Can India Export Higher Education?

The inspiration behind this post comes from several conversations with my colleague Pratik Dattani, the former UK Director of FICCI, an Indian trade body. Pratik, in a regular column he writes for Dainik Bhaskar, pointed out India's meagre tally of 30,000 odd foreign students, against 450,000 in China (which is growing at 10% annually), is a huge missed opportunity, in terms of foreign currency earnings, 'soft power' and diffusion of foreign cultures and ideas. And, besides, number of foreign students in India may be going down rather than up, and several factors, not least anti-African sentiments in some Indian cities, are contributing to it. 

Pratik and I have collaborated on a number of projects over the years and I have been closely involved in a Conference, now in its fifth edition, that he organises on Education Innovation in London and in India. We both agreed that India's continuing weaknesses in attracting foreign students is something we want to put on the agenda in this year's conference (in London on 23rd January and in Bangalore in March). We also agreed to begin working with a select number of Indian institutions to help them develop a global vision, build appropriate service levels and communication strategies and implement it across several key markets in Asia and Africa. This post, hopefully one of the several I wish to write on the subject, is about setting out our general approach to this work.

At the outset, I agree with Pratik that not having foreign students in India is a huge missed opportunity. My ordering of the dimensions of the loss would be quite the reverse - lack of foreign students not only mean lower revenues and slender soft power, but, most importantly, parochial classrooms and student experiences for Indian students - but I acknowledge the important role a country's education system plays in forging global affinities and defining diplomatic relationships. Bollywood stealing the march over the Chinese film industry is a matter of immense pride in India; but, strangely, similar aspirations are not harboured about India's Higher Education.

This is a tragedy. Indians proudly tell the tale of a global India of antiquity, of those Arab scholars carrying Indian number systems to Europe, of the deep connections between Egyptian and Indian medicines and the fascinating journeys of monks and scriptures through the High plateaus of Himalaya to China, Korea and Japan. It was trade as well as knowledge and education that connected India to the world. As Indian seafarers traded with farthest corners of South-Eastern Asia, the Indian universities of Taxila, Nalanda, Vikramshila and Vallavi attracted students from all over Asia. Even as India turns inwards with a revivalist spirit, this globality is an integral part of the Indian golden age, real or imagined. The global culture of India only somewhat receded when India came under Colonial rule, and its Education and Commerce was subverted to serve the imperial interests above all else: For those two centuries, India was torn out of its global context and served at the pleasure of the bosses in London. India was still global, but the scales of globality was tipped - and it remained tipped since - as the country settled in a subservient relationship and developed, internally, a deep suspicion of global.

In trade, Indian companies and professionals have become global. India is making its way through ups and downs, and through rivalry, is following China's sterling example to the global top table. Through trial and error, the Government has started unshackling the entrepreneurial energies and innovativeness of Indian companies, and a different model of engagement with the world has emerged. Just when the Western countries are rejecting globalisation, India wants to embrace it - or, more specifically, Indian companies want to embrace it. They believe their moment has come. Trade has made India global again.

But, in education, it is a completely different story. Here, the trend points to the opposite direction - inward! India has steadfastly kept 'foreign education' out, despite thousands of Indian students heading abroad. It has kept Higher Education tightly regulated and strictly parochial, and as a result, its reputation has collapsed. The land-based vested interests were allowed to dominate, and the spirit that built an Infosys or a Wipro were denied in Education. The old fear of the global defined Indian Education, even when Indian companies showed Indians can compete at par, and benefit, rather than losing out, from global interactions. 

And, within these stifled conditions, India achieved a near-miraculous expansion of the Higher Education system - between 2006 and 2012, every day, 10 new Engineering Colleges opened and 5000 new seats were created - mostly through public funding. In play was the domestic demand, the millions of young people demanding access to education and an opportunity of middle class life, which encouraged private investment, but, at the same time, created a situation of excess demand, faltering regulations and detoriating quality. This is what is biting back now: The domestic demand stabilised; with anti-globalisation and automation biting back, the lack of quality has become apparent; colleges are closing rather than opening; and the need for new thinking has become pressing.

In my view, this is the perfect juncture to start speaking about a Global Vision. The crisis will close the institutions which should not have been opened in the first place, and it would make competing on quality an imperative and the surviving institutions stronger. It would also bring home the need for Blue Ocean thinking. The Indian Government has also come to appreciate that it is hard to build a modern global economy without an higher education sector to match, and have started several initiatives encouraging greater autonomy for institutions deemed excellent. 

The market for International Education is changing too. Rather than a few, metropolitan, countries dominating the sector, and taking a lion's share of the international student flows, a more decentralised network of regional hubs are now emerging. Malaysia, China, UAE, Mauritius are now all important education destinations. True, they have a long way to go to match the Global Four - USA, UK, Australia and Canada - but the politics of immigration, based on a mistaken view of the realities of international education (that it's a mass market phenomena, rather than for the best and the brightest), works in favour of the growth of the regional destinations. In many cases, the institutions in these regional hubs are campuses of renowned global universities, or local institutons offering courses from universities from UK or Australia (North American Universities don't do partnerships well), but nonetheless, such campuses and partnerships are augmenting their domestic capabilities and building their place brands.

As far as place brands are concerned, India has many things going for it. Its culture and heritage are well known, and India is viewed favourably in many African countries for its political and economic engagement. But, more importantly, the achievements of IITs and the spectacular rise of Indian IT industry gets a lot of attention, as other countries want to emulate the record. The success of Indian expats are also noted, and that the current CEOs of Google and Microsoft were born and educated in India certainly adds to the country brand. Its tolerant culture (recent violence against Africans is still an aberration rather than the trend), universities teaching in English, and lower costs of study all contribute to the attractiveness of the country.

And, yet, Indian institutions do a poor job. Partly, this is the curse of excess demand that I mentioned before: Auditing the institution websites, I see them completely inwardly facing - fees in Rupees and Lacs (100,000), no references to visa and international student support services, no multi-lingual interface etc - and the institutions do not actively seek out International students. They still get some, and this is a testimony for strong international demand and India's attractiveness as a study destination, but the institutional engagement remains opportunistic, rather than strategic. When Indian institutions, such as Amity University or a S P Jain, open overseas campuses, they do so solely to service Indian diaspora, or to make themselves more attractive to students in home campuses. In summary, the Indian institutions lack global ambition, and consequently, any coherent approach to global markets.

In the scramble for differentiation in the domestic market, this should now change. The Indian institutions can take heart from the brilliant example of Indian School of Business, which went from standing start to a global brand, in the space of only a few years. True, it received a lot of investment, but it is ambition, rather than money, that defined ISB's success, and relative underperformance of others in the global market. But there is more to learn from ISB's example than just ambition: It is that the Global Vision is not just a smart marketing ploy, but a strategy of completely overhauling the operations, creating a complete global experience and then going to strategic markets. 

So, coming back to my opening question, India can export Higher Education and well, if only its institutions would have the ambition. We are looking to put this back in the conversation about Indian Education.




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