My China Pivot

Over the last several months, I have made one significant change in my work. I have pivoted to China.

It is fashionable to do so, and my own little project has nothing to do with the geopolitical shift of the Obama administration (though it was handy to borrow the term). It is also interesting. Only back in 2012, when I was starting my business and when the potential investors asked me endlessly which countries I should target, I was not sure. At best, there was this hyphenated pair of India-China, as two big Higher Education markets, and I spent the good part of the last four years focusing on India.

But, as it would happen, my work shifted, somewhat on its own momentum, to China. Despite spending more time on India, the business got more students in China. And, more generally, when we explored new ways of doing education, we realised the difference between India and China: We got polite nods in China, though the Chinese partners mostly accepted the ideas for their own use; in India, we were told new ideas would not work there. And, finally, as I explored opportunities in the UK, and it seemed that even in the UK, education is primarily a China play.

As I find out, my excitement about China is hard to explain, particularly to those who had been old 'China Hands' at the UK Universities. For them, China is a long term game which never really matures. For them, China is as bewildering as India, only more unfathomable. So, as I try to build an UK education business this time keeping the Chinese students in mind - and experience has indeed made me very very focused on China - I am forever explaining that China has changed. And, perhaps, we are at a tipping point of change when decades worth of quantitative change - the age of 'more' - is transforming into qualitative change, a change for better.

Indeed, there are those who say that China is bound to fall apart. They point to unsustainable levels of debt and expect everything to stall like Japan, and they point to the 'totalitarian system' and expect all this to go the Russia way.  But, one way to look at it is that the supposed 'totalitarian system' has more economic manoeuvrability than the democratic ones, and the strength of the Chinese economy makes a Russia-like meltdown unlikely. And, besides, there are a number of things that all but the astute China watchers miss: For example, the One-Party system in China maintains a level of meritocracy, whereas multi-party system of other democracies (such as India) often run on cronyism and corruption. 

On the economic front, China is making a very effective transformation from investment-led growth to consumption-led growth, dealing with its environmental issues as it goes along. Its continued prosperity has created an English-speaking, aspirational, young people, more open and world-ready, just as big democracies, such as India and the United States, turn inwards. It has almost willed - over the last decade or so - a world-class education system. It has acknowledged its mistakes in experimenting with the Healthcare system, and restored universal healthcare. It is an amazing transformation, never before attempted in history in its scale, scope and intentionality, and our mental models - whether we ask if China will overtake the United States or if India can compete with China - fall short to fully comprehend such changes from the outside.

I should perhaps illustrate this point with examples from within my own context. When in 2012, investors were asking me which country I should be focusing upon, China and India had roughly comparable number of students in Higher Education. In the five years from 2011 to 2016, while both countries expanded Higher Education capacity at breakneck speed, the enrolments have only risen marginally in India, China's numbers have nearly doubled and reached the 40% Gross Enrolment Ratio mark (while India's remained at around 20%). This is reflected in China's impact on Higher Education systems in other countries as well. In 2011, roughly the same number of students arrived in the UK from China and India, about 38,000. After this, as UK tightened the visa requirements and crucially abolished the provision of Post-Study visa, making it impossible for students to stay on after their study, the arrivals from India collapsed, to only about 17,000 in the latest count, whereas the numbers from China continued to rise, simply due to sheer demand, and in 2016, this is going to be about 80,000. For the year we have data available, 459,800 students have left China to study abroad, representing a growth of 11% year on year. And, this is not just about quantity but quality too: A number of Chinese universities have broken into the top 50 of global rankings, for whatever they are worth, and it had 380,000 International students at Chinese universities coming from 200 countries.

I cite these numbers for two reasons. One, the obvious, is to make the case for China in the context of Higher Education, the sector I am engaged in, and understand its trajectory. Two, it is important to see China beyond the geopolitical prism - Communist and all that - and appreciate fully the massive transformation now underway. Whether or not the Chinese experiment succeeds, and we know that speculating about history is a perilous game, such rise of a nation invariably creates its own opportunities. And, in this case, we do not have to necessarily see conflict - with United States or anyone - as an inevitable outcome, because China, at least so far, has refrained from building systems of alliances, did not indulge in Colonial conquests and while it competed with United States in building scientific and technological capability and healthier and a more educated workforce, it has not done anything comparable to the madness of the arms race that undid the Soviet Union. We have to remember that it is America pivoting to China (though, arguably, many of its 'friends' in South-East Asia may be building bridges with China) rather than the other way around.

For me, with my heritage and natural connections with India, it is a difficult act of priority setting. India remains important and growing Higher Education market, and it took me time to focus my efforts on China over India. While China and India gets hyphenated for good reason - for their large population and relatively recent development - the difference between the two. The two countries are completely at two different stages of development, and the middle class person in China earns around 5 times more than her counterpart in India. While India is planning to improve its infrastructure. China has become a world-leader in Infrastructure development and is now exporting its expertise. The Chinese millennial population is bigger than the whole population of the United States, and many of them speak English (not so in India) and given China's vast export sector, it makes sense for them to have foreign education and exposure, a business that I am in. And, finally, and importantly, it is important for the Modern Chinese to learn from the world - Deng famously asked the Chinese to learn from the successful Chinese diaspora - whereas India is an 'open society with a closed mind', as Kishore Mahbubani said. 

Hence, my China pivot: I am building a high quality global education solution primarily aimed at Chinese students, which involves collaborating globally and also coming over to UK and do a part of the programme face to face at Cambridge and London. This means doing things differently - I am building networks among Chinese diaspora in the UK, making efforts to learn Chinese customs and practises, and building the brand with overt sensitivity to this market - and this is an exciting experience.




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