Higher education must break the glass ceiling by spreading out massively. It should help create quality campuses and outreach programmes

With the economic slowdown, many smaller universities globally have seen a fall in application numbers, as the short-term wage advantage for a university graduate falls. In India too, after a decade of the glamour of engineering and management, smaller colleges have been suffering a shortfall in numbers. For a country with severe shortage of higher education, it is interesting to know that most educational institutes have to have a strong marketing programme to get students to cross into their portals.

This is very encouraging because it reinforces the notion that the Indian student chooses with care and needs better information to be able to commit to an investment in a degree. It is early days yet, and student information services are yet to develop in many places, but it is a good start and begins to make the relationship with the university or college a bit more even. This is the beginning of a change in the way higher education approaches and deals with students.

Universities and schools are going to have to change to be able to provide value to their candidates in the next decades. For many it will be a question of survival, for others a fight for their reputation and prestige. The biggest disruption to the traditional bastions of knowledge is of course new technology. Massive online open courses have been so popular that universities, especially smaller universities have had to face up to any intellectual or delivery gaps that they might have. The examples and stories come from countries such as El Salvador and Kazakistan, but the numbers come from Brazil, India, China and Canada together reportedly one fifth of the enrollments. American enrollments are just over a third on Coursera, a common platform that offers free courses by Ivy league professors. Other platforms such as Venture Lab by Stanford, EdX etc. offer a variety as does the University of the People.

These technology-based solutions have been great levelers, breaking down barriers of geography, ability, income, prior qualifications and offer equal opportunities where equal opportunities legislation could not reach. While nominally the cost is zero, these are still not available to the poorest except in nations where computers, internet connections and electricity are provided to all —  but for many millions this has given them the ability to reach where their current resources could not take them. While these courses currently offer a certificate of participation if all the assignments are done, the lack of credits does not stop employers from appreciating the effort and learning of the candidates. Credits for assessment are not far behind.

Universities have been under pressure for a few decades before this too, to streamline their processes and prove the quality of their research and teaching. The European Bologna process has taken years to trickle down to practice. Asian universities often cast their growth plans in line with the criteria of world university ranking tables and achieve prominence by delivering to these. The competition for quality not just in output but also in inputs is the future of building great institutions of higher education.

Talent wars are a consequence of the demands for quality, scale, reach and access. In India universities complain of the difficulty in finding good faculty as much as they are disappointed in the quality of students. Qualifications are a proxy for ability, and the science of education is often conflated with the business of education. The purpose of the university often seems unclear — often a discovery into personal politics as much as a journey into employability. For some, a quest for knowledge for its own sake, but even here the future is in usable research and innovation.

The future of universities will be in stepping out of the tower. The traditional high bastions too have had to step out and create campuses and outreach programmes all over the world. Even as the Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill, 2010,  waits its turn in Indian parliament, foreign universities have found ways of collaborating with Indians to support the next phase of education — to teach and to learn in the process. Harvard, Oxford, U Penn  all have India links. The latest entrant is the Stanford Graduate School of Business which comes to India with a programme on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and many more will come for the market that is India.

This Op-Ed was published in the Daily Pioneer column on November 15, 2012 and is linked here and http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/item/52828-universities-have-to-face-real-world.html


The final unpublished paragraph is here: 

Indian Universities have to step up to meet the needs of its future students or run the risk of becoming irrelevant. The onus is on the teachers to lead and rise above the current slump. The language of change is already in place – employer engagement, research, pathways – now it is up to the universities to deliver, for the sake of their own reputation.

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