Over the past 5-odd years, a new wave of universities have taken birth in India. This new wave include Ashoka, BML Munjal, OP Jindal, Shiv Nadar, Mahindra Ecole Centrale and Azim Premji. In the next few years, we will see more names added to this list including Bennett University (where I work).

What distinguishes these six from from other private universities such as Amity, Galgotia, VIT is their avowed pursuit of ‘high-quality education’, and the fact that they are promoted by corporates who are not from the Education sector. I call them Corporate-Backed Universities (CBUs). Certainly Thapar and BITS could be part of this list, but at this stage we could exclude these older two, and possibly some newer ones such as Apeejay Sthya (I dont know enough about it) and restrict the list to just these six.

I do think that these six will all do well. Shiv Nadar has had a bit of a positioning mishap, and perhaps OP Jindal is a bit too dependent on law, but I dont see these standing in the way of their eventual emergence as selective, high quality institutions. There is just too much tailwind for any other result to occur. Let me elaborate with two reasons.

(1) Let us take NCR, India’s possibly most populous and prosperous urban agglomeration. Last year about 279,000 students (including many from outside the region) applied for 54,000 seats in Delhi University. Even if we add the seats at IndraPrastha University, DTU you still wont cross 70,000. This gap between 279,000 and 70,000 is where State or Deemed Private Universities such as Jaypee, Amity, Sharda, Galgotia, etc play in. CBUs too stand to benefit from this supply-demand mismatch.

(2) Historically there has been a close correlation between academic potential of the student and his or her performance on admission tests. The cohort of executives that is in their 30s-40s today (People Like Us, that is), with kids in schools, all went to select institutions such as IITs, NITs, IIMs etc largely on their ability to max admission tests. Will our kids be able to replicate this? I dont think so. For one, it has got more competitive. Look at Kota. Secondly, the more holistic education that our kids get in new-age / IB schools make them less ready for the grind that preparation for these tests demand. Our kids are softer. Thirdly, we dont pressure them like our parents did.

What is happening thus is an interesting divergence between academic potential of today’s students (demonstrated by curiosity, passion for specific subjects, critical thinking skills) and the ability to max entrance exams. We got into IITs and IIMs. Our kids wont. So where will they go? Yes, a percentage will go to US, Canada etc. But all wont. It is expensive, and not all of us can afford it. This is where CBUs come in offering a type of selectivity that is not entirely linked to performance on a test. Look at the Ashoka entrance process. It is selectivity of a different kind. How Ashoka (or other CBUs) defines merit is different from how the IITs define it.

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Some of you may see echoes of how the Ivy League admission process changed in the 1920s from admitting students on basis of academics to that of character (as greater number of jewish students started getting admitted), a topic covered by Jerome Karabel, a UC Berkeley Prof in his book, The Chosen. Well, in this case, there are key differences. For one, unlike the Ivy League, CBUs aren’t at the apex of the educational pecking order. Nor are they discriminating against one community. Rather what we are seeing is the emergence of a parallel definition of merit from the earlier singular definition of merit as the ability to ace an entrance exam.

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What are the implications of these for the Indian education system?

For one, it will mean that we will see institutions moving from mere input control (IITs, IIMs) to process control (innovative pedagogy, enhanced industry-student interaction, high employment orientation etc), similar to the US model. I touched upon these in one of my previous posts, so wont go into it in detail, bar to say that a great focus on input control (extremely selective admissions) leads to what is called a ‘one-shot society’, like China, where your performance on the GaoKao can determine whether you end up working on the assembly line at FoxConn or in a Private Equity firm.

A high focus on input control also forces less interest in employers and colleges on the intervening three or four years. If you believe the admission signal is so strong, why would you bother about what the student does in the intermediate four years? As a result one-shot societies such as Korea, Japan, China do not have high-quality undergrad teaching curricula or institutions that compare with those in process control societies such as U.S. or Germany.

Secondly, this will also focus greater attention on outcomes, as Universities consciously track the performance of students (in the jobs that they get) as a validation of their processes. We can see this in how ISB runs the placement process with a professionally-run Career Services and Corporate Relations cell, as opposed to the IIMs where students manage the placement office.