Is Education Industry in a Turmoil?

G. Balasubramanian is a doyen of school education in India. He has held several positions of leadership at CBSE, including Director Academics. He was the brain behind the introduction of several innovations at CBSE which included frontline curriculum, Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, Information Technology, Alternatives to Homework, etc. He is also an author, poet and a sought-after speaker at education conferences world over.

“The winds are strong and turbulent; no one can say whether it would turn out to be a tornado” – this would possibly be the best way to describe the status of education industry both globally and locally. When an investor who put his head and heart into developing a well-articulated support system for schools for the last few years called up to say “Hey! I am shutting down the engine. The going is tough; there is no money, all roads appear to be blocked. There is a sense of fear among the schools on any investment and don’t want to look forward”, I could feel the heat, the pain and the challenge of the future. And the list of people seeing their end of business is increasing. A number of companies have not been able to meet even the target of their business they had last year and the one before, leave alone a marginal increase in their business profile. The situation, though not alarming, calls for caution and understanding. 1.     Policy changes in educational administration There is a visible course correction in the policy pathways of educational governance. Whether such corrections are futuristic or not, is indeed a matter of debate. Alongside, the corrections, there appears to be a clear control on the freedom of operation and freedom of execution through articulated methods of inspection, vigilance and demonstration of authority. The instructional modalities appear to make the Edu-leaders take a backfoot in their strategic thinking. While the intentions of the powers that be, may be puritan and to ensure elimination of excessive commercialization of the process of education, one could sense the unwillingness of even ‘independent minds’ to move beyond the well-defined circle of safety, so as to avoid and disengage themselves from any futuristic administrative challenges. This has impacted both the growth and experimentation in creative educational interventions and market dynamics. 2.      Deviant role plays of organizations in education A number of organizations engaged in defining, mentoring and refining educational architecture have shifted their role plays. Far from being the leaders in educational innovation, creativity and mentoring, the business of education has helped them to strengthen their balance sheets to project as better performing organizations, compared to what they were earlier. Though such changes do help in neutralizing losses or expenditure from other functional domains, it does show a deviation from the core purpose of their functionality. With authority in hands, their ability to influence and reach markets for their products has indeed led to monopolies and hence there is a huge encroachment on the public participation in the business of education both at the corporate as well as small time entrepreneurs’ levels.

3.     Role of Private Sector in Education The Private sector has played a significant role in improving the quality of education both at the school and higher education level. Investments in infrastructure, appliances, delivery systems, research supports and in ushering change has been meaningful and has facilitated to compete with some global trends. Hence, one cannot outright deny the role of private sector in education both within the infrastructure and outside it, in creating a conducive environment for quality. While profit booking by these institutions has always been a matter of suspicion and has been subject to scrutiny, with the regulators coming with more regulations (roadblocks) from time to time, the society has increasingly supported the role of private sector and has encouraged their motives at least at higher education level. It will be difficult even to the regulators to underplay the role of private sector in educational initiatives and its deliverance of quality. The role of private managements in school education has also been quite significant. 4.     The thirst for profit booking by investors The last decade has witnessed huge market challenges, thanks to an excessive thirst for profit booking by the players in the field. A number of products, of branded companies, have been increasing in cost, though partially justifiable, raising the eyebrows of both the consumers and the controllers. While several reasons could be attributed to this- like the middle men dynamics, very high discount demands often crossing even half-the cost of the labelled prices, auxiliary and subsidiary demands by the institutions to engage the suppliers to meet their social and professional obligations – all such things have contributed both to the cost and to the competition. While regulatory mechanisms, have certainly a role to play to put things in order, that should also not happen by demolishing the foundations of such industries and trades, where a few million are engaged in work for survival. When companies face existential problems, it signals disruption. 5.     Hidden cost of school support services Several institutions, new and inexperienced, sought the help of market forces for upgrading their professional competence, though it was not a part of the obligations of the business transactions. This happened due to failure of established training and capacity building programs at the national level. Though sporadic attempts have been made in this direction by the affiliating agencies, there is much to be done, if one could look at the magnitude of inputs required in this direction. The service providers, both technological and otherwise, had to make some meaningful interventions, both for creating goodwill as well as for the sustainability of their products, at a cost uncovered elsewhere. Many companies could not stand up to such competitions, either in terms of financial resources or in terms of academic resources.

6.     Absence of leadership and innovation While there has been a mind-boggling increase in investment in education, both at the technology domain and the conservative domains, the producers have been focusing on routine products which helps them to keep their safety belts in place, rather on investing on leadership and innovation in products. Less than two percent of the products that are ushered into the market have an air of freshness, while most others were only repackaging knowledge in different cartons, though claiming their originality and newness. This has resulted in over-subscription of the same range of products resulting in “clearance sale” of projects and practices, leading to suffocation and saturation on the part of the consumers. Even those who brought in innovation, had to suffer because the hierarchical controls on sustaining traditionality in education has not encouraged the buyers from taking chances. Further, questions have been raised from time to time about the quality of products in a few cases, as in many cases the quality of content development has been debatable and have shown poor application of mind in articulating and delivering the content. 7.     The challenges in Business Ethics A number of cases, have surfaced in the last decade, questioning ethical practices in education business-both at the producer’s levels and at the buyer’s level. Several institutions attempted pricing the products at their own level seeking service costs even after availing huge discounts. Faulty payments to the dealers and suppliers, payments delayed over years even after the cost of these products are recovered from the students and parents in advance, have all resulted in detrimental costing practices and in challenging the basic credibility of  the business. Many industries, in technology domains, have failed to provide service supports to the clients, oftentimes defeating the very purpose of such purchases. This has resulted in raising questions on relevance of such technologies in schools without adequate use. Even the service providers deputed to schools, in a large number of cases, had hardly any understanding of basic educational practices. Consequently, a number of organizations have started questioning the placement of technology in their infrastructure, due to poor returns in terms of time, energy and pedagogical quality. Thus, one could see that fault lines exist in either side of the operational spectrum. Nevertheless, for a large country like India with its unsurmountable problems triggered by the number dynamics and its diversity, it is important to ensure a level playing ground wherein the regulators should encourage quality, innovation and skill enhancement from wherever they come, without extending their ‘license-raj’. In a social and business environment, where the future is always a matter of concern, where the life expectancy of all businesses is narrowing down, where there is a cutting-edge competition for product superiority and leadership, the investors need adequate breathing space to work with commitment, passion and targeted growth through quality. Education, being an extremely dynamic concept influenced by changing skills, scale and speed, the existing turbulence in the field is indeed a matter of concern. One can only wish that this turbulence settled down sooner than expected. 

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