What I found interesting in the world of higher education last week, with some added thoughts and views. I work for the Times of India Group. All views are personal.

Unbundling, weak signals and the rise of Ashoka University

Unbundling in Higher Education, i.e., the impending breakup of key services provided by the university, is a theme that has been covered extensively. The two single best posts on this subject are by Michael Staton & University Ventures, and they are truly worth a read. There have been similar explorations by Christensen, Sal Khan etc. The analysis as well as conclusions are remarkably similar. Universities “bundle not only courses, but also entirely different value propositions” (University Ventures) and services. Now led by technology, and influenced by socio-economic factors, a slew of startups are coming out with innovative propositions targeting individual pieces of the bundle, putting universities on the backfoot and forcing them to relook at their business models.

Let us look at how these various listings (of higher education bundles) stack up.

Clayton Christensen Michael Staton University Ventures Sal Khan
Research Knowledge Acquisition Certification of Admissions & Credentials Learning
Teaching & Transformation  Access to Opportunities Knowledge  Socializing
Networks for helping, fun   Cognitive & Employable Skills Networking & Fun  Credentializing
  Personal Transformation    

From these studies – I am sure there are more, but these were the most apparent when I searched on google for the phrase ‘unbundling of higher education’ – we can list the following key components

1)    Signaling, both at the time of admission, and at the time of graduation. The latter is also referred to as credentializing, certifying that the graduate has stick-to-itiveness and “meets general criteria for what constitutes an educated person” (University Ventures)
2)    Knowledge, constituting both hard as well as soft skills
3)    Transformation / Rite of Passage
4)    Socialization / Access to Network / Fun
5)    Training / Getting a Job


Of the above, #3 and #4 are what I refer to as automatic services. The quality of the same may differ by institution, and often a truly outstanding institution delivers a heightened transformative experience, and to more students possibly. However all higher education institutions, by virtue of physical concentration of students and teachers, enable these two services to a certain minimum level automatically.

The remaining three are conscious services, where an institution has to work towards ensuring at least a basic delivery of those services. Traditionally Indian institutions have been historically weak in #2. Even IITs and IIMs. They have gotten away with it, primarily due to their advantages in Signalling, especially in admissions. Thanks to JEE and CAT, they enjoyed access to top notch talent, and could afford to underinvest in pedagogy, training etc. This was true in the area of recruitment services as well, since employers chased them attracted by the quality of students, and not the other way around.

I recently met one of our Board Members, a legend in the medical fraternity, who said of the IIM students he hires “They are good not because of what they are taught, but what they are”. Thus, their overwhelming strength in one service, Signaling, drove the entire business model. India is one of the few countries (Turkey, South Korea, Iran, Japan are possibly others; and all are Asian) where Signaling has such an overwhelming dominance in the education bundle.

What happens when external factors / competition causes this service to weaken?

–       Increased reservations / dilution of previously high standards due to expansion in the IIT + IIM network has meant admission of students, who would not be previously admitted.
–       Cultural factors / changing definition of quality leading to a weakening of the correlation between admission to IITs/IIMs and automatic implication that these are quality resources. This is led by several factors, including the earlier issue of increased reservation / dilution, entry of a large class of affluent urban students from elite schools who do not have the hunger to slog for competitive exams (high-fliers as Dr Rahul Choudaha calls them), as well as the emergence of jobs with greater ambiguity and complex decision-making, calling for a more abstract kind of intelligence. Thanks to these factors, the links between success in JEE / CAT and eventual workplace success is getting tenuous by the day.


Even as the IITs’ (and IIMs’) power to offer superior signaling decreases, we are beginning to see institutions, primarily State Private Universities such as Ashoka, Shiv Nadar, OP Jindal, BML Munjal emerge with the avowed intention of equipping students with workplace-relevant hard + soft skills. This is not an accident. The factors that weakened signaling (emergence of high-fliers, jobs demanding greater soft skills etc) are making it easier for them to build a business model focused on Knowledge and Training (#2 and #5 on our Services list). Ashoka University’s emergence (and those of its peers I mentioned earlier) has to be seen in this light.



