Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

An Indian Path For 21st Century University Creation

To keep up with this skyrocketing demand, India will need to add between 800 and 1,000 new universities between now and 2022

Published: Oct 15, 2012 06:04:19 AM IST
Updated: Oct 8, 2012 10:38:03 PM IST

We can only speculate about the number of new universities that will be built in India over the next decade.  What we do know, however, is that India’s 430 institutions of higher learning can’t come anywhere close to keeping up with demand, as the number of Indians seeking to go on to post-secondary education increases by 12 to 30 percent each year.

To keep up with this skyrocketing demand, India will need to add between 800 and 1,000 new universities between now and 2022.   This may sound like an ambitious target, but I believe that it is feasible if India follows an individual path to new university development.  This path means taking what is best about the Western university model, but picking and choosing what attributes make the most sense for an Indian context. 

When it comes to higher education, India has the great good fortune of a "second-mover advantage".  While India enjoys a core of world class institutions of higher learning, particularly in IIT branches of Bombay, Kanpur, Madras, Delhi, and Kharagpur (as well as the University of Delhi and Anna University Chenai), the number of available slots in these top universities is several orders of magnitude too small to meet the demand from qualified applicants.   

India can therefore choose to adopt the best attributes from its existing universities as new universities are built, but at the same time not be held back by the need to reform existing institutions.  It is often easier to build from scratch than it is to re-model.  India's present shortage of post-secondary institutions will prove to be an advantage, as the country does not need to be inhibited by "legacy" structures and "legacy" thinking when it comes to new university construction.

How should India re-conceive the university for the 21st century?  Through the process of decoupling, unbundling, and disaggregating:

1.  Decouple: 
The new university model in India will be to decouple learning from credentialing.  Today, the university serves as the producer, transmitter, and evaluator of higher order knowledge.   We create the knowledge, teach our classes, and evaluate that our student's have mastered the materials.   The Indian university of the future will break apart these tasks.  Certifying that a student has mastered a body of knowledge will be undertaken by authorities that are distinct from those that endeavor to impart this knowledge.  This will free the new Indian university to engage in bold experiments with new forms of teaching.  Perhaps some teaching may work best in traditional lectures, but most will not.   

The process of preparing students for certification and credentialing will take many forms, most of which can be undertaken for a fraction of the traditional costs via web and mobile technologies.   Perhaps the IIT's take it on themselves to develop a set of comprehensive exams that certify that whoever passes has reached "expert" knowledge in a given subject (such as computer science).   An IIT can charge to take this exam, but the student is free to prepare for this credential however she or he likes.  This would open up an enormous range of possibilities for new institutions of higher learning to prepare these students, and to teach this new class of students in creative and non-traditional ways.   

2.  Unbundle: 
Today, the world's best institutions of higher learning bundle together a range of endeavors.  In one place you find people creating knowledge (researchers) and transmitting knowledge (teachers).  We call these people professors.   This is a wonderful model that I hope never goes away, as the best teachers are one's that involve their students in the process of knowledge discovery.  This model, however, is also very expensive and therefore has difficulty in going to scale.  Indian higher education needs to go to scale if the system is going to meet the demand for post-secondary slots and create a service economy based on knowledge work.   India must find a way to separate the research and teaching process, while at the same time insuring that neither of these tasks suffers.  

One method to successfully unbundle research from teaching, and therefore scale the amount of teaching that is possible, is to connect teaching institutions with institutions that research teaching.   India has the opportunity to prioritize the advancement of modern teaching and learning pedagogies in places where the country chooses to invest funds.  Rather than following the traditional path of investing government funds into basic scientific research, it will be necessary to spread those funds around to researchers whose mission it is to improve learning.   A large number of new universities devoted solely to teaching will be more likely to succeed (and to constantly evolve) if these new teaching institutions are connected with a long-range strategic initiative to improve learning via evidence based practices.   

3.  Disaggregate:  
Not only is the traditional university a place that bundles the roles of research and teaching, it also aggregates tasks of housing, feeding, entertaining, and supporting its students.   Again, the aggregated model of a traditional campus setting is a wonderful model of higher education.  But this aggregated model will prove to be prohibitively expensive in any effort to build out enough universities to meet the demand.   

Disaggregating the university does not mean simply doing away with every campus amenity, offering an education solely online or via an amenity barren campus.  Rather, India can lead the world in higher education specialization.  A campus need not be the place where the teaching is done, as teaching can be done via the web.  Maybe the campus becomes a cultural center, a gathering spot, or a place of research and knowledge creation.   Perhaps some students would desire and can afford to combine their post-secondary years with a residential experience.  Could this desire be met with lower cost residential campuses if the professors and teaching were developed and delivered separately from the place where the student's live?   Could specialized areas of teaching excellence be created that are available to a range of different types of students (from residential campus based learners to purely online students living at home), a system that would maintain quality but lower costs by allowing students to consume just those educational services that they most value?

Any effort to decouple, unbundle, and disaggregate an existing university is bound to meet fierce resistance from incumbents.   India has the luxury to begin building a modern post-secondary education system to serve its 1.2 billion people from a low numerical baseline.   India can rethink and re-imagine what a university can be.  When it comes to higher education in the early part of the 21st century, the rest of the world will learn from India's example.

[This article republished with permission from the author and the Tuck School of Business.]

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