Higher education: EdTech sector key to bridging demand gap

edtech in higher education
India will not be able to deliver quality higher education to the large number of people who need it without leveraging technology, says Pramath Raj Sinha.

Pramath Raj Sinha is an entrepreneur and institution builder associated with Indian School of Business, Harappa Education, and Ashoka University. Earlier in his career, he had stints as the CEO of Ananda Bazar Patrika Group and as a partner at McKinsey. He also serves as an advisor to various non-profit organisations. He had a free-wheeling interaction with senior journalist Yatish Rajawat on the future course of higher education in India. Edited excerpts:

Welcome to the show, Pramath. You just sold off one of your educational ventures and have taken over as the chairman of board trustees at Ashoka University. What else are you working on at the moment?

It has been reported that I have sold Harappa, and technically it’s true. But I continue to work with it. I am excited about what I do at Harappa, but it was an opportune time to merge with a larger entity like upGrad. In fact, I’m now accelerating several things that I had wanted to do at Harappa, including entering the US market and opening up a school of leadership, both of which we have already announced.

I am currently in the US, meeting potential clients for Harappa which continues to be a big part of my life. I am working closely with upGrad founders to contribute. I have always been keen on understanding and engaging with technology as a means to deliver quality higher education.

India will not be able to deliver quality higher education to the large number of people who need it, unless it embraces technology. It is going to be a core pillar of our economic growth, but we’ll talk about that later. I continue to be involved in both Ashoka and ISB. These are two institutions close to my heart. I do see them as a major responsibility. I am excited that we managed to make these institutions truly world class. I want to devote most of my time to Harappa, and then to Ashoka and ISB.

You have one foot in brick-and-mortar institutions like Ashoka and ISB, and the other in a technology platform. There is a view that brick-and-mortar institutions are collapsing. We have more than 670 universities and 37,000 colleges, but they are not producing students who are employable. You have been working in higher education since 2008. Do you think the islands of excellence you are building can solve the problem?

There are several questions within your question. We need both brick and mortar and technology-driven educational institutions. Even if we expand the brick-and-mortar part, it will never manage to fill the gap. Building that many classrooms and finding that many teachers will be tough. Just think of India with 25 million kids being born every year and about half of them graduating from school. Many of them aspire for higher education. We are not geared up for that kind of numbers. That’s where you will need to leverage technology. On the technology side, there is a huge opportunity for India and Indian institutions.

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Do you think the digital learning models of Harappa, Udemy, or Byju’s will be able to meet this demand?

If there are no skills, technology is the way to go. That is why you see growth of these online education companies. If you look at UpGrad’s growth, it’s because of its focus on the skills that are in demand. For skilling, we have this model that is already proven. The world is changing so fast that you will need to unlearn and relearn skills throughout your life. So how do you do that? You can’t keep going back to the brick-and-mortar campus, taking time off from work.

I know there are people who are taking up data science courses. But both access and pricing do not allow several people to take a data science course in India. Are you looking at that base, and not at the top of the pyramid who have access and resources?

Right now, even many at the top of the pyramid may not be able to access brick and mortar institutions. The cost of what you get online is much lower. Now, how do we cater to the masses? Public education has to embrace technology the same way some of the commercial ventures have done. We haven’t yet seen use of technology in the non-profit and public education sectors. But they have to price things at a certain level to make a profit.

Let’s discuss that point. Technology enables education to escape the world of digital public goods which has been created in the non-profit world. Is there a role for digital public technology in delivering education at scale? If so, what would be the structure and framework?

I don’t have all the answers. I have always stayed away from policy. My expertise is in setting up institutions. I don’t want to offer advice without having expertise. The truth is that the government has always had the Indira Gandhi National Open University. It has the largest enrolment among all universities in the world. The number runs into millions. It always had physical open education, and is adding online courses and online degrees rapidly.

They run thousands of courses on Coursera which are free, but charges a small amount from those who want certification. The government has now allowed some top universities to start offering online degrees. One of the earliest was the Masters in Data Science offered by IIT Madras.

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That was pretty revolutionary — an IIT offering a Master’s degree online…

There is a barrier to access, there’s also a cultural barrier. And the last thing is the budget. The government has announced a digital university. I did some work towards a similar idea during the pandemic with Niti Aayog to develop the concept of a digital university. The government-owned institutions will adopt technology in higher education in a big way.

In a blended format, the government is allowing institutions to offer 40% of their courses online. Digital learning from the point of view of public good. It will be interesting to see where the digital university ends up. The kind of infrastructure that has been created for Aadhar, UPI, and health insurance. It could be created for education as well.

