This opinion piece first appeared in the Hindustan Times, 23 December 2014
Indian universities are facing acute pressure to become agile and flexible organisations, capable of adapting to the changing dynamics of the 21st century job market as well as the emergence of the so-called “impact” economy.
The sector is diversifying at a rapid pace with a number of new players pushing back against established orthodoxies and older institutions facing up to the need to respond to emerging trends in higher education as discrete discipline-based models continue to break down.
There are compelling reasons why these reforming trends should be extended and accelerated, and why social entrepreneurship in particular is a powerful catalyst in the reimagining of Indian higher education.
Firstly, universities have to broaden the horizon of their purpose. The value of a university degree is not what it once was because of increased access and the global democratisation of higher education.
Simultaneously, industries from retail to engineering complain that students graduate with little in the way of discernible problem solving and project management skills. This is a particularly acute problem in India where the fierce competitiveness of the education system narrows the scope for students to indulge in “extra-curricular” activities which are perceived to distract from the bread and butter of class topping exam marks
Universities continue to labour under the misapprehension that their job is to educate, when it is in fact much broader that: to develop human potential. What the world needs are empathetic, resilient and creative problem solvers; the role of universities is to nurture these attributes. It so happens that these are precisely the attributes of a successful social entrepreneur, which is a key reason why forward-thinking universities in the US such as Brown, Stanford and Maryland have placed such an emphasis on promoting social entrepreneurship both within and outside the curriculum.
This leads happily on to my next reason: the need to think beyond the exam and essay as barometers of performance excellence in universities.
Not only are they forms of assessment which are outdated and disliked, they are poor indicators of problem-solving aptitude and social and emotional intelligence – vital skills for today’s graduates.
Social entrepreneurship offers a route out of tired assessment formulas. Because social entrepreneurship is primarily a field of practice, it naturally lends itself to experiential teaching and learning. The growth of social entrepreneurship courses around the world has resulted in a wealth of open access resources for new entrants to find ideas and templates for course design. Many courses assess social entrepreneurship through business plans, presentations and prototype demonstrations – precisely the kinds of real problem-solving and project skills that are in scarce supply.
In this sense social entrepreneurship is a kind of gateway drug for assessment innovation: once you ditch the exam and the essay, it’s hard to go back.
Perhaps above and all of these reasons – as compelling and urgent as they are – is the fact that young people are turning away from conventional career paths in finance, management and corporate business in their droves. The inexorable growth of the impact economy, comprising not only social enterprise but the CSR arms of mainstream business and the burgeoning ecosystem of investment and incubation which supports it, is an electrifying alternative to the mainstream jobs market. As Ariana Hufffington has powerfully argued in her book The Third Metric, the weight of science and popular opinion is moving people to re-evaluate what their career should offer them. Wealth, power and material success still motivate some, but for many others it is a life of purpose and service that calls louder.
Indian universities are beginning to realise this, mainly because they are increasingly global in their outlooks, benchmarking their standards not against each other but the cream of UK and US institutions. In some areas Indian universities are leading the sector, particualry in terms of social enterprise incubators such as those at TISS Mumbai, CIIE at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and most recently the Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at OP Jindal Global University. These universities are embracing social entrepreneurship as a way to meet the millennial generation’s thirst for purpose and prepare their graduates for a rapidly evolving job market.
The new breed of graduate demanded by the global economy – collaborative, creative, resilient and empathetic – deserves a new university made in her image. Embedding the ethos of social entrepreneurship at the heart of higher education is a necessary and decisive step in that direction.