Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What's An University For? A View from For-Profit Corner

The issues surrounding For-Profit institutions have been contested around whether allowing For-Profits inevitably means profiteering, and given the prospect of students taking loans to go to For-Profit institutions, profiteering at the taxpayers’ expense. On the other hand, For-Profit institutions argued their case as the ones driving educational innovations in cost and delivery, challenging the status quo in Higher Education, which has, they claimed, failed to change with time.

These battles over entitlements, however, should be seen in the context of a broader debate about what the universities are for.

Collini (2012) defines the ‘modern university’ with the following four characteristics:
“1. That it provides some form of Post-secondary-school education, where education signals something more than professional training.
2. That it furthers some form of advanced scholarship or research whose character is not wholly dictated by the need to solve the immediate practical problems.
3. That these activities are pursued in more than just one single discipline or very tightly defined cluster of disciplines.
4. That it enjoys some form of institutional autonomy as far as its intellectual activities are concerned.”

If this definition is accepted, and these characteristics fall in the broad tradition of what universities were meant to be in the Western world, For-Profit Higher Education would stand in rather stark contrast. First, while For-Profit institutions offer post-secondary education, the focus is often skills and professions, and they tend to tread on the fine line between ‘training’ and ‘education’ (which Collini defines as the ‘surplus’ over the knowledge that is immediately applicable).

Second, the focus in For-Profit institutions is hardly on research: Quentin Hanley, of Nottingham Trent University, studied the research output of For-Profit universities:
He found that since 1993 the University of Phoenix has produced fewer than 200 papers, which have garnered about 700 citations. The university is reported to have more than 300,000 undergraduates and over 60,000 postgraduates.

Dr Hanley said other major for-profits had similarly slight research records. He found fewer than 100 papers with just over 500 citations from Kaplan University, and just over 200 papers and some 1,000 citations from Argosy University.

"Their impact is on a par with a single medium academic at an approximately mid-ranked UK university," he said. "Calling an organisation with no meaningful scholarship a university is a bit like calling a muddy path through a forest a motorway."
(Jump, 2012)

Third, most For-Profits are focused on one or two areas, rather than offering a broad range of disciplines. In fact, offering a tightly integrated curriculum is at the core of ‘cost efficiencies’ For-Profit institutions take pride in. Often, this is done with financial considerations, in order not to spread financial resources too thinly across several areas of scholarship.

Fourth, in For-Profits, the intellectual activities are often seen as a ‘delivery function’, an integrated area of business activity, which needs to move in sync with the overall business strategy of the organisation. While the business managers seldom interfere with the academic arguments inside the classroom, allowing ‘autonomy’ in a limited, political, sense, the For-Profit institutions often obsessively gather data about delivery and student performance. The faculty often work with stringent financial targets, and though the Public universities are no stranger to budgeting, profit focus and incentive structures put the cost efficiencies at the heart of the academic enterprise. [One For-Profit proprietor explained to the author that she did not believe in budgeting because this allowed people to spend the allocated sum of money; it made sense, she contended, to always focus on how to get things done in the most ‘cost-efficient’ manner. ]

However, one could contend that Collini’s definition above is based on a certain view of the university, conceived inside the same institutions it is attempting to define. Besides, this seems to have, at its heart, a sort of teleological reasoning, that the universities are meant to be something and everything needs to fit that form, rather than seeing it as a social institution designed to serve a social end. To be fair to Collini, he is one scholar who would be first to debunk the 'university myth', that these are timeless institutions operating in a certain way all through history, and he states very clearly that the universities have always served social purposes. However, there is insufficient understanding of this from within the public universities, particularly in the UK, presumably because the nature of the university communities, which are 'of the academics, by the academics, for the academics'. One would therefore think the idea of an university needs an update, not just to bring it in line with twenty-first century, but also to bring it in line with our pluralist societies, where we no longer talk about fitting individuals to the purpose of social institutions, but the institutions serving a framework to enable individual freedom, to realise their full potential.

The For-Profit case is usually rested on this 'enabling' assumption. For-Profit institutions often contend that they do a better job at teaching students:

“the pedagogy used by the new generation of private-sector colleges is sound and proven – and in some cases they may do a better job of educating students than traditional institutions. Traditional colleges are more likely to know how many students attended last night’s basketball game than how many attended this mornings economics lecture. They know how much their alumni donated but often not what jobs they acquired after graduation. Too often, traditional colleges measure inputs, not outputs. Many of them could learn much from private-sector colleges, which are doing the most innovative work to use technology, pedagogy, and measurement systems to make sure students are really learning, and to build virtuous cycles that will continue to improve the quality of learning outcomes for many years to come.” (Rosen, 2011)

The For-Profit advocates also contend that they should be seen as teaching intensive institutions. While a romantic ideal of an university as a place where research and teaching comes together is often invoked (most famously, in Clark Kerr’s idea of a multiversity), universities are diverse and have always been: Collini (2012) explains that the Oxbridge ideals were quite different from Scottish, more vocationally focused, universities, which were in turn different from the traditional, city-based universities such as Manchester and London, and the later Civic universities were set up with a different goal and a different class of students in mind. The modern German university, the forerunner of the modern research university, presented a different model. For-Profit advocates such as Rosen (2011) mentions ‘Harvard Envy’ (alternately labeled as Carnegie Creep, with reference to Carnegie Foundation’s classification of Higher Education institutions) as the incessant drive of traditional institutions to become bigger and better, driving up the cost structures and causing an over-reach that its students do not desire or demand. This, it can be argued, come from a rather fixed idea of a modern university, which Clark Kerr himself, in designing the multi-tiered Californian Higher Education system, sought to break. As for the comments about research output, a Senior Executive of an UK For-Profit college told me that an average academic paper gets ‘zero citation’, so the volume of research isn’t worth fighting about.

Regarding the lack of ‘breadth’ of discipline, which is evident even from a cursory survey of For-Profit institution websites, the For-Profit providers cite the trouble traditional universities have in filling their classes. In fact, this is precisely seen as a reason for cost disease in For-Profit circles and a competitive opportunity. For-Profit students, often coming from a less privileged background than those going to traditional colleges, are quite happy to focus on the limited subject choices offered to them. Besides, most For-Profit students tend to work part time and didn’t spend much time outside their class hours at their campuses, ruling out the possibilities of serendipitous learning that a multi-disciplinary university offers.

Finally, despite the differing approaches of For-Profit and Traditional institutions towards budgeting, their approaches to intellectual autonomy are quite alike: It does often get subjected to business decision-making. Discontinuing courses for business reasons, restructuring operations and impact analysis of research activities are all too common in traditional institutions.  Business involvement in successful universities has indeed changed the research focus and activities: Gerhard Casper, a Senior Teaching Fellow at Stanford, worries that “I am concerned that a research-intense university will become too result-oriented” (quoted in Auletta, 2012).