These initiatives exist in the government sector. It has been in existence for 30 years. There is a digital learning university and there is a parallel initiative by the private sector. The private sector might be higher on the pricing side, but it is better at delivering quality, especially in emerging areas. If you need to deliver scale, there needs to be some platform.

The government and the private sector can collaborate on this. It is a stated goal in the National Education Policy (NEP) and it has been talked about even before the NEP. These changes take time as it is like turning around a massive ship. These changes will happen rapidly in a world which is not obsessed about degrees or credits. People are asking, I have the basic degree, but what are the skills I need? And that’s where the younger generation thinks differently.

This generation has realised that basic education is just the beginning. The mindset of lifelong learning has already been implanted in people. This comes from newer opportunities. I have a content person in Harappa who wants to leave because she’s getting a bigger job in marketing. For her to move, she will need to learn marketing skills. She will need to learn digital marketing skills, and I think she will learn online. In fact, people like her are in so much demand that they don’t want to take time off to study.

The change in mindset is certainly happening, but that is happening with a lag on the policy side.

Isn’t that true for all sectors, all policies, all governments?

That used to be true, but things have changed in the last 6-7 years. Take payments for instance. The payments industry has changed and it had not been changed by the players. It was changed by the regulator. Similarly in telecom, India has moved differently on both the policy and the auction fronts. The policy draft has come out just now, but the 5G auction has already happened and people are launching services.

You have lost me on this. I was making a general point that these things happen with a lag. Maybe by creating the digital university, the government is doing a lot of things. There is a platform that they have created for training government employees, headed by Abhishek Singh. It is now being transformed into a skilling platform for government employees. The intent is very clear and it has to be seen as really forward thinking.

Now with all of these things, the proof comes down to implementation. This is also a lot about behaviour change. We were talking a lot about the younger generation, but our generation is about to transition out of the workforce. I think getting them to adopt technologies to learn online is tough. It’s not easy. People are not used to sitting at a computer and learning. So, these are all challenges that will have to be addressed as we go forward.

When you look at the scenario from Ashoka and ISB, do they have to become multidisciplinary universities? What is the challenge you see within the university to become a multidisciplinary institution?

The big issue is finding the faculty. You need people who are trained in academics to come and teach. This requires us to have high quality academically trained people, and that is in massive scarcity around the world. So, if you want everyone to become multidisciplinary, which, I think, is the right way to go, the biggest challenge is finding faculty.

It is not just about creating multiple disciplines, but also about getting them to interact with each other so that the student gets the benefit of a truly interdisciplinary experience, rather than a multidisciplinary experience. That’s the big mindset shift which is required. For that, the existing faculty and administrators will have to change their mindsets.

The boundaries between traditional disciplines are getting blurred. If you want to solve a real-world problem, you have to use multiple disciplines. If you want university educated people to solve the world’s problems, they need to understand that just by doing a BSc in biology or even a BA in History, they are not going to be relevant. The biology person needs to understand data analysis because biology has become all about data. They need to understand anthropology or the environment because climate is driving what is happening in biology and health.

Similarly, a history person is trying to analyse texts using computers and data. So, the melding of different disciplines is the reason why we use the word multidisciplinary in the National Education Policy. We need to roll out multiple disciplines. Getting people to collaborate and to break down the typical discipline boundaries are going to be really tough.

Do you mean that there is a need to create an interdisciplinary centre of excellence?

There is a need for multidisciplinary centres with faculty from unconventional sources — whether they are professional faculty, professionally trained professors, or just visiting faculty. You need to try all these combinations before you get this going. Students will naturally want to do multidisciplinary programmes.

The administrators need to figure out how to create programmes that are truly multidisciplinary. Ashoka launched a course in computer science and philosophy. Now you may ask why philosophy. But in computer science there is always a debate on ethics and privacy. That is a very interesting discipline students want to explore.

At Ashoka, we have a centre for behaviour change which deals a lot with public policy. It works a lot with the government in helping finetune its programmes. How do you get people to change behaviour? How do you roll out public programmes where behaviour change is required? The stuff from behaviour economics and cognitive science have become popular around the world.

We have a clear plan for growing our student base from where we are right now which is about 2,700 students. Probably, we will double that in the near term. We will build hostels and infrastructure for them, and it is important for a university that wants to make an impact and build a global reputation to have a minimum scale. No university achieves global reputation without research.

(K Yatish Rajawat works at Centre for Innovation in Public Policy, a Delhi-based think tank studying public policy and economic growth.)