What I found interesting in the world of higher education last week, with some added thoughts and views. I work for the Times of India Group, where I am presently kickstarting our university venture. All views are personal. 


The Great Unmooring

In 1981, economist Sherwin Rosen published a paper analyzing why there are some performers (sports stars, musicians etc) who end up earning outsize rewards. The gap in earnings, Rosen said, could not be explained by consumer preferences (preference for watching the better performer) alone. He offered the following additional reasons

–       Imperfect substitution : 2 ‘lesser’ cricket players do not add up to a Sachin Tendulkar. The performer is unique and not replaceable by a combination of two or more other ‘lesser’ performers.

–       Joint consumption of product (aided by technological factors enabling scale) : This means that one person’s consumption of a product does not reduce its availability for another person. So more people can consume the product (TV Shows, live performances in a stadia) at zero or little extra cost to the seller. The fees paid by the incremental consumer thus becomes pure profit.

Aided by mass media or digital technology which allow the performer to reach a large number of incremental consumers at low marginal cost, and the lack of subtitute performances, he (or she) quickly amasses outsize rewards.

Thanks to the emergence of digital technology and MOOCs we are beginning to see the emergence of scale in education consumption as well. As MOOCs become more and more widespread, Professors will break from the limits set by the classroom and get across to a significantly larger audiences. There is already talk of the Rockstar Professor or the SuperProfessor. Ecampus News, a website on digital learning even lists 5 Rockstar Professors. In the coming years, we are likely to see the phenomenon of outsize performers manifest itself in Higher Education as well.

Of course even in the pre-digital era, there have been well-known Professors such as say nobel-laureates Paul Samuelson / Milton Friedman in Economics who were brands and had a base of their own distinct from their Universities (MIT and University of Chicago respectively). But these Professor brands were a handful and restricted to the fraternity of nobel-laureates, (text) book writers and explainers (Carl Sagan et al). And what is more, these superstar professors did not look to unmoor themselves from the university once they became famous. The gravitational pull of the university system was still strong.

Today thanks to digital technology and especially MOOCs, we are likely to see more and more superstar professors emerge. And as they become more and more popular, we are likely to see them move out of the university’s orbit. The great unmooring is upon us.

Why do I say this? Typically most academics derive their prestige and power from their research publications. However most academics (except maybe a Ronald Coase) do not work in isolation. They like to collaborate with other researchers / academics. And even Coase needs to bounce ideas off other peers. Historically, the best place to connect to / collaborate has been within the grounds of a leading university. No other place offers such a concentration of brains allied by interest in a few narrow areas.

In addition, there is another more powerful reason academics have preferred to be part of the universities. That is the power the university has (and the more prestigious, the more power) in attracting graduate / doctoral students. These doctoral students typically do a lot of the grunt work for the professors, even as the latter mentor them on their doctoral topic. Staying within the system gave the professor access to a considerable amount of cheap high-quality brainpower. The tenure track further reinforced this – the pressure of the track encouraging collaborations between senior and junior faculty, and the willingness of the junior faculty to come aboard and help the senior faculty to ensure that his tenure possibilities were not compromised.

Today, for a superstar professor, his MOOC courses may well obviate the need to be part of the university system

–       We have heard of the story of Battushig Myanganbayar, the 16-year old Mongolian student who aced a MOOC (Circuits & Electronics) and so impressed the MIT Professors that they invited him to apply to MIT. He eventually did and now is a student with MIT. NYT’s wonderful article on Battushig specifically quotes Stuart Schmill, MIT’s Dean of Admissions “MOOCs may well offer the opportunity for us to get more students from remote areas who haven’t been in these magnet cultures”. MOOCs are thus taking over the role of SATs in helping Universities identify promising students. 2 related articles, one by Christian Science Monitor and the other by OnMOOCs reinforce the case for MOOCs’ ability to identify promising undergrad or graduate students

–       Websites such as ResearchGate and MathOverflow are bringing together (concentrating) scientists across countries and are sparking off collaboration. These websites are another route to identifying smart students who could be potential collaborators. NYT has a wonderful story on these and other disruptors. Some of these are also aimed at disrupting the traditional publishing review system which lead to publishers such as Elsevier making humongous profits while many scientists review for free. That is another discussion altogether!

Thus a superstar professor could well say – I am quite popular thanks to my work and now these MOOC courses. Let me leave the university and tie-up with a MOOC who will offer my courses for a nominal charge and give me a cut. I will have other sources of income as well – conferences, consulting etc. Thanks to my MOOC courses, I will be able to suss out promising doctoral students, and anyway there are all these collaboration sites where I can link up with my peers / tenure track professors. I can do all that I could do at the Uni on my own, and there is none of the Uni politics or other issues here.

Another option for Superstar Professors is to ally themselves with a research institution or a corporate research centre which where the centre of research gravity is shifting. Michael Barber and his colleagues in their well-argued report An Avalanche is Coming have detailed how “private laboratories such as Craig Venter’s Institute for Genomic Research, large businesses with major research programmes such as Pfizer, Merck or Google, or public organizations such as CERN, NASA are gaining in influence and are delivering results”.

