On The State of Higher Education in India (#1 of n)

Quite unexpectedly, I have ended up writing what will be an ongoing series about discovering more about the Indian Constitution. It began because I wanted to answer for myself questions about how the Indian Constitution came to be, and reading more about it has become a rather engaging rabbit hole.

Increasingly, it looks as if Mondays (which is when I write about India here) will now alternate between essays on the Indian Constitution and the topic of today’s essay: the state of (higher) education in India.

The series about the Constitution is serendipity; the series about education is an overwhelming passion.

I’ve been teaching at post-graduate institutions for the past decade now, and higher education in India is problematic on many, many counts. I’ll get into all of them in painstaking detail in the weeks to come, today is just about five articles you might want to read to give yourself an overview of where we are.

In the last 30 years, higher education in India has witnessed rapid and impressive growth. The increase in the number of institutions is, however, disproportionate to the quality of education that is being dispersed.

That is from the “Challenges” section of the Wikipedia article on higher education in India. The section highlights financing, enrollment, accreditation and politics as major challenges. To which I will add (and elaborate upon in the weeks to come) signaling, pedagogy, evaluation, overemphasis on classroom teaching, the return on investment – (time and money both), relevance, linkages to the real world, out-of-date syllabi, and finally under-emphasis on critical thinking and writing.

“Educational attainment in present-day India is also not directly correlated to employment prospects—a fact that raises doubts about the quality and relevance of Indian education. Although estimates vary, there is little doubt that unemployment is high among university graduates—Indian authorities noted in 2017 that 60 percent of engineering graduates remain unemployed, while a 2013 study of 60,000 university graduates in different disciplines found that 47 percent of them were unemployable in any skilled occupation. India’s overall youth unemployment rate, meanwhile, has remained stuck above 10 percent for the past decade.”

That is from an excellent summary of higher education in India. It is a very, very long read, but I have not been able to find a better in-one-place summary of education in India.

A series of charts detailing some statistics about higher education in India, by the Hindu. For reasons I’ll get into in the weeks to come, the statistics are somewhat misleading.

Overall, it seems from this survey, which shows impressive strides on enrollment, college density and pupil-teacher ratio, that we have finally managed to fix the supply problem. Now, we need to focus on the quality.

Swarajyamag reports on the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) in India, 2016-17. As the report mentions, we have come a long way in terms of fixing the supply problem in higher education – we now need to focus on the much more important (and alas, much more difficult) problem of quality.

“Strange as it might look, the quality of statistics available for our higher education institutes has been much poorer than our statistics on school education. Sensing this gap, the central government instituted AISHE in 2011-12. We now have official (self-reported and unverified) statistics on the number and nature of higher education institutions, student enrolment, and pass-out figures along with the numbers for teaching and non-teaching staff. Sadly, this official survey does not tell us much about the quality of teaching, learning or research. There is no equivalent of Pratham’s ASER survey or the NCERT’s All India School Education Survey.”

That is from The Print ,and it takes a rather dimmer view than does Swarajyamag. With reference to the last two links especially, read both of them without bias for or against, beware of mood affiliation!

Education needs to become much, much, much more relevant than it currently is in India, and half of the Mondays to come in 2020 will be about teaching myself more about this topic. I can’t wait!

Certificates and College Degrees

A past student of mine (and now a good friend) Alankar Pednekar shared a video with me recently.

Alankar mentions how at around the 10:15 mark in this video, an article is cited which speaks about how a certificate like this could potentially disrupt the college degree.

He had some questions about the video, and about the article. I answer them below (please note that I have lightly edited his questions for clarity. Any confusions that remain are down to me!):

  1. Logically speaking this sounds true, but is it really possible? Do you see this happening sometime soon, maybe?


    It’s already happening, of course. I wrote about it earlier, and you might also want to take a look at Lambda School, or STOA School. In different ways, the idea of college is being challenged. And if you ask me, it is high time it was challenged! Higher education has remained far too hide-bound for far too long, and technology, resistance to outdated ways of teaching and weirdly, the pandemic have made all of us aware of what is possible, if only we kept our minds open.

  2. Will there be any scenario where – there won’t be any “Middle Men”- The colleges – in the education sector (As Professor Tyler and Professor Alex debate about in one of their “Duels”), and companies would prefer to educate (or should I say ‘Train’?) to people who are willing to learn and hire them directly?


