Post by Ashish Kulkarni
In a TED talk that has since become pretty famous, Sugata Mitra speaks about how his Hole in the Wall approach has paid rich dividends. Watch the video if you haven’t already, it’s well worth your time. During the early part of that talk, Mitra speaks about how, in his opinion, the education system isn’t broken at all, although it is quite fashionable to say so.
He goes on to speak about how the education system is in fact perfectly geared to churn out (my words, not his) near automatons, whose only desire in life is to get a job, earn a salary, and therefore guarantee that the world will continue to function pretty much as it has over the past two hundred years or so. It’s a well-made point, and like I said, you’d certainly find it worth your while to watch the video in its entirety.
In this blog post, though, I wish to take issue with his contention that the education system isn’t broken, because I think it is. Not, perhaps, in the sense in which he means it, but it certainly is broken, and whoever fixes it will be sitting on a gold mine.
The reason for my disagreement stems from a matter of perspective – there are two markets at play when one thinks about education, and while Mitra takes issue with one of them, I plan to attack the other.
The market for education is about people willing to pay a sizeable amount of money in order to enroll in a college that has a good reputation. This is where the two markets come into play – one market is about the provisioning of education (and this is the one that Mitra takes to task), while the other is about the supply of skilled labour.
It might sound cynical when I say it, but the education system is only partially about imparting education. A halfway decent MBA degree isn’t so much about what you learn while you are getting it, but about where you land up after you finish it. And in that sense, the two years that you send in school, competing with your peers, is just a very expensive (in terms of money and time) signaling device you use to tell the world about your employability.
And when you think about education from this perspective, you realize that the market is, indeed, broken, and ripe for disruption.
Any market becomes more efficient when it has fewer intermediaries, lesser search costs, and next to no transaction costs. If you apply this logic to the market for education, you realize that the college is nothing but the equivalent of a real estate agent, who charges both sides of the transaction a market maker fee. And in much the same way that 99 Acres, Makaan, or India Property et al changed the real estate market into a rather more efficient one, there exists the very real potential to make this market more efficient over time.
And no matter how you slice the argument, there is one inescapable conclusion: the educational institute, as it stands today, must go the way of the dodo. It isn’t enough to posit that the educational institute will wither away, of course. One must also be able to postulate, within reason, about what will come in its place.
An obvious answer already exists in the market, and it is one that is getting a reasonable amount of traction – online universities. That they have already been threatened with legal injunctions by the status quo, is to me an indication that they are credible disruptors, and therefore a plus point in their favour.
In the next post, I aim to think about these alternatives, and whether they have the potential to actually replace the brick-and-mortar set up, once and for all.