India cannot build enough brick and mortar universities to meet the exploding demand for higher education from millions of its youth, and must rely on digital technology instead, telecom minister Kapil Sibal said on Saturday.
Sibal, who till recently was also human resource development (HRD) minister in charge of the nation’s education, cautioned against trying to emulate the US or the UK university system as a model for India, speaking at the HT Leadership Summit.
“We have to look at an entirely different model,” Sibal said. “There’s no way in which we can build physical infrastructure to cater to the fast-growing push for higher education coming from students and their parents."
India has 540 million citizens under 25 -- a demographic dividend that international agencies like the International Monetary Fund have said could help the country gain an additional 2% GDP growth. But the country has only 604 universities, and about 4000 colleges, less than 50% of what it needs to achieve its target of a 30% gross enrolment rate in higher education by 2020. Over the past decade, as this gap between demand and supply has increasingly become evident, India has encouraged the private sector to invest in the sector, expanded government institutions of excellence, supported states in setting up more colleges and tried to enact a legislation that would allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India and to collaborate with Indian varsities in offering joint degrees.
But Sibal’s argument suggests a growing realisation in the government that trying to build India’s equivalent of the Ivy League – the subject of a HT Leadership Summit session discussion – may not be the most effective strategy.
“One can really conceive of a situation where ICT [Information and Communications Technology] based infrastructure could be used to reach thousands of colleges,” Sunil Kumar, dean of the University Of Chicago Booth School Of Business said.
India is already building a National Knowledge Network that aims to connect all universities on a dedicated high-speed digital highway, to allow faculty members to teach students across varsities.
“In 3-4 years, everything will go digital. Fiber optics will reach every village by 2013, and then we’ll ensure last mile connectivity. That’s got to be the way forward,” Sibal said.
British education philanthropist Peter Lampl, who heads the Sutton Trust, also argued against using the US or the UK as models for higher education in India. Unlike the US or the UK – which focus on a few research institutions like the Ivy League universities, Oxford or Cambridge – Europe may represent a better model for India, Lampl, who joined Sibal and Kumar in the discussion, said. “Staying away from rankings of top universities, like they do in Europe, is probably good for India,” he said.
But key to meeting India’s higher education challenges remains money, Sibal said. “This nation will never be a wealthy nation if we don’t invest enough in higher education."