    Part of the answer lies in we not being clear about what we’re buying when we pay money to a college for higher education.
    For some folks (in many places, at least in India, these folks are the majority), higher education is about a job, and that is it. Of course, it is impolite to admit this in public, but this is the stark truth: higher education is about a job. Contrast the enthusiasm with which placement talks are planned and attended with regular classes in your own college if you are a student, for example.
    For other people, higher education is about higher education – that is, about learning for its own sake. Until colleges, students, parents and firms acknowledge that this difference exists, we will have the confused system that we live in right now. This really deserves book length treatment, but I’ll stop here for now.
    ..
    ..
  3. Assuming this happens in reality, will that be an end of colleges and universities, or they will get replaced by training centers (which we already see in today’s markets). Will there be any existence for pure joy of learning and immense pleasure of understanding things around us (even though they might not directly help us in anything)?
    ..
    ..
    Training centres exist today to train people to write exams to get into colleges. And colleges are viewed as a way to get jobs. So why not have training centres to get people jobs?
    That then leaves us free to have colleges be about “the pure joy of learning”, as both David Perell and Alankar point out. The trick, if you ask me, lies in unbundling college. You should be able to purchase courses rather than degrees.
    The trouble is that a blogpost is easy to write, and to change a system that we are all so used to is all but impossible to do.
    But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. College as it exists today solves efficiently neither the problem of training people well for jobs in the real world, nor the problem of delivering quality education for its own sake. And the growing discontent is palpable.
    ..
    ..
    Palpable to me, at any rate.

Colleges: A Framework for Efficiency

I wrote an essay yesterday about unbundling college. You might want to read that first before tackling this essay.

In today’s essay, we’re going to decide how we’re going to judge the efficiency of college. What framework should we be using and why?

A Framework for Judging the Efficiency of College

Efficiency is actually fairly easy to define: maximal output for minimum input.

And input is also fairly easy to define: minimum resources to be used in terms of time and money.

It is the output bit that is rather more difficult to specify and define.

What is the output of a college? Here are some candidates:

  1. The number of students who graduate in a given year
  2. The marks these students score
  3. Particularly in the Indian scenario, the placement record of the college
  4. Number of seminars/workshops/outreach programmes conducted by the college
  5. Research output of the faculty/students in the college

Let’s work our way through each of these, and highlight the problems that present themselves:

  1. Number of students graduating per year:

    Do large classrooms – that is, classes with a very large number of students in them – work well?
    The obvious reason I ask this question is if you’re going to graduate more students, the number of students per class must go up.
    There is a large amount of academic research on the subject, if you feel like going through it. I haven’t read all of the papers on the subject, but the consensus seems to be that larger classes are necessary from an economic viewpoint, but don’t work as well as small classes would. Key points being, there ideally needs to be some sort of an opportunity to have a discussion with the professor, and that doesn’t necessarily work out well in a large class.
    I’ll speak of my own personal experience in this blog post, rather than cite academic studies. The largest class I have taught included 250 students, while the smallest included just two students. Neither of those extremes is ideal: 250 is more of a speech than a lecture, while two students is economically infeasible. My personal preference would be for a class size of not more than thirty.
    More students graduating per dollar spent by the university isn’t a great way to judge the output, or the educational outcome, of a college, because students don’t necessarily learn better in a large classroom. And in any case, if you are going to use this is a measure, online classes have offline classes beat!
  2. The marks these students score:

    Here’s a Hindustan Times article for your reading pleasure.
    ..
    ..
    I quote:
    “Compared to last year, the number of students scoring 95% and above has increased by 118.6% and those getting 90% and above by 67.48% this year in the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) Class 12 results announced on Monday.
    A total of 38,686 students have scored 95% and above marks in aggregate of all subjects, up by 118.6% from 17,693 in 2019. As many as 1,57,934 students have scored 90% and above, 67.48% higher than last year’s tally of 94,299.”
    ..
    ..
    Are students this year twice as good as they were last year? If so, why? If not, are we just giving more marks this year than we did last year?
    Personally, I don’t think this year’s cohort is any better (or worse) than last year’s. It is quite likely that marks have been given more liberally this year than they were the last year. You can work your way through to what the equilibrium will be, but here’s my assessment: grades become mostly meaningless in the long run. Especially when they’re being handed out like this.
    Judging the output of a college by taking the average marks scored by the graduating batch doesn’t make for a great outcome either.
  3. Placement record of the college:

    I should state at the outset that I am the faculty-in-charge for placements at Gokhale Institute.

    Colleges, in an ideal world, should have skin in the game. Is learning a means to an end in itself, or is it the means to an end? If it is the means to an end, and that end is gainful employment, then should college not be paid only if the end is achieved? Income sharing agreements are, you might argue, a natural next step in this regard.
    But that being said, there is a part of me that dies a little when I think about the whole means to an end thing. Yes, employment matters, and yes, colleges should be held to higher standards than they are right now in this regard. But I would hate to live in a world where you go to college only in order to get employed. There’s surely more to life and education than that!
  4. Number of seminars/workshops/outreach programmes conducted by the college

    Goodhart’s Law. Goodhart’s Law. Goodhart’s Law.
  5. Research output of the faculty in the college

    See 4. above.

Honestly, I don’t quite know how to measure educational outcomes, and I’m not the only one. By the way, the first chapter from “The Case Against Education” is worth reading while thinking about some of the issues we’re speaking about here.

But this raises an important, and potentially problematic issue. Change is worth pursuing if what is new is objectively better than the old. But as it turns out, we find ourselves unable to settle on an objective measure by which to differentiate between the old and the new!

Consider the range of services that a college provides:

The range of services provided by college

There are four outcomes you get from college: grades, placements, peer networks and the degree. Of the four, we have spoken about and discarded grades, placements and number of degrees awarded as useful/appropriate measures of outcomes in education. That leaves peer networks, and this is perhaps even more nebulous and difficult-to-measure than the other three.

