Sunday, July 08, 2012

A College in India 1 : The Question of Form

I am spending a lot of time these days talking about a Higher Education college in India. This is my next big thing - I have worked on the idea for many years - and I am hoping that this will finally allow me to find one thing that I really want to spend my life doing. 

Indeed, this is not a short term project and will still take years to play out. Indian regulatory regime is complex and difficult, though there are some signs of opening up in the recent months. The demand for Higher Education is fast changing in India, and a new college needs to tread carefully to balance the traditional needs with the emerging ones. Finally, there are questions of form that I must resolve in my own mind before I commit myself into the project.

The question of form, first: I have spent two years in the entrepreneurial end of For Profit Higher Education and learnt a few things about how the industry operates. More importantly, I have spent a lot of time talking to various Private Equity firms in the last six months and have an idea about how they approach the Higher Ed 'industry'. I do not see any of these two forms as entirely suitable for the college I hope to build one day in India. Any higher education enterprise should be based on careful creation of capacity, some physical but mostly intellectual, and the entrepreneurial mode, while entirely suitable for businesses such as certification training, isn't easily amenable to capacity building (more about this later). On the other hand, private equity's pure pursuit of money and return, often bench -marked against other more 'profitable' industries, creates a negative incentive for capacity building. Besides, it seems that the private equity is completely blind to intellectual development, though they value 'reputation' if that could be a tangible thing, and their quest of process efficiency often means denuding education institutions of its collegiate environment and intellectual commons. 

The For-Profit Education sector has evolved from the certification training business, mostly, with entrepreneurs, goaded by highly commoditised nature of certification training, entering Higher Education space in search of something more nebulous. Indeed, higher education allows them to escape direct competitive comparison and downward price spiral (if you are teaching ACCA, why would I not go to the lowest price provider as long as I can pass?); lucratively, higher education's dynamic often works the other way, an upward price spiral that signifies the higher reputation and quality in popular mind (a £15,000 MBA must be better than a £5,000 MBA!). It is a no-brainer then that moving into Higher Education with the surpluses accumulated from certification training makes a lot of sense for the entrepreneurs. However, while Higher Education is seen as a continuum - it is surely a teacher standing in front of a group of students - there are significant differences that get overlooked by For-Profit Education Entrepreneurs. 

The precise reason why a degree isn't exactly comparable to another degree is that there is more to higher education than just a teacher in front of a group of students. Roughly speaking, one would expect them to 'produce' knowledge - by exploring new thinking and questioning the 'conventional wisdom' - rather than submit to a set standard, professional or popular, as would be the norm of a certification training classroom. The students, in an ideal world, then, may not just be recipients, but agents themselves in the process of learning, and what they should be paying for is being part of an exciting group, which broaden their thinking and make them better individuals. And, if this has to be achieved, the environment inside the classroom needs to be predictable and safe, the teacher committed, the students fully engaged and immersed in the process of knowledge creation. None of that may be possible within the adhocracy of a certification training environment, with a freelance tutor clocking the hours and the students anxious to get to the end line and already wondering whether to buy a brown or black frame for the certificate.

This is why entrepreneurial For Profit education is failing to take the lead, which various governments across the world thought they would. In the invariable second phase, when the consolidation takes place, these smaller entrepreneurial businesses are being gobbled by private equity, which would mostly combine and package them in search of value. Private Equity, in the quest of bigger valuation, understands the point of differentiation that most entrepreneurs coming from commodity trade of certification training missed. However, the unchallenged faith in this circle is that reputation can be created by process improvements (and indeed, by hiring talent), and that is indeed what they look for. However, the problem remains in what one means by efficiency: Traditional business efficiencies such as cost and predictability can indeed be achieved easily. However, the particular efficiencies (if it can be called that) that higher education may need - safety, creative space, student co-production - are not immediately obvious or may not even be achievable within the private equity time horizons. This is where private equity ends up trying to alter the nature of the business - just as their entrepreneurial predecessors did and failed in - dis-aggregating the same into discreet functions such as content delivery, student activities, social life, accommodation and facilities, certification and credentialing, and employer engagement and placement. Jury is still out whether this would necessarily improve education efficacy: Going by a more matured form of private ownership, that of public capital markets in America, it seems that For-Profit continues to lag behind in terms of student attainment. One can ascribe some of that to the non-selective nature of these institutions, but that argument does not stack up when measured against institutions working among the disadvantaged, which avowedly given up selectivity and talent advantages. It may sound alien, but such lack of success may come from the sense of mission, which remains problematic even in the case of private equity ownership.

Given where I am in my quest to get the college project going, I have sought to raise money from For Profit routes (though the delivery arm in India may need to be Not For Profit, given the regulatory requirements) and indeed, I have to think through what this means for the institution. Indeed, there are For Profit companies, most notably Google and Apple, which managed to create and protect creative commons and a collegiate life within their campuses (a deliberate use): However, from the experience of those two companies, it is easy to see how such values can quickly change under the market forces. This is a subject I am sure I shall keep coming back to, as well as having to address the other issues mentioned at the beginning of the post, as I go down the route of creating this project. 

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