The higher education market is growing quickly in India. An expanding middle-class population, and the demand for knowledge workers, is opening up new opportunities for schools and businesses that understand this market. 
Shashi Nanjundaiah of New York City (LinkedIn Profile) is the Founding Director of the Indira School of Communication (Pune, India) and former Director at Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication (Pune, India). I recently contacted Shashi to better understand the challenges and opportunities of Indian higher education.  

KH: Shashi, what do you think is behind the growth of private, for-profits in India? Is this a deliberate strategy of the Indian government? 

SN: Actually, I don’t think we have seen the best output from private schools yet. Innovations and creative solutions are not really a norm in higher education. If you look at primary through secondary levels, you will see some astonishing success stories among private schools.  Among higher-ed schools, such successes are few and far between. As a result, the quality of graduates from a college is usually the result of individual accomplishments. The exceptions prove the rule.

The number of private institutes in India has increased in the country impressively in the past two decades whereas the number of public institutions – both government and aided institutions – has increased only marginally over the past five decades or so. Nearly 30 percent of all higher education enrollment is in private unaided institutions, which do not receive any grants from the government. The growth has been predominantly in institutions offering professional courses. The growth in private education is clearly because of entrepreneurship stemming from the explosive demand for education in India.

The increasing enrollment in private professional institutions indicates nothing more than a trend among students to study professional programs. The government has never restricted private players, but never really encouraged them. In fact, the rules were fairly hazy with some loopholes that entrepreneurs took advantage of until about 2006. The problem with the current rules is that they do not even consider private players’ profit motive. AICTE-governed institutions find it extremely difficult to be profitable per se. For-profit institutions’ income is a factor of numbers and the amount they charge. AICTE stipulates both enrollment numbers and the tuition and other fees, so there is no open end for leverage.

The recourse is to establish high-investment private universities, whose regulation rests with state governments, or “deemed universities,” regulated by the central University Grants Commission (UGC). Establishing private post-secondary education would require a UGC approval, and it’s badly needed today. At both the graduate institutions I headed, we ended up having to spend time correcting a lethargic, rote-method academic environment at undergraduate levels. Because establishing a university entails starting several departments and programs, the current regulation is a big deterrent to for-profit higher-ed ventures. You really don’t find many in India. The bottom line, though, is that the demand is still far higher than the supply.

But qualitatively, there is much to be desired both among government and private institutions, in different ways. Typical government-promoted schools, including universities, tend to be lackadaisical and bureaucratic. Private schools, anxious for high enrollments, usually see the business side of education. There is a dearth of teachers, and many teachers at the higher education levels are hired part-time or on a per-class basis. Research and other in-depth forms of analysis is lacking. Graduates end up not having their fundamentals clear. However, what many private institutions have been able to achieve among their students is optimism, high energy and the ability to take on hard work at the workplace. They tend to be more “placements-oriented”—something students are quickly taking for granted when they join—than universities, and that is a strong reason students prefer highly rated private institutions. Government institutions, therefore, lack too much accountability to their students. Placements activity is usually students-driven among government universities. The Knowledge Commission recognizes this problem, and let’s hope the government takes notice.

The government has instituted a body called the All-India Council for Technical Education, or AICTE, that governs technical and management schools at the post-graduate level. There is no singe umbrella regulator for the entire gamut of programs. Some of the programs, such as journalism and mass communication, are not even included under AICTE. AICTE is a “compliance regulator” that has a set of rigid standards, numbers and ratios that institutions must quantitatively comply with. It is hardly adequate because by being inflexible and quantitative, AICTE can neither ensure quality nor does it allow the institution the margin to innovate in order to accomplish quality standards.

The real need today is a qualitative assessment system, something like in the US, UK and other western countries. The National Accreditation and Assessment Council (NAAC) partly addresses this lacuna, but NAAC accreditation is not required for institutions to follow. When I was at Symbiosis, some of our institutions sought NAAC accreditation voluntarily more for self-assessment rather than for compliance. The much-publicized Knowledge Commission of India’s recommendations include a better regulatory system for higher education, but I am not sure what the government intends to do with the Commission’s recommendations.

We may not see the kind of mushrooming of smaller schools as we did earlier, if the regulation continues in its current trend. Smaller but innovative and quality-conscious schools may not materialize, when the government really should be considering ways to cut bureaucracy and slow-change policymaking involved in bigger universities.

KH: A recent study from India suggested that only 25% of recent post-secondary graduates in India are adequately prepared to work for multinationals. First, do you think this is an accurate assessment? And if so, what’s behind these dismal figures?

A Government of India research indicates that fewer than 25 percent of all degreed professionals in the country are capable of working for multinational companies. Multinational companies are likely to give you an even higher figure. This is not really a new problem, but one that has emerged more intensely in our decades. In the 1970s, Michael Spence hypothesized that the value of formal education is not so much a learning process as it is an instrument for employers to select the most gifted employees.

Employability of fresh graduates is a big concern in the industry. This is a part of a bigger problem of “learnability”—not just of students, but of the institutes themselves. There are three elements to this problem: academic institutions’ inability to provide pedagogical solutions to new global industry requirements in their rapid and continuing transition, institutions’ approach to academics as input-driven, not output-driven, and institutions’ continuing failure to address the pigeonholing of subjects. All this stems from what I believe is the most important of all failures among academic institutions in India–their inability to connect with the industries sufficiently.

We can call all this an “academic coherence” problem with a new definition. Academic coherence stems from collective thought processes among teachers to evolve new curricula and systems. Today, we need to apply this interaction to teacher-industry and student-industry interface to develop methods and systems relevantly applicable to today’s global workplace and global life.