Ruch (2001) describes Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet, characterising American universities ‘as giant warehouses designed to occupy the time of young people that society did not know what else to do with’. Similarly, in an anthropological study of university life, Rebekah Nathan (not her real name), delves into ‘liminal’ nature of college life, a transient state between childhood and adulthood, which is ‘at once an affirmation and preparation for the world and a creative response and innovative challenge to the same world’. (Nathan, 2005, pp 146 – 148). While this appears similar to Collini’s (2012) conception of the university as a protected space, where, presumably, the students can pursue ‘education’, (Howard Gardner defines the objective of education as ‘truth, beauty and morality’) the ‘liminal’ concept of the university is fundamental to the For-Profits. The idea that the university is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, forms the core of the debate that is being explored here. Auletta (2012) writes in New Yorker:

“The United States has “two types of college education that are in conflict with each other,” (Casper) said. One is “the classic liberal-arts model—four years of relative tranquility in which students are free to roam through disciplines, great thoughts, and great works with endless options and not much of a rationale.” The second is more utilitarian: “A college degree is expected to lead to a job, or at least to admission to a graduate or professional school.” The best colleges divide the first two years into introductory courses and the last two into the study of a major, all the while trying to expose students to “a broad range of disciplines and modes of thought.” Students, he declared, are not broadly educated, not sufficiently challenged to “search to know.” Instead, universities ask them to serve “the public, to work directly on solutions in a multidisciplinary way.” The danger, he went on, is “that academic researchers will not only embrace particular solutions but will fight for them in the political arena.” A university should keep to “its most fundamental purpose,” which is “the disinterested pursuit of truth.”

Here, it is possible to see these two competing conceptions of Universities and Higher Education side by side. It is perhaps reasonable to say that while individuals, short on social capital and protected time, always studied for skills to make their lives better, this was never considered to be the realm of Higher Education. However, with social changes and the requirements of what one has come to call ‘knowledge work’, the marginal pursuits of ‘lowly’ skills such as Accounting or Medicine have emerged as rewarding professions (as an anecdote, as late as 1900, the Harvard Medicine students were considered inferior to the students in more traditional disciplines). The traditional universities, even those set up in Britain in the last thirty years, somewhat failed to keep pace with the growing demand, at least partly because of the rather defined idea of the university they have all subscribed to (Collini discusses the tendency of later civic universities to follow Oxbridge traditions or ideas).

In the US, the For-Profits focused on ‘disproportionate number of students who are independent and who have no parental support, have incomes in the lowest quartile, have parents with an education below the high school level, and are racial or ethnic minorities. (JBL Associates, 2008, quoted in Hentschke, 2010). In 2005-6, 37% of the students and 38% of all degrees conferred by For-Profit institutions went to minorities, compared with 25% students and 19% of degrees in public colleges, and 20% of students and 16% of degrees at private, not-for-profit institutions. (JBL Associates, 2008, quoted in Hentschke, 2010) This, in the context, of what Daniel Golden called ‘the affirmative action for rich white people’ at America’s top private universities (Golden, 2007, also see Brown, Lauder and Ashton, 2011) In the UK, there had always been a significant number of international students in the For-Profit sector compared to the public sector. Williams and Woodhall (1979) reported that 46% of all students in the schools surveyed by them, in contrast to just 10% students in public further education. Many proprietary colleges in the UK depended solely on international students, and as the UK Border Agency complained later, a significant proportion of these students did not speak English at the specified level (by UK Border Agency), or did not have enough money to support them. While this led to policy changes which will be discussed later, this paints a general picture of international students without much social capital or financial ability coming to study in the UK. Dr Rahul Choudaha and others, studying the international student market from an US perspective, called the segment of students coming to UK private colleges ‘strugglers (low academic preparedness/ low financial resources)’: The colleges and these students were perfectly matched, as the colleges used education agents and these students, unable to handle the complexities of admissions themselves, depended on the agents for selection of college and courses. [Choudaha et al, 2012a]

It is thus possible to read the history of the For-Profit institutions as a sort of pioneer narrative, serving the aspirations of striving classes whereas the mainstream public and private higher education created and maintained social capital: Rosen(2011) calls the students going to traditional schools ‘automatics’, students who grew up never thinking they won’t go to college. Karabell (1998, Pp 5) talks about students, mainly of community colleges but something that will resonate with students of For-Profit schools as well, making a ‘choice’, rather than taking Higher Education as an ‘entitlement’, as students in elite schools will do: This resonates with what a recent longitudinal study of UK students towards university costs (the university fees were £3000 a year when the study was conducted), where more than 40% students from households earning less than £26,000 a year were ‘concerned’ about the university costs and about 32% of them decided against going to the university. (Ross & Lloyd, 2013)

For-Profits, in a strange irony of sorts, emerged to serve just the type of people Justin Smith Morill (of Morill Act of 1862 fame) intended to serve: “[These people] snatch their education, such as it is, from the crevices of labor and sleep, they grope in twilight. Our country depends on them to do the handiwork of the nation.” (Quoted in Rosen, 2011)


Auletta, K (2012), Get Rich U, New Yorker, 30th April 2012. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/04/30/120430fa_fact_auletta?currentPage=all. Accessed on 26th July 2013.  

Brown, P, Lauder, H and Ashton, D (2011), The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs and Incomes, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Choudaha, R, Orosz, K and Chang, L (2012a), Not all international students are the same: understanding segments, mapping behavour, World Education Services: Research and Advisory Services, New York. Available for download from www.wes.org/ras, Accessed on 1st January 2013. 

Collini, S (2012), What are universities for?, Penguin, London.

Golden, D (2007), The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges--And Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, Three Rivers Press, New York.  

Hentschke, GC (2010), Evolving Markets of For-Profit Higher Education, in Hentschke, GC, Lechuga, VM and Tierney, WG (2010), For-Profit Colleges and Universities: Their Markets, Regulation, Performance, and Place in Higher Education, Stylus, Sterling, VA.

JBL Associates (2008), 2008 Fact Book: A profile of career colleges and universities, Imagine America Foundation, Washington DC.

Jump, P (2012), US for-profit universities 'unworthy of the name', Times Higher Education, 16th February 2012. London.

Nathan, R (2005), My Freshman Year: What A Professor Learned by becoming a student, Penguin, New York.

Rosen, A S(2011), Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy, Kaplan Publishing, New York.

Ross, A  & Lloyd, J (2013), Access for All: An investigation of young people’s attitudes to the cost of higher education using the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, Strategic Society Centre, London.

Ruch, R S (2001), Higher Ed, Inc.: The Rise of the For-Profit University, Page 1, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Williams, G and Woodhall, M (1979), Independent Further Education, Policy Studies Institute, Volume XLV No. 581, June 1979, London.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Story in Person: My Indian Calling

When I started on my project on building a global university, a friend advised me not to involve India. Because, he said, India is chaotic, its Higher Education system completely corrupted by get-rich-quick schemes and mercenary institutions. This was, in a way, a known fact: The Economist called India Education's Wild West and it was an apt description. However, for the very reason of being the wild west, it was attractive: It is not just the wild west, it is also the biggest opportunity in education that exists today. It is a combination of large number of aspiring young people, a broken Higher Education system and employers constrained by lack of employable manpower: Something that an education company usually dream to solve.

However, there was wisdom in my friend's advice: His point was not about the lack of opportunity, but the possibility that no matter how well-intentioned the project was, it is easy to get crowded out in India. Because no one seems to be doing a good job, students do not seem to care about good education any more: They just want a degree, having to do least amount of work and spending the least amount of money. 

He is certainly right: That's exactly how things work in India. But, two things still remain attractive to me. First, when asked what our USP is, I usually give this complicated answer that in education, doing things well is an USP. It makes sense in India by sheer contrast (When I am asked how do I prove that we are doing things well, my answer is that at the point of contact with us, students talk to people who understand education and learning, which is often not the case in other institutions). Second, I am still optimistic about India. I know that students do not care about education is not true. Students do, just as we did when we were at college. The college owners do not care, the regulators do not understand, but the students do care about good education and that's why India's top colleges are so very oversubscribed. This is why so many Indian students come to the top universities in around the world. This is why Indians still top the world in doing all the technical certifications, which they study by themselves. And, this is why even the private schools and colleges that do a good job in India still do very very well.

