The answer is online for India’s education system

By UK India Business Council (UKIBC)

Kevin McCole, Chief Operating Officer at UK India Business Council examines the future of India's education system and the opportunities it presents

The Indian education system is undergoing rapid change. To succeed in this environment, UK universities need to look differently at India as digital disruption and progressive government policy mean the next decade will be nothing like the last.

India will become the most populated country on the planet by 2022, and it will have the largest number of people of college-going age by 2030 – a staggering 140 million. Currently, 700 universities educate 28.6 million students in India. To accommodate the dramatic increase in student numbers, it is estimated that India will need another 1,500 institutions.

This challenge is intensified by a rising gross enrolment ratio. Today it is 23%, compared to 57% in the UK and 89% in the US. Nevertheless, it is rising and the Government of India has set a target of reaching 30% by 2020.

To add to India’s challenge, it is estimated that between 30 and 40% of departmental positions in Indian universities are vacant.

Enabling access, equity and quality of education will be the greatest hurdles for India in the coming decades. With around one million young people entering the labour market every month and the organised sector looking for increasingly well-qualified people, India will lose its demographic dividend if its young people are considered unemployable by employers.

It could also have a major impact on the economy. The chief economist of the Asian Development Bank, Dr.Ifzal Ali, believes that India could “step back from 7-8% growth to 3-4% growth very easily within five to six years if unemployment and under-employment is not addressed.”

A university qualification is widely recognised to boost an individual’s employability. At a time when many low-skilled jobs are tipped to become automated, being highly skilled will undoubtedly be increasingly important.

The answer is online

Rick Levin, the CEO of Coursera, the American online offering ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs), termed India’s objectives as ‘hugely ambitious’ and the challenge as “…’frankly almost impossible’ if such an expansion were to depend on building new bricks and mortar universities.”

As of now, India has only around 3.5 million students on distance learning degrees. The scope and need for growth is obvious. New, innovative and digital forms of education are going to have to play a significant role.

This challenge can become an opportunity for a country like India, which is developing rapidly across all sectors. An opportunity to lead the world by using its increasing mobile and internet penetration and its ability to deploy tech expertise at huge scale – think the national biometric programme – to deliver high-quality digital education of hundreds of millions of people.

The UK can play a role in this.

What does this mean for UK universities?

UK and Indian partners can certainly come together to create and deliver next generation, digitally-delivered, education.

There is already considerable UK-India higher education collaboration. The UK India Business Council’s 2015 Report, “Innovation in the Economy”, featured several examples of this collaboration in practice, including the Newton-Bhabha Fund and the UK India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI). This can be expanded, and priority given to digital education related research and collaborations.

It is important, in developing digitally-delivered education, to keep in mind two of the conclusion drawn from another 2015 study we conducted – Meeting India’s Education Challenges Through E-Learning’. Firstly, e-learning must be education-led, not technology led. And to make creative use online tools already familiar to students such as YouTube, gaming and Skype.

What else should UK universities be doing in India?

Clearly, India must not be just about student recruitment.

Attracting Indian students to the UK should continue as part of a UK university’s strategy. The number of students coming to the UK may not rebound soon, but they will. Indians, like the Chinese before them, will enjoy rising GDP per capita levels, which will change the economic equation.

But student recruitment should be only one part of a universities strategy in India.

Academic collaboration

As of now, UK universities collaborate with just 2.5% of the Indian education sector. So there is significant scope for expansion. There are several ways of achieving a deeper level of collaboration: joint degree programmes, which will enhance Indian graduate’s employability; PhD projects with research-intensive organisations; delivering blended learning programmes; and promoting twinning programmes. In establishing partnerships, there is much to be said for looking beyond the top ranking Indian institutions. Many of the emerging private sector engineering and business schools are first rate.

Corporate engagement

Engagements with Indian corporates should also be central to a UK university’s strategy. Because of our extensive engagement with these businesses, they are now looking to connect with universities, to access both R&D capability and talent. This trend is intensifying.

There is no doubt that the UK universities active in India have had to change what they do and how they do it. If they haven’t, time is running out. It is equally clear that education within India is going to be disrupted. It has to be if the country is to succeed in the mammoth task of fulfilling the needs of a burgeoning young population.

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