Of the lot, employability and the quality of peer networks are (to me) the most important. But the latter is literally immeasurable, and the former ought to not be the only benchmark for judging the outcomes from education.

There is, as it turns out, a problem waiting to be solved, and it is a fundamental one.

If I’m wrong, please let me know how!

Proposed Examination Reforms

I’m not holding my breath, but this article has raised my hopes just a little bit:

Colleges and universities may soon adopt continuous comprehensive evaluation, a method that shifts focus from only annual or semester-level summative assessment system.
The suggestion has come from higher education regulator University Grants Commission (UGC) amid the increasing dependence on technology for education delivery in the current pandemic environment. Assessment at several intervals during and after achievement of learning outcomes specified for every module is needed as blended learning is gaining ground, UGC said in a draft proposal shared with higher educational institutions.

https://www.livemint.com/education/news/ugc-bats-for-reforms-in-exams-with-a-focus-on-continuous-evaluation-11621798197326.html

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: everybody associated with academia in India knows how broken, pointless and screwed-up examinations are, but nobody wants to do anything about it. And the most often quoted reason is R Madhavan in 3 Idiots going “Abba nahi manenge”.

Abba being the UGC.

But now, hallelujah, the UGC is talking about open book examinations and on-demand examinations. This was a “tears in my eyes moment“:

Open book exams is the “right way to move away from the conventional approach of exam where remembering and reproducing is prime”, UGC said. “In real functioning beyond formal education, life is all about open book examination. Hence, in higher education, we must prepare students for work life by making them acquainted with open book examinations. It will also facilitate better understanding and application of knowledge,” UGC said, citing an internal committee report.

https://www.livemint.com/education/news/ugc-bats-for-reforms-in-exams-with-a-focus-on-continuous-evaluation-11621798197326.html

There is still a world of pain that awaits those of us who are in academia. The inertia associated with the old system will take years1 to overcome, and it will be a long, unpleasant journey.

More, we will run up against capacity constraints, because shifting away from the “State in brief” questions to having students think critically will require the changing of multiple mindsets, along with intensive training of faculty in all universities.

And even if some universities were to adopt this whole-heartedly, one unintended consequence will be the exacerbation of already ridiculously high inequality. The inequality I speak of is in terms of access to quality higher education, of course. Better colleges and universities will get better still, and while that is desirable for the students who are lucky enough to get into them, it doesn’t bode well for equitable educational outcomes across the country.

But even so, the very fact that this is even being discussed in the first place is a welcome move.


The one thing that gives me hope is something that is discussed almost as an after-thought in the article: e-portfolios.

An electronic porfolio (e-portfolio) is a purposeful collection of sample student work, demonstrations, and artifacts that showcase student’s learning progression, achievement, and evidence of what students can do. The collection can include essays and papers (text-based), blog, multimedia (recordings of demonstrations, interviews, presentations, etc.), graphic.

https://teaching.berkeley.edu/resources/assessment-and-evaluation/design-assessment/e-portfolio

This blog, for example, is my “e-portfolio”. I pay around ten to twelve thousand rupees every year to maintain this blog, but one can of course start a blog for free. Or a YouTube channel, or an Instagram page or absolutely anything else you like.

In an ideal world, e-portfolios (and could we come up with e better name for it, please?) are solely the responsibility of the student. They can be in any language. They can be nurtured over time, for years together. Cultivating your e-portfolio needn’t cost money, in other words, and popularizing your e-portfolio is a life-skill worth developing in its own right.

Most importantly, developing one requires just a smartphone. Yes, this is still a challenge for large parts of our country, but I would argue that a learning system that revolves around the development of an e-portfolio is more efficient, cheaper and easier than even a perfectly reformed examination system.


Bottomline: marks, examinations and degrees are overrated. Doing the work, and sharing your work in the public domain is underrated.


Here’s a blogpost from last year about conducting examinations during these crazy times, and here are all the posts I have written about higher education on EFE.

  1. And if I am to be cynical, which is almost always the case, I’ll say decades[]

And What Will *They* Do?

NYT Cooking taught me how to make cake this past year. Ranveer Brar taught me how to make palak paneer. Sahil taught me how to make a bacon bomb. Kenji Alt-Lopez taught me how to make pizza. Smita Deo taught me how to make mutton. Krish Ashok opened up entire worlds of possibilities. I can go on and on.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I didn’t make all of the dishes up there, but I did make some, and I think they turned out fairly well. You should try my butter chicken sometime. But the point is, I upped my cooking game a fair bit during these pandemic times. Most of us did, I think.

And one of the major reasons we became better is because we all carry around some of the best instructors in our pocket, and that for free. Your culinary school is in your pocket, as is your theatre, your sound studio, your music room, your karaoke bar, your art museum and your sports arena.

So why not your classroom?

