The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has said that the most major economies in the world might be headed for recession except for possibly India and China.

If this turns out to be true, the countries will offer marquee investment opportunities in a deeply troubled world. But the question is—in which sectors?

This essay shall argue that online education in India, which was already seeing a boom before the Coronavirus crisis, is set soar in the post-Covid-19 world.

There are several reasons why this is true. First, in terms of consumer habits or behaviour, the Coronavirus crisis most probably marks a point of transition in the adoption of the online medium as a primary point of access for a range of activities, from office work to healthcare. Education is one of these key sectors. As universities, teachers, and students embrace and adopt new ways of learning—often a democratising process—interest in online education will soar. This is true around the world, for instance, unprecedentedly Oxford’s third term, or the Trinity term (the term in which its famed examinations are held), could well be conducted partially (or even entirely) online, and it is impossible to argue that such epochal incidents would not have domino effects across the world of education.

But, in India this has special resonance. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, notes a KPMG and Google study, the online education market in India was set to grow to $1.96 billion, with 9.6 million users, by 2021, up from $247 million and 1.6 million users in 2016. In January, Indian edtech company Byju’s hit unicorn status with a valuation of $6 billion with support from financiers Tiger Global.

They are not the only one. A clutch of startups, often powered by artificial intelligence, have been grabbing market share and money in the country—from Simplilearn to Vedantu—fuelled by a seemingly insatiable demand from a young, ambitious population. India’s education market is set to hit around $180 billion this year, doubling from 2016 levels.

A lot of this education is also given out in the English language, giving it, potentially, a global appeal and market. Could India, with adequate funds invested, build the global edtech products of the future for a world market? There is no reason why not.

But even at home, there is substantial money to be made. Demand has for long outstripped supply in India. The country’s quality traditional education system—whether at the school level or college—just does not have enough seats to satisfy demand. From nursery schools to top colleges, admission is the stuff of nightmares. In Delhi, parents spend months in a Kafkaesque merry-go-round, often telephoning every contact they can think of, just to get their child into a good school at the age of three or four years. At the higher education level, the condition is so dire that ‘cut offs’ or the percentage of marks below which a student is ineligible to apply is often 99%, if not more. A clutch of new private, and expensive, colleges have been trying to fill the gap, but they are often designed for the rich, and structured to remain exclusive.

The nature of education, then, is ripe for change in India, as it is elsewhere. Only India has millions more customers ready at hand at home than at other countries. As more people seek learning at their convenience, and in the comfort of their homes, at an affordable cost, the demand for online education will leapfrog. The market will get differentiated and opportunities would be unlocked at every level.

The Coronavirus crisis, coming as it did at a critical time in the educational calendar, has triggered a conversation about the future of education in India. Such questions are fuel for the online education industry which has both the ability and the technical knowhow to scale up rapidly.

Amidst the economic gloom and doom, this is one sunrise sector in India worth keeping a firm eye on. More unicorns might be waiting in the wings.

Views are personal.

The author is a historian and a multiple award-winning author.

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