Indian universities: why Indian universities should now unlearn and relearn

Higher education in India is facing a moment of judgment. It must reinvent itself to survive and thrive. A few trends are in place:

* Increased gap between current curriculum and future industry needs and skills.

* Rising middle class aspiration for quality education that is unattainable by global standards.

* Reduced importance of formal degrees due to changing employment and industry needs.

* A growing disconnect between societal issues and learning outcomes.

These trends have amplified during the pandemic, making the sector ripe for disruption. By its very nature, academia seeks stability and is not designed to pivot frequently. But, this time, innovation is a need for survival.

In India, teaching is generally not the profession of choice for top talent. This situation is exacerbated by a poor research environment and regulatory and funding constraints. Good talent migrates abroad for better research and career opportunities. Therefore, it is difficult to find a motivated and quality faculty.

On the operational front, the culture of academic work is status quo and universities are not seen as inspiring places to work for younger staff. As a result, top talent finds exciting opportunities elsewhere. This makes it difficult to develop a cutting-edge disruptive culture within universities.

School education in India is in poor condition, school results are far from world standards. As a result, the supply of talent entering universities is generally not of good quality. Universities that intend to deliver outstanding results must put in a lot of hard work to prepare the student for higher education. This includes improving basic numerical and analytical skills, communication skills that include professional writing, critical thinking, and research aptitude. At 18, it is sometimes too late to imbibe these basic skills. To get by, most universities limit themselves to making the student a good enough candidate for a job, not an exceptional human being.

Society has also come to terms with this reality. For those who decide to pursue higher education, the main expectation from universities is a degree, a good placement and low fees. As a result, universities have formed to give cheap degrees and internships. This limits the vision of universities, with all efforts directed towards this limited goal. The broader goal of higher education to build character in students, produce quality research, and play a role in creating social impact is overlooked. This creates a vicious circle where each university tries to outbid the other by being “good enough” for the market at nominal cost.

Universities spend a lot of capital up front. This includes physical infrastructure and hiring good teachers. Tuition is the source of income that slowly materializes in subsequent years. High initial costs lead to operational losses due to which the appetite to invest in research, quality infrastructure or good professors is limited. There is a race between universities to increase and increase the number of students to meet their costs. There is little appetite to take risks and rethink education beyond degrees and internships. All of leadership’s mental space is consumed by immediate concerns about the balance sheet.

Private universities are funded by philanthropists. Philanthropy in India has not matured enough for long term strategic investments. It is primarily intended to meet the basic needs of society – providing K12 education, responding to health facilities, providing humanitarian aid, etc. Universities need patient capital to establish themselves, especially if they intend to provide high quality education and produce quality research.

The best institutions in the world have been funded by patient private capital and they, in turn, have contributed to the growth of the country. Universities here need to attract such capital for their long-term sustenance. It also allows the university to be run by a board of founders, not a founder or a family.

These challenges can be overcome. Otherwise, we will not be able to create the number of quality institutions that India needs. We need an alternative model that provides high quality education while being affordable, rooted in the Indian context and yet global in its outlook, multi-disciplinary in training the student and yet specialized for the needs of industry . These apparent contradictions must be broken down and synthesized.

Universities need to go back to the drawing board and start from the very purpose of education. Indian philosophers have articulated these ideas for centuries. It is time to revisit these ideas and apply them to the contemporary needs of higher education. Those based on strong and timeless fundamentals have a better chance of weathering this crisis and thriving.