Where the education thing has gone very wrong in India is the Government's supply side focus on Education: The rhetoric is constantly about how many millions of graduates they would want to produce, how many thousands of colleges they would want to open, how many IITs and IIMs they would give the country. At no point, there is a discussion about doing things well. While we hear that India needs a few million teachers and the government will fund, through its usual crony network, some kind of teacher training, nowhere we hear the government talking about developing an appropriate, rigorous teacher training framework. At no point, any Indian minister ever admits that the country has anything to learn from another country, such as Malaysia or Singapore, which has actively engaged and created mass education models worth emulating. It is the obsession with big pronouncements, not unlike the Soviet era quantity racing, that ails the Indian education sector in general, and Higher Education in particular.

Then, there is this supply side conception of how regulation works. India has not moved on from its Planning era, and have assumed that if you put a regulatory body in place and give it the power of life and death, good education will happen. If indeed India learnt from its own history, they would have known that in such cases, only corruption happens. Regulation is about creating a system of checks and balances, not just putting a few bureaucrats in charge. With India's quality assurance system, a static conception of quality - a checklist - has been put in place, very easy for moneyed people to meet. But this ignores all the dynamic aspects of educational quality, student experience, teachers' reflective practice, critical engagement with curriculum, all of it. The burden of bureaucratic regulation always fall on innovation and this has happened in India.

If anyone cared to look, they could have learnt from other successful quality assurance systems - which are dynamic in nature and puts a premium on critical engagement with educator's practice rather than any asset checklist. They also work with an interlocked system of self-governance, with associations of university administrators, with empowered student unions, and engagements in research circles which keep the conversations relevant and constantly moving. Indeed, empowerment is still considered a dangerous idea, and there is this assumption that self-governance does not work. But this is precisely India's bigger problem - that it is always assumed that the chosen few knows what's good for the rest. Therefore, rather predictably, India has created a hand-me-down regulatory system based on bureaucratic whim and corruption, which was broken at birth and only serves to strangle innovation and enterprise: It is devoid of the concept of self-responsibility, rigged in favour of the rich and the unscrupulous, and fails the students even in educating them about education. It is, in all senses, a dangerous market for a start-up to delve into.

However, change is coming. I remain optimistic as I am sufficiently close to the ground and see the panic in bad colleges about students voting with their feet. Suddenly, the inexhaustible supply of students have vanished. Like deers caught in searchlight, these institutions, which never understood or cared for anything educational, think it is about price or employment opportunities. The hunt is therefore for pliant employers who will somehow take their graduates in, a journey that usually ends up with Engineering Graduates becoming merchandisers in shopping malls, further depressing the interest in education. Prices also go on a downward spiral, stretching the already unsustainable college finances to abyss, making them hire fresh graduates with peanut-like salaries to teach, thus reinforcing the cycle of pointless education.

This presents an enormous opportunity for disruptive innovation. The ingredients we have identified is a  global certification (with the quality benchmarks and recognition it brings), competence based education (with student empowerment at its core), good teaching (which, unfortunately, is not common), use of technology to connect and to deliver (which is a given for the generation of students but remains an anathema for most college owners) and a pleasant student experience built around stimulating learning, sense of community and global career development. We are aiming to build all of this around what we will call the 'the new paradigm of business', courses that equip people to work in the age of Google and Apple rather than the Industrial Age, and prepare mind sets for global, hyper competitive and meritocratic world of work. This is, we believe, the kind of education Indian students need as India prepares to move from being canon fodder of world's back offices to the front line of global business confidently. Our qualifications are Professional, rather than Academic, so we fall outside the stranglehold of regulations in India; yet these will lead to Advanced Standing entries to British Undergraduate and Postgraduate degrees, opening up 'academic' routes to any student who may be interested.

It is indeed a big challenge and will need lots of work. But, once we are aware of the risk and built a sufficiently diverse portfolio, which we did by engaging into other, less complex, markets in Africa, East Asia and Southern Europe, India remains an alluring opportunity. Our Board Members agree: A Senior Colleague, however, suggested that this would work only if I am personally ready to go and live in India for a period of at least 12 months. I have now taken this on board. Our current strategy is to build one or two centres in close coordination with partners who are distraught by the current state of affairs and trying to break the mould. I have personally committed myself to this - building the next generation educational institution in India is what I want to do anyway - and that commitment extends to living in India, temporarily or permanently. 


Sunday, July 21, 2013

'Useful' Degree: Which subject should you study?

Choosing college is one of most excruciating rituals in one's life: Full of dilemmas, hopes, disappointments and illusions of big decisions, an act which makes us middle class perhaps. This is one event that creates an enormous amount of chatter, usually by one's parents but, if things go wrong, even by the neighbours, and among friends: This may mean good byes, and welcomes, losing friends and getting new ones. One anthropologist calls this stage 'liminal', a transitory experience between home and adulthood, a brief period of freedom, perhaps, between compliance and responsibility. But, in the middle of the blinding array of choices one has to make during the period, one that stands out is about choosing a subject - what to study when you go to college?

I am uniquely qualified to speak about this as I made, perhaps, a wrong choice. But, for me, it was never really a choice. I grew up in pre-liberalisation India, and when I went to college in 1986, everything was already set: The people mobility was limited, so I never thought of leaving the city I was born in; there were limited options and seats, so my school-leaving examination really determined what I could or couldn't do; and finally, there were very few job prospects, so my parents counselled me endlessly to do take up something useful.

In my class of about 60 people, 59 tried the Joint Entrance examination, which was the portal for Engineering and Medical careers. It was extremely competitive - only one or two people made it to the thousand student shortlist that the state Engineering and Medical colleges took in - and the rest tried again next year (and for some, again the year after). I was the missing person who never tried, because, at the time, I wanted to be a journalist. There were no courses on Journalism or Media available, so I was pleading my case with my parents to study English Literature or History. I thought my father, an English professor in a local college would be sympathetic. I also thought that my rather impressive results in literature subjects, I got the highest marks in all humanities subjects in the district as well as topped the list in eloquence and literary quiz competitions ran by the State Government that year, would help my case. But my parents, and also my tutors, decided that I would waste my life if I choose to study 'useless' subjects.

In the end, I shall somewhat settle for Economics, a subject I had a rather utopian notion of. A closet Marxist, Economics meant all sorts of things for me at school which, as it would turn out, it was not. But this was the only agreeable middle ground between Engineering, which I chose to pass off, and History, which I so wanted to study. Indeed, there was nothing wrong with economics - I loved the subject when I understood it, only that this was much much later, after I finished college and serendipitously landed in a career of international business; when I shall spend my rather solitary Friday afternoons in Dhaka reading back issues of The Economist, just out of boredom. I survived college somehow picking up just enough to pass examinations, mostly memorising stuff without understanding why I needed to memorise it, which was just fine as that's what was expected of us.

So, my quest of an useful degree meant living through a life which I neither liked nor hated, a subject which I could master but barely connected with. I emerged with an indifferent degree and went on to do my Masters, discovering, along the way, computer programming, which, strangely enough, I liked. Looking back, I know because I volunteered, took risks, did unexpected things, my life did not become a complete disaster. But it was very very close. I felt the most useless when I had the 'useful' degree in my hand but couldn't do anything very well. I had an Honours degree in Economics, and even a Masters, but was clueless about what I wanted to do. I was lucky that I was working in a networking firm the day I finished my Masters examinations and I never went back and spent another day using anything I learnt in college. I have barely ever mentioned my degree, except much much later, when I felt confident and developed a view point, only through independent study, life's experience and work.