A Super Professor could even cut a deal with the MOOC + a smaller university which can offer credits to students. This could entice students from other universities who may have wanted to take a course with the SuperProfessor. Let us take the example of a Dartmouth student who wants to take a course with someone like Prof Jared Diamond, the renowned Geographer-Biologist. Imagine if Dr Diamond left UCLA and signed up with EdX + AZU. Imagine AZU had similar contracts with EdX and a few other renowned other Professors under such an arrangement This could entice a students at say Dartmouth or UPenn to take a semester transfer to AZU and take 12-15 credits and then get back to their Uni. Of course, Dartmouth / UPenn have to be willing to agree, but if they do, then a ‘mixtape degree’, constructed with courses by elite professors, could become popular.

Also check out Quartz which compares Universities to record labels and suggests that they will become “masters of curation, working as talent agencies. They’ll draw royalties and license fees from the content professors create and curate. In many ways, the role of the best universities will become even more focused on identifying, investing in, and harvesting the returns from great talent.” As you can see, I am not too sure.


An important subtext of my argument is that a MOOC is not so much an initiative that democratizes education and makes it available to the millions of huddled, sweating masses across the world, as much as an initiative that provides access to elite education to the top 1% of learners across the world. It is a product that is tailor-made for the elite learners across the world, the highly motivated, the super-charged learners. A good analogy is with Kindle – a fat-head (as opposed to a long tail) product which caters to the avid reader, not the irregular one. It is aimed at the 10% of readers who buy 90% of books.



The Indian Government presented its budget for 2014-15. It has allocated approximately 4% ($11.5b or 68K crs) of its annual expenditure towards education. 3/4ths ($8.5b or 51K crs) of this goes to K-12 and of this, just over half ($4.5b or 28K crs) goes to the flagship Sarva Shiksha Abhyan (Education for All; a programme to achieve universal access to schools for all children between 6 and 14). About $2b or 13K crs goes towards School Lunches.

See below a chart detailing the breakdown. I have only listed the larger items. All data from the Indian Budget site.

Budgetary Allocation to Education

How the numbers stack up


Higher Education got the remainder allocation of a fourth of the budget ($2.7b or about 16K crs). For a country such as India where literacy levels are at 73%, and school-going is not universal, I think this allocation to Higher Ed is 16K crs too much. The Indian Government has to consolidate its funds where it matters most – schooling.

Perhaps there is merit in providing funds to Higher Ed especially to vocational education institutes or medical colleges (which have hospitals attached), but I just don’t see why the Government should concern itself with providing funds to set up a Sports University, a Railway University (indeed!),  a horticultural university, a humanities college and more IITs / IIMs. The Nehruvian fascination with tertiary (and elite) education continues with the Saffron party as well.

I personally do not think the focus on setting up high-quality tertiary institutes such as IITs / IIMs in the ‘50s & ‘60s was entirely wrong. This is of course, a long-standing debate and there is very little original that I can add to the discussion, other than to point you to the following blogpost from The Economist. The article highlights recent research findings contrasting upper-tail (fathead?) knowledge of the skilled 1% with average human capital, as measured through literacy. It postulates that it is this upper-tail knowledge that drives industrialization and technological leaps as happened in Britain in the 1850s with its 11% primary school enrollment, as against Scandinavia which despite its near full-levels of literacy lagged Britain in industrialisation substantially. This does validate the move to set up IITs / IIMs in the ’50 and ‘60s.

Getting back to the budget, between IITs, NITs, IISERs and the IIMs there is an allocation of 5,400crs ($9b). Do note that the total number of students served by these Institutes will be approximately 120,000 (scroll down for calculations). This makes for an annual subsidy of Rs 450K / student in these institutes. These are elite institutes, from which students get jobs with salaries of at least Rs 500K plus (more at the IIMs). They can easily be made self-supporting. Every rupee allocated to these institutes is a slap in the face of a kid who cannot go to school, or a kid who has to use a filthy toilet in his crumbling school.

If you are curious as to how much the other Universities get, it is a sum of 6,200crs (just over $1b). This comprises funds which is allocated to UGC (University Grants Commission, one of the key Higher Ed regulators), which then provides funds (grants) to Central, Deemed (and some State) Universities such as Delhi University, University of Hyderabad etc. In addition there is about 2,200crs that is provided to State Universities through the RUSA scheme (Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Yojana). This too could be reduced if students in colleges such as Hindu College, a prestigious institution affiliated to Delhi University were charged market rates instead of the subsidized Rs 8,000 ($125) they are asked to cough up annually.


