An article on Yahoo! News caught my eye a little while back because of what it says about the potential—and perhaps likelihood—of India leapfrogging the U.S. education system. Titled “In India, the challenge of building 50,000 colleges,” the article also provides a window into the theories of disruptive innovation, as it details the government’s goal of building 1,000 universities and 50,000 colleges (or so it says) within the next decade to cope with the wave of young people that will increase the country’s labor pool by 100 million workers by 2020.

For sake of comparison, the United States has roughly 4,200 accredited higher education institutions today.

The first thing that pops out from the article is the vast nonconsumption of higher education that exists in India. There is literally no educational option for millions of students to prepare them for the workforce and life. That provides a green-field opportunity to introduce disruptive innovations that rethink education by offering a service that is far more affordable, accessible, and convenient than the existing options. And because the alternative is literally nothing at all, there is plenty of room to offer something that is infinitely better than that—and will improve from there.

This opportunity raises a challenge for India though. Arvind Panagariya, an economics professor at Columbia University in New York, is quoted in the article as saying that currently Indian higher education isn’t growing capacity fast enough to handle its goals, which he says might mean that the “transformation of India into a more modern country will be much slower than one might think.”

The article compares the growth of higher education in China versus India to make the point: “In 2000, 8 percent of China’s youth went on to college, compared with 10 percent in India. By 2007, China’s enrollment rate had risen to 23 percent versus 12 percent in India.”

And Panagariya concludes that the reason for this is, “The Chinese don’t worry so much about these issues of quality. [They just say] we need to provide some education.”

In other words the Chinese have been more willing to embrace disruption, as they have truly understood that that’s the way they will scale affordable and accessible models to serve their population. The alternative—nothing at all—is a non-starter.

Of course, India increasingly is looking to embrace disruptive innovations to scale education—and developed countries with more established education systems should take note.

As the article says: “And yet—as in other sectors of rapidly developing countries—India isn’t looking just to mimic the West in education. It is hoping to leapfrog it. In some ways, the country has no choice. ‘The way education is today in the global market is not scalable,’ says Sam Pitroda, an education adviser to the government. ‘The cost of education has really increased substantially, mainly because IT has not been used effectively the world over in education.’”

What this points to is disruption using the technology enabler of online learning. As the article says, “This means that India is not just trying to build thousands of American-style campuses with neat quads. Many of its new schools will be virtual, for-profit, and integrated closely with workplaces. It may, in fact, end up pushing the concept of online education further than any other country. As a result, what India comes up with will not only affect its economic competitiveness in the 21st century. It may become a petri dish for how to build an educational system in the Information Age.”

There is another dynamic pushing India to innovate in and improve online learning in some dramatic ways. According to the article, new schools face shortages of land and instructors. As a result of the first, constructing big campuses to fill the education gap is likely a non-starter. Online learning is critical. As for the second—the system is short roughly 1 million teachers the article says—this means that the country will almost certainly have to push the bounds of today’s online learning systems so that it can scale the impact of great teachers and built robust digital learning systems that embrace adaptive learning and other such advances. Given these pressures, the innovations that emerge from India could be stunning.

What happens though if India doesn’t seize the power of disruptive innovation to expand its institutions of higher education fast enough? The answer is that employers may have to expand into offering education themselves. In fact, they already are—but they are doing because the current (and more traditional looking) institutions aren’t delivering the goods.

According to the article, a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute reported that, “less than 17 percent of India’s graduates were immediately employable. As a result, top Indian firms often have to put new hires through months of in-house schooling to train them for jobs for which they were supposed to be qualified.”

This is the textbook response. What we’ve learned from our work on innovation is that whenever an adjacent step in a value chain isn’t being delivered—or what’s out there isn’t good enough—even if that step doesn’t appear to be an entity’s “core competency,” the entity must nevertheless integrate into that step if it hopes to deliver on its ultimate mission. When quality isn’t good enough, proprietary, integrated solutions reign.

Industries rarely remain in their integrated state though. As they overshoot what users and customers need, they become modular—which leads to more customization. How this might happen in India is anyone’s guess, and the time frame is open to debate. But one nugget in the article suggests that it might not come from the places that people expect.

An obsession for many upstart and innovative institutions in higher education—around the world—is how to get accredited by the formal accrediting agencies so that they gain legitimacy. Our lessons from disruptive innovation though suggest that disruptions often go around existing regulations and regulatory bodies, gain market share, and as a result the debates around whether these upstarts and disruptive innovations are deserving of accreditation tend to fade away as the world naturally provides the answer—and the regulatory bodies and regulations either fade away or change to match the fait accompli.

This seems to be happening in Indian higher education. The article reads: “Until recently, new colleges wanting to offer degrees were required to be affiliated with a state- or central-government university. That’s a heavy yoke because powerful—but stagnant—university regulatory boards control everything from curricula and exams to teachers’ salaries. …

“The decade-old Indian School of Business (ISB), found the accreditation process so burdensome that the nonprofit school skipped it entirely. Ironically, the ISB is one of the few world-class institutions of higher education in India. No Indian school made this year’s Times Higher Education ranking of the world’s top 200 universities. But the ISB took No. 13 on a Financial Times list of global MBA programs. Yet it cannot grant MBA degrees—instead it awards certificates—as a penalty for its independence.”

Clearly it would seem that maybe a degree in and of itself isn’t so important. A certificate can be just fine.

One person in the article voices his frustration with this state of affairs by arguing that Indian regulators have the system backward, saying, “What [other] governments do the world over is they monitor the quality—they monitor the output. … So they don’t make it difficult for you to enter the sector, but they do make it quite strict that whatever you provide is adequately rated.”

To that I can only say if only that was true. The accreditation system in the United States is based highly on inputs over outputs and outcomes—and the result is quite similar to the situation in India. Of course, the answer may just lie in taking the counter-intuitive path by being disruptive, going around the regulations, and scaling a more accessible, affordable, and customizable service from there. Don’t be surprised to see dramatic innovations in education happen in India first.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.