My father would confess today that it was all a big mistake. He didn't stop my sister when she went on to study history; in fact, he encouraged her. How much of this is because he learnt from my experience, and how much of it was gender roles (that my sister, being a girl, was not expected to earn for herself, and therefore didn't need something 'useful') would remain a conjecture. And, surely, I am not sulking, as my life moved on its strange way, not because what I knew or what degrees I had, but what I did. I realised later that curiousity, openness and flexibility had been far more influential in shaping my life than any degree or work experience I had: It did feel precarious most of the time (as it does now), but I drew pleasure from what I did, after I finished living each phase of life. I was almost proud that my life turned out to be all agency and no structure.

It was only much later in my life I shall go back to university again and complete a second Masters. This time, I followed my heart and did not pursue anything useful: I studied Adult Learning. I loved what I did: It did help that this was one of world's best universities, so I was surrounded by very smart people and could participate in stimulating conversations. This was all about open-ended pursuit of something I really wanted to understand. It was not completely utopian though: My work life centred around training and education of adults. I worked in businesses, set up some of my own, but the content of the work I was doing for over twenty years was always about dealing with adult learners and making them learn something. But this was not a teaching qualification I was doing, nor what I studied allowed me to earn any professional brownie points. It was my own deep pursuit of an understanding what I was really doing, and how to do it better. This was my rather slow, long (it took me four years to complete the MA, as I did it alongside work) and deliberate exploration of my practice, which included lots of apparently purposeless studies in philosophy, sociology and history - the history of universities in America, Foucault and Bourdieu, history of psychoanalysis and structure of collaborations that lead to innovation. A Master of Education that I earned in the end, even if this was from University College London, was unlikely to be of any value or get me a job, particularly in contrast with something like an MBA, which I could have done at the same cost of time and money. 

But, that's the point - it is never the degree, but how you study that matters. Despite the claims of all the education thinkers, three/ four years that we spend in a college is a really short time to change a person's character. Higher Education neither shapes one's life nor makes him/her automatically productive, because it only works alongside so many other forces that shape our life so much more profoundly: Our families and communities, our schools, our work, our love and relationships, our health, our circumstances, finances, bereavements and travels, all define a slice of ourselves, putting a layer on whatever we learn from college. What the college can uniquely do is to make us open, curious, flexible, give us a way of looking at all our disparate experiences and a way of making sense of all of these. It can help us feel empowered to answer that first question that we mostly leave unanswered - what we really want? It was only much later in life I felt confident to open the lid of this very important question: I felt forever disempowered, forever at the mercy of others, forever dependent on making decisions for me (whether by offering a job, promotion, opportunity or something else). 

I hate those people who tell me that I can be anything I want to be. I know that is the language of privilege, of being born into opportunity, where everything is indeed possible. I have tried, but I couldn't be what I wanted to be. But one thing is certainly plausible: To know what you want. To be able to ask the question, to calibrate your own aspirations to the reality, to develop abilities, even if this takes a long long time, to get there. The trick is, what you want may change mid-course, but to achieve anything in life, one must take the new course and yet be persistent; you must keep asking what you want not in terms of jobs, or salaries, or careers, but deeper and deeper and deeper. And, once you are able to do that, what you dreamt come to you. In that sense, everything is possible, but it is not everything - just the thing that was made possible by your persistence. This is the ultimate usefulness of an education, to navigate this essentially confusing terrain. The education that allows you to do that is the only 'useful' education.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The 'Decoupling': On The Future of A Degree

Bill Gates have now given us a new word, or more precisely, a new meaning to an old word: Decoupling. He suggests that knowledge and employability may be 'decoupled' from university degree in the coming days. Which effectively means that he is predicting university degree may not be relevant anymore. It may sound counter-intuitive, but coming from Gates, the statement is worth exploration.

One could argue that college education was never more popular: College-going population worldwide has surged and is continuing to grow. So, the demise, or irrelevance, or, if we must play safe, 'decoupling', of a college degree may sound fantastical. But then, the surge needs to be seen in the perspective of the global jobs crisis. The college has not created jobs, nor it can: It has been an instrument to sell middle class dreams to many, only for those to fail eventually to achieve the promised life.

In fact, the surge in college education may be seen as a part of the global consumer revolution, where a certain way, western way, of life was idolised and societies across the world subscribed to a somewhat consensual definition of prosperity. So, growth in income and consumption, easier credit, house owning, ownership of an automobile, private education, college degree, credit cards and mortgages, air travel, certain global brands, gym membership, etc became common currency of middle class life. Only till a point though, when unemployment, rising interest rates in the rest of the world, street protests, and austerity, entered the equation and made things different. 

Gates is an optimist and he sees 'decoupling' through the liberating force of technology, where access to knowledge becomes free or nearly free. However, even 'free' needs to be interrogated: This 'free' may be free as in beer, but may not be free as in free speech. Reducing knowledge production to those who can afford to feature in, and pay for the production of, MOOCs, say, may make these available to lots of people at no or minimum cost, but this will only be done by certain people at certain universities, in a certain language and reflecting a certain worldview. I love Michael Sandel's lectures on Justice and attended his free course on HarvardX, but completely agree with the observation made in Nathan Heller's 'Laptop U' that one may need different varieties of discussions on Justice. Surely, a lecture on Justice in an Indian, or Chinese, or a Catalan university will sound very different, and one must not lose sight of this variability as a core element of an education experience.

But his broader point that 'degree' is failing its social mandate - its symbolic value of identifying the educated - remains true. This is very much a reality everywhere, in India, in China, in the United Kingdom, in the United States, where which university went to matters more than what degree one has. There is already a decoupling therefore - not by the liberating force of technology, as Gates predicts, but by the crusty old power of privilege, of degrees and institutional affiliations. What Gates is now talking about a more 'democratic' access to knowledge, which is technologically possible, though one would be more sceptical whether the form permitted by the economic rationale of such projects would necessarily result in a better and more relevant education.

Our experiments with global higher education, though it is only a small project with very limited funds, were to explore this 'decoupling', to create a competence-based education structure running parallel to degrees, indeed with established pathways for people who may want to gain an academic credential, but primarily focused on the urgent need of boosting employability and relevance of learning at the workplace. Technology was at the core of this experiment, but not to reduce varieties into one view of the world, but as an enabler of global collaboration and conversation, a platform for global-local learning, where knowing is interrogated by doing, and the dialectics of application results in the production of knowledge.

Gates' point therefore deeply resonates with us. Indeed, our experience of talking to educators was deeply frustrating, with most of them fixated with the outcome (degree) but not the process or content of education. After our initial conversations with colleges and universities, where this 'degree disease' is most prevalent, we have started aligning ourselves, consciously, with entrepreneurs who want to shake the status quo, build an alternate offering and create a parallel system of education outside the officially mandated one. So, we are creating an architecture of 'decoupling' and Gates' comment is, therefore, deeply encouraging to us. 