Watching Chapter 3 of the series on Linear Algebra from 3Blue1Brown was a life-changing experience for me (and I’m not exaggerating), because I finally understood the visual intuition behind linear transformations. Ditto with Bayes Theorem. As I often tell my students in classes on behavioral finance, it is one thing to read a paper written by Fama by attempting to check out a book from the college library. It is quite another to sit and listen to Fama talk with Thaler. Or listen to Dani Rodrik talk to Tyler Cowen. Or just stroll into a “room” where some of the most interesting folks in the world are chatting with each other, as Clubhouse and it’s clones have made possible.

YouTube (and just YouTube alone, forget everything else) has taught more, across all dimensions, to most students in the past eighteen months than most universities could have managed in twice the time. That’s rhetoric, not data, but I really do think we’ll be quibbling about the magnitude, not the direction if we argue about that estimate.

Learning has had its dynamo moment.


So whenever the pandemic recedes, those of us in academia need to address questions that will (and should) increasingly be asked by students. Why the classroom? Why mandatory attendance? Why only these notes and not those videos? Can I honestly do a better job than this when it comes to teaching the Solow model? Is SC Gupta really better than Seeing Theory?

Without the internet, the cheapest and the most efficient way to deliver learning to a student was via the classroom. If I am, say, to teach a course on the Indian economy post 1991, then I can put together a bunch of slides and deliver them in a classroom where students listen to what I have to say, debate and discuss the topics I bring up in class, and then go ahead and read more stuff on their own.

With the internet, the cheapest and most efficient way to conduct the same class is to come up with a reading/viewing/listening list, and spend the class discussing the doubts and questions that students may have. This can happen in a class or online. Those who don’t have any doubts, or don’t want their doubts resolved by me are free to not attend.

But can I go one better? Can I ask the author of Half Lion to came talk with our students? Can the folks who worked on Indiabefore91.in come and speak to us about why (and how) they developed the website? Can the author of the paper that highlighted how being rich and “good” was a trend that Bollywood started to become popular after Hum Aapke Hai Kaun be invited for a talk? James Crabtree to talk about inequality in India? Or maybe Stanley Pignal? Mihir Sharma, to talk about Restart? Bibek Debroy or Ashley Trellis, maybe, to talk about what else needs to be done now? Vijay Joshi? TN Ninan? Arvind Panagariya? Arvind Subramanian? Samanth Subramanian to talk about the tanker mafia in Bangalore (and indeed, elsewhere in the country)? Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar? Gilles Verniers? Cristophe Jaffrelot? Nitin Pai?

This might seem like name dropping, but it isn’t. I haven’t met, in real life, even one of the people I have mentioned above. Nor is that list anywhere close to being comprehensive. But imagine a world in which students in my class are tasked with reading the works of these people, and they then go and reach out to these experts, asking for a talk. It is quite likely that some, maybe all, of these people will say no. But the students will have that conversation, they’ll learn the art of making the ask, and they’ll learn the art of asking for alternatives. They’ll network with some of the best people in the business. And if either the person, or the suggested alternative says yes, the student (or that group of students) is responsible for moderating that discussion. They are responsible for taking notes, creating a summary, preparing a reading list and sending all of this to the guest speaker at the end of the session. That is their assignment, and it counts as being done if all of this happens. And the “semester end” examination is a reflective essay on what they learnt through all of these guest lectures: the organization of these lectures, and what they learnt from it.

I could finish the entire semester without having “taught” a class. But there would be a lot of mentoring, networking, discussion and planning in this entire semester. My role as a teacher for this course is to be the guy who decides on the broad contours of the course, facilitates introductions, figures out Plan B’s if the original choice of speakers doesn’t work out, and overall, act as a mentor for the course.

Without the internet, I had to substitute for all this. With the internet, I complement all this. I put this altogether, on the fly, during the semester, and make sure that all of it comes together by the end. The work will actually be more, much more, than regular old teaching – but this would be, in my eyes, a significant improvement.

You don’t provide a negative incentive to have students attend class. You reward them with incredible networks for having attended class. You don’t teach a class. You harness the power of the internet to conduct a class. You don’t check if students have learnt enough by having them write an exam. You make sure that students earn the right to learn from the best, by having them read and digest the works of the best in the business. Will you learn more by mugging up notes the night before the exam, or will you learn more when you know that you have to personally speak with the author of a book, and request them to come speak to your class about it?


Teachers in my Almost Ideal University will mentor students, and help them build out their networks by connecting them with the best in the business. The learning is the process, the network is the outcome. All talks to be recorded and put up for consumption by everybody in the world. Ditto for the documentation. And the challenge in the next semester is to improve upon the one that went by.


Who exactly are these professors, though, the ones who mentor the students in these courses? Full time employees? Well, sure, in some cases. But imagine a 36 year old manager in some analytics firm who is given six months off by her firm to come and teach Introductory Statistics at a university. Imagine the kind of folks she could invite for talks at her classes. Imagine the case studies she could build. Imagine the kind of problems she could speak to students about.

I could go and teach principle of economics at a law university for one semester. A former secretary of health and could come and teach a course on public health. Maybe a PhD student of, say, Professor Ashok Gulati could conduct a course in agri-business marketing. None of us need physically be on campus! This last year and a half has taught us that this work happens just as easily remotely. We just happen to be in charge, that’s all. And sure, if you can be present physically, even better!


