'India is a country obsessed with education': Harvard Dean

Quality of schools is an issue in India, says Harvard Business School dean Nitin Nohria

Published: Jan 29, 2015

Life is not a template and neither is mine. Like several who have worked as journalists, I am a generalist in my over two decade experience across print, global news wires and dotcom firms. But there has been one underlying theme in each phase; life gave me the chance to observe and tell a story -- from early days tracking a securities scam to terror attacks and some of India's most significant court trials. Besides writing, I have jumped fences to become an entrepreneur, as an investment advisor -- and also taught the finer aspects of business journalism to young minds. At Forbes India, I also keep an eye on some of its proprietary specials like the Rich list, GenNext and Celebrity lists. An alumnus of Xavier Institute of Communications and H.R College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai, I have worked for organisations such as Agence France-Presse, Business Standard, The Financial Express and The Times of India prior to this.

'India is a country obsessed with education': Harvard Dean
Image: Mexy Xavier

Harvard Business School’s tenth dean Nitin Nohria believes India is in transition. However, he warns that there is a huge leadership gap in institutions and the corporate world due to the dearth of well-trained teachers and researchers. During his recent visit to the country, Nohria, who took charge at Harvard in 2010, tells Forbes India that the quality drop after the top 20 educational institutions is cause for concern.

Q. What innovations has the Harvard Business School (HBS) introduced in its education programmes in this digital age?
We were known for our case methods [bringing company experiences to Harvard students] which had served us well for 100 years. So, what could we add to our curriculum? There are two ideas we have invested in: One is the field method which is done in a structured and specific way. The second is an online learning platform.

We wanted to bring the case method online instead of just taking a lecture online. Our entire platform is case-based. Students first encounter a case and after a few minutes, there are interactive questions at each stage. We ran it as a pilot [with a course called ‘Disruptive Strategy’ with Clayton Christensen] with 6,000 undergrads and made it available to corporate executives. One-third of these students were from overseas.

The ‘Field and HBX’ [online education programme] looks like a promising new teaching platform for HBS. These are the innovations, but nothing will replace the intensity of an in-person education. The intimacy of the case-and-field-method experience is harder to replicate online, so there is more reason for students to come to school. We are also planning pre- and-post-MBA online courses.

Q. Do you see India going through a transitory phase?

I see a palpable change in the mood. The sentiment has changed. One should not take it lightly; there is a lot of hope and confidence that the government can work with.

Q. What should the government do more in terms of education?
India has no dearth of schools. [But] the quality of schools is an issue. India is a country obsessed with education. Several efforts have been made by NGOs to enhance teacher and principal training programmes. Plans to set up more IITs and IIMs are good moves. India is so vast that there is always the temptation to open the floodgates and allow schools to be set up everywhere.

Q. Are foreign university tie-ups making any difference?

India will need to develop its own institutions of quality. All IITs started with technical collaborations with other schools. But the smart thing was that those collaborations had a limited half-life. [The IITs] did not become dependent on the international institution. We should prudently use international expertise to create strong Indian institutions of primary and higher education. This is not the space where FDI will solve our problems.

Q. What is your analysis of India’s business schools?  

It is a two-sided platform where great faculty meets great students. In India, the quality of students is good. But the deterioration in the quality of faculty across tiers is much greater than the decline in the quality of students. India does not have good quality PhD programmes. There is very limited development of PhD and research infrastructure for management programmes. India relies on practising managers to become teachers, but they are not trained to do research or think meaningfully. The problem in higher education is even worse because we don’t have very good teachers. India has 2,000-odd business schools with a 60,000-strong faculty. But how many PhDs in management graduate from each year? Possibly about 1,500; so there is an order of magnitude gap already. You can’t build institutions of quality if you don’t have people who have made a commitment to be high-quality faculty members. Too many people confuse the ability to deliver a great lecture for an hour with the ability to deliver a great course. Very few faculty members in India can do this. It’s not that they have bad intentions; it’s just that they don’t have the skill.

