Monday, June 27, 2016

8/100: Creating An International Education 'Pathway'

In 2012, I set up a small company with a few other people. The essential idea behind this venture was to create an International Education proposition, a 'pathway' programme that could be delivered in-country and which allow the learners to earn credits that could be used to get an UK university degree with a shorter duration. We chose to deliver Pearson Business Qualifications, which meant the students completing these qualifications in their own country could come to UK and complete an Undergraduate degree with only one additional year of study. 

This business did not work as we intended. There were several business reasons. We did not raise enough money, or, to put it the other way, our ambitions were not aligned with the kind of money we had in hand. This was the big reason, but there were other reasons too. 

For example, our business plan rested upon another assumption: That countries like India have created a lot of educational infrastructure in the recent years, most of which is lying vacant. We assumed that we can build collaborations with these new institutions, and use their infrastructure to deliver a blended learning collaboration. I believe, however, we made a mistake assuming that these institutions will not only give us the infrastructure, but also promote the qualification, both to their own students as well as to new candidates. Indeed, this is related to money - we did not have much in the kitty to spend on student acquisition - but this simply did not work. And, as evidence that this was a critical mistake, the same model worked in China, where, more for regulatory reasons than anything else, we partnered with a local Chinese training company, who in turn were supposed to work with universities etc., and they did manage to attract students. 

The other issue we perhaps faced is that we were trying to do too many things at the same time. The Pearson qualifications were competence-based, and we wanted to deliver it accordingly, creating a completely new paradigm that local colleges were not accustomed to. At the same time, pressed to get them on our side, we highlighted that these qualifications were really pathways to UK degrees, and got drawn in the conversation if there is a guarantee of visa and indeed, whether these qualifications can get them to Oxford or Cambridge (which it could not). 

In 2014, when the business was becoming economically unsustainable - too few learners - we requested the Chinese partners to take over the students and conversations, which they did. I spent the next two years solely focusing on Competence-based Education, exploring the idea of demand-led degrees and working with large employers to create strategic talent development programmes. That experience was eminently worthwhile - it allowed me great insights not just on student decision making but also how employers approach recruitment of fresh talent, and a number of fresh ideas about the 'business' of International Education.

First, that degrees and universities are not dead and obsolete, but they are as strong as ever. This may have been the conversation in the United States, but in most parts of the world, and particularly in India and China, degree studies are expanding and earn a decent premium in the job market. If anything, the wages for High School students, and those with non-recognised degrees, have plummeted, and therefore, good degree programmes are at high demand.

Second, there is strong demand for International Degrees, as it presents an advantage in the local labour market. However, not all International Qualifications, and particularly those from lesser known universities, earn a premium. An in-country provision of an International Degree or a properly designed pathway therefore has great advantages, but it may not be right to price it against international benchmark. We made this mistake, as do countless other businesses, who ask the wrong question: How much it would have cost them to study abroad? The problem is that they are not studying abroad - those who can, would still do - and the benchmark is really against local provisions.

Third, in order to build a cost-efficient, high quality delivery of International Degree and Pathway programmes, we need to have technology. The point, however, is to think through what this technology is for. In our earlier attempt, it was about using UK-based lecturers to interact with students. However, this added to costs but did not enhance student experience, and one of the main obstacles we faced is to make such a system work in classrooms due to poor Internet connections on campuses (the individual internet connectivity is often better than the ones found in campuses in India, though nothing is anywhere near OECD standards). 

Fourth, the disruption at the workplace, both on account of automation and new formats of globalisation (driven by local demand in developing countries, requiring different professional abilities and innovative imagination), is real and not a developed country thing. Local skills, relationships and knowledge are now exceedingly important, and while international education can benefit a person significantly by extending his/her perspective and augmenting critical abilities and soft skills so important in the new workplace, it may equally undermine his/her ability to work locally, build local networks and engage. This balance is critical, but it is not an either/or thing, and one needs to have both.

A year or so ago, when we started talking to our Chinese partners to take the lead in the business, I declined an offer to get seriously involved in the proposed new structure. At that time, I was deeply interested in building what we called at the time 'Concurrent Employment', a sort of apprenticeship proposition that built learning credits out of real life work. However, my interests have changed since, particularly as the shifting nature of the workplace became fully apparent to me, and I have started realising something I have 'known' before - that an educator must go beyond the immediate job opportunity, and rather start with the person of the learner! In fact, more I appreciate the value of learning from practical work and real life, the more I realise the limitation of training for a particular job: The job is not the point of education, the person is - and the commercial impertaives of educating for a job obscures the person altogether. So, my interest in creating International Pathway programmes, which creates global exposure with local engagement, is back. And, I shall claim, this time it is different.

Apart from my interests in real life work, I now want to build the solution ground up, providing face to face support and making local education fit a global framework rather than the other way around. However, at the centre of the proposition, I shall keep a College degree, that middle class totem of prosperity, but will aim to avoid either the degree-selling or job-selling business. I am yet to spend time in designing the proposition in any detail, and spending time now in connecting with fellow travellers and all those are exploring new formats of Higher Ed, but my idea is to develop a Global Leadership course, which will be built on real life work and will provide pathways to university qualifications at good universities in different countries. My assessment of my earlier, aborted, venture is not that we had been too ambitious, but that we have not been ambitious enough: This time around, I am not willing to repeat that mistake.

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