It’s been three essays and counting in this series, but I think we need at least one more before we can call it a day. What are the societal incentives that we need to change or chip away at before my Almost Ideal University has even a chance at existing, let alone succeeding? That’s the topic of tomorrow’s essay.

How to Escape Education’s Death Valley by the Great Sir Ken Robinson

I’m not one for celebrating “days”, but I’ll happily admit being thankful that this video is scheduled for the 5th of September!

Noah Smith Interviews Marc Andreessen, Part II

We pick up from where we left off yesterday:


My partner Alex Rampell says that competition between an incumbent and a software-driven startup is “a race, where the startup is trying to get distribution before the incumbent gets innovation”.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Please listen to that podcast episode about Dominos thinking of itself as a tech company that happens to deliver pizzas. From another episode from that same podcast, this gem of an appropriate example:

In February 2013, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told “GQ,” “the goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”

https://www.delltechnologies.com/en-us/perspectives/podcasts-trailblazers-s01-e01-disruption-entertainment-industry/

As time passes, I am increasingly skeptical that most incumbents can adapt. The culture shift is just too hard. Great software people tend to not want to work at an incumbent where the culture is not optimized to them, where they are not in charge. It is proving easier in many cases to just start a new company than try to retrofit an incumbent. I used to think time would ameliorate this, as the world adapts to software, but the pattern seems to be intensifying.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

I hope he is wrong, for my sake, and for the sake of my alma mater, which is where I have chosen to work. But, um, I increasingly fear that he’s (surprise, surprise) right. Introducing technology has been hard in my workplace, but the fault lies with the culture of the workplace, not with the technology.

But as I pointed out in yesterday’s post, the regulatory capture and the cultural conformity of the higher education space in India means that most students (and their parents, or should it be the other way around) still prefer a “top” college.


A good test for how seriously an incumbent is taking software is the percent of the top 100 executives and managers with computer science degrees. For a typical tech startup, the answer might be 50-70%. For a typical incumbent, the answer may be more like 5-7%. This is a huge gap in software knowledge and skill, and you see it play out every day across many industries.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Incumbents in higher education in India – the percentage of folks with computer science degrees? Let’s move on.


First, COVID is the ultimate cover for restructuring — what my friend and former CFO Peter Currie used to call “shake and bake”. It’s an opportunity for every CEO to do all the things he/she may have wanted to do in the past to increase efficiency and effectiveness — from fundamental headcount resizing and reorganization, to changing geographic footprint, to exiting stale lines of business — but couldn’t because they would cause too much disruption. The disruption is happening anyway, so you might as well do everything you’ve always wanted to do now

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

75% minimum attendance, or else we reserve the right to say that you haven’t learnt enough to write the semester end examination. All classes in offline mode, only. Rote memorization tests in examination halls, with no textbooks/supplementary materials allowed. Laptops/tables/smartphones may not be used in class.

Here’s my question to those of us who work in higher education in India. Do we expect all these things to come back once the pandemic is behind us, or are we having thoughtful discussions about how the post-covid higher education field will look in India?

Today, because of the pandemic, we are at an extreme end of the spectrum which describes how learning is delivered. Everybody sits at home, and listens to a lecture being delivered (at least in Indian universities, mostly synchronously).
When the pandemic ends, whenever that may be, do we swing back to the other end of the spectrum? Does everybody sit in a classroom once again, and listens to a lecture being delivered in person (and therefore synchronously)?
Or does society begin to ask if we could retain some parts of virtual classrooms? Should the semester than be, say, 60% asynchronous, with the remainder being doubt solving sessions in classroom? Or some other ratio that may work itself out over time? Should the basic organizational unit of the educational institute still be a classroom? Does an educational institute still require the same number of in person professors, still delivering the same number of lectures?
In other words, in the post-pandemic world…
How long before online learning starts to show up in the learning statistics?

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/01/28/the-long-slow-but-inevitable-death-of-the-classroom/

And finally, Marc Andreessen’s response to Noah’s question about what advice he (Marc) would have for a young 23 year old American:

Don’t follow your passion. Seriously. Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time.
Instead, at work, seek to contribute. Find the hottest, most vibrant part of the economy you can and figure out how you can contribute best and most. Make yourself of value to the people around you, to your customers and coworkers, and try to increase that value every day.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

The last sentence in that excerpt is another way of saying that the world is a non-zero sum game.

And I couldn’t agree more!


Back to College

I am very interested in the future of higher education.

I have learnt much more outside of the classroom than inside, and this was truest when I was a student. I want to stick around in higher education because I want to try and change this for everybody in college today.

Change it through two ways:

  1. Make classes more interesting than they were back in my day. Also make them more interesting than the typical run-of-the-mill classroom experience today. (This is a hard problem, it requires hard work and it does not scale. But learning how to teach better is an invaluable experience.)
  2. Help change college into something more than drab old sit-in-class for six hours a day, six days a week. What a horrible way to learn!

