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Reimagining Higher-Ed & Building the Talent-transformation Engine for the Future: The Scaler way
Scaler is helping the deeply aspirational India achieve its true potential by democratizing privilege (otherwise endemic to only top-tier institutes) for a technology-first future of work.
Digital skills are the new English
We live in an age of incredible technological flux. A new constellation of innovations[i] is shaping yet another evolution of our technological system. Whilst the sheer pace of developments is exhilarating (crypto, metaverse and tokens seem to have replaced hypertext, broadband, and AOL),[ii] we are still muddling through the paradigmatic impact on our societies, particularly the workforce.
A technological system is of course more than a mere concurrence of technologies in the same place at the same time – rather, its components are interlinked and interdependent. For e.g., the second iPhone made the mobile web usable, and operated the iOS App Store, which made wireless networks and smartphones useful at scale. This helped reduce the cost of each component over a period. In such a linked system, when some of the technologies progress faster than others, the laggard becomes the limiting factor.[iii].
The rate limiting laggard in this technological system is the global shortage of skilled workers.[iv] By 2030[v], demand for skilled workers will outstrip supply, resulting in a global talent shortage of more than 85.2 million people. Left unchecked, the financial impact of this talent shortage could reach $8.452 trillion in unrealized revenue by 2030.
As computational progress continues to become faster and more efficient over time[vi], the high velocity of continuous innovation and its compounding over time has reduced the half-lives of skills dramatically. Obsolescence of skills is no longer a generational event. Continuous skilling has already become a necessity.
The pandemic has only accelerated this seismic shift. In this brave new world, the skills which will drive learning in this digital age[vii] are those which (a) add value beyond what can be done by automated systems and intelligent machines; (b) enable operating in a digital environment; and (c) help individuals to skill continually. Digital skills are the new English and new versions are getting shipped every day.
Higher education must shift from poor learning to skilling, from poor outcomes to employability.
Transformative higher education is a powerful lever that builds momentum for a person’s (and a nation’s) future by: (a) unlocking access to capital, resources or networks that were previously inaccessible to them due to socio-economic barriers; (b) building critical reasoning; and (c) challenging conditioning through exposure. Whilst the first two benefits augment a person’s immediate employability, the last one is formative to their identity. Transformative higher education thus enfolds within itself the deep potential to enable socio-economic upward mobility whilst simultaneously enhancing labour force productivity.
We are a country of two India’s. Even as we have produced 46 unicorns in 2021, the share of wealth of the wealthiest 1% has risen from 33.5% in 2000 to over 40% in 2020[viii]. As a ~$2000-per-capita economy[ix] aiming to become a $10,000 one, we have failed to formalize our economy as ~1200 large enterprises contribute to nearly 40% of the GDP. We have jobs, but our wages are not rising fast enough. Our struggle to scale manufacturing and provide that as an intermediate safe landing to our farmers persists[x]. Our women labour force participation has been declining for the past 10 years[xi]. Only 45% of our graduates are employable[xii].
Unlike other developing Asian economies, much of the post-1991 economic growth in India was led by the IT services outsourcing boom. The largest tech giants in the world are headed by Indian-origin CEOs. India has evolved from being the de-facto outsourcing and back-office hub of the world, to emerging as the proverbial melting pot for churning out quality tech talent[xiii].
And yet, for far too long, poor employability has plagued India’s employers. The addressable universe of talent in India with background in engineering is at 3.5 million[xiv]. However, “less than 1.5% of engineering students from IT branches can correctly compile code.”[xv]
India has nearly 50,000 colleges, universities and technical institutes. 65% of the total are privately funded and contribute toward 40% of the total enrolment. Our gross enrolment ratio of 27% is half of China’s. In most developed markets this is in excess of 50%. With more than 60% of the colleges enrolling less than 500 students, the higher education ecosystem is fragmented and deeply broken.[xvi]
Legacy regulatory preference for physical infrastructure over learning/job outcomes, inability to cultivate vocational colleges and impaired ability to attract high-quality talent at scale has left us a residue of broken promises and a vicious cycle of: (i) fragmented supply of infrastructure (ii) poor quality human capital deployed in colleges (iii) pedagogies which divorced learning from outcomes. Today, we have a deeply inequitable ecosystem where the top 15% of colleges drive millions to attempt an array of entrance examinations whilst the bottom 85% have limited accountability. That the top 15% cater to those who can afford $10,000 or more further limits our ability to build a robust talent pipeline for the future.
