U-Aspire: Another Update

I travel again today, first to Bangladesh for a brief visit and then to India. It is all work, seven cities in about three weeks, with a schedule mostly packed with meetings and early morning or late evening flights. And, like all times, despite the heat, work pressure and slightly haphazard nature of this visit, I am still looking forward to go to India again.

Working with Indian Higher Education institutions is incredibly difficult, because most has nothing to do with Higher Education at all. There are two kinds of institutions i commonly come across in India: One, a set of institutions obsessed with their own prestige, so elitist that they would put put Oxford and Cambridge to shame; and, others, mostly private, who are not interested in the process of education at all, and mostly want to confer degrees for a price. To have a proper conversation about things such as curriculum or pedagogic approach is well beyond the interest of the latter; the former do not want to engage in a conversation about such trivial matters anyway because they already know all the answers. For me, with my own obsession about creating a different, global, new and innovative education model, sitting through both types of conversations and being polite is nerve-wrecking.

So, my visits in India almost as excruciating as a somewhat choosy dating ritual, an unending search for people who are interested in conversation about education and willing to create an innovative model. Indeed, I have had a lucky streak last time, meeting up with a group of people in different cities who are educators, who have no time for the snobbery of the privileged institutions, and who are genuinely seeking ways to deliver better and more meaningful education. I was enthused, and did indeed think that the Indian Higher Education is finally changing, because, if nothing else, the students are voting with their feet and making it a more demanding business.

However, while this is true and the sector is poised for a revolutionary change (and particularly so if the Government steps back and gets rid of the various useless regulatory constraints that stymies the sector), there were always people committed to better education; just that in the middle of the overall chaos, they were marginalised, their appeals for sanity and meaning were largely obscure. I am getting lucky because the nature of our proposition makes the people who wish to talk to me is a bit of a self-selecting group. Though our plan is to strike a partnership with a good British university eventually and offer their degrees through the technology-enabled globally collaborative learning as we are doing now, I am somewhat glad that we are not offering that right now. Otherwise, I shall have a Groucho Marx problem of a great magnitude: We wouldn't want to sign with an institution which would want to sign up with us.

Currently, however, what we are talking about needs understanding, patience and commitment to make sense: It is nothing like an open-and-shut proposition like selling a British degree. So, the three institutions we have signed heads of terms with, and the other seven or eight we are talking to, the starting point has been to explore the possibilities of offering something new and valuable to their students, something that prepares them for hyper-competitive, hyper-global environment that they have to live and work within. Indeed, for a dating ritual, finding so many suitors within a short trip isn't a bad outcome.

However, a great believer of the law of averages, when I travel this time, I am not going anywhere new. I would rather stick to the people who we got as partners and develop a meaningful proposition with them. I have learned the lessons of trying to get big fast: The start-up phase of any partnership needs more effort than one would like to believe, and if we stretch ourselves over with too many partners, it won't work. So, our focus now is very much narrowed - a few committed partners in India, connected to our partners in the rest of the world, which will allow us to build a worldwide community of professionals committed to an education based on our mantra: Creativity, Enterprise and Technology.

At the same time, our global configuration is coming in play: I shall spend a few days in Dhaka before I go to India, meeting a few institutions in Dhaka and Chittagong exploring whether we can work together. I believe I know Bangladesh well - indeed, I spent some of my best years of life in Dhaka and built professional connections and relationships there which I deeply value and would always want to preserve. It is a great opportunity for me to re-engage with Bangladesh all over again: This is one of Jim O'neill's N-11 countries, and despite the wrong reasons it seems to make news for, it has a thriving, well educated middle class and a huge young population. It's a democratic country (despite its political troubles) and its democracy seems to have survived all the scares and looks irreversible.

We are also on the verge of signing up with two institutions in China, which will make the proposition on the table fairly diverse. This is where I am scheduled to travel next, at the end of May. We have started various conversations in East Africa, East Europe, Middle East and Southern Europe, and hope several of these entities will sign up and start delivering our programmes by September. So, after this visit, my frequency of visits to India may reduce (particularly as we explore the possibilities of opening an office in India) and other engagements, particularly in China, may increase.

Of course, with all these institutions coming on board, we shall reach the level we can support with our current infrastructure. Next, our plan will be to set up (or acquire) a relatively small institution in London, which will run the same courses as our global network, and house the tutors and academic administrators as well as a research facility. When I come back from India, this is the next project I shall be on to. Of course, this means raising capital and recruiting new people, but the business is growing quickly and this is indeed a very good problem to have.


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