Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Story in Person: My Indian Calling

When I started on my project on building a global university, a friend advised me not to involve India. Because, he said, India is chaotic, its Higher Education system completely corrupted by get-rich-quick schemes and mercenary institutions. This was, in a way, a known fact: The Economist called India Education's Wild West and it was an apt description. However, for the very reason of being the wild west, it was attractive: It is not just the wild west, it is also the biggest opportunity in education that exists today. It is a combination of large number of aspiring young people, a broken Higher Education system and employers constrained by lack of employable manpower: Something that an education company usually dream to solve.

However, there was wisdom in my friend's advice: His point was not about the lack of opportunity, but the possibility that no matter how well-intentioned the project was, it is easy to get crowded out in India. Because no one seems to be doing a good job, students do not seem to care about good education any more: They just want a degree, having to do least amount of work and spending the least amount of money. 

He is certainly right: That's exactly how things work in India. But, two things still remain attractive to me. First, when asked what our USP is, I usually give this complicated answer that in education, doing things well is an USP. It makes sense in India by sheer contrast (When I am asked how do I prove that we are doing things well, my answer is that at the point of contact with us, students talk to people who understand education and learning, which is often not the case in other institutions). Second, I am still optimistic about India. I know that students do not care about education is not true. Students do, just as we did when we were at college. The college owners do not care, the regulators do not understand, but the students do care about good education and that's why India's top colleges are so very oversubscribed. This is why so many Indian students come to the top universities in around the world. This is why Indians still top the world in doing all the technical certifications, which they study by themselves. And, this is why even the private schools and colleges that do a good job in India still do very very well.

Where the education thing has gone very wrong in India is the Government's supply side focus on Education: The rhetoric is constantly about how many millions of graduates they would want to produce, how many thousands of colleges they would want to open, how many IITs and IIMs they would give the country. At no point, there is a discussion about doing things well. While we hear that India needs a few million teachers and the government will fund, through its usual crony network, some kind of teacher training, nowhere we hear the government talking about developing an appropriate, rigorous teacher training framework. At no point, any Indian minister ever admits that the country has anything to learn from another country, such as Malaysia or Singapore, which has actively engaged and created mass education models worth emulating. It is the obsession with big pronouncements, not unlike the Soviet era quantity racing, that ails the Indian education sector in general, and Higher Education in particular.

Then, there is this supply side conception of how regulation works. India has not moved on from its Planning era, and have assumed that if you put a regulatory body in place and give it the power of life and death, good education will happen. If indeed India learnt from its own history, they would have known that in such cases, only corruption happens. Regulation is about creating a system of checks and balances, not just putting a few bureaucrats in charge. With India's quality assurance system, a static conception of quality - a checklist - has been put in place, very easy for moneyed people to meet. But this ignores all the dynamic aspects of educational quality, student experience, teachers' reflective practice, critical engagement with curriculum, all of it. The burden of bureaucratic regulation always fall on innovation and this has happened in India.

If anyone cared to look, they could have learnt from other successful quality assurance systems - which are dynamic in nature and puts a premium on critical engagement with educator's practice rather than any asset checklist. They also work with an interlocked system of self-governance, with associations of university administrators, with empowered student unions, and engagements in research circles which keep the conversations relevant and constantly moving. Indeed, empowerment is still considered a dangerous idea, and there is this assumption that self-governance does not work. But this is precisely India's bigger problem - that it is always assumed that the chosen few knows what's good for the rest. Therefore, rather predictably, India has created a hand-me-down regulatory system based on bureaucratic whim and corruption, which was broken at birth and only serves to strangle innovation and enterprise: It is devoid of the concept of self-responsibility, rigged in favour of the rich and the unscrupulous, and fails the students even in educating them about education. It is, in all senses, a dangerous market for a start-up to delve into.

However, change is coming. I remain optimistic as I am sufficiently close to the ground and see the panic in bad colleges about students voting with their feet. Suddenly, the inexhaustible supply of students have vanished. Like deers caught in searchlight, these institutions, which never understood or cared for anything educational, think it is about price or employment opportunities. The hunt is therefore for pliant employers who will somehow take their graduates in, a journey that usually ends up with Engineering Graduates becoming merchandisers in shopping malls, further depressing the interest in education. Prices also go on a downward spiral, stretching the already unsustainable college finances to abyss, making them hire fresh graduates with peanut-like salaries to teach, thus reinforcing the cycle of pointless education.

This presents an enormous opportunity for disruptive innovation. The ingredients we have identified is a  global certification (with the quality benchmarks and recognition it brings), competence based education (with student empowerment at its core), good teaching (which, unfortunately, is not common), use of technology to connect and to deliver (which is a given for the generation of students but remains an anathema for most college owners) and a pleasant student experience built around stimulating learning, sense of community and global career development. We are aiming to build all of this around what we will call the 'the new paradigm of business', courses that equip people to work in the age of Google and Apple rather than the Industrial Age, and prepare mind sets for global, hyper competitive and meritocratic world of work. This is, we believe, the kind of education Indian students need as India prepares to move from being canon fodder of world's back offices to the front line of global business confidently. Our qualifications are Professional, rather than Academic, so we fall outside the stranglehold of regulations in India; yet these will lead to Advanced Standing entries to British Undergraduate and Postgraduate degrees, opening up 'academic' routes to any student who may be interested.

It is indeed a big challenge and will need lots of work. But, once we are aware of the risk and built a sufficiently diverse portfolio, which we did by engaging into other, less complex, markets in Africa, East Asia and Southern Europe, India remains an alluring opportunity. Our Board Members agree: A Senior Colleague, however, suggested that this would work only if I am personally ready to go and live in India for a period of at least 12 months. I have now taken this on board. Our current strategy is to build one or two centres in close coordination with partners who are distraught by the current state of affairs and trying to break the mould. I have personally committed myself to this - building the next generation educational institution in India is what I want to do anyway - and that commitment extends to living in India, temporarily or permanently. 


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