Thursday, April 02, 2009

India: Up, Close and Personal - Another B-School?

My visit to India this time around was dominated by discussions about setting up or collaborating in B-School projects. I mentioned in an earlier post, there are thousands of B-Schools being set up now. Suddenly, this is the new craze. Everyone seems to be betting that this recession will make corporate India go on a sabbatical. Also that the entry level jobs will become scarce and the graduates will see the value in spending a couple of additional years at a B-School sharpening their skills.

The reason I was seeing the action from close quarters is because I was part of a Northern Irish trade mission which had a few representatives from Northern Irish universities. Everyone seemed to want to collaborate with them. So, the idea was - they set up a B-School, which is nothing more than a Private Institution, and then they give a Northern Irish degree through partnership with these universities. I thought this is an incredibly naive idea, and proved to be right - one university representative commented that they are not in the business of franchising their degrees.

Also, I did not see how this could work. The education in Europe is very different from what we offer in India. In the UK, most business degrees are delivered over one year, and one needs to have significant work experience to get admission into these programmes. In India, MBA is a finishing degree, delivered over two years and taken mostly by people coming out of college. The teaching is mostly theoretical in India, and a lot of emphasis is given on written exams. The Northern Irish universities in question work mostly on coursework and their emphasis is on application of knowledge.

I am not passing a value judgement, though I have one. But I see these two systems as incompatible. I could not see how an Indian B-School can offer an European degree, or at least parts of it. One of the visitors told me that he worked out a similar arrangement with the University of Coventry, whereas the Indian degree was treated as a Foundation degree for the MBA programme, and the students had to go and finish the two semesters in England to get the degree. That was a smart move by the University of Coventry, because they were giving away nothing; the students still had to go and study for an year. That was being promoted as a great opportunity by the university in India, as this was an English degree and the students were completing it in 18 months instead of the usual 24. But, overall, this is one of those hot-air ideas, because the students could still go to the University of Coventry direct and do the MBA in 12 months, without having to go through the Indian university course at all.

Now, the value judgement. I think the European MBA model is good and we should look at adopting it in India. MBA only post experience, though I can see how fake experience certificates will shot up in demand. 12 to 18 month study time is also a great idea, as this will allow the necessarily intense exposure without taking away too much time from a person's working life. And, it is far better to create an application based curriculum than using the method of examination, because when a business problem is at your door, you don't go looking for your textbooks.

The question is, however, whether there is any scope of building this curriculum in India. It is tough, as we do not have the necessary support structure. Besides, the current regulatory structure is a big hindrance. Currently, the government stipulates that education in India can only be offered by registered non-profit organizations. I have no issues with that - I do think that profit-making degree granting business may severely pervert the scope and availability of education in India and discourage meritocracy - but I find the limitations on seats and what one could offer as a course unimaginatively limited. Besides, the bodies which control this are bureaucratic and a system of privilege and patronage, like everything else in India, has formed in education too. So, if you are not bribing or don't know anyone, it will be hard for you to design and offer a new programme. Indeed, it is a very difficult environment to innovate and move forward.

Also, I see all the love for the European degree as a mere gimmick - the institutions are trying to make a few quick buck here than actually trying to build any lasting value for the students. And, this is true for both sides, incidentally; the European universities which comply are also after money and they are throwing crumbs at a premium and selling education as a modern day equivalent of Chinese opium, not a good thing.

The question, however, is whether the environment permits creation of a more innovative MBA programme in India. My idea is to see one emerging, which will be application oriented and industry accredited, academically validated both in India and globally, and professionally credible. One that will adequately factor in new business realities and use technology, both in terms of delivery and content of the programme, and give students a ring side view of the oncoming world. I am usually optimistic and spoke about this idea to a number of people; but it seems most people are after the easy way out, especially in this environment, when it seems money could be made without having to bother about the nuances.

So, I know best to shut up and wait. Failure, some times, is a good thing. One can almost see the current boom in B-Schools failing in India. Like the IT schools failed in 2001/2. The failure can be spectacular, and may result in student unrests and social turmoil, because most B-school students are handing out quite a bit of money. My counsel is to stay away from this for the moment, though there is great demand and opportunity to offer good programmes. I know the government will significantly change legislation soon and open the sector, mostly for further abuse in the short run. But, like in everything else, dust will settle here too and the champions will emerge. With a little sense, we would have escaped the pains and incivility of the Darwinian world; it seems, however, common sense is extremely uncommon in India and we must learn the hard way.

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