Acumen Global Gateway Summit Sessions: “India’s Leapfrog Opportunity”

With Sanjeev Sanyal – Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council

India has now become the most populous country in the world and as such, the  education landscape is radically changing. Shifts in technology, demographics and the economy have already taken place and presented new and exciting opportunities for the Indian education sector to grow and evolve at a heightened rate. Sanjeev Sanyal’s address at the Acumen Global Gateway Summit: India in April 2023, he discusses the future of education in India amidst the aforementioned shifts in demographics and global supply chains. He calls for a shift to digital education due to its scalability and cost-effectiveness. Traditional universities should focus on testing and research while embracing the role of technology. Sanjeev emphasises the need to rethink university campuses and adapt to changing skill requirements. India has the opportunity to leapfrog by quickly adopting digital education and leveraging its demographic advantage and economic opportunities.

Three key takeaways

  • Radical change is inevitable with significant shifts in technology, demographics and the economy having already taken place.
  • The ‘old style’ of education is no longer deemed viable or sustainable with the shift towards digital/digitalisation opportunities that have been presented in recent years.  
  • Just as India leapfrogged fixed-line telephony and went mobile, the country will now leapfrog old style education and go digital at a rapid rate, due to the necessity of having to do so and quickly.

Below is a transcript of Sanjeev Sanyal’s address:

“Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen. And thank you for being here and giving me this opportunity to speak about one of my pet topics, which is the future of education generally, but specifically here in India.

Now, this event is being held at a time when some very major shifts are taking place in the space that you are in. It’s happening not just within your own space, but more generally, and there are technology, demographics, or economic requirements to consider. All of these are converging in a way that will create both the space and opportunity to do something radical.

I’m going to talk to you about what the challenge is. But in some ways, radical change is perhaps inevitable anyway.

So what are these diverse? What are these diverse factors that are beginning to play out?

First and foremost, as many of you have read, in the newspapers, as of this week, India has now become the world’s most populous country.

But importantly, this shift has happened in a way, that is quite different from what happened in China, that saw a sudden drop in birth rates, ours has been much smoother, which means that our demographic shift, of course, will be somewhat smoother, but that does not mean however, that it will go on forever, we effectively have a 30 year slot, where India will be at its demographic peak. So from about now, till somewhere around about 2050, or something there about 20, early 2050s. So not for eternity. So in this 30 years, a disproportionate proportion of India’s population will be at a working age.

Because our birth rates have fallen, the inflow of children will drop, but we won’t be ageing on the other end so rapidly. So in fact, what will happen is that our dependency ratios will drop from here on and will remain low for the next three decades. And this is what everybody knows, is the sweet spot. Other countries, whether it was China in the last 2025 years, or the other East Asian countries before that, or Europe, even before that. And so on to us to drive rapid growth. So this is the first thing that we are already embarked on the second stage of demographic transition, that we have already entered it.

The second thing that’s happening is, of course, the transition of India into a major player in the global supply chains. This is already true. In the field of services, India, for a variety of historical reasons,became a services economy before it became an industrial economy. Of course, we continue to have aspirations to sort of fill out retrospectively the industrial stage as well. And as you may be reading in the newspapers, we are now making a big effort and pushing to insert ourselves into the global goods supply chains as well.

But whether it’s services or goods, it does mean that India has an extraordinary opportunity here to grow at a heightened rate of economic expansion over a long period of time, the kinds that in the past were seen, as I said, in East Asia, and before that, in Europe and other what are now the developed countries of the world.

As and in this we are seeing a large amount of shift of global supply chains already happening just in the last few weeks. You’ve seen for example, Apple,begin to shift a large part of its production and of course, its partner Foxconn begin to shift a lot of its production into India. Are you seeing that happening with Adidas? It’s happening with Puma across every kind of product, you’re beginning to see companies move out of China and more generally East Asia and move them to India.

So this is obviously a big, important part of this is rapid scaling. So whether it’s the demographics or the needs of an economy that is now by some margin, the fastest growing major economy in the world, we need to educate and skill our workforce as fast as we can. We can’t wait for a decade or two to build out old style bricks and mortar universities, in the way we may have had the luxury of doing in the past, or, for example, the West did in the 19th, early 20th century, because they went during their high growth phase. It was a much smoother curve, in a sense they had since the industrial revolution happened late 18th century, the UK actually went into its higher growth stage somewhere in the late 18th century, sustained through much of the 19th and early 20th century. So, we will be compressing all of that into 30 years. And we are already 30 years on.

So, what can we do about our education system to deal with this? Now, there are many ideas, and many of them are in the New Economic Policy that came out just a year and a half or two years ago. I’m not going to talk about what needs to be done with primary and higher high school education. This is more or less about tertiary education. And let me say, there is a huge opportunity here, because of yet another shift, a technological shift, that has also happened in the last few years, which is the coming together of various digital technologies, which allow for giving,and scaling up tertiary education on a massive scale, at a fraction of the cost it would have taken if we had to do it the old bricks and mortar way.