How I estimated enrollment at Elite Institutions (Technical Institutions is how the Budget refers to them)

IITs (9,700 seats * 4) + (2788 * 2) = apprx 44,000 seats
NITs = 15,500 * 4 = 62,000 seats
IIMs = 3,335 seats * 2 = 7,000 apprx
IISERs / IISc = IISERs 950seats * 5 + + IISc 120*4 = 5,200 approx incl IISc doctoral students
IIITs 698*4 = 2,800 seats
Total enrollment or seats 121,000 


UGC is a puzzle. On the one hand, it is considering allowing colleges to award degrees. On the other it is making it clear that they will not have the freedom to launch any innovative courses, nor be able to offer a four-year general degree. Oh, well.


The Economic Times looks at the sudden surge in big name corporates (Ambanis, Munjals etc) setting-up universities. A nice enough read and wrap-up but nothing new.


“Critics say its best universities have churned out hundreds of poor-quality Ph.D.s. Young researchers are not taught how to keep detailed lab notes, properly cite data, or question assumptions” No, it is not India they are talking about this time, but Japan. NYT publishes a Chronicle piece about the research scandal that has sent shockwaves through Japan.


Before there were MOOCs, there was The Great Courses Company, who “put academics and other experts in front of cameras to record courses on a wide range of subjects — game theory, photography, ancient civilizations, differential equations, cooking with spices. The courses are aimed at people who want to further their education just for the sake of the knowledge (no tests or college credit here)”. NYT looks at how the Great Courses Company gets academics, who are not always used to being in front of a camera, ready for recording.


Thunderbird, the US business school that has fallen on hard times may finally have found a sugar daddy. Previously private education major Laureate had attempted to take over Thunderbird, but protests by alumni and opposition by trustees nixed the proposal. According to Businessweek “the Phoenix-based business school announced a deal with Arizona State University that would make Thunderbird, which has operated independently since 1946, part of the state university system. The two schools have signed a letter of intent and are working to complete the merger by the end of the month”


Fortune looks at a sudden upsurge in applications and enrollment in undergrad B-Schools in US. Matters have gotten so out of hand at the #1 ranked US Undergrad Business Program (Mendoza at University of Notre Dame) that they are planning to “implement an enrollment cap for the first time in its history. Starting with the class of 2018, the size of the class will be around 500 students, down from 725 today, says Dale Nees, Assistant Dean for Undergrad Studies. “It’s not that the College of Business is saying we can’t handle students. Like anything, you can always find the resources to do that,” he said. “But the question for the university is one of balance. Do we want the university to be one-third business students?”


How Peter Thiel’s plan to disrupt Higher Ed through the Thiel Fellowship, encouraging 20 students to drop out of college every year to pursue their passions, may not exactly turn out the way he intended. According to this Techcrunch article, students are beginning to treat like a 2 year sabbatical from college as opposed to the college-replacement model it was meant to be. Best line from the story “A lot of the kids seemed to be using the program as more of a prestigious two year internship, kind of like a Rhodes Scholarship for tech, with scant regard for Thiel’s plan to disrupt higher education”.


Higher Ed blogger Jamil Salmi says that Universities’ obsession with rankings is leading to a focus on the wrong behaviours and will in the long run be counterproductive. It is actually world-class university systems and not world-class universities per se that will “best address the specific learning needs of an increasingly diverse population.” he says, A recent story in NYT’s Upshot blog hints at much the same thing. An excerpt from the NYT article – “When President Obama has said, “We have the best universities,” he has not meant: “Our universities are, on average, the best” — even though that’s what many people hear. He means, “Of the best universities, most are ours.” The distinction is important.”


Stuyvesant is a prestigious NYC high school which (along with 8 other specialized high schools like it) uses an entrance exam to select students. This approach is quite unusual for the US and has lead to a class which is 71% asian. This lack of diversity is leading many including NYC Governor Bill de Blasio to question its selection process. Slate writer Reihan Salam instead questions Stuyvesant’s reason to exist itself in a long, fascinating and nuanced piece. Reading it, I was struck by the similiarities Stuy has with IITs. Perhaps one day we will take Reihan’s advise and close the IITs, and my friend Lokesh Gupta will be delighted.


Learn your Python along with your Positioning. How the jump in product management and big data / analytics jobs is leading to demand for MBA Coders. And how B-Schools are adapting in a Businessweek article. The article doesn’t mention the MBA offered by Cornell Tech, NYC’s newest university, but it seems to be the kind of degree an aspiring silicon valley product manager would consider.


Megan Mcardle serves us insights into pricing, microeconomic theory and bevioural finance from a $4 concert fee charge by UCLA in an article well worth the read. A gem: “People who have gotten themselves into financial trouble consider each purchase individually, rather than in the context of a global budget, which means that they don’t make trade-offs. Instead of asking themselves “Is this what I want to spend my limited funds on, or would I rather have something else?” they ask “Can I afford this purchase on my income?” And the answer is often “Yes, I can.” The problem is that you can’t afford that purchase and the other 15 things that you can also, one by one, afford to buy on your income. This is how individual financial disasters occur.”



A MOOC Mindfuck. Read this and then this.




Mandatory design link!


I am not a Ramones fan, but I liked this press release by Tommy Ramone who passed away last week, very much.