Investment Outlook , Published Feb 19, 2020
The cornerstone of any emerging economy is its human capital. India’s education and technology is a building block to empower its citizens. India needs to keep up with the times and start investing in Edu-tech so that consumers can choose from a plethora of technology-enabled resources.
The 100 million problem
With more than 10 million youth entering the workforce each year, we must find ways to gainfully deploy 100 million Indians over the next decade. The first challenge is to generate jobs in very large numbers. However, the bigger issue is the quality of talent being supplied by the Indian education system. Qualified engineers are often not found employable. Trained teachers in the hundreds of thousands are unable to make the cut for the teaching positions offered. Precision welders are often sourced from overseas due to the low availability of that skill locally. Something must be done quickly.
There is an impressive number of Indians who occupy the corner offices of the largest global corporations. These people represent the very few number of Indians who receive a decent (private) education. For the most part, Indian children attend a government school located in their neighbourhood. Unfortunately, our public education system is not working. Surveys conducted for over a decade indicate that more than half the students of grade five are unable to read a grade two textbook. The saying goes, ‘learn to read so that you can read to learn.’ Failing this adage, a massive number of school children in India are functionally under-educated by the time they achieve job age.
India has the largest school network in the world – almost 1.5 million schools with 260 million school-going children. This is impressive but the investment is not delivering.
The average enrolment in India’s 1.2 million government schools (estimated at 125 to 150 students per school) is just too low for economic and operational viability. More than a third of government schools have less than 50 students. Compare this statistic with two countries that have done a much better job than India with public K12 education – China and Vietnam. In these countries, the average enrolment of students per school is more than 500. Both these countries boast of literacy rates in the 90s.
The private school network includes over 200,000 schools that are labelled as affordable. These schools typically charge a fee up to INR 15,000 per student per annum. The affordable private schools are attractive to parents since they claim to offer English medium education, teachers are regular with attendance and, are often available for providing out-of-school tuition. The affordable private school business is challenging. Margins are slim and most schools focus on profitability over academic outcomes. The simplest way is to hire unqualified teachers at a fraction of the cost of a government schoolteacher.
No doubt, there is significant effort underway to provide skills and vocational training to job age youth across the country. However, thanks to our deeply flawed K12 system, it is often too late for too many.
There is some encouraging news – many pockets of good actions are already underway. For example, in Delhi, the government has allocated a quarter of the State’s annual budget towards education reform. School buildings have been renovated and the toilets are hygienic. All key stakeholders i.e. teachers, students and parents, are responding positively to the change. There is also some early evidence of improved learning outcomes.
Across the country, the challenge is massive and dispersed. The consolidation of schools, improvement in basic infrastructure, filling teacher vacancies, constant re-skilling and re-tooling of teachers are some of the areas needing immediate solutions. Moving the needle across all these fronts is complex. Delhi represents a strong case of ‘where there is a will, there is a way.’ In India, finding that common national will within our federal system is easier said and may never be done.
Technology & transformation
In the early 1990s, India was a telecom laggard with barely a few million telephone connections and ranked amongst the lowest tele-density in the world. A couple of decades later the situation was totally transformed. Technology and open-market forces led to the creation of one of the largest subscriber base globally. Education in India needs similar intervention. There is enough evidence of large-scale technology-enabled solutions enabling literacy. For example, English language learning suffers due to the lack of availability of teachers. Now, students in remote villages are learning the language by speaking with teachers located in different parts of the country. This has been made possible by smartphone-enabled, video-based learning apps.
Byju’s, a learning app, has put India on the map by becoming the first ed-tech unicorn from the country. Though its programs are aimed at affluent students, Byju’s is serving a bigger cause. Prime time advertising by Byju’s is a big credibility boost for technology-enabled learning. Following the success of this app, there has been a rush of entrepreneurs and capital towards ed-tech. Presently, the focus is the higher income segment.
However, there is hope. Just like telecom, it is expected that there will be a push to expand the base and enter the massive market of students in India’s government schools. This will require partnerships with public education administrators and a shift towards affordable value.
Technology offers a credible, scalable opportunity to transform public school education. Solutions are at hand and the convergence of market forces with the weight of public opinion may cause a quicker process of change than currently envisaged.
A decade from now
The shape and nature of jobs are changing rapidly. It is estimated that most students in school will undertake jobs that do not exist today. Are we educating our children with one eye closed?
Education systems are notoriously slow to change. Over time, the means becomes more important than the end. However, sometimes change is inevitable. The future that is truly upon us spells the new paradigm – working with technology and learning with technology. Traditional qualifications may lose ground to the currency of modern skills. Institutional systems may not be immediately dismantled but learners will become consumers by choosing from a plethora of technology-enabled suppliers of knowledge and capability.
This may be a good time to put aside a few investment rupees for edu-tech.
About Sanjay Gupta
Sanjay Gupta is the Global CEO of EnglishHelper, a social enterprise committed to providing innovative and affordable technology-enabled English learning solutions. He is a business leader with over 30 years of experience and has worked across brands like Tata Group, American Express, Eicher – Mitsubishi, Pepsi, and Motorola.
Investment Outlook 2020