Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Laureate in India: Interrogating The Model

Should Laureate International University's recent engagement with Pearl Academy of Fashion in India be considered a pointer for things to come?

Laureate International Universities is one of the biggest For-Profit education companies worldwide, and it is one of the first among its peers to get into India. Given that India has not yet finalised its Foreign Education Providers' Bill, and does not technically allow For-Profit involvement in Higher Education, Laureate's involvement is something of a coup de grace for Indian education policy-making. Though this engagement seems to be fairly low key - there is not much Internet noise on this 'partnership' yet - it clearly shows how the Indian Higher Education policy is easier to negotiate with than it seems.

Given that we see so many British colleges and universities fret about legislation in India, this is one example of quick decisive action by a For-Profit entity. But this move has other attributes worth considering. 

First, Laureate got involved in the super-premium segment of the Indian education sector, in line with their global strategy. So, this flies in the face of "India = Cheap" conundrum, which afflict many universities looking to expand in India.

Second, Laureate got involved in a company, which is not, technically speaking, an university in India. Pearl Academy is not even recognised by AICTE, India's Technical Education regulator. On their website, they claim they don't have to be, given what they do. But this shows the chasm in India's education policy - they teach Business Management alongside other things and offer Foreign degrees - so it is hard to see why they fall outside AICTE's remit. However, whatever it is, AICTE is actually less of an issue than it is commonly seen to be. Again, Laureate's disregard for AICTE accreditation is not merely For-Profit adventurism, but the sort of realism that is needed to do anything in India.

Third, Laureate got involved Fashion and Design, though this may not be the immediate starting point for anyone thinking about Indian Education. But this is surely a very clever decision. The rationale for this can be found in a piece of research Parthenon has done evaluating the worth of 'foreign' degrees in the job market. Their conclusion was that while a foreign degree may help a candidate to be preferred over others who don't have them, there is not much salary premium for getting foreign degree, except in some professions. The professions where a foreign education counts for a salary premium - thus justifying higher fees - include Design and Digital Media (and Hospitality and few other things).

These three strategic dimensions of the Laureate operation - the premium segment, focus on brand and quality of education rather than regulatory compliance, and emerging disciplines rather than traditional ones - may serve as a model for others when they think of getting into India. Laureate has done other acquisitions in India, the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in Dehradun and University of Technology and Management in Shillong, which indicates that they have gone beyond the traditional comfort zones of the big cities and are comfortable in making big bets in rather unusual places, tapping into the regions of India which foreign operators usually shun.

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