The age of industrialization has taken a new shape in India after the country’s economy was liberalized 1991 onwards. Employment requirements, too, have transformed. The basic problem is that higher education has not kept pace with changes in the economy and the marketplace. Application of technology and concepts come in combination today with innovations and individual accountabilities at the workplace. Corporations are faced with having to either wait for the bureaucracies in our universities to change the basic approach to higher education, or take on the challenge of provide their workforce with top-up training. The top schools, such as the Indian Institutes of Management, have had no problem keeping up with change—partly because the faculty works closely in partnership with the industries, and partly because most of the admitted students at these institutes are already aware of marketplace realities before they graduate, and prepare accordingly. But each company is different, with different systems and unique approaches.

The situation is even more complex for candidates vying for positions in the now-proverbial global marketplace. India’s pedagogical systems are traditionally inward-looking, and when it gets to teaching internationally accepted systems, they get quite theoretical or archaic. For example, media schools still insist on teaching the “inverted pyramid” approach as the existing standard of writing news stories. Unfortunately, that approach is considered at best quaint in most other countries. In the rat race for engaging audiences, the approach to news writing has changed dramatically around the world. The media industry in India has had the challenge of adopting it either by imitation or by providing expensive on-the-job training abroad—usually in the UK or the US—to its journalists. Many teachers at the professional levels are out of touch with existing realities of practice, and we usually blame that on lack of opportunities in research and projects. For all the exponential growth in demand for higher education in India, we need many, many forward-looking, industry-connected teachers who can apply concepts into contemporary practicality in their classes. But ultimately, it is the schools that need to provide the right platforms, environments and opportunities for teachers to accomplish those requirements.

The global marketplace is also more demanding of broader skill sets than before. The requirement set is solutions-driven: a combination of technological, professional, business, social and life skills—and much more that is intangible. In addition, it may no longer be enough to “super-specialize”—there will be more demand for multi-skilled multi-specialists and generalists who can adapt to specific environments. While some of these skills may evolve over time, many of them need a fundamental change in the way academic institutions think.

At the other end of the spectrum in India are quickly emerging private institutions that offer quick fixes that hardly attempt to teach in-depth grounding of knowledge but offer superficial layers of information to their students. We need a middle ground.

There are several ways to include industry interface into higher education curricula: developing sector-specific networks, industry mentors and guides, internships, and involving industry experts in classroom situations are a few. In their own way, many newer, private institutes are making that attempt to bridge the gap between classroom and workplace. Internships are a good method—everyone knows interns need training. Many companies only hire interns at the end of an MBA, with the possibility of permanent recruitment at the end of six months. But to my mind, the problem has to be tackled long-term in a more fundamental way. Heads of institutions must communicate and engage more deeply with the industries, train themselves to understand real and transient changes in the marketplace, and anticipate and fashion academic input accordingly. Most importantly, we need a reengineering of not just the curricula but of the approach to academics, from imparting to analysis, from pigeonholed to interdisciplinary, from teaching to sharing.

KH: You are planning to launch a second school in India. How will this school differ from what is currently available to Indian students?  

SN: I am currently proposing to potential investors a School of Interdisciplinary Studies that will integrate many of the elements I’ve mentioned. The institution will initially offer graduate level interdisciplinary programs in leadership, entrepreneurship and communication studies, with eventual plans to extend into other disciplines. The school would attempt to provide both well-rounded and in-depth insights to develop global employees, leaders and entrepreneurs. Students at this institute would use a sharing environment to learn a variety of subjects, identify research projects after their initiation to a variety of subjects, and apply their interdisciplinary understanding to those projects. In a way, each student carves out a distinctive “subject” that is essentially a combination of traditional subjects, such as television production, economics, policy and statistics. The project would attempt to tie in many of these disciplines and therefore in being a master of that project, the student learns the application of the numerous subjects he or she studied through the program.

Learning will be in-class and virtual (via videoconference). Faculty will be international. International faculty that cannot be physically present on campus will achieve the training via videoconference. In addition to providing educational services to students with or without work experience, the institute will adopt a “plug-and-play” policy as a core principle. The school would serve as a platform for ad hoc and permanent think-tanks that develop customized curricula.

The impetus for the proposed institution is the idea of allowing individual freedom to acquire broad world view, professional and life skills as a complement to the current model of academic training.  In aiming to provide holistic academic training to tomorrow’s leaders and current technical professionals we propose to instill accountability and discipline in professional conduct. Further, we intend to allow them to experiment with innovative ideas to address topical societal and business problems and equip them with the needed communication and leadership skills and contribute to India’s growing economic miracle. Finally, the interdisciplinary nature of the educational model is intended to provide an opportunity to learn from inter-industry interaction of professionals.

The rationale for the proposed privately funded institute of higher education is that higher education in general is under-invested segment with a mere 0.37 percent of India’s GDP, which approximates to $406 per student nearly five and half times lower than that of what is invested in China. In addition, increased affirmative action programs in public education in the recent past has led to a flight of middle class students to private educational institutions which have played a pivotal role in providing the bulk of professional educational seats. Lack of suitable educational avenues for professional advancement is forcing over 130,000 Indian students to seek overseas higher education costing over $ 4 billion in foreign exchange annually. Now and in the years to come, education will continue to attract considerable investment amidst evolving regulatory landscape favorable for private investment to serve the professional and educational aspirations of over 350 million people below the age of 35 years.

We are currently seeking funding for this school from the US, India and other countries. To ensure that we maintain highest quality educational standards, we are also in consultation with executive education providers in the UK and USA who have expressed profound interest to make collaborative investment in the project. We are also in the process of identifying academic experts who can provide world-class training to our future students.