perhaps one of the many corporate house-sponsored universities in the planning stages will pay attention to such cutting-edge experiments around the world.

Third, there is inadequate measurement. There are few credible metrics at any stage of the Indian education system (other than entrance examinations perhaps to a small handful of institutions). We do not know the effectiveness of particular curricula, probably set by a sclerotic and unconstrained bureaucracy, nor the effectiveness of particular institutions, nor the ability of particular teachers to excite enthusiasm or to inspire a lifelong commitment to learning. As the old saw goes, what is not measured is not managed.

I’m excited about one attempt to measure, started by two brothers in Delhi, from IIT and MIT, Aspiring Minds (full disclosure, I am an advisor). Aspiring Minds has managed to place more than 10,000 youngsters from outside the mainstream—that is, not from top-tier colleges, and not from major metros—into top-tier jobs, through its state-of-the-art measurement and assessment system that dramatically and cost-effectively increases the talent pool accessible to any corporate firm operating in India. The social multiplier of plugging in some of India’s otherwise (economically) disconnected youth into the economic mainstream is simply enormous. And this is just one example of returns-to-measurement.

So, what we need is to foster hundreds of experiments, to measure their results, and to shut down the failures and spread the successes like wildfire. Then endlessly iterate to excellence. Simple? It is not without cost. What if one is the result of a failed experiment, after all? I have no answer to this, other than to say our current system fails many more than those who might be failed by future hypothetical failed experiments.

Let’s come back to Sibal’s Bill. A dose of competition from the outside will be just what the doctor ordered. Some columnists have bemoaned the inability of government institutions to compete with foreign entrants, on the grounds that the formers’ institutional hands are tied by red tape. There is some truth to this, but it also smacks of the classic problems of incumbency. After all, even in the US, there are plenty of excellent state-run universities, with constraints on tuition setting and so on, that compete adequately and robustly with the best private universities.

I suspect that other than relieving the inadequacy of competition, foreign entrants will also relieve the inadequacy of experimentation, and, with a penchant for rankings and metrics of all sorts, will take a number of steps that encourage measurement and accountability.

There are many ways for institutions of learning to collaborate with, and compete with, domestic institutions. Sure, some campuses will be set up, and that is no bad thing. But there are other methods, too. My own institution, the Harvard Business School (HBS), has been in the business of seeding its own competition, so to speak, for decades. It has, for example, been involved with the founding of business schools such as the IIM in Ahmedabad, the Asian Institute of Management in Manila, INCAE in Costa Rica, and so on. These are past experiments. Recently, HBS launched the Social Enterprise Knowledge Network in Latin America, which stitches together numerous business schools in several countries in a collaborative network of research and teaching. And lately, Harvard University has reinvigorated its South Asia Initiative, an attempt to bring all of Harvard’s myriad faculties—business, law, arts, medicine, public health, government and so on—to South Asia, to learn and to teach in a variety of engaged and engaging ways.

Experiment, and measure, so that we can find out which strokes work for which folks. Sibal’s Bill moves us in that direction. We should celebrate the effort.

The writer is Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School, director of Harvard University’s South Asia Initiative, and co-author of Winning in Emerging Markets: A Roadmap for Strategy and Execution, Harvard Business Press, 2010.

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