Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

India will see a big improvement in education at the mass level: Ashish Dhawan

Here's how the market maven-turned-philanthropist is trying to level the playing field for 250 million school children and why this is India's time to rise and shine on the global stage

Neha Bothra
Published: Jun 14, 2023 10:20:18 AM IST
Updated: Jun 14, 2023 10:28:18 AM IST

India will see a big improvement in education at the mass level: Ashish DhawanAshish Dhawan, co-founder Chrys Capital, founder and chairman of Central Square Foundation, founder and CEO of The Convergence Foundation, and co-founder of Ashoka University Image: Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images
In an exclusive and wide-ranging conversation on Forbes India Pathbreakers, Ashish Dhawan, co-founder, Ashoka University, and founder and CEO, The Convergence Foundation talks about the cracks in India’s education system. On the one hand, there’s a need for world-class universities so that Indian colleges can feature among the top 100 global universities, but, on the other, there’s a bigger problem of ensuring 250 million school children get access to quality education. “But as you come to the bottom half, who are in government schools, if you look at the learning levels, I think we have a lot of room for improvement,” Dhawan says.   

Learning Poverty

Dhawan believes, in terms of quality, there are islands of excellence, but, at a mass level, he feels India hasn’t been able to deliver quality education. “I think those who are in the top 20-25 percent of the socioeconomic spectrum get access to good education. But as you come to the bottom half, to those who are in government schools, if you look at the learning levels, I think we have a lot of room for improvement. And learning starts to break down quite early. By Class 3 itself, a report shows that about 70 percent of children can’t read second-grade text. The World Bank has this marker called Learning Poverty which says that at age 10, or Class 5, 55 percent of children can’t read third-grade text. Now, I think the government knows this and they have started a programme called NIPUN Bharat, which the prime minister launched, which is focussed on foundational literacy in infancy.

We, at the Central Square Foundation, are here to support the government. Both, at the Centre and in 12 states, we have a presence, and we are very excited because we have been pushed into mission mode. For the next 5 years, the resources are available, the political salience is there. We can see a real change start to happen on the ground. So, this 5-year mission I believe will now start to see, the way we have seen there’s been a big improvement in electrification or sanitation or now pipe water or roads. I think education will really start to improve in the coming years,” he adds.

India: Firing on all engines

Dhawan is enthused about opportunities opening up for India in the coming years. “The western world has now turned in terms of demographics. We have a young workforce, a growing workforce. Women now are more empowered than before, and they are joining the workforce. So, I think, all engines are going to fire in the coming years and we have a proactive government. Both. at the Centre and I see it at every state now, you see the competitiveness between different states. Different chief ministers now want their states to develop. There are at least six states that I have counted in India that have set a trillion-dollar GDP target. Now for Maharashtra, we need to double to get there. For the other states, they need to quadruple to get there. But I like that ambition. We didn’t have that before. I see that the government also wants to facilitate business. Whatever planning we’re doing in terms of industrial policies, it has a capitalist bent of mind in that it’s not that the state wants to come and substitute for private business, it wants to stimulate and support private enterprise. And that bodes well, I think, for the coming years,” says Dhawan optimistically.

Start-ups: Solving complex problems

Dhawan adds that some start-ups are going to be key agents of change and will drive India’s growth story. “I think the whole startup ecosystem has changed dramatically in the last decade. Largely for the positive, in that, it had unleashed tremendous energy. I mean look at how many bright young people are out there trying new things. They’re entrepreneurial. I have a lot of respect that people are working on some really hard problems, whether it is space tech or biotech or agritech. I think people really want to work on hard problems. It’s not just about putting up some website and selling some fancy stuff. These are hard problems. Because they interface with the real world. I mean at the end of the day, if you’re going to work on agritech, you got to solve some problem for the farmer or some problem in the value chain and increase productivity. That’s the way you will extract value for yourself. Difficult problems, not all will be successful but, you know, some of them are going to be very successful. But unless people are going to try, it’s not going to happen. I think the only grouse I have is that there was probably too much capital available and it was too readily available. I think a lot of people also wasted a lot of money and frankly learnt some bad habits. Now more discipline has come in where people have to build the right business models before they scale too rapidly,” he observes.

Also read: How Ashish Dhawan gave up his high-flying investing career to solve India's education crisis

Turning point: Best is yet to come

Against this backdrop, Dhawan is confident about the country’s growth map. “I look, more than anything else, at where the country overall is going. Because I think, as an investor or even someone who is building a business, you have to think long-term. I think that India is poised to grow 7-8 percent annually. We still have very low per capita income. We are still sub $3,000. Productivity has a long way to go. We can still improve productivity by 4-5 percent a year. We still have our labour force growing at 1.5-2 percentage points per year. And female labour force participation is so low. So, I still think we have got a lot of legs as far as growth is concerned in the coming years. As a long-term business builder and entrepreneur, I think the best is yet to come,” he adds.

The rise of Asia

The unprecedented pace of rate hikes by the US Federal Reserve to lower stubborn inflation has brought many global economies on the brink of a slowdown, and the IMF predicts Asia will deliver 70 percent of global growth this year. “Who would have ever thought of a zero-interest rate world? I mean, I am a student of economics, this is just almost paradoxical. This was like La La Land for a long time. I think we’re just going back to a more normal world. I think the Western world has its own set of difficulties where they are very indebted. If you look at most of these countries, debt to GDP is 300 percent plus. If you add up household debt, corporate debt and government debt, all three are put together, and if they have very high-interest rates for a long period of time, they can’t sustain. So, I think in the Western world, while interest rates have gone up, they will try to repress rates over time.  
The problem they have is that they have managed to borrow very easily because the dollar has been the global currency. And Asia which is the big saver; Japan, China, etc. or the Middle East, has been more than willing to send its savings westward. I think that the tide is going to turn. The centre of gravity of the world is shifting to Asia. And so, I think now there will be stagnation in the Western world for a long period of time, both economically and in markets as well. And I think this is what I call the ‘The Rise of the Rest’.
If you look over the course of history, Angus Maddison has this beautiful book where he studies the economic history of the world. From 0 AD to almost 1800 AD or 1750 AD per capita income was not that different across the world because all societies were agrarian. It was only after the Industrial Revolution that the West took off and the rest got left behind. Now the rest is catching up. And so, I think that this is the era, over the next 50 years, of convergence. India being the most populous country in the world now, is at the centre of that convergence,” he explains.

End of brain drain?

But will this reverse the trend of students looking to study and work outside of India in the coming 10-15 years? “Remember the best universities—in the West—have been more advanced for a long period of time. I think often the best universities are in the richest countries. The reason the US has the best is because they were the economic superpower. The reason the Chinese are catching up is because they are the new economic superpower. And so, India will also catch up as our economic weight in the world goes up. So, for the moment, yes, it is attractive for many students to want to go abroad. Partly because they believe that the best universities are there. Partly, most Indian students are going because it is a ticket to a job in the US. Particularly those going at the Master’s level. I think that will change. The US is anyway making it harder with the H1B visa. I think people will turn around and say it is more exciting to be in India over time,” Dhawan believes.