Undergrad learning can be made free. Here’s how
There is an opportunity to make high-quality undergraduate education available to all Indians free of cost.
The field of skilling and higher education is about to go through a major disruption due to recent advances in digital technology. The combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI), widespread familiarity with online workspaces and easy access to online information or lectures means that old methods of delivering knowledge and training are already outdated. Far from being a problem, these provide an opportunity for India to leapfrog and rapidly scale up tertiary education in time to take advantage of the demographic dividend. Indeed, there is an opportunity to make high-quality undergraduate education available to all Indians free of cost.
Ask yourself the following questions: Is there a need to spend four years on a university campus to attend lectures that are freely accessible online? Does the same lecture need to be delivered by thousands of professors every year when everyone can see it on YouTube, at their own convenience? The world’s best lecture on a topic can be uploaded once, and AI tools can handle most questions. This may not work entirely for primary school education where face-to-face hand-holding will still be needed, and for fields where hands-on experience is essential (say medicine); perhaps also where knowledge is still evolving (say at Masters or PhD level). However, a mostly online system of imparting knowledge and skills can work for most undergraduate-level subjects.
Of course, we will still need a standardised curriculum to guide students, and a good system of examination to test knowledge retention. The resource requirement for doing this, however, is a fraction of what is needed to run large campuses with hundreds of acres of land, lecture halls and hostels. Moreover, with low scaling costs, it should be possible to provide a high-quality course in each subject available virtually free to all citizens. Any Indian can earn a degree in any subject, at their own pace, as long as they can pass the required tests. Freed from the burden of lecturing, meanwhile, India’s academia can then focus on research and expanding the frontiers of knowledge.
There are many advantages to this approach. First, it allows rapid scaling that is, frankly, not possible with the old brick-and-mortar plan. It takes decades to build a good institution and, outside of a handful of elite institutions, India already struggles to keep its college system adequately staffed. The only way to scale up in time for our demographic bulge over the next 25 years is to embrace the digital path. Otherwise, our youth bulge will have passed its prime before our system is ready.
Second, the digital approach is also our best bet for keeping up with a rapidly changing job market. AI and other technologies are likely to radically change the employment landscape over the next decade in unpredictable ways. Traditional methods of updating curriculums and re-training teachers will not be able to cope with this churn.
Third, the digital approach is more compatible with an apprenticeship-based model. Freed from the need to attend fixed-time classes in person, students can apprentice and pick up real-world skills for a rapidly changing employment landscape. Note that digital systems work even for very high-skill professions as demonstrated by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India that already trains hundreds of thousands of sought-after professionals with a combination of online systems and apprenticeship. The poor will benefit disproportionately as it will allow them to work and study.
Fourth, the digital approach allows almost unlimited flexibility. Students can study at their own pace, and take tests when they are ready. Some may finish their bachelor’s degree in two years and some in six. They can study subject combinations that could not be offered by traditional institutions. Indeed, bright students can simultaneously pursue more than one degree. Language tools will soon make it possible to impart knowledge seamlessly in any language.
Critics of the above model will argue that colleges are more than places for imparting knowledge. They are important places for social networks and personal exploration. Whatever our nostalgia for the college canteen and the dramatics society, the world is moving on. Some universities will continue to cater for the socialisation of a tiny elite but the wider society is already building networks through social media, shared interests, professional organisations, and so on.
So, what will legacy universities do? They should re-orient themselves to research and the design of better testing and certification systems. Start-up hubs and innovation co-location will create a place for the churn of ideas. The shift in emphasis from the drudgery of lecturing to the expansion of knowledge and innovation could transform Indian academia.
For institutions that opt for hybrid teaching systems, the same student facilities can be leveraged for a much larger throughput. For instance, if a batch only comes in for three months a year, then the same facility can now serve four times the number of students.
The above shift is coming whether or not we like it. Many elements of the model already exist. India should embrace this new approach as the primary mode for scaling up rapidly. Indeed, digital education makes it possible to provide a high-quality degree in most subjects available freely to all citizens.
Sanjeev Sanyal is a member, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. The views expressed are personal