This current semester, I want to try and get as many projects off the ground as possible. This has meant getting some BSc students started on projects of their own, it has meant involving some of them in work I am currently engaged in, and it has meant trying to get some workshops going.

Some of these things will stick, and grow into something much larger than just my involvement. Others will fail. That’s ok. This semester is about trying out new things.

One of these things is a podcast.

I had tried this out in 2019 (link here), completely as a solo effort, but I got only five episodes in. 2020 is a mess I’d rather forget. And now, in 2021, we’re back with another season of Back to College.


What is Back to College?

The idea is simple: speak to people about how they would approach college differently, if they got the chance to do it all over again.

  • What would you do more of, what would you do less of?
  • What technologies that are available today would have been a blessing, and how could they also have been a curse?
  • Is bunking a science or an art? How should you choose which classes to bunk, and which to not – and why?
  • How would you have built out networks better?
  • Would you give exams the same importance with the benefit of hindsight? Why or why not?
  • Which books helped you?
  • How overrated are textbooks, or are they not? Why?
  • What in your current job are you able to do well because of what you learnt in college?
  • What in your current job makes you wish you had been taught differently in college?
  • … and the list goes on and on and on.

We’re beginning with Gokhale alumni, and we’ll add more folks in as we go along. But the idea is to build a repository of interviews for folks to listen to, any time, to get an idea about the careers they want to get into.

And this time around, it ain’t a solo effort. I have the energy of youth on my side! Praneet, Rahul, Vaishnavi, Simran, Shashank, Jay, Anshi, Nivida and Amogh are helping me out on this project, and the hope is that eventually, this will become a completely student run thing.

New episodes will be up every Friday, and we have two out already. Neha Sinha spoke with me about public policy, and Binoy Mascarenhas and I chatted about urbanization. In each case, of course, I touched upon some of the questions above. This Friday will be a conversation I had with Rohith Jyothish on understanding the ‘P’ in GIPE.

Please do give it a listen, and to all the GIPE alumni reading this, please – pretty please! – don’t hesitate to reach out if you think you would like to be on the podcast. We’ll set up a time at your convenience. (Non-GIPE folks, same offer applies to you in about a couple of months. I’ll do another post then).

Thank you, as always, for reading – and now for listening too!

The Almost Ideal University, Part I

Tyler Cowen recently wrote about “his” university:

If you were to design a university from scratch, what might it look like? The idea isn’t necessarily to have a model for other schools to follow, but rather an experiment. Assume that various legal, contractual and accreditation constraints do not stand in your way.

https://www.bloombergquint.com/gadfly/what-would-your-fantasy-university-look-like

In this post, which may well end up being a fairly lengthy one, I will outline what “my” university will look like. This is a place I would want to work at, would want to be involved in the administration of, and would want many (but not all) students to study at. That’s what I mean by “my university”.


First things first: my idea is to have a model for other schools to follow. There are many interesting models of what an institution of learning should look like, but the problem with almost all of them is that they don’t scale. And the ones that do scale aren’t interesting models of what an institution of learning should look like. You want to be at the sweet spot between the two extremes.

It’s actually a little more complicated than that. You don’t just want to be at the sweet spot between these two dimensions, but you also want to have optimality along two other dimensions: affordability and replicability.

My ideal university, in other words, should optimize for a sweet spot that acknowledges the trade-offs between quality, scale, affordability and replicability.

All students who are in this university should get education of high quality at a price that is reasonable for the kind of education they are getting. All models of dispensing education in this university should be documented and freely available in the public domain.

When I say:

