It is great to be back in India; each time I visit I am amazed at the rate of change and the buzz.
That is not to say there are not great challenges as well, and education and skills is one such area. But I say it is a welcome challenge - a country with a fast developing economy finds itself with an ever growing demand for an ever more skilled workforce.
Some figures; after healthcare, education is the second biggest global industry, worth an estimated $2.5 trillion in 2005, $4.5 trillion today, $6.3 trillion in 2017. Or to look at in in terms of student numbers, at the tertiary level there were 29 million in the world in 1970, and 152 million in 2007. In this decade an estimated further 21 million will enrol.
While in the UK half a million young people don’t have good enough English and maths, here, you have set yourselves the challenge of raising the education of half a billion.
This shows the scale of the challenge and how fast the demand for education is growing and the sheer size of the demand.
So the challenge to expand schools and colleges - is vast. And while building new places is one thing, getting in quality trained teachers and trainers is another matter entirely.
So faced with a challenge of this scale, I am a great believer in how technology can be used to tackle such challenges. In the UK we face similar challenges - how to equip those entering the labour market with the right skills set that industry needs; how do we help those in work continually refresh, improve their skills or acquire new skills.
We do offer an incredible range of courses and qualifications plus our system of loans and other support means anyone who wants to improve their qualifications or skills can do so.
The bulk of these courses are still traditionally taught in colleges, schools and universities. But let me be clear, locating such education in schools and colleges is the traditional bit, how the courses are taught can be anything but.
We want to encourage and empower teachers and training to embrace and exploit fully the opportunities offered by technology. That doesn’t mean simply throwing money and resources into technology just for the sake of it. The actual kit is one thing. More important is how that kit is used.
We’ve changed how teaching is measured to allow more teaching to be delivered online - allowing teachers to ‘flip the classroom’ so that staff can concentrate on those activities that add the most value. We want greater access to online content. We are upgrading the IT infrastructure to support more and more online and Cloud based activities.
The JANET6 computer network links all UK further education, higher education and many of the most important research establishments with possibly the fastest computer network in the world, allowing vast amounts of data to be processed and shared. We are funding improvements to ensure all colleges have a robust connection - for there is little point in having world class content on-line if you don’t have a reliable connection.
And we want technology to enhance and improve the learning experience. A favourite ministerial example is the use of haptic technology to allow dental students to practice techniques without terrorising volunteers!
Joking aside such technology allows hard, expensive or dangerous techniques to be virtually practices time and again in a safe environment before ‘going live’.
But all that is still in the traditional educational environment. What about massive open online course (MOOCs)?
I was very pleased to see the launch of FutureLearn last September. MOOCs are already providing very popular - I see India is one of the top 4 users. FutureLearn is a quality product with the advantage that it is device neutral - can run equally well on mobile, tablet or laptop. And I’m very pleased almost a third of FutureLearn courses are VE.
But FutureLearn is just the start. I want to see far greater use of MOOCs and online learning for skills and education, bringing education to those otherwise excluded or think ‘it’s not for them’. This offers a low risk way for individuals to try out education - at no cost.
The traditional education model requires physical daily attendance at set times. Automatically this excludes those who are physically remote, have physical or mental handicaps. But also those who have to work to support themselves and their family, or have childcare or other caring commitments. Or for perhaps many of these reasons do not yet have the entry qualifications they need.
This is a matter of justice for individuals - And what a cost to society and the country. What a wasted opportunity.
But put that course online as a MOOC or other similar course. Put it on mobile where far more people have access, and all of a sudden, all of these excluded people have access to education and skills when they want it, where they want it for them to study what they want.
The sheer numbers using these forms of on-line learning shows the demand. I have no doubt whatsoever that the challenges of educating far greater numbers of people in India - and elsewhere - means that online will become the norm. Especially with courses that reflect the needs and wants and are not just academic ‘for interest’.
That is why I welcome the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) mobile MOOC, giving people access to skills and knowledge relevant to them, helping them to improve their employment prospects.
Far be it from me to say what will and will not work in India. What I will say is we in the UK have already found many different uses and ways to use online education. We are using technology to help provide basic skills and to allow millions to get online for the first time. We are using it to help people for whom English is a second language to improve their language skills, and we are using online courses to help students bridge the gap between school and university.
There is a thirst for education here in India. Together we can strengthen education for both our countries, so that more of our peoples can fulfil their potential, and the future of the relationship between our great countries can be yet stronger.