Online degrees can be a game changer in India

New Delhi | ByRaghav Gupta
Mar 18, 2020 04:15 PM IST

The 2020 Union Budget delivered the game changer our higher education system desperately needs, for India to realize its demographic dividend. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman effectively reset the future for millions of young Indians when she announced that India’s top 100 educational institutions will start offering full-fledged degree courses online.

For decades, one of India’s biggest challenges has been scaling access to a quality education that is both relevant and affordable. At 25.4%, our Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education is lower than the global average of 27% and substantially trails those of developed nations such as the US at 85.8%. The employability skills of graduates who come out of the education system also need urgent attention report suggests – 90% of Indian engineers lack the key skills companies are looking for. Our own research points to India lagging in in-demand fields like data science, ranking at 51 globally out of 60 countries in Coursera’s 2019 Global Skills Index.


By 2030, India will have the world’s largest working-age population. But without inclusive education and the right job skills, we cannot reap the economic benefits of this advantage or realize our aspiration to become a $5 trillion economy. The good news is, the government is now taking a more progressive, long-term view to plug gaps in our higher education system, as is evident by the policy draft of the upcoming education policy and a proposal in the recent Union Budget.

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The 2020 Union Budget delivered the game changer our higher education system desperately needs, for India to realize its demographic dividend. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman effectively reset the future for millions of young Indians when she announced that India’s top 100 educational institutions will start offering full-fledged degree courses online.

The proposal to allow India’s top 100 institutions to offer degrees online could bring a paradigm shift in our higher education system, allowing colleges to scale reach and impact on a war footing. This reform will create new pathways to democratize quality higher education and access to future skills for a diverse country like ours. However, given the urgency to skill India, the government will have to move aggressively and nimbly, to unlock benefits for the millions of students entering the workforce each year.

The path to a quality education for all Indians

Online learning has become steadily mainstream and just as credible as a traditional education, for learners and employers. In the US, a third of all college students now take at least one course online. In large part, this shift in perception has come from elevated online learning products emerging from top institutions in the country. From Harvard to Stanford, colleges didn’t just adapt, but entirely reimagined offerings online as they transformed access to a world-class education.

The Indian government is definitely on the right track by restricting this reform to the country’s top 100 institutions. This will stem unbridled degree offerings, ensuring the quality of degree products launched. Following in the path of top colleges globally, our institutions will have to rethink the delivery of the degree to meet the needs of diverse Indian audiences. While democratizing access and beating capacity constraints, they will also be able to address challenges in campus learning through digital methods – like creating personalized learning paths tailored for varied abilities and aspirations of millions of Indian students, to improve learning outcomes.

Creating inclusive and relevant online degrees

One trend that stood out globally in 2019 was the ‘evolution of the degree.’ Leading universities around the world went online with sought-after, top-ranked degree offerings, bringing a new depth of learning online. Purdue announced three new online master’s degrees, the University of Michigan launched an online Master of Applied Data Science, LSE announced an online BSc in Data Science and Business Analytics. Leading international universities also scaled in-demand degree programs, like the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, a top-ten university which launched an online master’s degree in software engineering. These colleges innovated with their degrees to make them more accessible, affordable, flexible, and above all, relevant -- a commonality was the laser focus on industry needs, with new online degrees designed for the skills employers need right now.

This would be an opportune moment for Indian colleges to reorient their degree offerings online to be inclusive, while also addressing key skill gaps in India. Colleges should prioritize scaling in-demand skills in cutting-edge tech domains like AI and analytics, to align with the government’s vision for skill development.

The opportunity to solve existing challenges in higher education

As we partner with colleges in India innovating with online learning, the one question we hear universally from academic leaders is, ‘How can we boost the employability of our students?” A 2019 survey by Deloitte reinforces this as a priority. Deans of top-tier institutes in India were asked to identify key problems plaguing our education system. Not surprisingly, lack of quality faculty (79.7%), employability of students when they graduate (78.3%) and absence of fresh curriculum that is benchmarked with global standards (63.8%) made up the top three.

India’s premier colleges could unlock major synergies and explore collaboration possibilities by offering their degrees through online digital platforms. In the future, this could lead to combined degree offerings and pooled resources – even bridging the current faculty crisis in India. As technology rapidly changes the nature of jobs and skills, degree offerings will have to change as dynamically. With online degree products, Indian colleges would be able to strategically partner with global universities leading research in cutting-edge areas, to respond efficiently and quickly to the changing needs of industry, replacing or updating outdated curricula with job-relevant degree offerings.

Ultimately, I see this reform as a pivotal step towards building a culture of lifelong learning in the country. Indians will have the flexibility to update their skills with online degree offerings, even after they join the workforce, and at any point through their working lives. The state can be a major facilitator to ensure critical skill development is accessible not just to students, but to all citizens. Governments in countries like Colombia, Abu Dhabi and Singapore, for instance, are acting as enablers to develop the most in-demand technical skills in areas like data science and artificial intelligence for citizens.

Online learning could be a great leveler through this journey. As a country, we are uniquely primed for this revolution. As data costs fall and connectivity improves, learners across India can enter virtual classrooms on their smartphones, overcoming access barriers like location and high costs, to come out with a high-value degree. This will raise India’s GER. Crucially, it will equip millions more with the skills to be productive when they enter the workforce, unlocking the country’s demographic dividend.

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