  • All students: I’m talking about scale. No student should be turned away because they were not able to solve x questions in y minutes on a particular day in the year. That’s how entrance examinations work, and the reason we need entrance examinations is because we can’t scale well enough. Patting ourselves on the back for getting the “best” students is our way of disguising the fact that we are unable to provide quality education to many more students.
    ..
    ..
  • High quality: I’m talking about quality. It is difficult to define and dangerous to measure, but you know it when you see it. Quality is not A+ on the NAAC, because nobody who has been through a NAAC process can put their hand on their heart and say that it is a good way to measure quality. Neither is quality the number of students who score more than x% in an examination, because ditto.
    Here’s a definition of quality that I am comfortable with: are you, at the end of your education, able to readily apply concepts you have learnt in order to be productive in your workplace?
    If you want to be educated in order to be a professor, did we teach you well enough for you to be able to teach right away? If you want to be educated in order to be a data analyst, did we teach you well enough for you to be able to work on a project right away? And so on, but that’s the point of a quality education – can you put what you claim to have learnt to good use?
    More: if your job requires you to acquire a skill we didn’t equip you with, did we teach you how to teach yourself? A quality education isn’t just about learning, it also ought to be about learning how to learn.
    Each of us has our own way of learning, of course. Some do better by listening, some by reading, some by visualization, some by introspection. A student who graduates from a university must have the ability to understand what she lacks in terms of skill sets, and have the ability to equip herself with that skill by using resources online.
    That’s quality.
    ..
    ..
  • A price that is reasonable: Tyler Cowen urges us to not worry about constraints, and I think I understand where he is coming from when he makes the request. Figure out the best you can build, and we’ll solve the constraints as we go along. But at least in India, one of the reasons higher education is in such a mess is precisely because we haven’t used the price mechanism effectively enough. Of the four, this dimension is perhaps the trickiest to think about.
    I’m a big believer in the fact that students should have skin in the game, and therefore I think that a price should be paid for acquiring an education. But I’m also all too aware of the fact that some students simply cannot pay, and therefore think that some amount of subsidization is inevitable.
    It gets trickier still, because you will almost certainly have to spend more resources on those students who will need subsidization. They are, other things held constant, likelier to need more intensive training in getting the quality of their writing up to the same level as that of other students, simply because they are likelier to not have had the same exposure to quality education in school. And this will apply to other dimensions as well: quantitative skills, the luxury of having time to practice their skills and so on.
    Cross-subsidization? Vouchers from the government? Income sharing agreements? My personal preference would be for the last of these, but I’ll happily admit to being uncertain about what the correct answer is.
    ..
    ..
  • Replicability: The last sentence in my statement above is about replicability. It doesn’t matter if your approach works or not, where replicability is concerned. Funding/regulatory approval for your university ought to be contingent on it being easily replicable. Your methods, your ideas and your processes must be open source. Why? Because an educated populace is the whole point of education! At a system-wide level, the opportunity cost of protecting the trade secret of an well-run educational institution is simply too high.
    Documenting the ideas, their implementation, the challenges encountered during implementation, the refinement, the impact evaluation and the evolution of the university – and that on an ongoing basis, needs to happen. And this should be publicly available, for reasons stated above.
    And it isn’t even that big a risk, because the secret to a well run university isn’t the ideas for it – it lies in their implementation, and therefore in human capital. Spread the knowledge of how to build good universities far and wide!

Now, about the trade-offs between these four dimensions. No university, anywhere in the world, can optimize all four (scale, quality, affordability and replicability) at the same time. The first two alone will inevitably involve trade-offs.

What would my ideal university optimize for, and what would I be ok sacrificing, at the margin?

The SQAR framework

I will sacrifice scale at the altar of quality, and I will also sacrifice affordability at the altar of quality. Quality and replicability are non-negotiable in my worldview.


Why sacrifice scale?

Because if I have to choose between scale and quality, I’ll choose quality every day of the week. A job well done is preferable to lots of jobs not-so-well done. Lot of jobs really well done is great in theory, but it tends to not work out in practice, and especially so when it comes to education.

Why sacrifice affordability?

Because if I define quality as the ability to apply what you’ve learnt, a graduate from my university stands a better than even chance of being productive, and therefore employable. And that means a better than even chance of income sharing agreements working out in practice. And so yes, education in my university may not be cheap, but you can always pay later, out of your future income streams. And my university has skin in the game too! No income stream, no income sharing, and my university has taught you for free. We have taught you badly, since you aren’t able to generate income, and so we don’t deserve to be paid. That’s it.


What might students actually do in my university, and how will it actually work? I’ll get to this in Monday’s post.

Professor Nigam’s Twitter Thread on the AIU

Professor Nigam is the registrar at NLSIU, and he was kind enough to read my series of posts on the Almost Ideal University. What’s more, he took the time to respond with a very thoughtful series of tweets, as a part of his excellent series that is freely available on Twitter. I don’t know if he has a name for it, I think of it as the “My Dear Law Students” series.

If you are a student of law, the series ought to be mandatory reading. If you are a student of writing, the series ought to be mandatory reading. I’m quite serious, please do read all of them!

In this post, I’m going to cite some of his tweets, and add my two penn’orth.


And nor will students of economics be able to demonstrate real world potential unless assisted by real economists. You learn best when taught by folks with skin in the game. In my Almost Ideal University, you can’t become a teacher without having worked in the field first. And that’s a non-negotiable requirement.

Yes, of course there are problems with this. Why will folks want to leave a corporate job? Won’t the pay be lesser in academia? Why would firms be ok with having folks just “go away” for six months to teach? All great questions, and valid ones. But that’s exactly what we need to figure out if we’re going to ever get around to building out the AIU.

These problems arise, of course, only because I am in complete agreement with Professor Nigam when he says that you need people with skin in the game.

And I’d much rather solve these (much harder) problems than solve the problem of how to make three hour long in-class theoretical exams more relevant.


The equitable access problem is a real one, and I’ll state upfront that I do not really know how to solve it. Technology can help to an extent, but the AIU won’t be equitable to begin with. Yes, replicability, if it works out, will help. But it won’t ever be a perfectly equitable system. My sole defense is that the system I seek to replace is, if anything, even more inequitable.

Not, I hasten to add, that this should mean that we stop worrying about equitable access in the case of the AIU!

And regarding the second tweet in this section, yes, bureaucracy is inevitable. But if gamified well, there is a chance that the system (again, while not being perfect) will be better than the status quo.

