Creating a World-class Higher Education System in India

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Mr K V Ramani, founder and chancellor of Sai University, is one of the pioneers who led the efforts to bring India’s information technology sector to global prominence. He co-founded the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) to assist the growth and development of the IT sector in India.

By Mr K V Ramani, Founder and Chancellor, Sai University

I am not an academician, but I am fortunate to say that I am qualified to talk on higher education based on my recent experience in the last few years as Founder-Chancellor of Sai University. I have an outside view of the higher education sector and so, I can talk about the system more easily than an insider.

The problems in higher education are not well-defined. It is a multi-dimensional problem. We are trying to offer solutions which are not perfect. Why is our higher education system not up to global standards? Not even one person from India—working in India—has won a Nobel Prize. Indians have won Nobel Prizes after going out of India. Why are they are not able to achieve when they are in India? We are not in the international league in higher education. What is so special about education?

We have done it in the IT sector and I am proud to say that. I started my IT company in 1985. We often had clients telling us, “Where is software in India? We only heard of cows and saints on the roads of India.” Now, 35 years later, India is acknowledged as a technology leader worldwide. Investors in software companies abroad insist on having India connections as a precondition to their funding. The software industry has moved from zero to $150 Bn in exports now. Our Prime Minister wants us to increase the exports to $300 Bn in the next three to four years. Health care is another example. Thirty years ago, if you had a problem with the heart and if you had money, you went to the US for treatment. If you didn’t have the money, you had to pray to God. There was no quality treatment in India. Now, Indian health care is a global leader. We have a large activity of medical tourism happening in India because we have the same quality of doctors as the developed world, the same equipment and better nursing care and all at a cost of one fourth of what you would spend in the UK.

Another sector is biotech. During Covid, India was able to produce two or three vaccines ourselves without any international assistance and that protected all of us.  So my question is, why have we not done it in education?

Quantity Problem

Fundamentally, higher education is a quantity problem. We have the largest number of youth in the world because of the demographic dividend of the Asian population, but what are we doing about it? What are we doing to them with education opportunities to develop their skills, to either become academicians, researchers, entrepreneurs or career professionals? What are we doing at significant scale to make that happen? In my opinion, we are not.

The quantity is a problem because we have several Boards of Examination. The raw material is the 12th standard or the school final. We have the CBSE, State Board, ICSE and multiple other systems of schooling. When they come into higher education, it is very difficult to evaluate which system is better.

Each year, the number of students passing the school final exam and trying to get University or higher education admission is about 2 crores. How are we giving admission to these 2 crore students into institutions of higher education? We have diploma programs, ITI, certificate programs for electrician plumber, carpenter and so on. These are skill-based programs and there is nothing wrong with them. People have a need to get into them. We also have undergraduate education, postgraduate education or a PhD doctoral program. Whatever it may be, there has to be a career path for these 2 crore people each year but we don’t have. The dimension becomes more complex because we have multiple languages.

If you take Tamil Nadu, Andhra or Karnataka, roughly 14 lakh students graduate each year from schools, trying to get college admission. There is a mad rush of every student and parent. Admissions for an academic year start almost one year in advance, even though students haven’t got their final marks. They are admitted based on 10th standard or in some cases, 11th standard marks. We don’t have a mechanism to find out how many students will need admissions to higher education. The number of UGC approved universities in the country is 1441. There are four kinds of Universities—Central, State, Deemed and Private.  We have more than 36,000 colleges as per UGC data. All of these are not able to accommodate the 2 crore students passing out of schools. But, rough numbers indicate that 50% drop out for skill based programs or to take up some jobs due to family circumstances.  Out of the balance 1 crore students, there is a mad rush to get into universities and colleges as every student and parent likes to have minimum two or three admissions. There are so many tests. Each student, when they do the school final, spends more time preparing for this admission test.

The system is so bad, especially in some pockets. Let me give you an anecdote. In Namakkal region, they had the highest percentage of passes in twelfth standard consistently for the last several years. Later it was found out that during the eleventh standard, they taught 12th standard subjects and didn’t teach eleventh subjects at all. When they moved to twelfth, they kept on revising and taking practices tests. In this, the students missed the eleventh standard syllabus completely. Now they have introduced 11th standard board exam in Tamil Nadu to prevent this problem.

The Quality Problem

What started out as a quantity problem has now become a quality problem. Why is it a quality problem? Because the students who get admission into the top universities or colleges must have high cut-off scores, in excess of 90 or 95 percent and clear some admission tests. We make marks as the most important determinant factor for higher education. Not the talent or desire of the student or the infrastructure and faculty of the institution. 

If the student is getting 100%, then they don’t need the teacher at all. The challenge for a teacher is taking an unpolished stone and converting it into a diamond. It’s taking an average student and making the best of that student to come out. That is the most satisfying part of this noble profession called teaching.  Many of our boys and girls, right from 10th standard start preparing for JEE and Advanced JEE to get into IIT. If they don’t get it, they have to go to Tier 2 institutions where there are some other tests. Rich parents and parents who have reason to borrow money, send their children abroad. If they go abroad for PG, we can understand. The fact is, every year 3.5 lakh students leave India for higher education abroad, mostly for undergraduate classes. At any point of time, approximately 14 lakh Indian origin students study abroad.

