Monday, March 10, 2014

U-Aspire: Building SmartColleges in India

When we initially conceived U-Aspire, our plan was to focus on what we do best: Designing Curricula, assuring quality and managing technology. The plan was to develop a network on learning centres, across different countries and locations, which will market and deliver these training programmes. The underlying assumption was the existence of spare capacity in these institutions, and that it would be inherently attractive for them to market an additional programme, which will lead to better usage of capacity as well as help lift their profile.

Several months into the project, we know that this aspect of the plan needs revisiting. We have weaved together an innovative programme in International Management, as a starting point, and built elements of branding, technology and partners around the same. However, our initial focus on India as a market meant that we were to deal with the most complex education market in the world straightaway. The size of the market, its complex regulatory structure and less than optimal operating norms, and competing structures of vocational and higher education providers meant that it needed a large scale effort to get into the market. Despite the fact we quickly realised this, and focused our efforts to some specific cities rather than trying to achieve large scale engagement in India, our start-up capacity meant that we have only been scratching the surface. Something needed to be done.

We have responded to the complexity and challenges of the Indian market through three inter-related strategies. The first is a deliberate shift away from the pursuit of the low engagement model where a partner on the ground drives the initiative forward, and into looking for more substantial engagement, through an acquisition or setting up own channel. Secondly, we have focused on creating an ecosystem around what we do - not just education delivery but also the activities upstream and downstream, with employer engagement and possible provision of student funding - which will negotiate the complexity of the system. And, finally, we are positioning ourselves to leverage the activities and excitements in the vocational education segment, rather than wading ourselves in the chaos and corruption of India's Higher Ed.

These three things together add up to a strategy of setting up SmartColleges in India, which will offer Practical Work-Based Programmes to undergraduate and graduate students, based on a tried-and-tested competency based model borrowed from the UK. Despite the excitement in the recent years, India's efforts to create an effective vocational training sector have come to naught: If anything, the Government intervention in the sector has undermined the longstanding private players and shifted the focus away from professional skills and led to a gross decline of standards. Our plan is draw upon elements of the government programme in the vocational sector, easy availability of finance, employment linkages etc., and create a hybrid pathway that allows the students to gain access to Higher Education. In summary, we want to obliterate the divide between Higher and Lower education and offer something totally new to the students.

All programmes that the SmartColleges will offer - and indeed the plan is to start with just one to set the standards - will have few common characteristics. First, they will all be global, in content, outlook and standards. This is not so much about giving them a British qualification but more about giving it the British way, delivered in English, based on 'learning to learn', with emphasis on interactions, practical application and critical understanding. Second, they will all be delivered in the twenty-first century mode, blending technology, fieldwork, research activities and global community interactions. The Indian education sector, despite its late-mover advantage, is usually blind to technological progress, and we are seeking to change that. Third, these programmes will all be employment-linked, and in most cases, will be delivered in conjunction with employers. This is our big challenge but one we are willing to take. This is why we are looking to acquire training companies which have deep employer connections - this is usually better in vocational education than the naval-gazing Higher Ed institutions - and we want to leverage this into real projects and work experiences for our students. Fourth, the programmes we offer - in International Business to start with, and then in Digital Media work and other areas - will include not just the technical subject areas, but a range of exposures and activities needed by the real workers in the real workplaces. They will focus on, as any practical programmes should do, all the 'soft' tasks that accompany any job but never get taught - selling ideas, negotiating and finding middle ground, delegating and taking responsibility, and most importantly, learning to ask the right questions. And, finally, these programmes will hopefully also imbibe the culture of lifelong learning, that education is more than mere consumption and getting educated is usually about the start of a journey than its end. We do this by focusing on the values and ideas that shape a productive life, and these are more important in twenty-first century life than it ever has been, and making it an integral part of the education proposition.

So, with all this, the proposition of U-Aspire changes, and I hope, for good. This is no longer about doing British qualifications and beaming the British lecturers over the Internet, but rather establishing real delivery mechanism with the values and ideas fit for twenty-first century. Time to be bold, I am saying to myself: This is the kind of big bet that I was looking for. With the other projects coming upstream in China, which is based on similar ideas but will be led by our Chinese partner, and hopefully in Malaysia and Africa too, I hope that these deep engagements will shape the next few years of my life, and the work we do.  

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