Wednesday, March 26, 2014

UK-India Education Partnerships: A Personal Perspective

I often get asked about doing business partnerships in India, primarily, but not exclusively, by UK educational institutions and training companies. Indeed, this is my day job, because the UAspire proposition is largely based on building partnerships in India: Lot of my work is now directed towards writing reports and strategy papers on the same. However, my usual advice to those who approach me to do the work has usually been to turn around and ask - why do you need to get into India?

True, India is perhaps the World's most exciting Education market. It has all three things that an educational institution may thrive on - lots of students, a not-so-good domestic competition and an industry hungry for skilled employees at all level. It is English speaking and most of its institutions are shaped by the colonial legacy, which makes it even more attractive to British institutions. The Indian institutions and businesses, potential partners, show a prima facie interest in attaching themselves to British institutions, and usually quite welcoming to British delegations and visitors. So, there are many reasons why an institution could be interested in India.

Yet I ask. This is because India is not for the fainthearted. The magical promises of the market have rarely been realised. Indian businesses are savvy - they hold the promise of the market access as an effective negotiation tool to extract a good deal - and even their awe and humility are more negotiation stances than a real position. In reality, these are pragmatic businesses or institutions acutely aware of what they want or need, and quite effective in extracting the same from the British partners.

It is worth exploring why so many partnerships come up short. This is definitely not just because the Indian business savvy trumps the British straightforwardness: Quite the opposite, most British negotiators come to the table with some kind of imperial grandeur and forget that successful partnerships can only work on the basis of value creation. They are often as hard-knuckled as their Company predecessors were, and often have an expectation that people will pay just for the pleasure of doing business with them. And, then there is this ephemeral thing called Quality: I am often asked whether Indian students would want to pay for a Quality British product? My answer: Quality is what the market needs, not what someone thinks quality should be. There is a lot of examples of overshooting the market, with over-engineered products and meaningless overheads. And, indeed, I feel the Indian sense of quality - functional and street-ready - does not arise from lack of taste or knowledge, but the essential pragmatic nature of the society.

So, the real point of my question is this: Are you ready to commit? If not, the British institution will approach Indian market as sort of an underdeveloped market, where they can pass on the obsolete, the suboptimal, the unnecessary, at a good price. This has been the predominant engagement model - design efforts to enter India is unheard of - and this is a sure sign of impending failure. India may be exciting, but competitive too: Indian institutions may be underdeveloped in more ways than one, but they are attuned to their market and accumulating capabilities. So, the other model, creating a model fit to operate in Indian market, which is what I usually suggest. And, indeed, I get blank looks.

Surely it is Marketing 101 to suggest that the students should take precedence over 'we are British'. But that is ever so difficult to explain: Therefore, most Education Partnerships become a plaques on the walls, but never produce any students. The Indian side of the same equation is buying into British partnership, to be put on the wall and just that. Its all a fair game, just meaningless.

Is it worth engaging in India at all, then? It sure is, the fundamentals are just too great. But a consistent strategy is needed, backed by real commitments - as someone should do while entering a market. Indeed, I am trying to do the same in my own business: After having identified a business in India where the values match and collaborative work looks possible, I am trying to raise money to buy into this business, design product propositions to be delivered through this business and even committing myself to extended stays in India to make this happen. My ideas have come a full circle: I know without the deep commitment, India does not work.

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