Here is the video of Gates' conversation at Microsoft Research's Faculty Summit, an hour-long video, which covers a lot of ground but also the points mentioned above around the 18th minute.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Promise of Return

A migrant is defined both by the journey he makes, of leaving, and the journey he never ends up making, of return. In that sense, I am a true migrant: I have left, and I am forever returning. Unlike the others with a stable life and steady aim, I have not fully assumed the identities of my host and not given up that of my home; nor did I do the opposite, like some others, and clung to my home identity and rejected what came my way. I have, consciously, let the journey change me, but preserved my deep desire to make the opposite journey some day.

But this is not just a transmutation between the home and the host, but the desire to renew myself that makes me a migrant. It is not about search of my roots, which I know full well where they are, nor a denial of my self-chosen circumstances, but rather the pursuit of an identity, an emotional construct of a 'universal' identity that defines my being and becoming. So, this is not about giving up or taking in, but absorbing, observing and enriching that make me.

It is not easy to be a migrant in Britain today, a country at seize from itself. Pushed to a corner by the global turn of economic events the country no longer controls or understands, and plodded by a desperate need to preserve its asset owning economy, the country has turned onto itself in a schizophrenic pursuit of its migrants, blaming them for everything including the lack of buses on the street, crime, the disappearing NHS, high house prices and lack of jobs. Despite evidence on the contrary, even the Government's own Office of National Statistics (ONS) says migrants work harder, have a higher educational attainment and pay more to than they take from public exchequer, a new breed of politicians, who are too patrician to listen and too clever to take a stand, steering the country into an irreversible xenophobia, where anyone slightly different seem to threaten an undefined British way of life. This is a country at war with its own spirit, one that lost its future to its own bankers and then ended up blaming everyone else.

But, still, there is an irony even in this tragedy: The city of museums seems to have lost its sense of history, even history of itself. Only a few centuries ago, dynamic British merchants and explorers fanned out to wealthy Asia, where asset owning classes lived in great splendour and in isolation from rest of the world. Their triumph, subsequently, was the triumph of curiousity and openness. Britain, a tiny island, became a great power by harnessing the power of globality, its famous army made of thousands of people from rest of the world, its businesses buying and selling everywhere and its culture being a melting pot of myriad influences and thoughts. This is the heritage the country is in denial of, having convinced itself that it was all about a few people residing around the City of London.

I have learnt it is different being a migrant in one's one imperial country than in any other. One does not get over colonialism easily, not in one generation anyway. Depending on how I see it, I am first generation post-colonial (my father was born in 1944, before India's independence) and surely I am not fully out of the colonial mindset, which always holds the imperial culture to be superior to one's own. So, I am forever trying to take the 'best of both cultures', forever marvelling at the 'British politeness' and most of the time trying to adopt to the accent and ways of life. This has, I must admit, nothing to do with being Global - this seemingly eclectic behaviour is all about  fitting into my own post-colonial frame of reference.

Also, this is a two-way thing: Not just my post-colonial mindset holds the host culture in high esteem, the host country seems to confer an identity to me which is hard to get out of. It is not discrimination, but a role expectation, that can sometime work in favour of the migrant: The Indians like me are expected to be Accountants, IT Professionals or Doctors, and it is easy to fit into these patterns quite easily. I, with my mix of different skills and experiences, and ambitions to be in charge of my own life, had to find a way, not always obvious, through this architecture of set expectations; it is only after I learnt what these expectations were, and learnt to use them in my favour, I could make the country work for me.

But, then, once I learnt the steps and ways of life, and became conscious of my assumptions and constructs, my desire to be free again has become paramount. After all, this journey was about being free: Free from the identity I was born into, free from the social expectations I was born with, free from the constrained parochial existence to which I would have been otherwise consigned to. Knowing one's assumptions is like holding a mirror - the evidence is instantaneous and rather undeniable - but this freedom must be followed up with the freedom to act and change. In my migrant experience, therefore, I tried to push the boundaries and test my ideas of a flat world shaped by technology and enabled by human connections, only to, to quote Eliot, 'come back where I started and know the place for the first time'.

So, this returns me to the point of start, just as I wanted. A return to the base, with a promise of re-evaluation and restart, in some form, is in the offing. Such reflections forever hold the promise of a springboard, may be time to push my ideas of a global institution to the next step, and may be, just may be, this is the start of that promised journey of return. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Why Train For Global Employability?

A debate we are having in the company at this time is how to market our courses in the UK, and at the core of it is the course we developed aimed at aspiring undergraduates abroad, titled Global Employability Programme. 

With our initial market research and interactions, we see immediate traction for this course in countries like India and China. This isn't, indeed, a standard employability product: One that advises candidates to be on time for interview and be properly dressed, and help make cosmetic changes to their CVs. There is no stereotyping, as would usually happen with a battery of psychometric tests. It is, in line with our operating mantra, a new generation course, where the learner, a 'talent', must imagine himself/herself as a business. Indeed, the key shift in this view is that the candidate is not a 'product', something which inertly presents itself to buyers, but the 'maker', an enterprise, which juggle with his/her multiple abilities as 'products' to find the right market fit. In essence, we seek to put the candidate in charge and let him know that there is more than one opportunity in the world.

It may sound straightforward, but it isn't: The 'employability skills' are rarely defined by those seeking employment, and mostly by employers, or those training providers who seek to emulate the employers' views. That works in theory, but this means teaching candidates to cower down and fit stereotypes, the 'meek will inherit the earth' view which is so last century. Our alternative is to start from the candidate - s/he isn't the at-your-mercy, desperate, skill-less, job seeker, but an enabled individual who can do stuff and should be chased by the employers instead. Surely, most people tell us that not everyone can be like this. But we represent a different view: In a wasteful society like ours, where the crusts of privilege keep so many away, there are hidden talents everywhere. It is just that we accept the view that smarts are only for the privileged people, and this ensures that one gives up before one gets started. Our challenge is to enable those hidden smarts, with a broad view of what talent means and a framework to intelligently deploy those talents.

Now, we think there is a lot of this in Britain. There are so many students who have been told from the word go that they can not do things, and accepted it as such. But then the generational disconnect is also quite clear: The current generation is taking a hard look at all those 'you can't do it' theories and demanding a fair shot. Our course is about giving them a fair shot, an approach to examine what they have got and how to construct a career around their 'assets, aspirations and market realities', a formula Linkedin's Reid Hoffman uses. We expect candidates to start thinking of themselves as businesses, develop their own business model and create their own brand, all using new technologies, social media and adapting a thoroughly global approach. 

This 'global' bit is what we are having to think about now as we start marketing this in Britain. British teenagers are not interested in 'global', we are told: Surely, a very low proportion of British teenagers actually want to study at a foreign university or think about a 'proper' job abroad. The Middle Class dream is about getting into the property ladder as soon as one gets out of university and gets a job, and 'global' does not really feature in this. On the other hand, a large part of our course deals with global competence, side by side with business planning for oneself: This is about knowing the world, knowing the ways of the world and knowing people around the world. If British students don't care about the world, it will surely seem like a wasted effort.

However, there is also a view, and this is my view as an outsider, that the home-bound view of British students are changing. That had lot to do with the Welfare State, which had done a lot of good to the society but resulted in a decline of the expeditionary spirit. But this is now in irreversible decline, and with the indebtedness of the country, the party on cheap mortgages, the house ownership trap, will have to end some day. So, being agile again, looking for global opportunities, is something a forward-looking graduate must do.

