Published: 19th June 2020
Why Plaksha University's founders think it will take India 15-20 years to make quality education affordable and accessible
Is it possible for India to make online education work for all its students? Do we need a change in education policies to match the new normal?
Online education might be the way to go because there is no other choice left during COVID-19 but is India equipped to handle this change? Are we changing our education system at all to make sure we grow with the rest of the world? Vineet Gupta, MD, Jamboree Education and Hitesh Oberoi, Co-promoter, MD and CEO, InfoEdge (Naukri.com), both Co-Founders of Plaksha University say India needs to make some fundamental changes to be part of the race. Plaksha, a tech university founded by the collective philanthropy of more than 75 academic and business leaders from five countries across the globe, was founded with the intention to bridge the industry-academia gap. Plaksha’s Tech Leaders Fellowship (TLF) programme, run out of its Gurugram campus, is delivered in collaboration with UC Berkeley, Purdue University among others.
Excerpts from the conversation:
What are the major challenges that India is facing when it comes to online education?
Vineet: It's been tough for Indian universities to go online and a major challenge was that universities were not prepared even though video conferencing platforms like Zoom are very user-friendly. I think the faculty was not prepared. Another big challenge in India is that students come from all parts of the country and in remote places connectivity is a huge issue. While people in the larger cities and metros can log in properly, those in smaller cities and distant areas find it difficult. Thirdly, while some courses can be delivered online, what about lab work and subjects that require project work and collaboration, people coming together? Lastly, the Indian academia is not used to assessment online.
Hitesh: Online education has progressed a lot over the years. We have seen courses offered by firms like Coursera gain popularity but those are different from university education. There is a disparity when it comes to the preparedness of the universities. Students are now forced to move online. Earlier, it used to be only for those who were very motivated about learning. There are issues, like Vineet mentioned but I am sure we will sort it out as we go along. This trend is here to stay. Having said that, traditional university education imparted on campus has its own merits — networking, social interaction, peer influence and more — and they are as important as the online counterpart.
How much do online courses add to your CV? Is it always better to go for a university-based formal education?
H: The online courses have to add value to the university or school education. A lot of students, especially the ones who do not go to the best colleges in the country, will find that there are a lot of courses they can take online to enhance their skills. They might not be part of the best college but that should not stop them from having access to a good education.
Plaksha University is trying to bridge between the industry and academia. But why is the gap there to start with?
V: I think the university system has not kept pace with the changing landscape of problems. Robotics and drones are the talk of the town — there has been advancement, collaboration and a lot more across the world. But in India, if you have to pick out institutes which teach the subject well you will be left with only a handful of universities. There needs to be faster periodic updation fo the curriculum. For example, in engineering, the student also needs to learn social sciences. Only then will he be able to serve society better. Research shows that you can build mindsets through education and that's what needs to be included — we at Plaksha are trying that. Since all the founders and co-founders are from the industry it will be easy to bridge the gap.
H: A few decades back we started on a very good note, the government was spending a lot on higher education — IITs and IIMs were set up and they were world-class. But now the government has focused, maybe rightly so, on primary and secondary education. Private colleges have come up but the focus was on the quantity — every city had a few management institutes and many more engineering colleges and this might have had to do with the IT sector boom. But going forward, India needs to get into newer areas to do cutting edge work to grow and create more jobs.
Will COVID change the trend of education and the job market?
V: The digital world is the future and no matter what profession you want to choose you to need to be savvy with how to use the internet to the best of your ability. From acting to writing to marketing — everything will have an online influence and presence. So, digital proficiency, fundamental knowledge of data and being able to related data are key skills and will help them get a job better.
H: The top companies are tech firms in today's world — Google, Apple, Amazon etc. There will be more automation and the technology component of each job. People underestimate how things can change in a decade or so. I also believe you create new jobs when you create a new industry or at least transform the current setup. Otherwise, the same set of people and the same companies continue to do well. Internet might have started with disrupting communication but now it is changing landscapes in every sector — from education to health to finance and anything under the sun. There is so much happening around the world and if we are successful in keeping out talent here in India we will be able to capitalise on it.
Do universities which have tie-ups with foreign institutions have an edge over the others, now that studying abroad will be more difficult?
V: Collaborations can help you be more efficient and more effective in your operations. But that depends on how one utilises it. I would treat collaborations as just one aspect. I would rather ask students to choose a university on its overall merits. I think it starts with faculty and goes on to the infrastructure and much more. It will take India another 15 to 20 years to make quality education affordable and accessible to all and till that happens students will go abroad. Plaksha University got a huge headstart from our collaborations with UC Berkeley — we got their curriculum and that helped us build a comprehensive course which would have been difficult for us to do on our own. We also get visiting faculty and then the reputation spreads and you start attracting talent.
H: People are willing to spend Rs 1-2 crores on their higher education and universities here should look at whether they can manage to give that level of education at one-tenth or one-eighth the price. If you can do that you will stop students from going abroad as long as you give them quality education.
What, in the education system, needs to change right now?
H: There is, in our view, not enough focus on tinkering, building stuff or practical knowledge when it comes to engineering. It's mostly bookish. We need more emphasis on practical work not just in colleges but in schools as well. Secondly, education needs to be more interdisciplinary and this is the need of the future. The curriculum should allow students to take up courses of their choice and not bind them to the few subjects of the particular discipline. More exposure to humanities and soft skills is also needed for engineering students.
V: The quality of teaching and the faculty have to go up substantially. We have to have huge development programmes, invest in them and pay them more. We have to make teaching an attractive job again. The next problem that needs a solution is about governance — even though most of the private educational institutions are registered as non-profit, they work with the motive to generate profit. We industrialists came together for building an institution in a philanthropic manner and this model is working well in the USA for years. Harvard, Yale, Cornell all got created from genuine philanthropy. While Ashoka started the trend, India needs 50 more of these universities. We can charge the ones who have the means and award scholarships to those who can not pay. That way we keep the balance as well.