Saturday, March 09, 2013
Between May 2010 and September 2012, that's little more than two years, I took on a job which was unlike anything I did before, or will ever again do: I chose to work for a mid-sized private college, offering professional and higher education in the City of London. This was unlike anything I have done before because, at the time I joined, the college was going through massive, even traumatic, change: I was brought in as a part of that change, and spent rest of my time trying to take advantage of the change to drive more change. I shall possibly never have to do the same things again, because, private colleges in Britain, at the time, was mostly proprietary, and small businesses in terms of sophistication and strategy, but was suddenly exposed to a massive market expansion due to the growth in demand in emerging markets: This was a combination of a rather immature enterprise into a fast-growing market, not a rare event, but one that usually occurs once in a while for a given industry and does not repeat very often.
I have had several, good and bad, experiences while in the college, which gave me an insider's view of the change in private sector education. I have spent most of my working life in Education, in India and South-East Asia, working with a sophisticated IT education (not Training, as the courses used to be two to three years long, and gave people diplomas which got them jobs) company, which was world-leading in its business achievement and management sophistication. But a private sector college in Britain was a completely different ball game. In more ways than one, it was an adolescent in the adult territory: A business form, led by a charismatic owner, which was suitable for a small scale, personalised operation, suddenly exposed to a huge global demand which completely overwhelmed it; and, limited process sophistication and academic capability, reliant mostly on tutors moonlighting from public sector universities, but dealing with high intensity Undergraduate and Masters degree courses from UK universities. So, this was completely different from the orderly life that I was used to, where one had the capacity before the students came in and one has to carefully plan marketing to attract students and compete in the marketplace; walking into this college in 2010 was to experience a groundswell of students who kept coming regardless of marketing sophistication and education capacity. Coping with it, and putting it into a structure while dealing with several conflicting interests and demands, was the most exhaustive hands-on change management work I had to do, ever.
It was not glamorous: It did not give me the track record or awards and medals. But I couldn't have asked for more because I joined the college to 'learn about private higher education': I learnt what could go wrong and how to set it right (and how it could go wrong again). Also, I did not win in the end. Apparently, my two years effort came to nought when the owner of the college decided that he had enough of the private education business and sold the college, against our advice, to another private college, which seemed to me at a lower level of process maturity and educational commitment. I was offered a role in the combined entity, along with some of my key colleagues, but we treated this as a failure of what we were trying to do - transform the business and turn it into the hub of a global network for higher education - and left to try to turn our plan into a new business. However, this failure was fascinating too: It offered us a reverse reassurance about how big the job of transformation really was and that if we did not change the college as much as we wanted to, that was not for lack of our efforts.
I am writing this story today because, after six months of cooling off period, I feel more comfortable with what happened. This is partly because the business we set up has started to gain traction and I have started feeling comfortable that there was nothing wrong with the plan. This is also a moment for us to dive deep into the lessons learnt, because the logic of private education makes a number of things that happened in the college fairly plausible for any business unless one is reflecting and learning all the time. Also, some of the wounds have healed: I don't feel angry about the episode anymore. Besides, I have started discovering how this somewhat chaotic experience of driving this college through the huge changes in the marketplace has contributed to my own learning - I have done this in different contexts in different countries, but this was an unique problem in an unique sector, one that I am engaged in right now (therefore, the things I learnt are more relevant). Finally, this story can be a useful part of my own academic research - whether market mechanisms introduced in education changes the nature of education itself - and recounting this as I see it is an useful device to assess the events with hindsight and perspective.
To give a sense of how it started, I should begin by saying that I used to know this particular college and its owner for a few years before I went to work for it. I tried to explore doing a few deals together, but never actually signed off anything: However, I personally liked the owner, who was personable and charismatic, and the environment of the college, which was friendly, informal, relaxed and accessible. One could turn up at the college and see the principal without an appointment, which I had myself done a few times, and a small team of people, which was mostly recruited from former students, seemed to treat the owner/principal as a father figure and gave the place a very closely-knit feeling. The students seemed happy: In fact, I spoke to some of the students in the college's only overseas branch in Poland, and they were full of praise and suggested that this was the most highly regarded Accountancy training operation in the city of Krakow. This happy story was how the college looked in 2008, which gave me a very promising picture of what private sector education could look like, and I was very keen to build a global network (my obsession for a decade now) around it.
It indeed changed well before I joined as an employee. I remember visiting the college with an education entrepreneur who was visiting London in the Autumn of 2009: I wanted to introduce him to the owner of the college and turned up, as usual, without a prearranged appointment. This time, however, we couldn't step out of the lifts on the usual third floor of the building where the college's main office was: The lift and the corridor was crammed with people and there was simply no space to get out. We had to go up another floor and took the stairs. It took us time to wade through the crowd, which looked more like a train station during rush hours than a college reception, and the usually friendly receptionist turned down our request to see the Principal, as he was too busy. She explained this was because the college had admitted 3500 new students, up from its total capacity of 1200 students only a few months earlier, and was having difficulty to cope with the number. I apologised profusely to my guest as we stepped out of the college: He was excited and wanted to invest in a campus in London instead.
This unusual high point in student demand for private sector colleges in UK in 2009 was brought about by many factors. Indeed, there were horror stories about bogus colleges and migrants pretending to be students abound, and was true to some extent. But, there were multiple factors at play and ignoring them, as we often do, make us miss the narrative about the global demand for higher education. The surge in demand that I am describing now came about for this college due to three reasons: The demand shift from Australia to Britain, the British Home Office deciding to take the opportunity and grab student market share and a readiness from British universities to experiment with formats of partnerships and courses, which happened around the same time. For this college, which was never a bogus college but a small specialist accountancy college with a happy environment, the key markets in South Asia suddenly exploded, as students suddenly stopped going to Australia after high profile incidents of racial violence and a hard line stance by Australian government towards immigrants; at the same time, the British Home Office was adopting a stance of allowing students in without stringent English language checks or fund requirements. Added to this was that the college was now offering pathway diploma programmes, which were considerably low cost than an university degree, and could lead the students to a direct entry into the third year of an undergraduate degree programme. This quickly became their best-selling programme to the middle class students, for whom doing a degree from Britain was suddenly plausible.
