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.


EdjuCate said…
Thank you for this post. Although aimed at the Indian audience, the issues around university establishment are also relevant for other national contexts including my own, Papua New Guinea (PNG). In PNG in the last two years, at least two new universities have been announced by politicians, as if, the critics amongst us say, making public announcements is all it takes for a university to come into being. But it takes much more, as your list reminds us, to make a new university into a viable proposition.
Hey, thanks for writing and I appreciate you drawing this parallel. In fact, I have been involved in a few discussions about setting up an university in Africa, where I see the same phenomenon: The university building has become a supply side phenomenon, with governments encouraging university building as a poor alternative to what they ideally should be doing, job creation! However, often this leads to educated unemployed, because the universities become academic or political indulgences rather than an useful social enabler of skills development or enterprise.

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