TalkED with Meeta Sengupta, Founder of Center for Education Strategy

TalkED with Meeta Sengupta

India’s higher education system is constantly evolving and is more complex than ever before. Thus, our Leadership Talk Series – TalkED is aimed at helping and guiding the institutions through the experience, opinions and advice of thought leaders as well as reflecting on the issues that the higher education systems face as they unfold the new universe of education.

In this candid chat with the CollPoll team, Meeta Sengupta, Founder of the Center for Education Strategy and Director of Stratenomics UK, shares her thoughts about the current state of the higher education system in India and the dynamics behind the decision making. She works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and helps education leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education.



Q1. How the journey has been from corporate to policymaking? 

The journey from corporate to policymaking was actually very easy for me because my journey in corporate was also about understanding the channels of money. I started working in finance and was associated with City Bank and JP Morgan initially, working in commercial banking as well as investment banking. These opportunities were simply the ways to walk in and understand the flows of money from inside. The journey was easy also because I grew up amongst policymakers, which was a privilege. So, policy-making wasn’t very new to me but it came naturally.

Q2. Pandemic has adversely affected the higher education ecosystem. In this context, do you think the current institutions will eventually be replaced by a new breed of institutions? And what fundamental changes do you see in existing institutions? 

The higher education system in India has been stuck in the doldrums for a very long time. The new institutions actually come as a relief or as a reaction to deep frustration with the old ways of doing things. The maintenance mode institutions are system driven, essentially following the Weberian Bureaucracy (iron cage that sustains itself). These institutions are self-sustaining and efficient but they work to serve themselves, not to serve their purpose. When institutions focus on serving students (the actual purpose of higher education), with every student, they create a disruptor who becomes a creative disruptor and then a constructive disruptor. To handle that chaos, they need to be the Neelkanth (Lord Shiva with the blue throat). Thus, we need new institutions that are ready to face these challenges while allowing their students to prosper within a safe space.

Q3. Students are the most neglected stakeholders in a large segment of the institutions. Do you think student centricity is going to be the core focus moving forward? What are the ways you suggest institutions can become student centred?

Student centricity especially in India will come centre stage because of the demographics. This happens not because of the demand of the students but because of the money they bring in. There are two parts of the equation – money and power. The money part of the situation will pull the chain when the students with money will direct their attention towards the institution that looks after them better. Secondly, the most essential part is power. Building student agency is the very purpose of higher education institutions. So far, we have been doing the opposite. We have been taking the agency away from students.

If you are to prepare students for the real world, you will need to create a student agency. This gives them the opportunity to operate independently and create a great deal of value. Better hostels and safety does ensure taking care of students. However, institutions should also take care of their learning as well as the diversity, inclusion, and excellence for every student. Wrap around learning care for each student is what institutions will need to start building going forward. 

Q4. The focus of institutions has largely been on learning inside the classroom and very little on learning outside the classroom. With access to quality content available to students, do think lectures will have the same value anymore?

I recently released the 8 Beam Hybrid Learning Environment Framework, which answers exactly this question – how do you create the learning environments?

We first need to understand what is a lecture and what is a classroom. Both of these concepts are in the middle of creative destruction. The classroom is not just a box and the lecture is not just the downloading of content. If the lecture is just downloading about content, then they have already been disintermediated away. If a classroom is the only room of walls where everyone gathers, it’s a gone thing. The space element is eliminated from the space-time continuum.

The purpose of a classroom and lecture is to inspire, energise, build communities of learning, build peer engagement within students and connect. In the coming future, we need to focus on these value-added elements. It’s about building those energy fields and love for the subject.

Q5. A lot of good teachers are more attracted towards the Edtech as compared to institutions because of flexibility, reach and economic reasons. How do you see the talent crunch in teaching going to be addressed moving forward?

Teachers are here to provide learning and knowledge to the students rather than serving the skeleton of the system. If students are better served by Edtech, then we are still working towards our purpose. Our problem here is Edtech learning outcomes have still not given any hardcore data to prove that students are served better purely by Edtech.

