Wednesday, February 05, 2014

U-Aspire: Towards A New Model

Vocational Education is designed to be a poor man's thing. It is for those kids who faltered through the school and didn't do okay in the things that matter. Those who couldn't get the right GPA or work out the system of examinations to get a good college. Those whose parents never went to university and didn't know what counts in the game to get to good college. Those who perhaps couldn't pay the tuition for the private school. You get it - those who are not smart enough, not connected enough, didn't know enough.

I see this as an opportunity. Because the whole system of exams and colleges are so misdirected. They are almost always preparing people with wrong skills and abilities, for professions that may cease to exist soon. I could see a model of vocational education that could be constructed on the back of various government attempts, vain and pointless as they may be, and provide a disruptive force in the education sector of the developing countries. 

The reason for being so optimistic about vocational education is because the opportunity to innovate in vocational education is quite wide. Because it is a poor man's thing, no one gives much attention to it, and therefore, regulators, who keep all kinds of education innovation beholden to vested interests in these countries, are less fussed about what happens in vocational space. The current outpouring of money in vocational education has already been mostly pocketed by big companies under useless projects, but there is still a smattering of it available for small companies for the sake of legitimacy of the whole thing. And, besides, a bit of Jugaad, despite my deep aversion to the spirit of shortcuts that this means, goes a long way in vocational education, but does not help in highly regulated Higher Education space.

So, this is what I want to do: I want to create a network of vocational education training centres for vocations of the future. And, I want to create a model by which the learners get self-esteem at the same time, and not just feel like a failure as they usually do when they arrive in vocational education. This is against all cultural stereotypes in these developing country settings, but I want to create an opportunity for people to say that they did not go to college and they are proud about it.

This, I hope, will result in better education. For a start, the students we train will be able to do something, will be good at something. They will have none of these middle class confusion and aversion of doing anything by hand. This may sound idealistic, but the only idealistic assumption there is in this plan is that with the right stimulus, everyone can think. And, once unleashed from the stranglehold of education regulation which are mainly designed to ensure that social privileges don't spread out too much, vocational education of this type can be the change agent these societies need.

I am thinking in these terms because mentally, after labouring with U-Aspire for more than a year, I now seem to know what I don't want to do. I have come beyond the initial proposition of U-Aspire being the conduit of British education abroad: While we still offer British courses, we do so for its merit and design advantages, not because of its Britishness. This allows us to think about costs and designs that are appropriate to countries it is offered in. The second change, which I am getting at as our first course cohort in India come together, is that I have given up on the goals of pleasing investors, and focused instead on making it worthwhile for our learners. This means small groups, focused offerings and less time spent on thinking how to scale or what our margins are. I think it was a huge mistake that we spent so much time thinking about these issues, alongside the customary business plan, initially. I am at a point when I have realised what a wonderful opportunity there is to create a worthwhile model for vocational education by being responsive to the markets we operate in, once we are ready to play the long term game.

Therefore, this new plan: To create U-Aspire Academies to offer a range of courses in Entrepreneurship, Digital Media, Creative Professions, and Business, a space for people to learn skills really well at a global standard and start their micro-enterprises. My starting point is India, where we are planning to leverage our partnership into a Joint Venture and create the centres on our own. These ideas, that we need our own centres and that we would rather establish a model on the basis of vocational education, are new, but I have a deja vu feeling once I got to it. At the core of it remains our original ideas of global-local education, competence-based learning and deep engagement with companies and start-up ecosystems; but the additional element is to manage the environment and pedagogy that we initially planned for. This somewhat reflects a reversion of importance of scale, and the fact that we are less focused on Higher Education, though all our courses will have a Higher Ed pathway. The learning is immersing, delivered with deep engagement; it is funded through the existing arrangements of funding vocational education. The courses will be delivered in English, and learning the language will be one key part of the overall learning experience.

This is indeed not a big change from the original model. But there are important differences: We thought we would deliver courses using partner facilities and personnel, but now looking for greater involvement and control. Though we do the same courses, our proposition is pivoting to the 'vocational training' space rather than playing the Higher Ed game, which means a change of target audience and the value proposition. This is now less about doing a British qualification, but more about doing a flexible qualification which allows competence-based credits to be counted towards an educational qualification. And, finally, this will be about entrepreneurship at the core - an idea I always carried with me - rather than jobs and employment, as Higher Education is deemed to be.

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