Greetings from Silicon Valley! Congratulations on launching Start-up India and initiating many similarly exciting and much needed initiatives such as Make In India, Skill India, Digital India, Swachh Bharat, and Jan Dhan Yojna. A strong economy is a foundation for a peaceful nation and Acche Din for all.
I am writing this letter to you because I want to draw your attention to the defining challenge and opportunity for India and its people—a crisis in our higher education system. Your leadership is urgently required to transform the system, unleash the potential of 1.3 billion people, and build a Golden India.
Could Acche Din for all be India’s new Golden Age? Absolutely. And, you and anyone who helps build a Golden India would forever be remembered in the same vein as the founding fathers and famous kings of India’s previous Golden Age.
Education is the key to unlocking India’s 1.3 billion people’s potential and building a Golden India for all. Not long ago, the British used education as a means to impose their imperial and moral agenda on India and its people. Fortunately, the role of education is well understood in our society. The majority religion has several Gods and Goddesses of knowledge and wisdom. Our history has innumerable stories of Kings walking down from their thrones to receive Acharayas to their court. Parents are investing as much as one third of their incomes and many are even taking loans to educate their children.
Higher education, which sits at a critical junction of the society and nation, is the master key. Well prepared professionals and a thriving research, innovation, and entrepreneurship ecosystem can unleash the potential of 1.3 billion Indians, address India's mega challenges, and make its environment and economy more vibrant and sustainable. With 20-26 million children born each year in India, it is an important and urgent issue.
Unfortunately, India’s higher education system is in crisis — it is broken on all fronts that matter and is disconnected from the needs and aspirations of its people, society, industry, and nation. The higher education system is vast and complex, but the following evidence suggests a crisis:
Just over 20% of the people who could be enrolled in higher education are currently enrolled in colleges and universities. Most developed nations are in the 50-95% range for this metric.
India’s premier higher education institutions such as the IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS serve less than 0.5% of the total students enrolled in colleges and universities. Further, they are all single-field institutions, which is an outdated model for building a Golden India.
According to one study, 75-90% of the graduating students from India’s colleges and universities are considered unemployable by the industry.
Industry is spending 6-12 months of training to make these students ready for productive work.
After close to 70 years of independence, India does not have one world-class comprehensive research university and just one university, IISc Bengaluru, was ranked in the top 500 of global rankings.
The student enrollments are meager, the breadth and depth of curriculum is limited, and most of the institutions are focused on one field. A culture of excellence and making an impact to local, regional, and national problems is mostly missing. There is an extreme shortage of well-prepared faculty members. The nation, the society, and its individuals are paying a huge price for the dysfunctional state. There is hyper-competition among students to join one of the premier institutions. An increasing number of students are going overseas for higher education. The majority of the students who have received their degrees in India are considered unemployable. As a result, there is hyper-competition among corporations to recruit and retain employable graduates. Industry is paying a price of high employee turnover and escalating salaries. India’s mega challenges are going unsolved. Finally, the economy is heavily dependent on imports, and the new venture creation engine is tiny and weak.
Sadly and painfully, it has also become a matter of life, death, and dignity. Students are committing suicide under the pressure to pass grueling entrance examinations. Some others are committing suicide after realizing that their degrees are worthless. Mothers and fathers are offering to do anything, including selling their souls, to get their children admitted to a reputed college.
Every crisis needs a revolution. We need a Gray Revolution for gray matter: knowledge, skills, and wisdom. The goal of the Gray Revolution is building a Golden India. It must transform India’s higher education system, urgently and sustainably. It must unleash the potential, power, and passion of 1.3 billion Indians. The unleashed potential will address India’s mega challenges and make its economy vibrant, more robust, and sustainable. People will be more fulfilled and have better lives. Students, families, society, and the nation will have a bright and shining (golden!) future.
Fortunately, you are person of high aspirations, courage, and actions. You can build a Golden India and usher in Acche Din for all. I hope you will recognize the value of higher education in unleashing India’s vast potential and in building a brighter India. I also hope you will take the “bull by the horns” and initiate a Gray Revolution to transform the higher education system.
In the next 35-50 years, India must educate and prepare 700 million to 1.3 billion young men and women for lives and careers. We need fresh thinking and comprehensive reforms that transforms the higher education system on all the key dimensions—scale, scope, structure, excellence, impact and outcomes, and speed.
Transforming India’s higher education is not just about human resource development; it is also about economy, defense, energy, environment, geopolitics, global competitiveness, health, and water. It is about fulfilling the aspirations of the youth and their families. It is also about a more prosperous and peaceful society. It is about our individual and collective golden future. Doing this will also provide the necessary human capital to make your initiatives such as Start-up India, Skill India, and Make In India successful.
On the other hand, not addressing fundamental issues could lead to unmitigated disaster. Scandals like Vyapam, student suicides, and student movements like that of Hardik Patel and Rohith Vemula are early warning signals of a tsunami that could hit the nation at a much larger scale in the near future.
In the scheme of revolutions that the nation has successfully launched such as the Green Revolution, White Revolution, Telecom Revolution, and the economic liberalization in 1991, the Gray Revolution would be the largest and most impactful. However, it needs a leader with high aspirations, courage, and an action- and results-orientation.
Will you be the leader in our hour of crisis? Over 1.3 billion fellow citizens and the global society will ever be grateful to you. You will be remembered in history as a world leader of the 21st century and the architect of modern, prosperous, peaceful, united, and a Golden India.
About the writer of this open letter
Shail Kumar, writer of the open letter to Prime Minister Modi is an author of recently published book Building Golden India: How to unleash India's vast potential and transform its higher education system. Now. This open letter includes excerpts from Building Golden India.
Shail Kumar is Past-President of the IIT Foundation; co-founder of Pan IIT alumni movement in the USA; former administrator at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego; co-founder and CEO of two start-ups; and was an executive in several Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley-based corporations. He has an MBA from Indiana University, Bloomington and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur.