Sunday, April 13, 2014

On UK-India Education Partnerships

One of the things I get to do is to talk many UK institutions about their partnership plans in India. This is partly because of my engagements in the India Education Conclave last year, and partly because of my general interest in the area: However, this is not a commercial activity for me, and my interests are primarily educational and of maintaining links with India. 

This gives me a rather interesting position of being both an insider and an outsider to these conversations, having just enough knowledge about the negotiations but a disinterested perspective, which is quite beneficial. I have noted my frustrations with the limited perspectives that the UK institutions often take in these partnerships, making the students the losing side in these transactions. (See the earlier post) What was left unsaid, however, is that the role the Indian institutions play, which contributes equally to the failures of these partnerships. 

Understanding the dynamic of an Indian institution seeking partnership with an overseas entity is important for the UK institution trying to establish such partnership, but this is often the most overlooked aspect. The UK institutions are often so certain about their 'brand', their intellectual superiority and their desirability to Indian institutions and students, that they almost never pause and think about such issues: They are taken as self-evident. However, most Indian organisations approach UK institutions not because of any superior intellectual input, but just that they want their plaque on their wall, to project they are a forward-looking institution with overseas partnerships, rather than offer any value-add to their existing students. 

The logic Indian institutions offer to their British counterparts regarding their inability to offer UK programmes to their students is that the Indian legislation is quite restrictive in this regard. However, considering that most Indian educational institutions are owned by the rich and the powerful, this is surprising. More than three quarters of the members of the Parliament have an interest in an Educational institutions, and often they directly own them; a similar proportion of the members of the State Legislatures have this as well. So, if this access to British degrees was seen as a desirable thing, the Government would have passed legislation. The fact that the Indian government does not, can not, allow Foreign Institutions in India, is a reflection of the approach of the Indian institutions towards foreign partnerships. They want the names, but nothing else.

But why don't they innovate? The obvious reason is that they don't have to. The students are coming anyway. Indian student numbers are expanding rapidly, and education as a panacea for life goals is firmly established. So, the business of degrees is alive and well, and an institution does not need to innovate (particularly as they have very limited capacities anyway, restricted by quotas defined by intrusive regulators). This works as the market remains quite tightly regulated, out of reach for any foreign competitor, out of bounds for any disruptive innovation. The students are losers, indeed, but who cares anyway!

The British institutions, when they engage with Indian institutions, are often surprised by the decision-making process of the Indian institutions. Everything, to the UK institutions used to five year strategic plans, seems knee-jerk, ad hoc, to them. But this may be for different reasons than one would suspect. The key, and perhaps only, strategic play for an Indian institution (and perhaps true for most businesses in most emerging countries) is to manage the Government and the regulators: Almost everyone has a long term play to manage the risk associated with them. Everything else is one opportunity at a time. So, the engagement with a British institution is hardly seen as strategic, but just something on the table: This is problematic, but the British institution can also hardly complain, because that's how they approach it as well. Indeed, the end result here is that the relationship does not work - and everyone loses.

The question is, however, can these partnerships work. My advise to most institutions I deal with these days is to have a broader approach to partnerships, and look at the whole South Asia rather than just India. India is the big prize, but its strategic and long term: quicker wins, which many UK institutions now need to keep their enthusiasm in these austere times, are easier to have in the other countries, such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and for the brave, in Pakistan. Interrogating the Indian partners on their motive of partnership is a good start: If they can't go beyond talking about a large number of students on the table - it is always the same story in India but these students are savvier than expected - it is safe to assume that the partnership will not work. Neither of the parties should go into a partnership just because there are a chunk of students to recruit: That's not what good education partnerships are all about. If the conversation is about how the two institutions can create better education, then, and I shall contend, only then, the relationship may actually work. And, this is indeed why who actually fronts the partnership becomes important: The business people on both sides talking the language of opportunity have messed up so frequently that perhaps some educational perspective better serves both sides now.

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