Monday, June 22, 2015

My Adventures in Indian Higher Education

If the title of the post sounds cheesy, it was meant to be that way. I am about to complete an intense year of working on a project to introduce a new kind of Higher Education model, one that brings the educators and employers closely together, and this experience has allowed me new insights and ideas, apart from all the airmiles, a permanent state of jetlag and a number of new friends and correspondents. So, there must be an afterword, which I intend to write now, which captures both the journey and a sense of arriving somewhere, only if to embark on another journey.

To tell the story, I must start with the assumptions that I had. The most crucial one perhaps is that India is ripe for education innovation. The rationale is simple - India has a growing young population buzzing with aspiration, an education system which is struggling to catch up and a large services sector which needs millions of workers but can not find them - and therefore, there is space for new educational models, bridging the gaps. An easy one perhaps, given that Indian public institutions are not doing a great job and the private ones, except very very few, are even upto scratch! 

Apart from this key assumption, which underscores why India must be on the agenda, there are other assumptions to be tested as well. One, that India has a large number of English speaking students, which creates a market ready and available for foreign qualifications. Two, that Indians prefer foreign qualifications as they know that the qualifications from Indian universities are often not good enough. Three, that if one could, using the online technology, create an innovative model which makes available a foreign degree at an affordable cost, most English speaking Indians would love it. And, finally, with all this abundant and emerging demand, expanding marketplace and tech-savvy young students, Indian Higher Ed sector is on the cusp of several innovative breakthroughs. 

My on the ground involvement, adventure as I call it, was a great opportunity to test these assumptions. I was indeed aware of the nature of India (being of Indian heritage myself) that if anything can be true for India, its opposite would also perhaps be valid. So, my approach was more to reflect rather than conclude, to come up a new set of testable assumptions rather than one final strategy, and to decide what I do next rather than where the Indian market, as a whole, will go. 

So, here is an update, which, given the nature of the beast, is a work-in-progress. 

The key assumption that India is a key market for education innovation is true, because the underlying numbers are certainly correct. However, as one prominent Indian Education investor pointed out to me, there are important social and economic factors to be taken into account. For example, Indian Higher Ed sector is not as competitive (because of its highly regulated nature, the funding structures and underlying corruption, which I wrote about earlier) and the additional demand due to growing young population and available funding through the banking system, and therefore, the incentives for innovation are low. And, this is not just the supply-side phenomenon. The Indian job market is still dominated by public sector and publicly supported enterprises, or businesses which deal with the public sector, which introduces a conservative approach to educational decision-making. So, while there are many forms of popular non-degree propositions - some of the largest IT training companies came from India and MOOCs are increasingly popular - Indian formal education market remains as conservative as ever.

It is also important to understand the nature of the Indian service sector businesses. Most of the employment in Indian service sector is focused on the internal markets, requiring a certain level of skills which the foreign offerings often overshoot. The export-facing sectors, such as the IT and IT Services, which often are more visible than their relative economic size (and particularly in terms of jobs), are often locked into low-skill jobs, which do not appeal to the more aspirational segments of the middle class. So, contrary of business strategy assumptions that one would really love to have a job with IBM in India after doing an MBA in an UK university, the students who can afford an MBA in an UK university would aspire for a job in the UK, with a start-up perhaps. Besides, the salaries these large scale IT services employers pay, typically $400 - $500 a month, do not justify the expenses one would have to make to acquire a foreign qualification. 

One can extend these observations to test the other assumptions. For example, in India, the English ability, financial worth and global aspirations correlate very well. Every segment of the Indian student market may be large, but the one most education innovators are aiming for - people who would prefer non-traditional education (foreign degrees delivered online), can speak and write in English, have the money to pay for a foreign qualification and in the end, prefer to stay in India and take an Indian job - is actually fairly small. 

This is not to say there are no opportunities of education innovation in India. There are several. There is a great gap within the formal education sector, and the Indian government is increasingly willing to allow private businesses to create campus-based universities. The opportunities to create new and innovative offerings within the regulatory structure are enormous. Here, the mindset is conservative as far as the acceptance of the degree is concerned, but the willingness to pay and openness to curriculum innovation is very high.

There are also great opportunities in the non-formal sector, where Indian students are increasingly willing to take chances. Many people acknowledge that the formal education does not get jobs - in fact, they accept it to be that way - and they are willing to pay for additional training. Most offerings in this segment are rudimentary, and there is a great opportunity to create offerings at scale. This is where the Education-to-Employment message is most relevant. The cost structures do matter here, because Indian jobs paying Indian salaries are what these offerings aim for, but the openness to innovative delivery methods is high and this is the great opportunity for online education in India. The regulations and award do not matter much, but the connect with employers and jobs do. Employers are also willing to accept this as legitimate - in fact, several employers I have spoken to already employ agencies to make graduates employable - more than any innovation inside the formal education.

There is also a great opportunity to build something aligned with global aspirations of the traditional middle classes, something like Minerva which combine Liberal Education, global exposure and leadership roles. Like any segment in India, this is a large enough segment - something like the whole of the population of Vietnam looking for premium education - and one could build offerings at scale even at this very niche. These are opportunities for brand-name global institutions, or innovative global companies which work with them. Global Professional education is also in high demand - I just met a company which gained quick traction by offering training for CFA and CPA in India - and willingness to pay is high.

And, there is a vast opportunity in the opposite end of the spectrum - the lower middle class, people in small towns and villages, is where the growth really is in India - where skills education can transform lives and service the domestic service sector industries (Retail, Telecom, Insurance and Banking). Here, the cost structures matter and most international offerings are out of sync, but one could perhaps visualise solutions that combine online technology, Indian services, world-class quality assurance with global capital. 

At the turn of the year, therefore, my assumptions stand modified. If I was to start today, I would not construct a start-up offering British Higher Ed Qualifications with an online delivery mechanism aimed at India, as I did in 2012. That model may work in other countries, but not in India. If I was to construct a proposition for Indian Higher Ed today, I would pick one from the four different kinds of proposition that I mention here. 

And, indeed, I have also learned a thing or two about the business of customer segmentation. As I reflect on this experience, I understand the flaws in my imaginary, middle-of-the-road student. The student I imagined, young, tech-savvy, speaks English, have the money, want to experiment, want a foreign qualification and would want to stay in India, do not exist because I super-imposed some data-driven assumptions (coming out of all the different market reports which aggregate people into models) on an imaginary Indian student acting rationally, but overlooked the social realities (like the value of a degree in the marriage market, that visa temples exist in India, that employers are products of the same social reality and do not operate with the cold logic of business strategy all the time). These social factors are often ignored by the flat-world business theorists, who assume that the world is going to converge and these peculiarities (the very fact that we treat these as peculiarities tell the story) are going to go away. However, such assumptions not just lead businesses to wrong path, they often obscure the opportunities. Getting a sense of these opportunities is really my take-home from this one intense year, and I would tend to think, worthy ones.


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