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Crisis in American higher education: Pitfalls and Opportunities for India

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Indians were once upon a time (during the days of Nalanda, Taxashila and other world-class universities) the preeminent producers and exporters of knowledge, ideas and values to the rest of Asia. Now we are consumers of what the Western institutions teach us. We are stuck in a system of dependency so serious that our elites feel they must get certified by the West in order to be credible back home in India. But I will explain that a window of opportunity has opened up and we cannot afford to miss this chance to take back our leadership role as knowledge producer and exporter. This window is due to the disruptions caused by the internet.

One of the latest trends in US universities is the growing role of foreigners, including Indians, in the affairs of these universities. First this role was only in the form of foreign students bringing in billions of dollars. Many US academic institutions are financially dependent on foreign students because they cannot meet their expenses through domestic student tuitions alone. An effect of this has been that a large number of Indian elites (both in USA and those returning to India) have been influenced by American values and principles, both good and bad. From the US side, this is not only a great source of tuition fees but also a way to spread its intellectual influence.

A more recent trend is for wealthy Indians to invest in US universities for personal brand building. (See an interesting article, titled, ‘Harvard is a hedge fund with a university attached.’) This is shortsighted and dangerous. Indians are giving grants and endowments to US universities without adequately evaluating the subject matter being produced by the scholars. It’s about wealthy Indians seeking a seat at the high table of prestige in American society. They see their family name on a building or attached to an academic chair as their next step in climbing the social ladder. Few donors get sufficiently involved in the details of the subject matter and the impact that is being created by their donation.

A major contrast between India and China in this regard is that China retains strict control over the disciplines pertaining to its civilization, values, domestic politics and culture. They readily buy (or use unscrupulous means to acquire) Western science, technology and business knowhow. But they do not want to brainwash their youth with Western prejudices in areas of the humanities that are considered sensitive to the interest of national unity and security. India has not been able to appreciate this strategic point even now.

Against this backdrop, I want to explain how some tectonic trends that are taking place in US higher education are rapidly making brick and mortar university campuses obsolete. I wish to advise those giving donations to US academic institutions to step back and rethink their strategies with future trends in mind. Most donations being given are wasteful because they fund obsolete models at a time when they should be funding the incubation of new models.

The single most important trend that is revolutionizing education is information technology, especially the internet. Teaching platforms like the Khan Academy are the wave of the future, not the physical classroom in a brick and mortar building. The old-fashioned teacher is being squeezed out along with the physical classroom. The total cost of higher education in the US is estimated to exceed $500 billion annually, using old delivery models. Many administrators in major universities are worried that their institutions are becoming like the dinosaurs. A disruption is long overdue and we should see this as an opportunity for creative entrepreneurship. This may be seen as a part of the wider trend in dis-intermediation (bypassing of the middleman) taking place in various industries.

  • The new cloud-based teaching methods are rapidly threatening the old school systems in many ways, such as the following:
  • Huge campuses are becoming obsolete. In the future, the buildings required will be mostly those with laboratories and high-tech infrastructure that cannot become virtual. The ordinary classroom will become almost extinct.
  • Old teaching materials are already obsolete. The teacher’s class notes that were once written on the board or handed out in class are now a waste of time because all that is readily available online. With video conferencing, considerable interaction is also available without physical meetings.
  • This trend will lower tuitions significantly because it is not necessary to hire full-time faculty.
  • This also changes the demand side of university professors and impacts the future of academicians as a profession. Many subject matter experts who are not formally classified as professors will be teaching part-time and sharing their knowledge and practical experience. The old style professor with limited real world experience will be replaced by learned persons who will also bring their lived experience to teach.
  • All this means an end to the ivory tower academic snobbery of the past, in which there was great prestige associated with being a professor disconnected from mundane life. Now the floodgates are opening for teaching that is brought by knowledgeable individuals who are embedded within communities and who also speak as voices of the community.
  • Higher education will be a lifelong pursuit and not limited to a few years of college/university. Most workers will take online courses as a regular part of staying current with the trends in their field. Education will be seen as something you do all your life and for which you do not need necessarily to take several years off.

While the above list of changes pertains to the teaching side of higher education, there are equally revolutionary changes expected in the research side, especially in the humanities. Let us discuss religious studies in the US academy, as an example.

Twenty-five years ago, when I first started monitoring and intervening in the American academic research on Hinduism, the academic fortress was a formidable center of power. To make any impact, it was crucial to get inside the system one way or another. But today, an increasing amount of high quality scholarly works are being published by scholars and practitioners outside the walls of the academic fortress. Many guru movements have their own writings and publishing houses. The new works produced by Hindu movements are not only about standard topics like Bhagavad Gita, but also pertain to issues of society, politics, family, health, etc. Many other groups started by civic society now nurture non-academic research and publishing. These new suppliers are seen as threats to the turf traditionally controlled by the academicians. The academic empire is fighting back, but it is a losing battle. (I am an example of someone seen as a threat to the officially credentialed producers of knowledge about my culture.)

The number of readers who receive their knowledge about religion from sources outside the academy far exceeds the number who are sitting in class to learn from their professor. The American academicians refused to accept this trend during the past two decades when I tried to explain it to them. They were too arrogant to be open to this new reality. The pride of being the exclusive source of knowledge had been instilled in them during their PhD, and was seen as their ticket to success that could never be taken away. This attitude of the senior professors has misguided the new generation of academicians, and made the academic system insular and vulnerable.

Today, most people get their knowledge about religions (their own and those of others) through television, online sources, personal travels to sacred and holy sites, teachings from their gurus and swamis, and reading materials published by non-academic writers. If someone wants to invest in spreading particular ideas about our traditions, the investment is better spent on such platforms and not on feeding the old system which is rapidly becoming obsolete. Instead, they should rethink the dynamics of this intellectual kurukshetra of civilizational discourse. Only then can they develop a more viable strategy for interventions.

Indians have in the past bought used technologies and obsolete models in certain industries, at a time when the Western countries exporting these were migrating to new paradigms. I feel many of us are being fooled into investing in what will become obsolete models of higher education.

Instead of funding American higher education’s pre-internet era system, India should develop the next generation platforms. And India should not be content with a back-office role in this emerging industry, but should develop and own the brands seen by the end users (i.e. the students). Besides developing the platforms and delivery systems, Indians should also lead in content development and educational methodology, especially in areas where traditional Indian systems would give us a competitive advantage.