An Economic Problem

Look at the economic side of it. Each student pays approximately Rs.25 lakhs per year for tuition and Rs.5 lakhs per year for housing expenses. At Rs.30 lakhs per year for a four-year program, they spend Rs.1.2 crores—plus or minus—depending on the city and the university. So we are talking about 14 lakh students, each spending Rs.30 lakh each year, for the duration of the program. In other words, India is sending a large number of students abroad. These students finance their education abroad because they believe they don’t have the institutions of their choice here. According to a report in The Business Standard dated 25th of September last year, by the year 2024, Indians will be spending $80 billion annually on international education. Just imagine! That’s half of foreign exchange the entire IT Industry is earning.

Now, it has become a finance problem. Why are the students and their parents in this country spending roughly $50 Bn, financing institutions in foreign countries and their faculty? This is a pathetic situation. Not all of parents are rich. They borrow money for their children’s study abroad. Many countries conduct education camps in schools in cities and even towns, offering spot admission to students in the eleventh standard. When they finish 12th, they can go to Australia or New Zealand or UK or USA. So effectively, we finance the higher education sector internationally from Indian parents. These students, after doing 4 years of UG, naturally want to do a PG specialization for two more years, after which the parents tell the students to stay back and work for a few years. The foreign countries also encourage the students to stay back, giving various visas like internship visa, work visa, temporary visas, etc.

Social Problem

Now look at the psychological impact. You’re throwing kids—17- or 18-year-olds who are not even adults. When they graduate from school at that age, parents transplant them to another society.  They have to live with alien society members, adjust to the societal living, cook for themselves, do their own laundry, manage their own housekeeping and they have to keep contacting their social circles, family and friends here India. If they’re sick, they take a first aid kit and then they call the family doctor. After all that, they’re expected to study also. It’s a serious situation. Those students, when they are 24 or 25, finish their PG, start working and repaying their loans. They start despising India and complain about Indian systems. They become alien to us. We talk about brain drain. Who put them out in the first place? We did. We sent them out in their formative years to a society where they had to live away from their parents, siblings, friends and families. They have to go through all the hardship and by 6 to 8 years’ time, they are completely disconnected from this society. Of course, as a ritual, they’ll come once a year, spend a month here and go back. But they say, ‘Oh no. I can’t settle back in India.’ The fundamental issue is that we failed to provide that opportunity for the students here to study, to give admission to institutions of learning of the same quality that they will get abroad, enough number of seats to solve the quantity problem and to solve the quality problem, the money problem and lastly the management problem.

Management Problem

Who has to solve this problem? We immediately say it is a government problem. No doubt, it is the duty of the government to provide education. But fortunately or unfortunately, our government in the initial years focused on literacy than on education. Literacy is very essential but that alone is not enough. We had to get away from the Macaulay system of education of the British, which was for producing clerks for the British government. We had to get our system to produce scientists, engineers, doctors, researchers, teachers and politicians. We had great institutions and we have not really upgraded to the extent as required for the population and for fixing the quantity and the quality problem. Education was a state subject initially. Then it became a concurrent subject. Now, it is again moving to a central subject.  Recognising the management problem, the government came up with the new education policy. It is an extremely good policy prepared by Prof Kasturi Rangan, who is a very accomplished person. You don’t have to do skill development separately, diploma separately and so on. You can enter and exit at any time. If you do one year, you get a certificate program; if you do two years, you can get a diploma; three years, you get an undergraduate degree and so on. It’s a brilliant design. But then, it is not immediately accepted by the whole country and there’s tremendous opposition to it. Because we’re pushing down something from the top, it does not have grassroots acceptance. If you change the policy, unless you convince people that what you do is for their own good and the good of the institution and that it is going to be win-win for all, there’ll always be opposition. We failed to take the students, parents and state governments in policy implementation; we are still struggling with it. Therefore, it has now become a management problem.

The Data Problem

Let’s come back to the quality problem. The government has recognized that we need to have a national level quality certification. The UGC has worked out a system of ranking and come out with very good schemes and excellent programs. But to implement the system, you need to have minimum five years data before you can get accredited. Creating data for 4-5 years is a challenge because many of our institutions have not documented what they might be doing and do not have the systems to collect data and present it to NAAC or NIRF for ranking. That is a huge challenge; a management problem.

Lastly, with all these challenges, higher education has become a huge enterprise. When you have a quality problem and finance problem, some entrepreneurs come in and see how they can make a quick buck in the scenario. Under the Indian laws, an education institution by definition has to be non-profit. It has to be run by a society or a trust or a non-profit company that can be a parent—institutions must run below that. But we have innovative, smart entrepreneurs in this country with brilliant minds and creative geniuses who can always find a way of beating the system. They exploit the loopholes in the system and make humongous amount of money from higher education. Many of them are family-run businesses.

