Gaurav Bhatia is the Chief Business Officer at RISE. He graduated with a B.E in Computer Engineering from the University of Mumbai and subsequently pursued his MBA at INSEAD in 2011. Over the years, he has had the opportunity to work in the health care, education, and information services sector and he has worked across APAC, the Middle East, and Europe. Prior to joining RISE, Gaurav was the CBO at a high-growth ed-tech startup ecosystem in India and was critical to driving their business growth and operations in India.
Education—whether primary, secondary or tertiary—continues to be imagined as belonging to a physical space. While such a space may be necessary and advisable for kids, it no longer is for those who have crossed 18 and are weighing up their career options. This is progressively true of universities and colleges in the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia, destinations that are popular with Indian parents and their children, and it will become even more so with institutes of higher learning in India.
If anything brought home to these centres of higher education the importance of having a digital presence, it was the pandemic. But, dissatisfaction with the traditional system of higher education pre-dates COVID-19, when educators, students, government institutions and other stakeholders were questioning the value proposition of the system, and whether it was achieving what it had set out to post 1947.
When the Coronavirus arrived, catching us all off-guard, these centres of learning had no option but to transition online. Virtual education became the default way of learning but because the switch from offline to online was so rushed, lacking preparation and with little thought given to guidelines, processes and quality control, colleges and universities could do little to guarantee an adequate calibre of education. It was clear that Indian higher education, dogged by a reputation for being slow to adapt to the latest tools of technology, and was struggling to keep pace with a rapidly changing world.
Meanwhile, their counterparts in Europe, Asia and North America had long ago embraced technology for a number of reasons but chiefly to reduce faculty staff, so that they could scale up their programs. In fact, this model is being enthusiastically adopted by universities in the US, which have discounted their fees to make graduate courses appreciably more affordable. India should really be following suit, and universities and colleges here should be given incentives to establish themselves online, as the National Education Plan (NEP) has proposed. Because, an online presence will help in meeting two goals without compromising quality of education- increase in reach and last-mile accessibility to cost-competitive professional courses.
Further, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and bots can aid in expanding and enhancing student engagement. AI-powered chatbots, for example, can be utilised for resolving any queries from undergraduates and postgraduates. Meanwhile, an online infrastructure can assist universities in digitising most of the tasks and duties presently carried out manually, including enrolment of students. Not only will digitisation make these institutions customer-centric and student-friendly, it will cut down costs considerably. Considerably on costs.
Still, concerns remain, particularly when it comes to the disconnect between the industries that are looking for graduates, and what universities are doing to add to the pool of workers and professionals. Yet, students can learn industry-relevant skills and be workforce-ready if universities provide academic credentials along with degrees. Indeed, the move towards the unbundling of higher education into micro-credentials has already begun and will likely gain momentum—in future, micro-credentials will be key to students finding the right match when it comes to job profiles, and to organisations zeroing in on the ideal employee. Significantly, micro-credentials will also contribute to an environment of lifelong learning.
At the moment, the market is dictating universities’ moves away from the traditional degree model and towards a flexible, lower priced and digital one. For, the shelf life of a fair number of skills has reduced noticeably and continuous upskilling is the need of the hour.
One model that is popular in the West and is now finding takers in India is online program management (OPM). Universities are looking to sign long-term, multi-million-dollar contracts with online program managers (OPMs) to enable them to build capability online. In 2021 alone, 594 international universities had established OPMs, boot camps and pathways via partnerships. Additionally, the OPM market is expected to hit US£13.3 billion by 2025, up from US£5.7 billion in 2020.
Subsequently, the government of India is pushing to increase the online presence of universities, which was first outlined by the NEP in 2020. In fact, there is a mandate to set up a new autonomous body—the National Educational Technology Forum (NETF)—to oversee the development of online capabilities, to leverage technology, and to bridge the learning gap in the country. There is also a thrust to build virtual labs through Augmented Reality (AR) and/or Virtual Reality (VR), to encourage experiential learning online.
India will need close to 540 million digitally skilled working professionals by 2025 but our current brick-and-mortar infrastructure caters to only a fraction of this number. So, to ensure that enough students enter the workforce to meet the demands of the economy, online education is key in reaching as many students and young working professionals as possible.
With her ambitions of becoming not just a trillion-dollar economy but also a knowledge superpower, India cannot afford to miss the ship. While some centres of higher education, more so the recent entrants into the ecosystem, have gone out of their way to introduce technology into their everyday roles and responsibilities, too many have been reluctant to. Both the public and private sectors have a part to play in convincing the doubters, and advising them that they will likely lose relevance the longer they resist the adoption of evolving technologies tech and digitalisation
The very best among India’s universities offer graduate and postgraduate courses that are comparable to any in the world. And because they are also inexpensive, foreign students opt to travel to India rather than study at a British or American college. So, in readiness for a tomorrow that is already here, this is the time to ‘go digital’ and take higher learning in India to another level.