Thousands of Britons emigrate every year, and this will continue to increase. The educators and some parents may want to look inwardly, more in denial than with any realistic alternate plan, and make believe that the students are thinking the same. But the fear of globalisation must be countered with the globalisation uplift, a way of earning the opportunities, and this is where our courses are useful. It is not one of those Level 2 Employability courses paid for by the Government, but one which will serve those trying to take charge of their lives and make a difference. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Adventures On The Margin

Can one be born at the wrong end of time? If it's a matter of opinion poll, it would certainly seem likely, because most of us will possibly want to be born at our parents' era, when things were more certain, opportunities were more forthcoming and in general, life seemed to be simpler. And, surely, some among us would want to be born in the future, when the advances in medicine are complete, and, as we hope, advances in digital communication would allow us to achieve perfect democracies.

But, like other matters of reality, opinion polls can not tell us whether we are really at the wrong end of time. The omnipotent fact that we are all products of our own time, the past is our past and the future is our future, and such thinking only represents a denial of the present; may be a defeat. So, instead of being at the wrong end of time, we can indeed be misfits. This may be shameful, and that's why we flip it when we blame the time around us and retreat to a time we haven't seen.

However, being a misfit may not be shameful. I almost wear it as a badge of honour, though other people may, regardless of what I think, laugh at it. I do not resent, or despair, the world around me, nor would I want to retreat it to a past without the Internet, or fast forward into a world to be in love with a Cyborg. It is just that I disagree with, and therefore continuously try to change how I, we, think. It is not a rejection of my time; I just accept it to be imperfect.

Indeed, my being a misfit and my trying to change the way we think and act are connected. My biggest gripe with how we think and act is that increasingly more and more people think that change is not possible. In the Western world, in the middle of which I live, the glamour and the glory of the institutions are so apparent, that they appear to be timeless and universal. Anything that hints at their fragility or faults is treated as marginal, may be crazy. In short, we live with the expectation of uniform conformity, of going through the same motions, belonging to certain classes that were set for us, performing the same rituals and living similar lives.

This is good life, surely. We can surrender our conscience to law and a government, and let them worry about what is right. We can have our opinion duly recorded at least once in five years, and enjoy a very brief moment of being sovereign as we queue up in voting booths and savour our moments of opinion in the cubicles. Rest of our time we can criticise, around the office water-cooler (do we still have some around?) or on the blogs (just like this indulgence), though we remain forever in minority of one. In the meantime, shopping malls, brands and TV channels give us useful advice on how to live, what is right or wrong and how to fit in best and be one of the crowd. We get easy templates, the word itself being a signifier of the times we live in, for 'date', love, marriage, affair, life and relationships. At saner, safer moments, we plan for the future: We commit ourselves to buy overpriced homes, paid for by mortgages, and then work compliantly rest of our lives to pay it off. We make the world go around, economies decline and rise, progress claimed and its fruits consumed, by our myriad daily actions of following the pattern. And, then, we die, proud of being faceless among many, remembered, not surprisingly, with word templates that could have been used at anyone else's death, by anyone else's loved ones. 

There are problems in this lovely convenient, stepford wives, view of life: Wars in distant lands, Islamists who seem to be a time wrap, immigrants who have strange manners and strange colours living down the road, overpaid public servants who do not work, protesters who keep marching on the streets for god-knows-what. However, since we have surrendered the matters of opinion to the media, some very similar sounding analysts and politicians who know best, such aberrations are nicely fitted into the woven patterns: We finally have a theory of everything, which is to have no theory at all.

Within this, I have chosen the easy path - of being a misfit. Living a less than perfect life, searching endlessly for a theory, not being able to cast aside an idealistic view of what should be, are easy because not doing so is obviously so foolish. Standing slightly apart gives even the most casual and untrained observer such a majestic view of this massive ant colony, its rhythm, its roles and its futility, that it is worth doing. It is enjoyable too, living a Quixotic life of grand projects and great responsibility, of bringing sensibilities of a bygone age in the middle of a go-go time, and at the same time, having a deep commitment to the future and having the freedom to imagine a different one. This blog has always been the chronicle of that journey: I hope I shall never lose that spirit.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Dog in the Window: Exploring Private Higher Education Pricing Strategies

In private sector higher education, pricing is often the most interesting area to explore. More often than not, institutions tend to take one of the two positions on pricing: Either they want to be top of the range, creating exclusivity with the pricing itself, or, for those who are less sure of themselves, undercutting others and creating 'affordable' options become the name of the game. Both options, in my view, have inherent limitations, and one needs smart strategies for pricing to be successful.

Those who price their offerings at top of the range enjoy the advantage of high margins, which allow them to afford better infrastructure and people, at least theoretically. In fact, this is, in many ways than not, a more sustainable strategy than trying to undercut the market and getting into a 'low-price trap' (more on this later). But, top of the range pricing also has inherent disadvantages. By pricing top of the range, the institution may miss out meritorious students who are simply not able to pay. This is indeed obvious to the institutions trying the strategy, even intentional, but its negative connotations may not be. An exclusionary institution is an easy target for a smart competitor, who can easily undercut it with not just price, but with performance. One of the most enduring mistakes in education marketing is to think that the price builds the brand: It does not, and only the students can. Besides, the institutions falling into the 'High Price Trap' forever keeps improving their facilities, as this becomes the only tangible justification for their high pricing: This eventually may make them unaffordable altogether, and as stuffy as an old boy's club. 

At the other end of the spectrum is the low price trap, which lots of institutions succumb to. Often, among private institutions, the fear of being called a 'profiteer' and the lure of undercutting a more established competitor lead them to set prices at a low level. Of course, this leads to lower service levels and staff, as education is indeed expensive: Because of the lower service levels, they always face pressures on pricing, and go down on a downward spiral. I have seen institutions in different countries giving away seats for higher donations, or charging all sorts of hidden fees, the most popular being examination fees, to the hapless students (once they have joined the course). But the effects of such a strategy are predictable: Student churn and failure, a toxic workplace and lower performance. This is indeed no way to build a brand.

My solution would usually be to charge an appropriate price, which, after factoring in all the costs of good tutoring, reasonable class size, adequate infrastructure, suitable customer education (read, Marketing), should allow a reasonable surplus to fund ongoing development of the institution. Even if the institution is publicly funded, it is prudent, in this day and age of accountability to the tax payer, to keep moving towards self-sustainability progressively. Now, indeed, the institution must back up this price point with suitable performance and delivery, because otherwise it would be put out of business by a nimble competitor, just as it would happen in the big bad world of business. There are a few ways the institutions can achieve a sustainable position in this regard.

First will be to keep looking for efficiencies rather than extravagance to justify the price (which many institutions do). Nothing matters more than good students and great performance, and heated swimming pools can make an institution attractive only upto a point. While the institution should start by charging an adequate price, it must be efficient, which means a number of things, including efficient use of technology, predicting and meeting student preferences adequately and engaging and listening to the students. There are a number of efficiency areas within the way education is done today, not least because the teaching technologies have not evolved much over time and because we seem to assume a rather benign, rather than active, role for the students in the teaching process. The students want to do more, and they should be empowered to do more, and this would only make the institution more responsive and efficient.

Second will be to evolve a means tested merit scholarship to admit really great students. Indeed, a lot of schools, particularly the ones in United States, do this really well. However, most others have to learn to do this properly, as most scholarship campaigns lack transparency, and are misdirected. The only reason one should give away a scholarship is to get a gifted student who can not otherwise afford the courses at an institution. While at the top end of institution ladder, this is common sense, as we look at mid-tier and private institutions, there is so much confusion about meritocracy. The institutions would let scholarship campaigns become a discount campaign to recruit more students, creating pressures on pricing and eventually pushing the institution into the same 'low price trap' that it sought to avoid.

