Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Three pathways for us to achieve the Indian dream


India occupies a unique position in the world today, and at a unique moment in history. Our 1.3 billion people—with an average age of just 29, ten years lower than in China—have more active person-years of life and work ahead of them than any other nation in history. Naturally, the opportunity to make a defining and dominant contribution to the world as a new generation comes of age is ours to lose. In many ways, one could call this the Indian dream.

India can do justice to this historic opportunity only if we invest seriously in the education of our very large and young population. This is necessary at the individual level—to discover purpose, acquire knowledge, develop skills, and hone values; and at the societal level—to encourage freedom of thought and egalitarianism as the foundations of our society, and instill a spirit of evidence-based inquiry and exploration to push the frontiers of knowledge.

What we have on the ground today, especially in higher education, falls well short of what is needed on a number of counts. First comes the issue of access. For every 18-year old student studying at one of India’s nearly 1,000 universities today, it is estimated that there are seven others who did not have the opportunity to do so. To increase capacity to meet the needs of our population, we need to inaugurate one new university a day, every single day, for the next 20 years—such is the insurmountable scale of the problem. Second, there is a chronic and structural lack of qualified professors and teachers. Third, there is an emphasis on professional education in fields such as engineering, medicine and accounting, often at the cost of the broader set of life skills and competencies needed to navigate the future.

Covid-19 has given us a reason to question and re-evaluate every aspect of our lives and society, and education is no exception. We must ask the question: What is the purpose of higher education in India? For a country as diverse as ours, there may not be one unanimous answer. One purpose is certainly to educate the future leaders of society—by building solid personal foundations of adaptability, resilience, societal consciousness and ethics. A second purpose is to develop life skills such as creativity, critical thinking and collaboration, which will help individuals succeed in any career they choose. A third purpose is to impart employable skills to members of our workforce, young or old, while realizing that these skills come with finite shelf-lives in a fast-changing world.

If this is the purpose we seek to serve, how can we design a system that facilitates this? We must build three pathways to this end. First, many existing universities in India are in need of reform—in what they teach, how they teach and who teaches. All three issues can be effectively addressed by enhancing the campus experience with technology and digital learning. Such campuses would become the pathways for future change leaders of the nation, where students immerse themselves in full-time education. The more we expand this capacity and enable access to this pathway, the better it would be for our nation.

But seven out of eight 18-year-olds are not in college today because they need to work and earn incomes. These young workers also need to build a foundation of life-skills just as full-time students do, even while they work.

This must be addressed by the second pathway, where students can learn largely online, but also be part of a cohort and community that meets and collaborates periodically in a university setting, say on weekends; or, to take a rural example, during annual farming downtimes between the rabi and kharif crop seasons. Thanks to the scalability of online learning and the limited dependence of this pathway on physical university resources, we may be able to serve several of these seven 18-year olds who are unserved today.

The third pathway must deliver employable skills, which are by nature transient in today’s world. Learning to write code today in Python, a programming language, may not be relevant even five years from now when other technologies and languages might gain dominance.

The onus of imparting employable skills must fall on companies, not universities, since they are the end-users of the skills, and many already conduct expansive in-house training programmes. Companies must be encouraged to open up these skill courses online, conduct online assessment and provide formal credentialing. These courses would find takers not just among college-age students, but among lifelong learners of all ages who need to stay relevant and employable in changing contexts.

In a country like India, these three pathways are bound to overlap. They are not mutually exclusive. A firm and sustained policy commitment to investment in the development of these pathways is essential, with companies being considered as integral a part of the higher education ecosystem as universities.

India is at a rare moment in history, and the success of online learning experiments necessitated by the covid-19 crisis has opened up new possibilities.

We must seize this opportunity for our generation to develop these three pathways and fulfil India’s massive human capital potential for the betterment of the world and society at large. Only then can we live the Indian dream.

Kapil Viswanathan & Vijay Govindarajan are, respectively, vice-chairman of Krea University and Coxe distinguished professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business

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