An open letter to Mr T S R Subramanian & fellow committee members drafting the New Education Policy

Dear Mr Subramanian & fellow panelists

Congratulations on being appointed to the panel.

This is only the third time since independence, that an education policy is being drafted. The previous policies, be it the Education Policy of 1968 that resulted in the 10+2+3 system of education that we follow today, or the New Education Policy of 1986 (modified 1992) that transformed rural primary education through Operation Blackboard, have clearly impacted and transformed education delivery in India. Given the above, I have no doubts that the panel’s recommendations have the potential for considerable impact in India’s education sector.

As a participant in India’s expanding higher education sector, I do have a vested interest in how the panel’s recommendations in higher education stack up. Yet in my role as an observer and blogger in the higher ed landscape, I am also aware of how even the most rigorously drafted policy can be rendered impotent if it doesn’t take into account key transformative trends underway, led by increasing digitization and mobile penetration.

So what are these transformative trends that the committee must keep in mind? And thus, what recommendations do they imply?

While there are many trends underway in higher education, let me highlight three

  1. Rise of online pathways and stackable credentials: What began innocently as MOOCs – massive online open courses, where leading universities put online individual courses, albeit with bells and whistles, is now becoming less massive, still online, chargeable pathways (courses linked in order of difficulty ending with a project). These pathways, called XSeries by edX and Specializations by Coursera, are but the first step for these online players in building an alternative credential to degrees. These alternative credentials have the advantage of being stackable – you can sequence the accumulation of credentials to suit your learning situation and budget, and build it at your own pace. This is unlike a degree which is an all or nothing credential.
  2. Access to vast high-quality educational content online: thanks to MOOCs and before them, thanks to pioneers such as Khan Academy and MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, our online world is populated with high-quality credible content, most of it free. And as bandwidth costs plumb, and mobile access multiplies, this content is also portable. We now have a university in our mobile phones.
  3. Emergence of competency-led models: Unlike the present credit-hour led model (which is itself new to India) which links degree completion to classroom time, in the competency-based learning model, each course that a student takes is mapped to certain competencies, in turn linked to specific learning objectives, such as “can independently research an academic topic, and summarize findings in writing”. Upon completion of a set number of competencies, say 120, he or she graduates, irrespective of the time budgeted for the course. You could theoretically complete a degree in 1 year even.

What do these trends tell us? And what happens to our understanding of the traditional higher education model if these trends come to India?

  • If employers are willing to accept credentials acquired via online pathways, then learners will flock to them. Online pathway majors such as Udacity, edX are all building alliances with progressive Indian companies who will accept the credentials. Initially it will begin as an extra signal in internal evaluations and promotions, but over time, it could also lead to usage in recruitments. And that is when it will snowball. In fact, as this story of Akshay Kulkarni tells us, employer acceptance of online credentials is already underway!
  • The traditional 3-4 year one-shot (without breaks) degree from a physical campus will become less sacrosanct. If stackable credentials take off, then you could have someone who is an hurry to start earning quickly do a 1-yr diploma post her high school and join the workforce at 18. Over time, she could stack up more and more relevant credentials on top of the existing ones, and at some future point, say at 23 or 25, finish the degree. She would not have had to sacrifice her earnings for the degree, and thanks to her work experience, be better able to understand concepts from online courses.

Mr Subramanian, the above developments have the potential to expand access to high-quality employment-oriented opportunities to hundreds of thousands of Indians. Your panel can help India anticipate these trends and be at the forefront of higher ed innovations that can take advantage of these developments. How?

By enabling the creation of online universities. These are online-only institutions that are built grounds up to cater to a world where education is breaking free from college walls, where learning is life-long and not restricted to till you are 25, and the credential doesn’t have to look like a piece of paper. Similar to how the State Private Universities act has been able to bring forth new-age universities such as a Shiv Nadar University, Ashoka University or an Azim Premji University, I see an Online Private Universities act as having the potential to create a transformative bunch of institutions that could reshape online and even higher education in India.

In some senses, I see Online Private Universities as the equivalent of Payment Banks in the financial world. These are “New stripped-down type of banks, which are expected to reach customers mainly through their mobile phones rather than traditional bank branches.”. They are not full-fledged banks – they can’t offer loans, though they can offer interest on deposits of up to Rs 1 lac, and can enable transactions via mobile phones. Payment banks have the power to expand banking to millions of people outside the banking system in India, typically excluded from the banking system because they do not have a fixed address, and thereby spur financial inclusion. Similarly, Online Private Universities have the power to spur educational inclusion, by expanding access to people who beyond the higher ed pale.

How would Online Private Universities work? Who can offer it? Unlike with payment banks where there is a formal licensing regime where RBI is mandated to vet applications, there is no similar one body in education. UGC comes close but it is a regulating and financing body, not a licensing body. This is one challenge; still one could say that the Ministry of Human Resources Development, which oversees Education, could constitute a panel that meets periodically (every quarter) to issue and review licenses to start Online Private Universities.

In order to make sure that applicants have the skill sets, we can say that they have to have at least 1 university in the Times Higher Education top 200 list (or an institution of national importance in India) as a sponsoring partner, who will provide a kind of assurance. This will enable some kind of vetting – anybody who is not able to get a sponsoring partner will be unable to launch an Online Private University (OPU). Nothing stops the OPU from tying up with more than one university. Existing recognized online players such as edX, Coursera and others will automatically qualify given their tie-up with renowned universities.

Who is it for? Anyone really. But I suppose the early adopters will be working professionals, and the raison d’etre would be the opportunity to get a certificate that they can use to signal to their employers about their persistence and smarts. The degree wouldn’t be free or cheap – there could always be sponsorships or scholarships for low-income learners – but since it allows the learner to keep at his regular job, that would be a huge advantage.

What would the Online Private University do? They would structure a pathway and the design of the credential stack leading to the degree i.e., the sequencing of the courses, the nature of the live project or capstone course, or even whether a capstone course is required; enable testing and verification, and award the degree. In addition they could organize physical meetups, manage the alumni network, enable students to get access to corporates and mentors, enable placement week, sell merchandise etc.

Innovations in the Online Private University model. One true innovation that could be a game-changer is for an OPU to recognize for a certain fee, credits to courses or certification that is taken at another OPU. This cross-credit recognition could help learners pick and chose the very best or relevant courses without it impacting the time taken for their degree.

A second innovation could be to provide access to OPU for free, in turn for a x% stake in your future earnings. This is what is termed as an ISA or Income Share Agreement and is being discussed as a possible solution to the student loan crisis in U.S.

A true revolution. The creation of an Online Private University model can truly revolutionize the archaic Indian higher education system which sees online education primarily through the lenses of ‘distance education’ which has long been known for poor academic standards and monitoring. This has led to severe strictures being placed on existing online education model – one where State Private Universities can only offer online education after 5 years of existence, and that too within state boundaries. We need an online education act that has the power to drag Indian higher ed system, kicking and screaming, into the modern era.

The Online Private University could be that vehicle. Mr Subramanian, and fellow panelists: you now have the opportunity to spur a revolution, and expand access to hundreds of thousands of Indians. I hope you will not let go off this opportunity.

Your sincerely

Sajith Pai
A Participant in India’s Higher Education Sector

Declaration of Interest: I am presently employed by the Times Group, where I oversee marketing for its forthcoming university project, the proposed Bennett University. Bennett has signed an agreement with edX, a potential OPU cited in the above post. The above post is written in my capacity as a participant in and observer of India’s higher education sector. No content or opinion stated in this post should be taken as the official view of my employer, The Times of India Group. This is entirely my personal view.