Summing up, I believe the current problems in pricing in Private Higher Education arise from a mistaken view of how value is created in Higher Education. One school of thought is that this can be created through a 'premium', by charging a higher price than others through the creation of an exclusive environment. The other school simply believes that this is about capacity utilisation - as if education is like a service as accommodation - better the rates of utilisation, better the profit.

In a way, both schools of thoughts are deeply flawed. Competitive Advantage, or Value, isn't created by simply pricing higher, but ensuring that the students' RELATIVE willingness to pay (relative to one's competitors) over and above one's RELATIVE cost (relative to competitors' costs) is higher. This 'RELATIVE' advantage can only be created through efficiency and track record: Ensuring that the relative costs of delivery are lower and yet the student performance, not in one's own examinations but using external benchmarks, is higher, which can only be achieved through better students and better teaching.

Equally, the capacity utilisation model is problematic, because this destroys the 'willingness to pay' side of the equation, whatever the cost. The formula for success in education is 'Brains and Communities, not Bums and Seats'.

In the end, it is quite obvious: A successful Higher Education offering can only be built through unwavering focus on merit, and, obviously, on good education. One of the most important lessons I have learnt at the time I spent working in NIIT, which built a very successful education franchise across Asia, is that education business is all about efficiencies, details and student satisfaction. This holds true for Private Higher Education, though how to marry this culture of efficiency with academic freedom and creativity will be a debate worth having.      

Saturday, July 06, 2013

An Imaginary Exercise: Building An University from Scratch

I wrote about 'How To Build A Higher Education Brand' yesterday: One email respondent came back saying if there is any practical advice I could give to someone setting up a private university in India. I am therefore attempting an imaginary exercise here, as if you are trying to set up a private university in India. Whether I shall try to do it myself now is a different question, though. I believe this is 'the best of the times and the worst of the times' to set up a private university in India, depending on the context, exact geographic location etc. It is the best of the time because it has now been proved that private universities offer no easy money, so the black money that corrupted the field is somewhat in retreat: It is the worst of the time because such consolidation will invariably shake the students' confidence further. Moreover, context is important: The Indian student demand is at an inflection point, and an university that anticipates and satisfies this changing demand will be a great success. This is also the reason why an university aligned with the past and trying to offer an undiffertiated Engineering or Management course will be in trouble. Geography plays a part too: In general, North and East India, which are enjoying the demographic boom, remain better prospects. Further, the states with relatively low penetration of private education will suffer less from the public backlash against failing colleges: Some of the Eastern and Central Indian states may therefore offer a good starting point. And, finally, smaller towns are better than bigger cities, as they offer a more captive student population, rising levels of aspiration and income as opposed to the recent urban stagnation and scepticism that have become the trend in larger Indian cities.

So, let's assume that the starting point is an university focused on certain specific disciplines based in smaller town in Eastern India: Here are my starters for ten that may help build an university brand and make it a sustainable proposition within a reasonable time frame.

1. Build A Community

The university project should start with building a community. The accreditation will invariably require land and buildings etc., which has to be there; but most universities miss the point that it is the people who make the institution. And, contrary to some of the prestige universities, it is not just about attracting a few big name researchers on fancy salaries, as Clark Kerr so succinctly observed that the prestige of the faculty is negatively correlated with the teaching quality of the university. The idea will be to attract a team of gifted teachers and thinkers with a common aim of providing good education. I have recently been talking to an university in Andhra Pradesh which seemed to have based its strategy on attracting the sons of the soil from all over the world: They are wooing researchers, but also practitioners and educators. I think this should be the starting point of building a good university, pooling people together with a singular aim of providing good education.

2. Align the Infrastructure with the message

While I took the place and the infrastructure for granted, they play an important role. Most universities I see in India has grand looking buildings from outside but unimaginative interiors: They are often true reflection of their owners' interests, who, being Real Estate men, wanted to make the buildings attractive looking but had no clue about the classroom environments other than they should contain chairs and tables. On the other hand, however, an university's interiors can have powerful brand messages. Imagine classrooms arranged as conference rooms, which may restrict capacity but emphasize the message of small classrooms and personalised tutoring. 

3. Price Confidently and Transparently

No one seems to be talking about personalised tutoring because, in India, the Higher Education is a low price business. But it does not have to be: It needs to be legitimate, but not cheap. In fact, the most expensive education one can receive is the one which does not work, and the university must strive hard to escape the low price trap: Because the students pay less, the education is worthless, which leads to students not wanting to pay any higher. While I am cognizant that the private universities in India are non-profit entities, but this is not about profit: The university should aim to earn a legitimate surplus which can cover its continuing development. Besides, education being such an intangible, the only sensible pricing strategy for education is to price it reasonably high and then deliver a great education, rather than getting stuck at the low price (or to fail by charging a high price and not delivering anything at all). Once the pricing is done right, it will then be important to stick to it. One of the most problematic practices in India (and one that is harmful to the brand) is the practice of allowing students with less merit to get in for an additional fee. While some people may raise eyebrows about my suggestion on higher pricing, they would possibly agree that rewarding merit through scholarships (next suggestion) is better than giving seats for an additional 'donation'.

4. Reward Merit

The idea of right pricing should also factor in that in a country like India, there could be huge gaps in ability and willingness to pay. The higher (adequate) pricing would leave a lot of people behind invariably. It is important for the university, therefore, to institute a fair, transparent and appropriate scholarship scheme for the meritorious students. Indeed, the scholarship should be means tested, and while this sounds difficult in India, this can be achieved if the university community is committed to merit and inclusion.

5. Focus Course Offerings

The university must focus. I have heard so many discussions that to be legitimate, the university must have different schools and have a wide range of disciplines. But this invariably means diffusing the limited resources that a private university works with on a variety of fields, rather than trying to do a few things well. One may argue that an university by definition must have a variety of disciplines and activities (otherwise, it is a mere training college), but, to be sure, this does not mean a variety of levels and courses. Most useful areas today are interdisciplinary, and one needs to bring in people from various areas together to create a meaningful education, which is the key to the community building referred to earlier. But this does not mean that the university should try to offer different courses spreading out its resources and student population. Most successful new universities are incredibly focused and no one complains of narrowness when talking about IIMs or IITs. Clayton Christensen talks about BYU's focus as a key element of their strategy, and I think this would apply to the Indian universities as well. So, a Business University should create a great interdisciplinary business course, but remain focused on what it delivers; so should a technology university.

6. Differentiate Continually and with an eye to the Future

The university must be different. It is amazing how quickly the Indian students aspirations are shifting and the university must anticipate and respond to this. Design is on the rise and IT means different things today than it did a few years ago. The Indian employers are on the look out for creative thinkers and project managers rather than warm bodies who can code, and the university must take this into account. It is incredibly hard to be different, as this needs courage and imagination, but it is also incredibly easy, because students are saying what they want rather loudly and once the university has listened to them and mastered the courage, it becomes a clear field because such common sense is really so uncommon.

7. Build Broad End of Course Options

While I endlessly talk about focused course offerings, I believe one area where the private universities make a mistake is by focusing too narrowly on employability. This has become a buzzword, but often it means nothing.  People are different and an university which solely pursues student employability is bound to fail to deliver. It is important for the university to cultivate a broad range of end-of-course options, employment for sure, but also progression to further study and research, entrepreneurship and global opportunities. With a narrow and highly differentiated course offering leading to a range of options at the end can give the university an unique positioning and a powerful brand.

