I am exactly at the midpoint of my visit to India: I set off for Bangalore tomorrow and through the week, will visit Mumbai and Bhopal, before coming back to Kolkata for a final couple of days. I am indeed very happy with the progress I have made - I now have several partnership conversations with really committed education institutions - and will go back to London with an eagerness to enhance our offering. One key business assumption I always had turning out to be accurate: In the business of education, there is no demand problem, only delivery challenges. I have spent time talking not just with the owners and managers of private education institutions, but also students in several schools: I now have experienced first hand that the students are eager for an opportunity that would open up the world to them, a global education, which is exactly what we are about. However, I am fully cognisant that opening up the opportunity will need several innovations in delivery, complete integrity and commitment towards creating significant learning experience for the students, and most importantly, an education about education. So, I am taking extra care in choosing who we work with, and only had conversations with schools and people who I thought would have shared commitment to building a great education network. I initially thought I would have a Groucho Marx problem - I won't want to join a club which will take me as a member - but now I am slightly spoilt for choice and can really choose who we work with. Indeed, this is not the end, but only the end of the beginning, and the hard work, at least for us, starts now, but I am looking forward to next week's meetings, which feels so good.
Through these conversations, I have also attained a clearer understanding of Indian education and training sector. If I thought I had an idea already, I had to revisit several of my assumptions, and on the whole, I am again optimistic rather than gloomy. Before I came, I had this perception that private higher education in India is mostly a chaotic space, with mercenary owners and laundered money sitting pretty in great chunk of real estate. I know first hand now that this is indeed the case, mostly: But my optimism comes from the conversations I have had with education entrepreneurs who are ambitious and who really cares to do a good job, and several despondent ones who think their business model and easy money has broken down and they must go and look for something else. I could see several Indian institutions are inching towards closure, but the others opening and starting off - and some doing very well. Talking to the students, faculty and managers, it was apparent that the students can now see clearly through the promises such as 'guaranteed placement' and the name of the game now is credibility, not promises. Despite the widespread perception that Indian Higher Education is a free-for-all enterprise, one could see that the era of jungle capitalism is getting over. The new entrants want to create brands, or leverage existing ones in the sector: They are not intending to shortchange students or do anything foolish. This is the ideal time to get engaged with the sector.
And, indeed, the demand is limitless. In almost every step, one comes across a skills deficit: This is far more apparent to me now than it was ever before. The drivers drive dangerously. The sales people are clueless. The customer service staff behave like policemen. The technical staff on the other end of the line assumed that I am technically naive as I couldn't tell him which version of Windows I am using on my Mac. And, the invisible thing: Everything that one has to do has layers and layers of complexity, form filling, signing or simply three people doing one job, implying lost productivity, hassle and overall a management problem. The person sitting next to me on an Indigo flight from Delhi had to plead to get drinking water, which he eventually got at least an hour afterwards, because the staff are incompetent and too busy to handle the crazy mandate of serving free meals to some passengers and not to others. The ICICI Bank staff just couldn't explain how credit cards really work other than advising me that it is like walking with a very large amount of money in your pocket: When I told him that I shall really feel insecure doing that, he said most of his customers go around with at least Rs 1 million in cash on them all the time.
The government acknowledges this, but like all governments, they keep coming up with bad schemes. I figured out, finally, what the big hoopla about National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) is: This body extends soft loans for capacity creation in vocational training space and its beneficiaries can enjoy loans from retail banks to fund their studies. The problem is that NSDC usually disburses money to big corporate houses, who didn't need money to create training centres but is now treating this as a government subsidy to expand their real estate holdings. The effectiveness of the scheme is really questionable, with most NSDC providers woefully underachieving, and despite all the talk, it is going to become another big failed government scheme soon.
I see all this as an opportunity: The Higher Education failing to deliver and the vocational sector failing to grow, creates the perfect confluence of opportunity for us to bring the 'higher' and 'lower' education into one framework, a higher education which makes people do something, a global-local one which bestows glamour to mundane but essential. The more I look at it, I see the great opportunity in breaking this skills versus education dichotomy, and while this may be one of our subsidiary goals globally (In South-east Asia, this is already quite aligned), in India, competence-based Education is indeed going to be our mantra.
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