K. M. Venkat Narayan: Oozing With Confidence New India Takes On Education Challenges

venkat narayanIn general, past trends may help to reliably predict the future of simple systems. Not so with complex dynamic systems, which are hard to predict, and when it comes to complexity and dynamism, new India is hard to beat, and therefore, hard to predict.

In one of my earlier blogs (1 March, 2010), I asked whether and how India might meet the gigantic challenges of educating its very large young population (nearly 50% of India’s population is under 25 years of age) – often touted as India’s “demographic dividend” for economic growth.

I am going to boldly predict that India will meet her education challenges very substantially, if not completely, within the next two decades. Why do I think so?

 The one way to make “predictions” about complex systems is by observing patterns (and, of course, in India, they have astrologers too!!). In the recent few weeks, there have been a number of revolutionary developments concerning India’s education sector, which together make a pattern and tell a story.

 The Indian Cabinet approved a plan to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in the country.  This still has to be ratified by the Parliament and there are several hurdles ahead before it is fait accompli. But for a country that has for six decades held on to Gandhian ideas of self sufficiency and to the Nehruvian model of “License Raj”, this is a revolutionary and pragmatic move. As the education Minister, Kapil Sibal, put it  “In the next 10 years, you are going to have more than 40 million children going to college, an extra 40 million. So you have to create infrastructure for them”. 

With a current graduate enrollment rate (GER) of 7%, India needs massive infrastructure and investment in higher education to reach developed country rates of 25-30%. The National Knowledge Commission of India had estimated that the country will need 1500 universities compared to about 350 now to meet this GER target, and this simply cannot happen without wisely and cautiously opening the education market. Indeed, not only is India opening the market to foreign universities, there are also signs of some highly successful Indian entrepreneurs getting into higher education. Notably, the State of Karnataka has passed the “Azim Premji University Bill 2010”, which will enable the founder of India’s IT giant, Wipro, to start the first private university in the state.

 In the same week that this foreign universities plan was approved by the Cabinet, the Medical Council of India (MCI) approved of a plan to allow private companies to open medical colleges. This means that large, high-quality hospital chains – such as Fortis Healthcare, Apollo Hospitals, and Max Healthcare – with deep pockets, market knowledge, and grand ambitions can get into medical education. While this move on the part of MCI is bound to raise noisy controversy in cacophonous India, this too is a revolutionary move of profound future significance.  For a population of 1.2 billion people, India just isn’t producing enough physicians, and needs to liberalize medical education to meet the future demands.

 Surely, all of these developments indicate a pattern that augurs well for the future of higher education in India, but what about basic education? Even here, there have been several encouraging and revolutionary developments.

 India has taken primary school enrollment very seriously, and its Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) is the largest ongoing “education for all” program in the world.  Between 2003 and 2009, the number of children enrolled in elementary education in India has increased by 57 million. India currently has a total of 192 million children in elementary education and this cohort will – within 10-15 years – benefit from the expanding higher education development. Just last week, the World Bank announced two projects totaling USD 1.05 billion for India to expand the reach of primary education and to improve the quality of engineering education.  The 86th amendment of the Indian Constitution passed in 2002 has mandated education as a fundamental right for all children. 

 India is also addressing its rural person-power needs with bold and creative strategies. For example, the Medical Council of India recently released a plan for an alternative model of medical education involving a four year Bachelor degree in rural healthcare. (See BMJ, 9 February 2010). Not only will this create employment for rural India, but will also enable the development of relatively low-cost rural healthcare infrastructure for the significant proportion of Indians living in rural areas.

 There clearly is major momentum in India to take the formidable education challenges head on and to aggressively solve the problems with pragmatism and without the baggage of ideology.  Replicating its success in the area of information technology, new India seems to have decided to leapfrog directly into the knowledge economy, skipping the industrial revolution of factories and assembly lines.

If India’s bold initiatives in education succeed, the world’s largest democracy can also emerge as the world’s largest knowledge and technology society within a generation. One gets the feeling that India has its mind set on that goal. 

K.M. Venkat Narayan is Ruth and O.C. Hubert Professor of Global Health and Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at Emory University Atlanta. He is a product of three continents, having lived and worked in India, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and United States of America.