Higher education in India continues to muddle its way through its identity crisis. Neither a specialist in teaching for skills, employability or even global citizenship, nor a flag bearer for advancement of higher order knowledge, it stands stymied. It’s dismal rankings on the world table stand testament year after year not to its mediocrity but to the unwillingness or inability to change itself.
Of the millions of graduates and professionals churned out every year, a large proportion are deemed unemployable. These are the students trained for today’s needs, often for lower order requirements in the service sector. Tomorrow’s students need to aim higher – higher up in the value chain to serve the knowledge economy of the future.
The skills of the future are clear. Learning how to learn. Initiative. Communication. Teamwork. Solution seeking. These will form the basics. None of our higher education institutions reward any of these skills either via its curriculum or programs. At best some of these skills are learnt as one organises the college festivals, which of course are seen as outside the periphery of learning. Higher order skills that will be required include: creativity, coherence, collaboration, a design mindset, cross cultural competency and the very simple sounding – sense making. Our higher education needs to transform from a rote learning, knowledge spouting, disjointed operation to an integrated machine that grows individuals into useful corporate citizens of the future.
India has a culture of “jugaad”, of “vasooli”, a folk tradition of sharing knowledge that can start the journey, if we build on it. Some current measures that need to be reinforced include industry-academia links and private sector capacity building. Going forward one needs to invest in governance, and – dare I say it – transgression. It is time to design a strategy that seeks to harness the past, leverage the present and build for the future.
#1. Jugaad grows up: Jugaad is the starting point of frugal innovation and depends upon creative solution seeking. Sadly in India it is dropped at the halfway mark. It is time to nurture jugaad and grow it up to become innovation. Jugaad merely speaks of tinkering, but to build a knowledge economy our solutions and indeed training need to be of a higher order.
#2. Vasooli as accountability: The returns on investment in education must deliver greater value add as we move up the chain from manufacturing and service to creation and knowledge. RoI has been limited by higher education capacity constraints creating an additional wage premium for graduates. Demand for engineering and management seats slowed down when the job market slowed down – showing that that the vasooli calculations were already in place and are a strong signalling mechanism to the professional education sector. This puts the responsibility for being nimble and responsive on higher education providers.
#3. Knowledge arbitrage is going to be the biggest challenge for higher education: The global knowledge economy operates on securing patents and intellectual property rights for its producers so that consumers can pay for use over time. The knowledge economy then is based on building on knowledge and securing its bounds. India’s folk culture is a knowledge sharing culture as reflected in its music, poetry, technology use and more. This conflict shows up in many ways – plagiarism in education and industry. On the one hand this folk tradition makes it easier to spread the knowledge economy, and on the other hand it makes knowledge arbitrage very difficult. In order to bridge this gap, higher education will have to be vested in creating structures that demonstrate the value of pure knowledge and then its ability to become a viable economy.
#4. Develop corporate citizens: Corporate citizenship is a skill that is essential to powering the knowledge economy. This is not taught at schools. Some skills such as teamwork, creativity and coherent communication may be, but schools are not expected to hone initiative and agency. It becomes the task of higher education to prepare its students, researchers and inventors to be proficient in the core area where they create knowledge of value, and equally, in the business of corralling that value by building business and corporate skills. No one idea or knowledge becomes big if held by one person – one has to build a team and then a corporation to capitalise knowledge.
#5. Build knowledge economy incubators: Incubation of ideas to business at higher education must become standard. So far universities have been charged with being knowledge incubators. They need to step up and become knowledge economy incubators now. Indian universities tend to operate along traditional lines where knowledge is a one way process. That may be so in the early stages but we need to add the next stages where ideas and knowledge seek value and are supported in their infancy as they step into the real economy. This has started in a few universities already and must grow if India is to step up into the knowledge economy.
#6. Cross frontiers: For higher education to foster the knowledge economy and push forward growth in India, it needs to be more brave and ambitious. Creating new knowledge that has value is about breaking through frontiers and entering zones that have not been explored before. Higher education will need to be brave, to take risks and allow knowledge explorations that may fail or succeed. By definition these will be beyond traditional comfort zones. The language of managing knowledge economy portfolios is new to higher education, but they must learn it if they are to boost India’s prospects as a knowledge economy.
The knowledge economy is already upon us with global connectivity, smart devices, the internet of things and more. Those who are able to convert knowledge into value for all earn the largest premiums. If India does not step up its participation in the knowledge economy, it risks being left behind on the lower rungs, earning only a fraction of the knowledge leaders.
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