This is why our next effort as educators is to create maximizing hybrid learning environments. So that we can get the best of everything.

Q6. CollPoll is anti-Edtech in some ways. Our mission has been to help institutions be far better than where they are, hit the refresh button and be the 2.0 version with the adoption of technology. But the fear is that the hunger for employment could be badly exploited as it would not be beneficial in the long run for people without the base, attitude and larger knowledge.

Higher education institutions give much more than mere content. As the lecture evolves, the formal and informal learning – the real value add of institutions, has to be a part of the new hybrid learning environment that they create. EdTech is just an add-on resource for institutions. CollPoll is providing the spine to which they can detach old ways and attach new ways of doing things. But the essential soul of institutions is the teamwork, peer learning, sports that students play together, interactions. If you strip away these parts and only leave the employability part, then we think we have a problem only if we look at it from a 3-5 year perspective.

We need to think of institutions as learning organisations for life. The new game in town is not thinking of the same old-time and space in the classroom but to extending the time dimension of the entire process and take the institutions as a learning platform for life. Students should be provided with pathways to come back for learning in the future. 

Q7. Do you think our education regulatory bodies are prepared for a new universe of education that is unfolding? Will that also hold back some of the good institutions who might want to experiment and evolve with the new model but the regulations might keep them back?

The Indian education system is chaotically over-regulated and the concern is real. They won’t be able to keep up with the new universe of education. In the immediate term, it will take a lot of effort to resolve this issue. The question is also who will make the effort to change? One need to move from a regulatory mindset to a governance mindset i.e. a self-improving cycle. So, who is going to invest in this governance, the thought leadership circles and invest in building communities. We need to build capacities that are far ahead of us and to do that, we need to bring a governance mindset into regulation.

Q8.  What time frame do you see it will take for the larger segment of instiutions to adopt New Education Policy. Choice-based credit system, full flexible learning, academic bank of credits, multiple learning pathways – Do you think we are prepared for that? Is it really going to happen?

One of the challenges we have here is – fear of messing up while adopting the change. There isn’t enough of a pull factor here. Why one should change? The challenge is real. The resources that institutions need to make this change happen don’t actually exist. They have to customize and create those resources. Creating an integrated system that works in an aligned manner and yet gives wrap around student care is a huge ask. It is almost impossible for regular systems to comprehend. And to build it step by step, creating a visual change will take a lot of time. This is a 7-10 years journey if you are actively working on it all the time.

Q9. The challenge of the number of faculty members and the other infrastructure institutions have is also a huge problem in India because our universities/colleges are heavily dependent on tuition fees as against the US counterparts.

There is definitely a challenge of funding everywhere. The higher education sectors everywhere are facing a huge resource crunch. This impacts junior faculty. Juggling the money resources is a every day struggle for institutions as well. Building flexibility comes with a huge cost. This is where technology comes in, where scale-up becomes easy and not much of a cost. We also need to find functional and process solutions for this.

We have traditionally thought of universities as ivory towers inward-looking organizations, where all expertise lies within the organization. However, institutions are now old enough to have alumnis in their 40’s and 60’s who want to give back to the institutions. Train and bring them in for guest lectures. This will work as a lifelong learning experience for alumni and will also be a support system to expand the scope/recency of what you deliver to the students. We need to open up the system and restructure it in a manner that works to serve the flexibility.

Q10. What are your top three predictions for Indian higher education?

  1. Higher Education will become more and more important for a very large population, with GER expected to easily go up by 50%.
  2. Either because of demographic requirements or funding requirements, it will be forced to open up and create an executive education kind of module, becoming a regional hub for learning
  3. Higher education in India will continue to look the same from the outside while transforming itself from the inside for the next 20-25 years.

Rapid advancements in digital technology are fundamentally redefining our education sector. To build the future, institutions must be willing to actively modify their status quo and adopt the new technologies that can help them progress and become better. Thank You Meeta Sengupta for such a wonderful conversation, we look forward to having you again!

Keep watching this space for more episodes of CollPoll ‘s Thought Leadership Series, TalkED!