Now that a comprehensive National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has been formalised, it is opportune for key stakeholders in the sector; government, educationists and edupreneurs to combine and align towards a larger strategic vision, and they would do well if that extends beyond India—both in terms of serving a global egalitarian cause and in harnessing an economic opportunity of significant proportion. For at stake is not just the $600 billion domestic education market but a $6 trillion global economic opportunity.
Globally, the sector has been in some turmoil which has only been accentuated by a pandemic induced shift in the paradigm of pedagogy. With the developing world constrained in achieving a healthy Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of students on one side to the developed world faced with the inflationary cost of education and dropping GER on the other, the imbalance in making quality education accessible is stark, and the world recognizes this problem which is why quality education is ranked high amongst United Nations sustainable development goals.
Technology will lead the charge in offering a solution and as we get out of the pandemic, a hybrid physical and digital learning model will emerge, and in this new normal India may well emerge as a global sweet spot for high-quality education at an affordable cost. It will hence not be out of place if the Indian education sector sets itself an audacious goal of being amongst the top five net education destinations of the world in the next five years.
Roughly five million students—technically defined as Internationally Mobile Students—study outside their home country each year. A number that will increase as global imbalance is corrected. The United States is by far the preferred destination for these students and hosts a fifth of them but Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Russia and recently Japan have nibbled away at their share over the last decade. U.K. has stoically maintained its share after the U.S. and accounts for a tenth of this market.
In contrast, close to seven lakh Indian students go overseas each year, a third of them to the U.S. by spending close to $13 billion under RBI’s liberalized remittance route—which is as much as India’s annual non-crude petroleum products import.
However, it is on the “Balance-Of-Education” index where we need to do better. Corresponding to the number of students who go out we host only a meagre fifty thousand in return. 65% of these come from Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and a smattering other from a few African and Middle Eastern nations. Inbound remittance is inconsequential as most students come under subsidized bilateral government arrangements.
It is this “Balance-Of-Education” situation that stakeholders in the Indian education sector must aim to correct and make India count amongst the top five net exporters of education. The task will entail much hard work and many steps all of which cannot be covered in a short article, but I shall allude to a few that are important.
As a first step, the Government's (GOI) Ministry of Education (MoE) should consider branding this endeavour as a mission of national importance, perhaps “Saraswati2025” or “Nalanda2025” or something of the sort. Easy recognition will help generate missionary zeal. Setting up a state-funded empowered task force constituted of GOI & state government representatives, educationists, edupreneurs and technologists would be the next with a clear mandate to activate mission mode.
Upping the “quality average” has been the sectors Achilles heel. While our top institutions match up to the best anywhere, it is on the averages that we lose out. The sheer size of our ecosystem of a million schools, fifty thousand institutes and thousand universities pull the quality average down. We must win this “battle of averages”. Our quality average must be better than those of destination countries. A broad-based approach will not yield a quick result. Smart clustering is best suited instead. A cluster of promising institutions in targeted streams should be identified, onboarded and supported. The ease of hiring marquee Indian faculty, Faculty of Indian Origin (FIOs) and lateral shifts from industry to academia into this cluster must be facilitated by easing rigid UGC and AICTE norms. This will disproportionately up our quality average.
Creating world-class “phygital” infrastructure requires funding for which PPP route is best. There is no dearth of brownfield government education infrastructure which can be leveraged per the recent asset monetization policy. Most will agree that campus infrastructure in universities across the country matches the best anywhere. Additionally, suggestions have been made to create innovative and attractive investable asset categories and tax-exempt endowment opportunities for the sector. After all, if business houses can make endowments to institutions abroad, they and other local entrepreneurs can be encouraged to make even local endowments.
It may seem against conventional wisdom, but we should target the western nations for a share of their overseas students. Take the fight to the competition as they say. Not only are these countries leading student destinations but also have a significant outbound population—roughly half a million. There is no reason why India cannot be an attractive option for them. The fact that many global CEO’s and startup entrepreneurs in the west have had their tertiary education in India is a tangible demonstration of the value proposition of education in India. Add to that language, a stable and safe social, political, and economic climate, historical pedigree and the fact that an average Indian classroom has more diversity than anywhere else will make the overall proposition even more compelling and that too at an affordable cost. Targeting students from western countries will make India an aspirational destination for the rest of the world.
Finally, an aggressive go to market approach. The empowered group must actively engage with the western student market on their turf. Counsellor networks should be commercially engaged, liasoning agencies must be hired, educational fairs must be attended, attractive pricing and scholarships must be designed, and all other tactical steps should be taken to attract students from the west and offer them an opportunity to experience the best of ours.
The task is onerous but not impossible and a share of a $6 trillion opportunity is worth throwing our hat in the ring. There is every chance we may succeed and the audacious goal to be amongst the top five net education destinations of the world in five years may not seem audacious after all.
Views expressed are personal. Vikram Limsay is a business strategist.