Q. What is the mix of international students in your programmes?
Overall, if one looks at Coursera [a technology company founded by two Stanford University professors] and Edx [an organisation governed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard] which offer the widest range of online courses, 50 percent of participation is international and half of that is from Asia. In our MBA programmes, 40 students are from India and China each. In executive education, where there are 10,000 students who participate annually, two-thirds are from Asia.

Q. What is the biggest fallout of poor faculty? Does this impact the corporate world too?
This is the single biggest concern in India. It is not that India does not have institutes of excellence. If you were to go to the 100th ranked university in the US, it would be a fine one. Similarly, the 100th manager from the top in US companies would be competent and from a fine school. India has a missing layer after the top 20 universities. The situation has improved a bit, but it’s still not good enough. The quality drop after the top 20 is like a steep cliff—this is true about schools, colleges and professional education.

We play a modest role in helping alleviate the problem. We have a summer programme where we get 180 professors from all over the world (30 from India) who come from business schools to work with us. But relying on international organisations is not enough; this is too big a void.

In management, this is crucial as the absence of high quality education institutions means companies don’t have access to the supply of middle management. The snowballing effect is that if the middle section is weak, whatever vision the leaders have, at some point, it will get constrained in capacity execution. Leadership at the top is only as good as leadership in the middle. Too many companies have to resort to the “carrot and stick” method as a way of managing. It is an uncertain way of managing people. It is not that people are lazy. It is just that they don’t have the skills or training. Often, we hear that people don’t do their work—I have never believed that the problem is the human being’s motivation; you have to create the right circumstances and the right skills.

Q. So, would programmes like ‘Make in India’ work?

If you don’t solve the middle skills problem, it will become a significant issue. But in some sectors like IT, it worked by creating well-trained people who could become software programmers. That industry made extraordinary investments in its own training, and created centres where people from elsewhere could come to learn. When we talk to others in emerging markets, this is the same issue they face.

Q. How is the business climate today in terms of entrepreneurship, innovation and job creation?

Certainly, the US is back. [But] it is not completely out of the woods yet; there are some deep structural issues which it has to fix. It has its K12 education problem to fix. What I admire about the US is that when problems happen, it does not shy away from recognising them. People don’t hold failure against you. This encourages risk-taking and the willingness to invent at an earlier stage.  

In the US, the higher education system is research-oriented. But in India, the low value which is placed on research in academic institutions is deeply problematic. A large fraction of innovation from the US comes from research that was first done in government institutions, labs or academic labs. We don’t have that engine in India. In India, it is based on business model innovation, [and is] not a technology-based innovation—like a Narayana Hrudayalaya or Apollo Hospitals. The anxiety about failure in India is huge. The problem is not with raw human capital; the problem is that we are creating a system that would support that.

Japan, on the other hand, is very advanced, but entrepreneurship is somewhat limited. It is also a risk-averse culture, people prefer to work in large corporates; it is beginning to change, but it is taking time. Globally, the worst is behind us in Europe; Mexico is showing signs of life; Brazil, after a great period, is showing some signs of concern. India, after losing some lustre, is looking up again; and China is offering cautious hope.

(This story appears in the 06 February, 2015 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • K G Surendran

    There is definitely a steep fall after the top 20 and quality of faculty is a real issue in India which needs to be addressed. Despite that India manages to produce some stunner performers.

    on Feb 2, 2015
  • Ramprasad Ghimire

    I am satisfied with view that India has obessed education system.

    on Feb 2, 2015
  • Merlin

    You are right to some extent Nitin Nohria but quality of education in India is better now and is improving day by day. Government has also taken several measures in the education field. Merlin Edubilla.

    on Jan 31, 2015
  • Dr.a.jagadeesh

    I entirely agree with you Nitin Nohria. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    on Jan 29, 2015
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