By Shantanu Rooj
Higher education is one of the greatest successes of the socialist state. Due to government subsidies and support, what was once considered to be a privilege is now a middle-class entitlement. India has seen more graduates emerge in the past 25 years than in the 500 years before that. From a mere total of 20 universities across the country in 1950 to about 800 today, the number of colleges has increased by over 70 times in the last 70 years. Yet the industry has changed little since Aristotle taught at the Lyceum in Athens: young students still gather at a scheduled time and place to listen to the wisdom of scholars.
From Oxford’s quads to Harvard Yard and many a steel and glass palace of higher education in between, exams are failing to credibly assess the competencies of students. As students consider life after graduation, universities are facing questions about their own future. The higher-education model of lecturing, cramming and examination has barely changed for centuries. Now, three distinctive waves are threatening to disrupt established ways of teaching and learning: rising costs, changing demand and disruptive technology. The result will be the reinvention of the university.
Higher education, across the world, suffers from Baumol’s disease – costs soar despite stagnant productivity in labour-intensive sectors. Over the years, colleges and universities have been able to charge more and more for the same service due to government protection and the premium placed by employers on degrees. The cost of education in India is rising much faster than inflation, with 60% of a middle-class household salary being spent on the child’s education. In fact, over the last three years, an undergraduate course at the Indian Insititute of Technology (IIT) has increased in cost by 122%.
Changing job markets
Another driver of change is the job market. In the standard model, education has been a rite of passage where people go to university in their 20s and a degree symbolises their entry into to the corporate world. However, artificial intelligence technologies and automation are beginning to impact both white-collar and blue-collar jobs. According to a study by Oxford University, 47% of occupations are at risk of being automated in the next two decades. As innovation wipes out some jobs and changes others, people will need to transform their human capital and re-skill.
While these forces are pushing the change, technology is necessitating the revolution. The internet, which has turned businesses from newspapers through music to book retailing upside down, will upend education too. The online programs revolution, for instance, is offering students the chance to listen to expert teachers and get a degree for a fraction of the cost of attending a university-on-campus.
In the changing paradigms of employment, cognitive and analytical skills like creative thinking, communication skills, higher level problem solving, interpersonal skills, innovation, and decision-making are now among the core skill sets that companies demand from employees. However, most university programs are still deficient in developing such skills, not to mention the lack of work experience provided by most degree programs.
A participative approach with industries that collaborate on trade linked skill building, on-the-job training and employment linkages is the need of the hour. Therefore, educational institutions need to shift their focus to a more hands-on learning approach. Apart from teaching underlying theories and principles, universities will now need to focus on strengthening essential skills that help make students more employable. Several universities in the country have started collaborating with online learning and skilling companies like SchoolGuru to launch their own Employment Linked Skilling Programs (ELSP) as adjacent courses for their students. Upon completion of such programs, students are offered apprenticeship opportunities that help them learn on the job while earning a stipend.
College students need to be guided to gain skills and to demonstrate their employability in the real world. Micro-credentials led ELSP programs—short, work-focused courses approved and co-created by established employers in fast-growing fields, show promise. Universities should promote and grant credits to students for these short-term skill focussed courses. Reinventing an ancient institution will not be easy, but the journey is inevitable.
Shantanu Rooj is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of SchoolGuru.