The parents who need a seat for their son or daughter who have not scored 98% or more, pay capitation and other fees with or without recommendation from people of influence and get admission. As a result, the system is deteriorating. So you can see that it is a combination of failure on various fronts—quantity, quality, economic, social, financial, infrastructure and management. If you see that $80 billion are going abroad for 14 lakh students, you can imagine what would be the size of the enterprise in India for 1 crore people. What will be the turnover of this industry? Nobody knows. As they are non-profit, they don’t have to declare their profits. There is no tax. We have a whole tax-free economy running in higher education sector and there’s a huge amount of money being made not only by institutions of higher learning but also by institutions who provide training to join these institutions like training institutes and certification institutes. We have thousands of institutes mushrooming.  According to a study done by a large hiring company, there are about one lakh vacancies in data science jobs now. Data science is an improved method adapted from what we called statistics.  The shortage of data scientists is growing at 60% a year. Most of our higher education institutions have just added a subject or course in data science without getting to the essence of it. The discipline is forgotten. The father of data science in India is Prof Mahalanobis, who founded the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Kolkata. Even the ISI has not adapted to data science. We just live in pockets of isolation.

How We Fare in International Rankings

Some of the Indian rankings by private agencies are part of a new business enterprise and we cannot rely on them. Higher educational institutions are internationally ranked by Times International Ranking and QS International Ranking. Even one institute from India does not figure in the top 100 institutes of these rankings, which are globally tested and well recognised. Our eminent IITs come between 125 and 150.  These are run by Government of India funding, which is tax-payers’ money.  Some of our private universities figure around 700. It is sad that a country which can excel at global level in IT, Healthcare and Biotech cannot do that in higher education. The best of our institutes do not provide talent as the industry wants them. They have to go through a six month to two year internship to understand how the business works and how they can apply their knowledge in the work place.

The Solution: University + Hospital

The simple solution lies in changing the product itself. At the national level, we have more than 700 districts. It costs 750 to 1000 crore to set up a good, internationally comparable university. If Australia, New Zealand or Denmark can do it, why can’t we? We must set up one such university in each district. It can be public or private. Today, higher education is there mainly in Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities.

In each district, there must also be one world-class hospital with 300 beds. The university and hospital must be interconnected. A university will have a department of health sciences which requires it to run a minimum of 300 bed hospital. This combo will lead to a huge societal transformation. The student will aspire to join that university. They can be closer to home and spend less money, without borrowing crores of rupees. They will get good education in their own districts. Denmark is a country of 7 million and it boasts of 3 to 4 international universities. So why can’t we do it? The hospitals will provide medicare to the people in the districts, and people don’t need to travel to faraway cities for treatment. Simultaneously, we can see the transformation happening in academics and healthcare.

Sai University and Liberal Education

We have created Sai University in OMR, Chennai. Our vision is to be the first international university in India. Within ten years, we want to be in the Top 100 rankings of Times and QS. Other rankings will come as by-products. We have already bought 100 acres of land. We are recognised by UGC. Sai University offers liberal education across arts, science, technology and law. Next year, we will add a Business School with a BBA, B.Com and MBA. In the following year, we will start a 300 bed hospital and followed by that, we will offer health sciences that can include fitness, nursing and so on. In the conventional universities, if you opt for a stream, they give you a combo and you don’t have a choice. In liberal education, students are free to choose their subjects. Even in the US, only some universities offer liberal education. Harvard University has a Business School and a Law School. A student in one cannot sign up for a course in the other.  A simultaneous degree in law and management is not possible.

What is Liberal Education?

Today, parents decide the courses for their children. At the UG entry level, our focus is on marks. At UG exit level, our focus is on placement, salary and job. But in liberal education, we provide a wider base of key concepts of knowledge to the students. The students can decide what they want to do and which one they want to pursue. In Sai University, we have designed our curriculum in such a manner that in the first semester, students don’t study any subjects. All of them study critical thinking, analytical thinking, logical thinking, tech skills and communication / presentation skills. They become one homogenous group after coming from heterogeneous backgrounds. The classroom becomes a cohesive group. They are going to be together for 3 or 4 years and doing projects together and it is important that they communicate with each other. In the second semester, there are three schools—School of Arts and Sciences, School of Computer and Data Science and School of Law. The students are given a bouquet of 15 subjects as a preliminary course. A student can choose any 8 subjects of their choice. In year 2, they do a Major and two Minors. The combination is left to the students. For example, a student can study Economics Major and Computer Science and Law as Minors. No university in India offers a program like this. Our teachings are based on concepts of cognitive learning. SAI University is largely modelled on Stanford.

The proof of the pudding is when the student decides what courses he or she wants to do, based on their understanding of the courses. We had a robotics competition and the team that won was from the School of Arts and Science, not the Computer and Data Science students.

So in conclusion, if you open students’ minds, free their knowledge and let them to decide what they want to do and give them the opportunities in this country, by building institutions of eminence in India, then we can talk of higher education in India being at global levels. We cannot do this without changing the foundations. I hope SAI University will set an example for others to follow, so they too can adapt to an international model of learning.