Thankfully, despite the gloom, the tailwinds of the New Education Policy, 2020 (with online degrees being permitted), private capital in Ed-tech, and the pandemic-induced increase in rate of adoption of online learning are all catalysts which can further help us redesign the landscape of higher education for accountability and outcomes.
Given the reverence for engineering careers, we have an opportunity to dig deep and make digital literacy the primary means for enabling wage premiums; to build out business models that enable SMEs to scale through aggregation and serve international markets, thereby leveraging the non-formal SMEs ecosystem to our advantage[xvii].
However, for this digital future of work it is important to avoid the congenital, structural flaws that plague our higher education system even as we design to overhaul and replace this ecosystem. We need to go beyond repair. We must redesign the higher education ecosystem.
Back to the basics: key design principles for transforming higher education
A. Designing job-readiness for the future of work and unbundling it from traditional forms of higher education. By unbundling job-readiness from traditional forms of higher education, we improve the talent pool which wants to own solutions. Students don’t require a traditional degree to become digitally literate or acquire 21st century skills that are needed for an increasingly digitized world. For many, job-readiness could be a curation of such skills with robust apprenticeships that sets them on the path to mastery. Digital, alternative career schools will remove the need for higher education if they cater to mastery of core digital skills, thereby radically enhancing job-readiness.
B. Building capital-light, digital-first models designed for outcomes, which can leverage a smaller pool of high-quality talent more effectively, and at lower cost. This will unlock pedagogies which guarantee outsized outcomes, at scale. It is not possible to build a higher education system which depends on large pools of high-quality talent. Historically, such a constraint has never been satisfied – whether for K12 or higher ed. If we reflect on this some more: the legitimacy of online learning as a delivery mechanism was growing prior to the pandemic; following the pandemic, given the extensive adoption, the world has transformed. Technology will drive delivery rather than merely leading on content creation.
C. Adopting cohort-based learning methods at scale, using technology. This will be key to repairing endemic learning losses of most candidates who pursue higher education. With flexibility to curate smaller cohorts digitally, we can create a version of learning-at-the-right-level for higher education/skilling models.
D. Resetting the standard for accountability. As the success of MOOCs and the growth of competitors in this space demonstrates (boot-camps such as Udacity, General Assembly), students care for relevant, outsized outcomes typically linked to improved employability or career advancement. Organizations which can guarantee jobs of the future through outsized outcomes are the ones who will be able to build and sustain a new, better standard of accountability.
E. Insuring talent against obsolescence through community building. We believe that within each cohort, rebuilding personal narratives by learning industry-relevant, life-changing digital skills resulting in improved employability engenders a sense of belonging that outlasts the immediate reason for coming together. Such a community which has been stitched together over a shared purpose of aspiration and self-discovery can truly last forever if it also becomes a vehicle of continual learning and career advancement. Thus, membership to an agile tech-first community that is deeply entrenched within the tech tribal ecosystems insures talent against obsolescence.
Scaler Academy is democratizing privilege by creating an online, socially woven, community of the tech talent, engaged through constant skilling and retained through career advancement.
In his deeply nuanced work “The Hidden Brain”, Shankar Vedantam illustrates (implicit) bias with a deceptively simple example - “Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.”
Relentless reinforcement of any form of bias (implicit or explicit) cripples talent from realizing its true potential and harms an individual’s ability to imagine their potential. We build narratives about ourselves, caged within the restraints of others’ biases. Whilst bias may arise from differences in identities, it is certainly exacerbated by privilege. Privilege limits access, the foundational cornerstone for equitable outcomes.
