Friday, March 06, 2015

On Distance Learning in India

Remember the good old correspondence courses, which everyone hated but everyone else still  took? Something that became the pathway to easy qualifications - but were also notorious for poor education? Usually synonymous to scams, as stories such as Graham Greene's When Greek Meets Greek (1954) depict, correspondence education, in many ways, was the precursor of today's For-Profit institutions. And, in many cases, and notwithstanding the University of London's pioneering External Programme that started in the nineteenth century, established universities only caught up with it much later. Indeed, since then, correspondence education has really evolved - the innovation led by Britain's Open University is a case in example - but it has somehow never escaped the stigma attached to it. In India, one of the world's largest market for correspondence education, it is usually, and perhaps justifiably, treated as sub par (formally) - and often the programmes are badly designed, pedaled by unscrupulous private operators who often buy university credentials through bribing.

But, then, given the demand side, it still works. There are millions of people in India on these courses, though their hopes are quickly dashed with poor engagement and many of them drop out as soon as they begin. There are public universities like Indira Gandhi National Open University, which has most number of Distance Learning students in the world. Each state has one or two universities with successful Distance Learning programmes, though the quality is often questionable. There are some stellar commercial success stories as well - like ICFAI, Manipal and Lovely Professional University - though all these institutions faltered at some stage or the other, commonly for the lack of adequate quality oversight. There are some other high value programmes, backed by technology, brands and customer service, like programmes from Symbiosis or various Indian Institute of Managements, which operate within the niche of management training.

Considering all this, it is fair to assume that the market is ready right now for a large scale, professional, For-Profit Distance Learning (or Online) offering, which has not materialised yet. Part of the reason is the corruption in the university and regulatory systems, where professional standards are dire and corruption, such as favour seeking and bribing, is most common. This is such a 'market for lemons', dominated by unscrupulous providers, that professional companies usually stay clear of this. The regulatory ambivalence also has a role to play. In the recent years, the Government has attempted to shut down some of the most successful operations, such as Manipal's, and this has created further confusion in the sector.

However, this should not take anything away from the present and clear opportunity. True, everyone gets excited about Indias young student population. But one should equally be mindful about the structural changes in the economy and existence of a vast number of early to mid-career people who need to develop skills and abilities suited for the modern economy. This market, Continuing Professional Education, does not exist in India - and hence, the opportunity! True, Indian employers, at least most of them, do not value such developmental efforts much - and provide little encouragement - but the career changer market in India is huge, and such things can indeed play well in that space.

The trick is, indeed, to stay clear of the Indian regulatory system. The moment any of these initiatives involve an accredited qualification, the business becomes miserable, drawn in the vortex of useless meddling, unending corruption and involvement with the education mafia. The alternative, getting accredited with a Foreign professional body for credibility, is a potent one, but most Indian players do not know enough to be able to do this successfully, ceding the space to foreign operators. And, foreign operators have been very bad at handling Indian market, because they often look down upon it for its supposed lack of sophistication (which is a misreading of the market, given the well-informed consumers) but also get overwhelmed by its scale (which gets mitigated by English speaking abilities). 

So, in summary, it is a great and exciting opportunity for creating a Snapdeal for education. An Indian company which understands India, but has the global aspiration, mindset and financial prowess to set new standards. It is unlikely that any foreign player will really be able to do it, because Indian markets are far too complex when the question of outreach comes in. And, indeed, someone trying to offer degrees may not be able to make it, because regulatory overheads and corruption will invariably sink them in the end. It needs a perfect combination of educational commitment, instructional sophistication, international connections and appropriate financial model - and indeed, the timing, which seems to be just right, right now.

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