(Rahnuma) The decision of the Modi government to revamp India’s archaic education system is as significant as it is laudable. It is grossly unfortunate that previous governments failed to respond to the global changes and introspect on the reforms that India’s education system required. For decades, India clung on to a 19th-century education model to service 21st-century requirements. This led to genuine concerns that the hype around the demographic dividend was exaggerated because the Indian educational institutions were only churning out vast numbers of unemployable graduates, including engineers and doctors.
Poor infrastructure, unqualified faculty and an obsolete pedagogy has defined India’s education fabric. India’s highest-ranked educational institution, as per the 2019 QS rankings, does not even feature in the top 150! The proposed shift from didactic to experiential learning is at least two decades late. At the same time, it is encouraging to see political will to modernize the education system and to make efforts to confront the crisis. If it succeeds, India would be relevant in the global arena.
But will alone does not transform dead systems. Strong support systems are required and also collective participation. At the same time, it is critical to recognize that all this would not happen overnight and might even take a decade before India can truly boast of strong educational institutions that cater to India’s future needs and aspirations. In the meanwhile, India’s young population would continue to grow. By 2020, it is estimated that almost eight million youngsters would be eligible to join university each year but would be denied the opportunity on account of non-availability of seats. Indeed, every year we would be adding to this number and in millions. When India is hoping to emerge as a global player, this would have crippling consequences.
There has been a paradigm shift in India with significantly larger number of persons aspiring for a better quality of life for their children and recognizing education as being the key to employability and social mobility. Education is no longer an aspiration restricted to the urban elite and aspirational middle class but has spilled over to rural areas as well and gone beyond the middle class, which itself has dramatically doubled from 300 million to 600 million in less than a decade. It is not anecdotal that children from humbler backgrounds are now enrolling in schools and colleges in significantly larger numbers than before and trying to achieve their dreams.
While the changing aspirations of India’s demographics is exciting and could become a huge dividend to achieve our national aspirations, it imposes yet another massive challenge for the government, which now has to meet the demand surge while, simultaneously, rewiring the education system. In the immediate aftermath, the supply constraint would continue to increase over-crowding in schools, poor quality of education, inadequate infrastructure and the proliferation of dodgy and sub-standard schools driven solely by profiteering. Great nations are not built on such models but on how they navigate challenges.
China did this by encouraging its young to study abroad in large numbers while simultaneously restructuring and modernizing its education system. Today, it can afford to offer its students international quality education at home. This will impose a wicked challenge to international universities that had long relied on revenue from Chinese students as part of its business case. Foreign education providers have already started to shift their focus from China to India.
While the government struggles to determine how it would address the demand-supply mismatch, the aspiring middle class, with the propensity to pay, would make the sacrifices it needs to so that their children might go abroad for higher studies rather than be forced to study in sub-standard or second-tier educational institutions in India. This is the reality that confronts India. I call it ‘the push factor’. At the same time, preferred international higher education destinations would compete with each other in what might be called ‘the pull factor’.
When deciding to study abroad, several factors need to come together to enable the decision-making process. Essentially, it is a process that students and their parents go through collectively in India. What both are looking for is quality education with a proven record of global employability at an affordable price. At the same time, during my interactions at various education events, I noticed that the kind of concerns and questions that each has differed widely. Mothers would invariably focus on issues related to safety and student welfare; the quality of life and the living experience are a matter of paramount concern for her. Many are perturbed, as a consequence, with reports of rapidly increasing nationalism, bordering on xenophobia, in the US and intolerance towards other cultures, especially Asians.
A father, on the other hand, would be more interested in knowing about employability and thus, the rate of return on investment. Uncertainty in the case of the UK because of Brexit and the manner in which the UK would navigate its predicted decline is a cause of significant misgiving and thus, a pull away from studying in the UK.
At the same time, the father listens quietly to the responses his wife receives to her questions because no parent would agree to send their child to an institution, no matter how strong the international ranking, if there are doubts about safety and security, student welfare or the living experience. Fears about social acceptance or targeted violence are a serious deterrent and understandably so. They are, in my view, a significant tipping point in the decision-making process. Both the US and the UK score poorly on this.
The student, on the other hand, is a bundle of emotions. At one level, there is excitement and a sense of adventure that they would be going abroad. At another level, there is a sense of nervousness at what the future might hold. At the same time, there is also a sense of deep anxiety and pressure. I have seen this in many Indian students, who worry at the expense that their parents would need to incur for their education abroad and the sacrifices they have had to make and would continue to make so that they might receive a great education. They are also worried about leaving home not because they are dependent on their parents emotionally but because they are concerned how their parents would manage without their physical presence. Understanding, this family bonding lies at the core of successful student welfare programmes at a university.
Australia scores admirably on all the above points. Its cities rate among the most livable in the world with a strong multicultural and welcoming environ. After it broke away from the White Australia policy, universities have become home to a large number of international students. Australian universities have begun to announce India engagement programmes and focus. With a clear exchange rate advantage over the American dollar or the British currency, Australia is poised to emerge as the number one destination of choice for Indian students. In a week’s time the Australian Education Minister Dan Tehan would be in India for bilateral talks followed by the visit, in January, of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The agenda of talks would include stronger collaboration in higher education, especially teaching and applied research so as to partner with India in transforming lives.
(The writer is a former Indian ambassador and India Country Director, UNSW Sydney)