Indeed, this means chaos, but it was hard to resist willing customers for a private business. I am sure someone with a little perspective would have seen the catastrophe around the corner, but this was more like the Internet sites that go down for a sudden surge of users, which feed folklores rather than horror stories, and for everyone involved, being overwhelmed was perhaps a deeply pleasurable experience. From inside their cubicles, this was as if the whole world is recognizing their genius, that sweet moment of reckoning every start-up always wait for. Such carelessness did shock me at the time, but I was outside rather than inside: I was using conventional measures of risk to a business which was not a Plc or had any government backing. The biggest risk on the table for an owner driven company is not to have enough customers and going out of business: Oftentimes, they are not even prepared for the opposite catastrophe.
Unlike my guest on the busy day, the surge of students did not enthuse me. Truth be told, I was put off by the chaos and the disarray I saw. My notions of high quality education led by a Guru were all wiped out, and what I saw resembled, well, a peak-hour train station, hardly a place where one would enjoy working. Yet, when I heard, only a few days later, that the college's recruitment has been suspended by UK Home Office, apparently for recruiting too many students within too short a period of time, and this had thrown the entire team in a mad scramble, I volunteered to come and work for them to sort out the mess. This, I thought, was my opportunity: However counter-intuitive this might sound, I saw the strong core could still be restored, capacities created and the chaos managed. It sure turned out to be harder to do than I thought, for reasons which I had no foreknowledge of: But this was a perfectly opportune moment for me to jump in.
Truth be told, jumping in was not easy. I did not see the power structures inside the college clearly, but once I engaged, I started discovering the complex relationships that ran this college (and was common in the sector). Indeed, since the college's commercial success was brought about by its recruiting agents, and the college had one 'super-agent' in India, most of the key decisions were influenced by the owner of the agency, and his brother, who was functioning as the Head of Recruitment of the college. Indeed, there was a clear conflict of interest: The more applications the Head of Recruitment accepted, the more money his own agency based in India (and their sub-agents) would have made. To make matters more complicated, the IT Technician of the college, who was the owner's confidante and helped him link up with the university, the key to recruitment success, was competing for influence, and this man also started a parallel recruitment business on the side, where he converted the website inquiries into commission-paying admission deals. My mistaken pitch to become a Marketing Manager for the college, with the objective of 'repairing the brand' and 'creating a global network', unwittingly upset them both. So, it took me four months of convincing, several meetings with the owner and others, to get in: I was somehow convinced that I could build my global education network on this platform and was ready to keep a low profile to get started.
So, I started - as a marketing manager without portfolio, without powers to touch the website or any of the courses, without people reporting to me or resources, non-threateningly enough for powers that be. The practical lessons in the politics of the college prepared me enough not to raise my head above the parapet, and in honesty, I decided at the time to try build a subsidiary entity, using the college's platform (accreditation, partnerships etc), rather than cross swords with the management team and get involved in the operations. But, in an instructive case of unintended consequences, a coalition of interests suddenly formed around me: The person who ran the Professional Education in the college, a good-natured person who was serious about education but was not courageous enough to say no when something went wrong; the Director of Post-graduate Programmes, someone with a decent academic background but without power to influence events or resource-allocation; Academic consultants and tutors who were horrified by the chaos and abuse but not close enough to do anything about it; and lastly, a section of new employees, who came from outside and despite being more capable, were outside the circle of former students and privileged in-groups, who wanted to have more order in their work. While I kept a low profile and avoided conflicts with the two powerful men in the mix, I spoke my mind and made it a point to address any abuse or mistreatment of students if I came across any: I could justify this citing my marketing brief and that this would be 'good for the college'. The fact that I could go up to owner and speak my mind (whether or not that resulted in action), allowed a number of people seeking a channel of expression coming close to me, and support me in some of my clean-up endeavours. Indeed, my risk was that of being used, and I was cautious about personal agenda etc., and only too aware how dysfunctional the workplace was at that moment. But, I did steer through the maze well enough, and managed to survive without major conflicts and consolidate my 'constituency' in the first few months of living dangerously.
Then, in July 2010, another crisis presented an opportunity for me to do something meaningful for the college. It was an ugly crisis, the University validating the Post-graduate programmes of the college got concerned about resource availability and teaching infrastructure, and suspended the recruitment in their programmes till the problems were sorted. This was a time when the college just addressed the Home Office suspension and started new recruitment: This second suspension nearly drowned the college and put it out of business. It was clear that the conflicts between the Head of IT, who grew in influence and became de facto COO of the business, and the Director of Post-graduate Programmes, a well-meaning but marginalized academic, were driving the whole college, through this suspension, into a crisis. I was put in charge, somewhat unexpectedly, primarily on account of my serendipitous friendship with the Programme Director, who was deemed critical for saving the partnerships. I was not sure whether my brief was to save the Programme Director from the disruptive interferences by the Head of IT/ COO, or if it was just the opposite, to secure re-validation from the university and eventually replace the Programme Director myself. However, I was clear about my goals of building the global network (and not that of becoming a Programme Director) and wanted to seize the opportunity of creating real change leveraging the crisis, which was what happened next.
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