Acumen Leadership in conversation— with Ananya Bhadauria: 2022 Reflections and What to Expect in 2023

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela

Based out of the UK, Ananya joined Acumen as International Education Policy and Stakeholder Relations Manager, following her recent Masters at Oxford. Working closely to support all the Acumen senior leadership, her role encompasses India, Vietnam, Malaysia and beyond, engaging with government departments and regulatory bodies, embassies etc.

She is a great believer in Nelson Mandela’s quote about education and applies it to all her work with Acumen and here she talks about the current and future market in India.

Let’s recap the market. What happened in 2022?

One of my favourite topics in the world is the National Education Policy (NEP), a roadmap introduced in 2020 to revolutionise the education system. What we see now in 2022 are trends, policies and laws that have been brought into place to bring that vision to life. India has the largest body of students between the ages of 18 to 25 that enrol in higher education globally, exceeding even China. It even has the largest number of higher education institutions in the world, exceeding 1000.

A really important part of the NEP was about increasing India’s gross enrollment ratio from 26.3% in 2019 to 50% by 2035. We already have 38 million students who are enrolled in higher education and we’re looking to increase that by 50%. That’s a very ambitious goal and there’s a lot of debate around whether that’s achievable or not, but there are different initiatives that have been put in place by the government and a lot of new regulatory frameworks being introduced. Whether it’s the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (known as GIFT city), new UGC guidelines to change the basics of the Indian HE sector and allow the entry of foreign insitutions, promotion of skill-based learning, digitalisation, particularly, the advent of Digital National University or new modes of assessments such as PARAKH (Performance Assessment, Review and Analysis of Knowledge for Holistic Development). Recently, the University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced laws around a four-year program, presenting multiple entry and exit points for students enrolling in higher education.

In 2022, these initiatives mean a lot of people past the age of 25 are enrolling in higher education and this presents a lot of opportunities for a nation that aspires to be the “Vishwa Guru” or world leader, depending on its youth being the core of the nation-building process.

What were the main struggles or complications for the higher education sector in 2022?

There are multiple challenges that plague a huge higher education system like India’s. To name a few, extremely diverse demographics, lack of faculty provisions, income gaps, divisions between tier one, two, and three cities, access to technology, access to quality education, privatisation of education, inequitable infrastructure and lack of research and development facilities.

There’s a lack of quality higher education that is being provided, even though India has 90% of the world’s higher education establishments. There are more than a thousand HEIs but none of our universities figure in the top hundred institutions of the world. The closest we get is around the 300’s or 400’s in global rankings. And yet, the acceptance rate for these institutions in India is lower than Harvard, Oxford, or Cambridge.

When students in India take a loan to study abroad because the cost difference is massive. They’re paying about 90,000 rupees, that’s £90 pounds a year in public institutions in India whereas it’s £30,000 pounds in the UK and the interest rate on these educational loans is 14% to study abroad but only 7% to study at an institution in India. And yet people opt for this because there is a recognition of the standards of institutions abroad and the quality of education, and what it means for employment outcomes later on as well.

A combination of these factors presents a huge dilemma in the life of an average middle-class Indian, asking simply for quality education to enable holistic development in 2022.

What new concerns face higher education in 2023?

Digitalization and accessibility to the internet for digital services are paramount, when hoping to evolve with the times, especially seeing how India is slowly and steadily moving into an era of digitalising education at par with other sectors. However, there’s a great urban and rural divide between the haves and have-nots in terms of Internet access in India. Having Internet access or having a smartphone is not satisfactory for enrolling in quality higher education, as well.

There was actually a 200% increase in tuition fees in physical institutions which is just crazy. So I understand the need for quality accessible higher education alternatives that are needed. However, equitable access and affordability within digital education is also a concern that we need to address urgently.

What should higher education leaders be on the lookout for – derailers, issues, legislation, etc.?

More recently, I have seen a lot of MOUs (Memorandum of Understanding) being signed between universities abroad or in India and between institutions within India itself. But the MOUs mean nothing unless the NEP strategy is put in place as well. Although this presents a well-intentioned pathway to internationalisation, the core of internationalisation of the higher education sector in India lies elsewhere. The recent draft guidelines released by the UGC on the entry of foreign institutions into India have received a lot of attention. However, there is a need to understand the guidelines more deeply and understand the possibilities for internationalisation in India, beyond just opening branch campuses. Indian institutions and the government must be cognizant of the growing power of transnational education in giving more flexibility and access to world-class education.

Will the higher education market be affected by rising inflation and the looming recession?

Absolutely. A 200% increase in tuition fees in Indian institutions for enrolling into physical campuses with 76% of India’s higher education institutions being privatised, makes it almost equivalent to studying abroad at this point. I don’t think that’s feasible in the long run as India’s higher education system is viewed as a public good and rightly so, in some respects. There is an urgent need to increase the expenditure on education from 3% currently to at least 6% of the GDP, as recommended 6% by the World Bank. I’m banking on the Indian budget in 2023, hoping this will happen.

What trends can we expect to emerge in 2023?

An emerging trend will be upscaling through digitalisation. I think, and this has been highlighted again and again, through the NEP, whether it’s vocational training coming into the mainstream or going back to higher education where there are multiple entry and exit points. The fact that you don’t have to publish your Ph.D. anymore and can just do it to undertake meaningful research. So up-skilling and the promotion of TVET education will definitely be a trend in 2023 through digital means and is something that is happening now as well.

Why is this trend important for higher education leaders?

I’ve been reading a couple of recent reports, particularly to do with the sustainable development goals of the United Nations and providing accessible and equitable compulsory education until the age of 16. The national research framework was highlighted by India’s delegation to COP27 and the British Council’s recent report on transnational education and the need for internationalisation strategies, research, and cooperation across higher education models through digitalisation.AI machine learning and graphic designing marketing modules are the most popular subjects right now, and education is not only about rote learning anymore.

Gaining useful skills to provide future employment in line with SDGs is very much on-trend, promoting and emulating the intrinsic value of higher education and what it means to be a human being, doing good for the planet, and for the community around us.

What needs to improve within the business?

Meeting people from different cultures is something that is really important in understanding the ethos and shared values of the business. Sharing knowledge and ideas that result in a nuanced cultural understanding of the different parts of the world that we work and live in is absolutely crucial.

And what do you hope to happen in 2023?

Accessible, equitable, and quality higher education is on my wish list for 2023. I do hope we as a business can contribute to India’s aspirational youth population by enabling them to access a world-class education. There’s no stopping India from becoming world number one if accessible education is on top of the agenda.

Any message or thought you want to share with the market or the readers etc?

I would go back to Nelson Mandela’s quote, education is the tool to change the world for the better and whether that’s through research, by educating women, changing the life cycle of an entire family, or whether it’s employment outcomes or putting three meals on the table for your family as compared to one – education is front and centre. And our role in this industry and as part of Acumen is just a gentle reminder that we’re playing a really important part in making the world a better place each day.

Check out more from Acumen leadership in conversation for more reflections, insights, and predictions for 2023.