Now, at the risk of oversimplifying, let me say, we have a situation where YouTube has made repetitive lectures redundant. You just need to give one lecture anywhere in the world on a subject. And that’s good enough, all of us can watch it.

GPT has made Q&A redundant. All kinds of libraries are now available for research more or less digital, even history where you may need to access some archives, etc. Much of it is now available. And of course, in the sciences, whether it’s various kinds of academic papers, and all kinds of other data is now available almost freely worldwide at the click of a button.

And of course, even classroom experience can increasingly be mimicked, at least to some extent, through things like zoom, and so on. So given that this is how we have ended up, it seems to me that it is a waste of time for us to try and create tertiary education and upskilling in the traditional way. Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t other roles that universities may play in terms of socialising and such like, but my view is, look,why do I need to build large, expensive campuses for that? Surely, what you really need is a bunch of cafes, and YMCA, or whatever it is, that is the equivalent in your country. For education, I actually need to enable these digital tools, package them in a way and make them essentially free.

YouTube is free, Zoom is essentially free. All these archives are free. GPT is free. The age of expensive university education, at least for undergraduate education, I believe is now over. So what is the role that universities will continue to play? Universities will still have something of a role to play, but it will be about other things. One important thing it will, a role that it will have to play will be about testing about making sure that claims made by students about certain levels of skill are true. So that continues to be a role that universities will play. It’s a signalling tool.That’s key. And that is something they’ll have to do with the old idea that you can give people a project etc is now redundant. This is where the better the ability of an exam system to be able to test the knowledge and problem solving skills of a student, the better that university, the value proposition of that university.

The research that these universities do, because now what is standardised is available freely. So, what is it that the universities bring to the table? Universities bring to the table, the cutting edge of pools of knowledge, which have not yet become digitised and standardised, where they are still fluid areas of knowledge. So I think this is another big area where universities will play a big role.

So all of this, by the way, means that we need to completely rethink the need for these old style legacy university campuses. I am of the belief, by the way, that there are already too many university campuses on this planet. India has not yet built the universities of the future, and perhaps we will never need to build them, we will need a few university campuses, which may be used for each patch and may need to come together for a few months of the year. But this idea, an IIT needs to exclusively be put aside for one batch for four years is over, each batch may come in for three months of the year. That means four batches of 12 months can be easily pushed through, many batches may never even have to come through, you can even get them to meet in other locations in other ways.

And of course, this is an opportunity in multiple ways because in a rapidly changing technological world, we need to also get away from another legacy issue, which is this business that you spend essentially the first 25 years of your life getting loaded with information and skills and then you work for the next 35 years or so till you retire. And then you go off and play golf that is already over. Because what this old style education system does is by the time the person is actually taking real decisions in their 50s, they are the most redundant people in the entire chain. So this old style of giving skills is largely pointless, because the least skilled or the most senior in the system.

So we will soon be having it everywhere, I think and you’re already seeing it and happening in corporate environments, people are beginning to have to go back and take re education in multiple fields. And by the way, this will happen for everyone not just within their skill level, but where old skills are dying out.

World fields are dying out so fast, you may have to go back and reskill yourself in a completely different field at the age of 50. But that’s okay, because most of us in this room are going to live to 80. We will probably be reasonably fit to the age of 75. So it’s perfectly fine to spend the first 25 years of your career as a lawyer and then go back to university and then have another 20 years as a doctor.

The average 75 year old today is fit enough to go to the office every day. So not a big deal. So all of these changes are beginning to happen whether we like it or not. But for India, this is a huge, huge, huge opportunity. Because bringing together all these pieces means that we can leapfrog. We can leapfrog just like the way we leapfrogged fixed line telephony and went mobile. We are going to leapfrog old style education and go digital to the extent that we can because we need to do it quickly. And because there simply isn’t any time or any point in recreating old university education.

Thank you very much Ladies Gentlemen.” 

-Transcript Ends-

About the Acumen Global Gateway Summit: India

The Acumen Global Gateway Summit, held at the renowned JW Marriott hotel in New Delhi, marked a milestone in the Acumen@15 celebrations. This exclusive invite-only event brought together the Acumen Global Team, distinguished guests, government officials, and experts. Client partners convened to discuss international higher education, exchange innovative ideas, and shape a vision for expanding access to higher education. The summit fostered collaboration, inspiration, and knowledge dissemination among higher education professionals. With its unique setting and thoughtful discussions, the event offered an exceptional platform for networking and setting the course for a future of inclusive and transformative higher education.

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