Arnab and I grew up in an India which continues to be viscerally uncomfortable with individuals owning their selfhood. Growing up, we understood privilege initially as victims of bias. However, as we got access to opportunities denied to most of our peers, we realized that our personal narratives are a complex weave of privilege and bias. Sifting through this narrative and rebuilding our stories is hard and time-consuming, but essential for us to realize our true potential.
If you are reading this, you are likely a native English speaker – i.e., you are privileged. Whilst evaluating the degree of privilege is a highly subjective and a deeply personal exercise, acknowledging it throws up a more hopeful question which is brimming with potential: what are we doing about our privilege?
Anshuman Singh and Abhimanyu Saxena are transforming higher education in India by democratizing the privilege of working in technology for millions of Indians. Anshuman undertook this journey because he experienced deep empathy for his family members and friends who were denied opportunities only because their resumes did not signal IIIT or IIT. Abhimanyu grew up in Amarkantak where news showed up 48 hours late[xviii] and he encountered a computer for the first time when he joined IIIT. Both have a visceral understanding of every learner’s desire to re-write his/her narrative and unlock their true, hidden potential.
Today, Scaler’s full-stack learning platform up-skills technology professionals through a unique, immersive online course with a proven value proposition (~2.5x pay increase; 93% placement rate), has created a vibrant community of engaged learners. The company has demonstrated best-in-class career and learning outcomes for ~2,100 learners, showing early signals of robust community-led, organic engagement (daily engagement per learner of 186 mins; 45% of doubt solving by community) and has built an aspirational, loved brand (NPS of 65; 780+ repeat hiring companies including FAANG) for up-skilling ambitious working professionals who come to Scaler for learning. Nearly ~70% of Scaler’s alumni are from what we would consider as tier 2 college or below and have eventually gone on to occupy roles in 58 of the 83 odd unicorns in India. By 2026, Scaler aims to build an actively engaged community of ~720,000 enrolled learners across different stages of their continuous learning journey – whether graduate learning, up-skilling or re-skilling.
While the world struggles to shore up its skilled workforce, India will likely be the only country with a skilled labour surplus of ~250 million workers by 2030[xix]. We are primed to build for the world. Scaler is helping India achieve its potential by building a world-class tech-led social learning community. This is because Scaler fundamentally believes that its learners are better swimmers than what the world would give them credit for.
For the deeply aspirational India from a Dindugal, Hajipur or Sangli who wake up every day, dreaming of working in the Silicon Valleys of the world, their passion for learning is their tool for survival[xx]. By building a world-class learning community which is accountable for outcomes and designed for the future of work, Scaler is helping India transform this aspiration to reality. Its success will enable a transition to a world of work where you are judged for your demonstrable skills rather than signalling privilege through an acronym, however revered. We are privileged to partner with Anshuman, Abhimanyu and the Scaler team on this exceptional journey as they help unlock the demographic dividend of India.
[i] Carlota Perez’s seminal work, “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital” and Chris Freeman and Francisco Louçã’s “As Time Goes By: From the Industrial Revolutions to the Information Revolution”.
[iii] Thomas Hughes in Networks of Power: Electrification in western society, 1880-1930.
[xiv] EdTech in India, An Omidyar Network India-Redseer Report 2019-20. In 2020, 38.5 million students were enrolled in UG, PG and diploma courses, of which 23% graduate each year, amounting to 9 million graduating students per year. 13% of the graduating students pursue B.Tech/B.Engg. We’ve assumed that only 60% of the B.Tech and B.Eng. universe are employable as software engineers. This amounts to an addressable universe of ~1 million graduates. 19 million Indians were engaged in white collar jobs in 2020 – ~12% of which are at entry level jobs in the IT services sector. This amounts to a total addressable market of 3.4 million technologists.
[xvii] Defining the skills that citizens will need in the future world of work a report by McKinsey.
[xviii] Newspaper delivery took time.
[xx] Inspired by Carl Sagan’s quote in Cosmos - “Our passion for learning...is our tool for survival.”