Education: Excellence for few or access for many?


Singapore ranks #1 in the global PISA rankings.

Just four US universities (Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, MIT) have produced over 400 Nobel laureates.

About 82% of Danish citizens are enrolled in post-secondary education, while over 2% of the US (over 6 million people) can call themselves doctors – either medical or through a PhD.

So what’s the right measure of a country’s educational prowess? Which of these countries offers the ‘best’ education?

In his great new podcast, Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell offers a strong vs. weak link framework to understand advancement and higher education. To use a sports analogy, a strong link sport is one where one superstar or high-performing individual can often influence outcomes, as in the case of basketball. A weak link sport is one where an above average team with no tangible superstars will often beat a mediocre team with one superstar. Leicester City’s league win in last year’s English Premier League is one such example. Gladwell uses this framework to explain why the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in England – where a large number of common folk were proficient tinkerers – rather than in France or Germany where the elite few had attained remarkable heights. He proceeds to compare Stanford – a strong link university – with Rowan University, a small and deliberately weak link university in New Jersey.

What constitutes a good education? And as an educator, should you build strong link systems or weak link institutions? In other words, do you focus on access or global excellence? Do you build institutions that enable access to the largest slice of the population or focus on the few most likely to succeed and build a truly cutting edge system?

The tempting answer is ‘both’. Where possible, we should combine breadth with depth. But let me throw another complication to the mix – what in Mathematics is often called initial conditions.

See, the initial conditions – the starting point – aren’t the same for all countries and communities. We don’t have the same populations, resources, values and levels of homogeneity. Here in India, we’ve made a concerted effort to build strong link institutions – IISc, IITs, IIMs and AIIMS. We are justifiably proud of graduates from these institutions, and these graduates occupy a majority of the senior leadership positions in academia, business, medicine and even startups. But we don’t seem to be doing as much about wide-reaching access to good quality education. I’m not talking about nominal access – on paper. I’m talking about access to the kind of education that can help you learn and even master topics, get a good job, perform well in that job, and build a strong career. Millions need this kind of education, the kind of education that launches a million careers in a thousand companies.  We aim to be just this kind of an institution, but I’m sure we are not alone in this endeavor.

If you know of transformative weak-link educational institutions that improve access to high-quality education in India, please write to We would love to work with like-minded people to improve learning outcomes.