8. Be Global

It is also imperative the new university model itself on the present rather than the past, and being private, reflect adequately the global nature of private life rather than the nationally oriented leanings of state-sponsored universities. Global should not be a flavour of the courses and pedagogy at these universities, it should be the core of all its offerings. In building the community, the university should attract people from the diaspora; it should also actively recruit students internationally. Indeed, this is something I get asked often - can I help them recruit students from other countries - but the motive behind this is always about money. However, the university should build a global student population by actively offering scholarships and incentives to meritorious students globally, because they bring value to the university. 

9. Be Technology-enabled

I see many universities being set up without a technology strategy and that is a pure disaster. It is too late in the day, just as education technology is maturing and transforming education, for being technology-naive. While IT may increasingly becoming like electricity in business (Nicholas Carr's thesis), it remains a powerful differentiator in Education. 

10. Promote Citizenship

Rest of my suggestions above may sound like a neo-liberal dream, a global, technology orientated, expensive university, pushing consumerism and globalisation into small town India, but in the end, the university brand will be based not just on the success of its graduates but their behaviour. And, therefore, central to the university's proposition must be the idea of citizenship, of caring for others and broader community, of responsibility and participation. This needs to happen in a global context, but that is an enabling, rather than a limiting factor. The students coming out a private university must not just pursue individual success, which they would tend to do after paying for their own education, but see this success contingent on efficient functioning of the society. Again, this is not one of the usual ideas in private education, but key to the idea of a successful university.

Friday, July 05, 2013

How To Build A Higher Education Brand

Being in the middle of a Higher Ed revolution, this is one question I face all too often: How does one build a new Higher Education brand? The obvious answers, research, league table standing, often do not work for those who are asking the question. The big budget, state sponsored Higher Education still around, but this is not where the action is. It is more on the fringes of Higher Education, driven by those 'Edupunks and Edupreneurs', as Anya Kamenetz calls them. Higher Education, as we know it, has become costly, inaccessible and a bastion of social privilege, rather than an engine of social mobility. And, therefore, in this day of middle class revolts, falling job rates and twilight of the age of conformity, a new Higher Education is happening at the fringes: It is here that the brand creation question gets asked most often.

And, this is therefore an important question to answer. Because there is so little these new Higher Education institutions can learn from the established Higher Education brands of today: Surely, there is no point (even if one has the means, hypothetically) to want to be Harvard if you are trying to set up a Higher Education institution in Kathmandu, Bangkok or Mangalore. This is because, to be successful in those settings, the Higher Education institution must be designed to be catalytic, of lifting its students from parochial constraints to global possibilities, rather than preservative, of maintaining the established system of privileges, practises and credentials. To be successful, this Higher Education institution at the fringe must ensure that its students have a better life than their parents, a benchmark, if applied, most of our top class universities will come short of.

However, since most people believe that to create a Higher Education brand one will take 400 years and the head-start and the resources of Harvard (or the blessings of a welfare state), most people don't even try. This leads to two things: The intelligent and well-intentioned abandon Higher Education and go do software instead; and, the charlatans of the world unite in Higher Ed, promising the non-existent and delivering nothing to students in most cases. While top end Higher Ed keep on preserving privileges, the fringe Higher Ed perpetuates deprivation, giving out essentially the same message, that education means really nothing, and you are who you are born.

I know I exaggerate, but that is to make my point.  There are great things happening at great universities and they are changing our world. We sure need that, and this post is not my rebellion against the great universities. But we can hardly get the benefits of all the progress we are enabling unless we can create a model of Higher Education in the margins, the Higher Education that creates and enables most of the new knowledge workers in our societies. Without education for the new middle classes, there is little chance that we will move forward. Hence, I concern myself solely  in this space, working to develop my fledgling company but also to engage, research and advice the new Higher Education institutions. What follows here is my answer to the question, how to create a Higher Education brand, new ones and serving the new middle classes, with limited resources and satisfying the requirements of its business investors.

First, I think there is a general misconception about what a Higher Ed institution really does, and the confusion comes from how we accredit the institutions. Because in most cases, we use a static model of accreditation, based on resources available against certain benchmarks, Higher Education is almost automatically perceived to be a system of delivery. It is seen as a set of classrooms, libraries and tutors, and intangibles such as the curriculum and services, which take the student out of school and get them 'trained' on certain skills, which the employers want. So, it is, in short, represent a labour factory. In this, one forgets the Higher Education institution, in its traditional, contemporary as well as futuristic settings (as experienced in MOOCs and elsewhere), is a community.

When the new universities are built, lot of focus goes into buildings and infrastructure, but very little on what kind of community the institution will foster. This is one sure way to get the branding wrong, because, as it turns out, an institution is really as good as its community. For older institutions, the community manifests in alumni and track record: For the newer institution, it is about values, engagement and conversations one is having.
Second, Higher Education is not about being skilled and stamped and delivered to the employers, but being admitted into a community of educated people. This is where Higher Education brands are really built: Not whether the education one received got him/her a sales assistant's job in the local shopping mall, but whether s/he can be admitted to the community of the educated. This is also how one's life gets better, becomes better, almost certainly, than their parents: They have a more sentient approach to their careers and lives, and become less amenable to outside forces and more conscious of one's own settings, and more able to change it. This point is mostly completely missed by Higher Ed institutions at the fring, and they assume that such luxuries such as being oneself should be left to the top institutions. 

The point here is then that Higher Ed brands are not built on placement records, but by the institution's graduates being recognised as educated, which imply that they are able to live freely, in control of their lives. An institution trying to become a brand should therefore take this, enabled graduates, as their key objective. As one knows, if the graduates achieve this higher aim, employability will follow.

Third, like any brand, Higher Education brands need to have a differentiator, but the strategic realities are hardly comparable with any other consumer brand. For example, as a colleague always reminds me, there are no 'dominant' brands in Higher Ed, because the markets are so huge. Besides, the brand perception in Higher Ed is defined by selectivity, rather than market share. For non-selective, new institutions, the easiest differentiator is focus (not to confuse with Michael Porter's generic strategies, I use 'differentiation' in its broad, English language sense), wherein they focus on one area and should try to do it very very well. I have come across so many institutions which tend to launch with many 'schools', projecting an image larger than themselves and hoping that the students will find them authentic if they have a large portfolio. In my experience, the opposite tends to happen: The students take them as they are, confused! However, there are a number successful examples where an institution has focused on a narrow subject area and had done that very well, and emerged as a strong brand in the area and eventually in the Higher Ed sector in general. 

Finally, the student experience, pedagogy and learning content, something that in the tech-fuelled new paradigm Higher Ed is taken for granted, remain defining components of a Higher Ed brand. Doing it well is important in Higher Education, because one can hardly get a second chance and so many institutions actually do it sloppily. And, in this, the execution aspect of Higher Education, the contrast with brands in other sector comes in sharp relief: A higher education brand is based on so many minute details, mostly outside the traditional manager's scope of work, that it becomes impossible to create and drive a brand building exercise without, metaphorically speaking, knowing every student by name and by face in an institution.

In summary, brand building in Higher Education is like building a high quality community, based on values and collaboration. Reputation, while not built overnight, can build up quickly once an institution got the community bit right. Then it is about purpose and values, delivering a focused offering and getting the details right, which are, in a way, key drivers of a community built around an institution.  

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