My point is this: if we can get students to view assignments as something to work on cooperatively rather than combatively, the need to monitor is that much lesser. Of course, the need to mentor is that much higher, but isn’t that the point of education in the first place?

But yes, those of us in academia will need to figure out how to make this happen, and as Professor Nigam has pointed out, that with the help of working professionals.

There’s a great deal of detailing to be worked out here, and apprenticeships, mentorships and professionals in residence on campus will all have a role to play. Again: a hard problem to solve, but attempting to solve for this is a worthy mission as an academician.


I wish I could do a better job of writing more clearly, and the fault is mine over here. In my AIU, the onus isn’t on the student to attend. The onus is on the professor to make the class interesting enough to attend. The student is always free to not attend, but the professor should be good enough to make the student feel regret at not being present in class. Specifically:

  1. The professor should have the ability to not just explain a particular student’s doubt, but also in the process enrich everybody else’s understanding of that issue.
  2. The professor (or their assistant, perhaps) should allow the most non-intuitive doubts to filter up in class. That is, study groups, whether offline or on (say) Discord servers will allow the students themselves to resolve the relatively easier doubts. Those that prove resilient will be handled by the professor. Will it work perfectly right from the get-go? Of course not. Is it worth trying? I vote yes – but of course, as they say, your mileage may vary.
  3. So, no, not a diminishing role for physical classroom instruction at all. Au contraire, a role of paramount importance for the physical classroom, for synthesis will happen there. And perhaps can only happen there, but that takes us into deep waters for a blogpost. And on a related note, the more you agree with me over here, the more you should worry about inequities across the entire system. For obviously, physical classroom sessions can’t scale.

A rare area of disagreement for me in this Twitter thread, for I do have a lot of confidence in the motivational levels of undergraduates. Not all undergraduates, I should be clear. As with everything else in life, so also with motivational levels of undergrads: there will be a distribution. Some will be very motivated, and will remain so no matter how bad college is. At the other end of the distribution, some will remain very unmotivated, no matter what how good college is.

But that being said, it is true that I prefer to award the benefit of the doubt to the student. This is in good humor, Professor Nigam, and please do forgive me my impertinence, but innocent until proven guilty! Or in this case (and is it the same thing?) motivated until proven otherwise. 🙂

But quite honestly, and I’m no longer joking around, I very strongly believe that the enthusiasm to learn is systematically sucked out of a student with every passing year in academia. The more years you spend in the system, the more likely it is that you will want to not learn. This is not a universal law, but in my experience, it has been a fairly accurate heuristic.

Will there be students who will abuse the system I propose? Absolutely. That is the nature of a distribution.

Do more students suffer today for being made to mandatorily sit through classes that just aren’t good enough? Absolutely, and I would rather avoid this than the former.


Completely agreed!

I could get into one of my classes, as a hypothetical, a retired bureaucrat who has impeccable knowledge of how the Union Budget takes shape over the course of the financial year in India. This hypothetical bureaucrat has forgotten more about the budgetary process than any of us will ever know. Unfortunately, watching paint dry is more entertaining than listening to this person speak.

We’ve all met folks like these: really, really good experts, but really, really bad communicators. And that’s fine! Their job wasn’t to be good communicators. It then becomes my job as the teacher in that class to make it more interesting. Maybe I interview the bureaucrat, rather than have him speak? Maybe I record the interview and play snippets? Maybe I speak offline with him, and then conduct I class based on that conversation?

But yes, we absolutely need great teachers to make the subjects accessible and enjoyable.


It’s a great question, and I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. As I said in my first post on the AIU:

I’m a big believer in the fact that students should have skin in the game, and therefore I think that a price should be paid for acquiring an education. But I’m also all too aware of the fact that some students simply cannot pay, and therefore think that some amount of subsidization is inevitable.
It gets trickier still, because you will almost certainly have to spend more resources on those students who will need subsidization. They are, other things held constant, likelier to need more intensive training in getting the quality of their writing up to the same level as that of other students, simply because they are likelier to not have had the same exposure to quality education in school. And this will apply to other dimensions as well: quantitative skills, the luxury of having time to practice their skills and so on.

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/07/09/the-almost-ideal-university/

That is, the economist in me is saying that students from poor or underprivileged families will need more intensive training and help, educating them in the AIU will be more expensive. But that still doesn’t explain the how of it. Sure, it’ll cost more, but for doing what, exactly, and how?

There are some potential answers (bridge programs, extra assignments, more mentorships) but I’m hazy on the details right now.

Would I be correct in saying, however, that if we don’t solve this problem within the university itself, the student will face an ever tougher challenge out of it? That is, an underprivileged student who doesn’t get the kind of education we are speaking about right now will find it even more difficult to succeed out in the real world – is that a reasonable hypothesis? And if yes, then it becomes even more imperative to ensure that we work towards ensuring that these students get the kind of learning that we are speaking about?

Food for thought, for sure, and I’ll be feeding at this trough for a while. 🙂


Thank you, to Professor Nigam, for an excellent set of thought-provoking questions!

And a request to all of you – please help by letting me know what makes sense, and what doesn’t when it comes to the Almost Ideal University.