Sunday, January 05, 2014

Private Notes: On Setting Up A New University in India

If one is to set up a new university today, what shape would it take?

This isn't a theoretical question. Simultaneously with the predictions of university's demise in the West, which is perhaps overblown, the rate of creation of new universities all over the world has only accelerated. This is particularly true for the newly industrialising countries like India and China, where the governments are keen to create additional Higher Education capacity to accommodate the aspirations of the rapidly expanding middle classes.

From the vantage point of the makers of the new universities - these are, it must be made, mostly private endeavours - the questions about its shape and structure are of secondary importance. They are indeed responding to a market of nearly bottomless demand. For example, India's graduate population, already at more than 25 million, is expected to reach the 40 million mark in less than 10 years from now. For the 600 odd universities in India, that will be a vast growth to handle, even if the number of universities double. This dramatic growth in demand obscures the question of purpose and structure of the universities and makes it a merely academic point.

However, answering this question may be more important than it seems. An university set up without a strategic view may fail to realise its full potential, in terms of market share and financial performance, and if it matters, social impact. It may fail to respond to the changes in shifts in the job market, and indeed, the job markets in the newly industrialising countries are far from stable. And, ultimately, it will face competition despite the significant expansion of demand, for the most capable segment of the students (hence, the most profitable) as they look to build their brands. 

From talking to universities in India and China, I am aware that this is unnecessary business language for them: They are, I am told, not in the game of differentiation, just standardisation. But this build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy has proved to be ineffective in many industries, even in these countries, as even these rapidly expanding markets are fiercely competitive and the customers, students, are more aware than we give them credits for. Following yesteryear's templates are not very effective and existing universities know that already: Their business models are currently working by expanding their reach into new segments of population as the economic prosperity creates new demand, but this is neither profitable nor sustainable.

As the new universities enter the market, they need to anticipate not just the market demands as of today, but also at least five years' hence. The job markets they would prepare graduates for lie in the future, and indeed, in the emerging markets, three to five year is an entire lifetime. Without a careful strategic approach, they would be sleepwalking to disaster, and will forever remain dependent on the regulators keeping the gate closed on competition rather than building a sustainable sector. Needless to say, this is not just business talk: The strategic thinking is needed even to provide a meaningful education.

The point is that this differentiation need to percolate down to every sphere of the university, including its architecture, courses, admission policies, people practices, academic ambitions and standards, employer linkages, research activities and publications and so on. One of my English university colleagues, after touring Indian colleges with me, described how surprised he was about the decision making in these private universities: most decisions are made on the fly, responding to the market demands, mostly as an entrepreneurial company will do. This may appear a refreshing change from bureaucratic culture of English public universities, but this is inherently unsuitable for an enterprise whose products - students - take several years to prepare. Besides, such decision making hardly produces joined up thinking: Most university activities appear to reflect the Chairperson's whim of the day. Besides, most universities, coming out of as they did from proprietary or family businesses, are run with a culture and structure built on loyalties rather than independence and merit, which undermine strategic decision making further.

While this may make grim reading, the sunny side of all this is that it is really easy to create a new, different universities. The governments are mostly willing, and market conditions are favourable: The competitive space is weak with too few universities, all mostly following failed templates. One good effort, led with strategic insight, will immediately make a difference, and can capture best students, scholars and opportunities quickly. This is indeed my agenda as I am looking to advise an upcoming university in India regarding strategic developments. 

My suggestions so far have been simple: To create a joined up strategic vision for the university looking deeply in the market for graduates and students' own preferences. This is consistent with my view that Higher Education sector often seeks to serve itself and responsible educators must look outside in to define what constitutes a meaningful education. I am hoping that I can help the university team bring together a consistent, long term approach pervading all aspects of the university, and make it a truly forward-looking, global endeavour.

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