Investing in Indian education: A personal perspective on opportunities and challenges

Investing in Indian education: A personal perspective on opportunities and challenges

My previous educational visits to India had been on behalf of Staffordshire University, where I had been Pro-Vice Chancellor. These were focussed on academic evaluation and quality assurance. So my visit with a UK-based technology-led education innovation start-up began with academics and quality being at the forefront of my mind.

However, as we visited private providers of education in Kolkata, Delhi, Bhopal, Orissa and Bangalore, the market for private education became self-evident. In my report to the directors I reiterated my belief that opportunities to build educational businesses in India, either as an independent provider or in partnership with other academic institutions, exist for the adventurous entrepreneurs to develop and capitalise.

However, therein also lies the forewarnings for anyone, individual or company, interested in investing in Indian education. Investment in any field of endeavour is to further one's business objectives. In education, the business objectives are centred on courses, qualifications -knowledge and skills that are valued by students and parents, sponsors, commissioners and employers. If we were to take the UK as an example, universities, whether ancient, red brick, plate glass or new, all in one form or another would claim that they are or have invested in international education -some, of course, more successfully than others.

In spite of British universities' international strategies of establishing partners abroad and delivering international education, there has been -particularly during the last two decades -a proliferation of private colleges in the UK. Their growth could be attributed to an increasing demand for higher education qualifications, the popularity of UK qualifications abroad and effective marketing.

However, it soon became apparent that some providers were more interested in personal gains and the quality standards they were delivering left a lot to be desired. That said, failures of some of the private providers, did not and have not prevented many UK universities from continuing with their international agenda.

There is clear evidence that the UK and US will continue to attract students from India. There are advantages in going overseas to study. As the old adage goes, travel does broaden the mind.

And here we came across individuals who, having been educated abroad, would very much like to emulate their experiences at home, particularly in terms of style, mode of delivery, academic quality and standards. It is fair to say that their goals do not appear to be just idiosyncratic whims on their part. They recognise the growing need and demand for quality higher education at home. To a certain extent this point seems to be well made in one of the articles published in India Inc (India's Higher Education Challenges, Nov 2012). In it the Indian minister, Kapil Sibal, states that India needs 1,500 universities, almost three times as much as the current 564, to serve its young and aspiring population, and meet expectations for economic growth. If this holds true, and I have no reason to doubt its validity, then the opportunity for private investors, whether from India or the overseas, is promisingly clear.

Entrepreneurial investors are always looking for opportunities. However, it would also be prudent to be cognisant of potential barriers -be they cultural, political, economic or ideological. One of the barriers, based on anecdotal evidence, seems to be the length of time it takes or could take before the government grants an institution university status.

There are two ways of looking at this. On the one hand, that kind of delay might be viewed by some as a definite constraining barrier to exigent progress. On the other, there might also be good legitimate reasons why establishing a university should take time. People have different ideas of what a university is or should be. For some it is a major centre of learning, where knowledge generation through academic debate and research is held in the highest esteem. For others, it should also be a place that equips individuals with skills that are fit for purpose and fit for future challenges, particularly when it comes to the economic prosperity of a nation.

Those on the middle ground would argue for a much broader approach; that plurality of focus and purpose should be the norm -allowing some institutions to continue with their academic portfolio, and “blue sky” research and to encourage others to focus more on vocational programmes.

Whatever a higher education institution's 'mission' or 'vision' might be, students (and to a large extent their parents) appear to share one common expectation: that at the end of their study the knowledge gained and skills developed would enable them to be rewardingly employed.

The potential for employability was a common theme during our travel. Therefore an investment plan with employability as its main driver, particularly in areas where there is a dearth of skilled individuals could be the one for investors to think about. Such an approach could pay the greatest dividend and have the most significant impact in terms of India's economic growth.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that some states already have a glut of unemployed engineers and business graduates, thus forewarning the importance of market research and skill needs analysis before embarking on an investment strategy.

In conclusion, I would say that while investment in education in India or anywhere else for that matter might be a worthy cause, the potential investor(s) would need to ask the following questions: what kind of an investment would make the difference for them, their potential clients and society in which their clients live and work Will it just be capital investment or will it also include investment in intellectual resources -to ensure high quality programmes that have high market value and the range of qualifications gained are recognised at local and national level as well as being relatively comparable on the international market Supporting existing colleges to extend their vocational and academic portfolio is one way to go. But since most colleges are aspiring to achieve university status, would it not be more prudent to invest in establishing universities from the start

And finally, what part would you or your company play in local Corporate Social Responsibility

Dr Teeranlall Ramgopal is Visiting Professor and Ex-pro Vice Chancellor of Staffordshire University

The above article was published in India Inc′s Print edition of India Investment Journal launched on October 2013 in conjunction with Education Investment Conclave.Click here to view photos of Education Investment Conclave 2013
Click here to read the quotes from India Education Investment Conclave Participants

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