Employed learners must exceed full-time learners for higher education justice

The ugliest word for teacher is lecturer because education needs instruction diversity — adhyaapak (information provider), upadhyay (combiner of information and knowledge), pandit (deep-subject knowledge), acharya (imparts specific skills), drushta (visionary view of a subject) and guru (awakens potential). Improving India’s higher education justice and worker productivity needs the broadening of our education ambition of Gross Enrollment Ratio (proportion of our 15 crore university-age kids getting degrees) to include Employed Learner Ratio (proportion of our 55 crore labour force in formal learning). I make the case that enrolling five crore new employed learners needs five regulatory changes.

Rabindranath Tagore said we don’t learn from experience but from reflecting on experience. So, let’s reflect on recent global and domestic education experiences. Multi-decade structural changes include a new world of organisations (less hierarchical, lower longevity, shorter employee tenures, higher competition), a new world of work (capitalism without capital, soft skills valued more than hard skills, 30 per cent working from home), and a new world of education (Google knows everything, so tacit knowledge is more valuable than codified or embedded knowledge and the notion of life as 25 years each of learning, earning and retirement is dated). These shifts are complicated by a new world of politics (tensions between global and local, tradition and modernity, spiritual and material), third-party financing viability (50 per cent of the outstanding US $1.5 trillion student debt may have to be written off), and fee inflation (the average cost of a US college degree rising by roughly 500 per cent over the last 30 years challenges the model of a sage on stage delivering full-time learning in a physical classroom on a beautiful campus).

The specific experience of a large, poor, and diverse country like India — we have 3.8 crore students in 1,000-plus universities and 50,000-plus colleges — is also instructive. We confront a financing failure in skills: Employers are not willing to pay for training or candidates but a premium for trained candidates; candidates are not willing to pay for training but for jobs; financiers are unwilling to lend unless a job is guaranteed, and training institutions can’t fill their classrooms. The social signalling value of a degree matters — IIMs and IITs are good places to be at but better places to be from.

Many people can’t pay for education out-of-pocket. The income support of learning-while-earning is crucial to raising enrollment. Many students lack employability and workers lack productivity because learning is supply-driven. Learning-by-doing ensures demand-driven learning. Employers running formal apprenticeship programmes have evidence that suggests these programmes aren’t dead weight costs but pay for themselves via lower attrition, higher productivity, and faster open-position closure.

The de facto ban on online degree learning with only seven of our 1,000-plus universities licensed for online offerings means only 40 lakh of our 3.8 crore university students are learning outside physical campuses. Most tragically, high regulatory cholesterol creates an adverse selection among entrepreneurs — most educational institutions are started by criminals, politicians, or landlords rather than principals or teachers.

In 1973, economist Arun Shourie wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly that “India is not held back by one control or one licensing procedure. We are being held back by the premises, the unverified assumptions, and the attitude that underlie all controls.” He could be writing about education today: Regulations sabotage the creation of a fertile habitat for employed learners that needs flexible admission criteria, rolling admissions, continuous assessments, degree modularity, and four classrooms (online, onsite, on-campus, and on-the-job).

We need five changes. First, modify Part 3 of the UGC Act 1956 (UGC Rules regarding Fitness of Universities) and Part 8 of the UGC Act (UGC Regulations 1985 regarding the minimum standards for grant of the first degree) by including skill universities as a new category focused on creating employable graduates. Second, remove clauses 3(A), 3(B), and clause 5 of UGC ODL and Online Regulations 2020 that restrict licencing and prescribe a discretionary approval process and replace them with a blanket and automatic approval for all accredited universities to design, develop and deliver their online programmes. Third, modify clause 4(C)(ii) of UGC online regulations 2020 to allow innovation, flexibility, and relevance in an online curriculum as prescribed in Annex 1-(V)-3-i) that allows universities to work closely with industry on their list of courses. Fourth, modify clauses 13(C)(3), 13(C)(5), 13(C)(7), 18(2) of UGC online regulations 2020 to permit universities to create partner ecosystems for world-class online learning services, platforms, and experience. Fifth, introduce Universities in clause 2 of the Apprentices Act 1961 to enable all accredited universities to introduce, administer and scale all aspects of degree apprenticeship programs.

These five changes would enable enrolling five crore incremental employed learners — 1.5 crore employer-paid degree apprentices, one crore employer-paid online degree programmes, 50 lac employer-paid onsite degree programmes, and 2 crore employee-paid degrees pursued part-time online.

Half Lion, the wonderful biography of Narasimha Rao by Vinay Sitapati, describes a note handwritten by the newly-appointed education minister where Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s quote, “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral”, is followed by Rao’s thoughtful rumination on education: “Women and Child Development. Health. Youth Affairs. Culture. Labour?”

The insight of Rao’s 1985 note — education is organised vertically in government but reforming it requires thinking horizontally, holistically, and imaginatively — is a project that NEP 2020 takes forward with vigour. But the 15-year “Purna Swaraj” road-map for Indian universities under NEP needs acceleration because more employed university learners will be a sword and a shield for India. A sword because it could catalyse learning, skills and advancement for five crore workers. And a shield because it could catalyse higher productivity for the more than 20 crore Indian workers who toil in “employed poverty” across agriculture, informal employment, and informal self-employment. Completing the proposed five flick-of-pen reforms will take months not years. Any takers?

The writer is co-founder of Teamlease Services

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