USA’s manufacturing sector is rebounding massively reflecting in rising demand and wages for shopfloor talent.

In a previous post, I had linked to how welders in the oil industry are making upwards of $7,000 a week. 


The Brookings Institute released a report examining student inflows into the US. Interesting data points abound. Hyderabad is #3 on the list of source cities into the US (after Beijing and Seoul), sending more students to the US than Mumbai & Delhi combined. WSJ thinks this is because of the presence of a large number of little-known and unaccredited schools indulging in the long-standing tradition of US visa-gaming. What is really interesting is the presence of Kathmandu on that list of source cities. Kathmandu, with less than a tenth of Delhi’s population, sends more students to the US than Delhi. Nepal is per capita, the biggest supplier of students to the US. This is clearly one market, top Indian private universities need to target, if they aren’t already. 

Speaking of Nepal, a look at Nepali students in Howard College, a historically black college, where Nepali students form the biggest foreign contingent.


GeorgiaTech’s Online Masters Program is being watched closely by all major universities in America. Priced at $7K for an online degree (vs $43K for the full time physical one), this is an audacious experiment bearing significant portent for the future and success of online education. Initial reports on the course which is actually a SPOC (Selective not Massive, Private Not Open, Online Course) and not a MOOC.


A look at Bard College and how its partnerships in some unlikely corners of the world such as West Bank, Kyrgyztan, Russia are bringing liberal education and thinking to these regions


The New York Times is coming out with its version of college rankings. The professed aim is not so much to compete with the likes of US News & World Report or Money, as much as to use its prowess at data journalism centred around its Upshot unit, to analyze colleges around their ability to attract underprivileged kids. College rankings are now coming in different flavours – from Money’s rankings focusing on ROI to NYT’s focusing on economic diversity to the Obama administration’s much-awaited one looking at affordability and degree-completion rates.

And a very-relevant worst-ever US colleges survey. We badly need a similar one for India as well.


ResearchGate, Academia.edu and Mendeley are vying to become the Facebook for Science.


Keep, Alma Mater, your storied pomp, give us your APIs, your data sources yearning to breathe free OR How students are hacking together innovative apps that make it easier to navigate course selection, freaking out colleges in the process.


Tenile Warren is a 38-year African-American woman. She is in the first-year of the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC, pursuing her dream of being a fashion designer, about 2 decades later than she should have done. An inspiring story of why you should never, never, never give up.


CornellTech, at the core of Mike Bloomberg’s bold plan to create a parallel Silicon Valley, is under construction, in NYC’s Roosevelt Island.

In a previous post, I covered how CornellTech’s Roosevelt Island campus will be the 1st major US Uni without a data centre and offices (cabins) for its faculty members. 


A new hotel chain Graduate Hotels launches in the US, focused exclusively on locations in college towns. The target market – “folks coming back to college to watch sporting events, attend reunions or show the campus to their children. Graduate Hotels is also courting people doing business with the universities or with other firms in town.”


Here comes the Pine League – East Asia’s take on the Ivy League. 5 Universities – NTU of Taiwan, Peking and Tsinghua from China, HKUST from Hong Kong and NUS from Singapore are coming together in an effort to strengthen their partnership and promote academic, arts and sports exchanges.

This is not the only grouping of Asian Universities. There is a similiar one in the ASEAN region as well, called the Asean University Network, which really hasnt translated into anything meaningful. 


The man who created the for-profit higher education sector, John Sperling, the founder of Phoenix University died last week. Sperling who died at 93, seems to have been  an interesting personality – he funded an unsuccessful Texas A&M University plan to clone his pet cat Missy, wore the same Blue Shirt + Khaki Pants combo everyday, and in his last decades was obsessed with longevity funding projects and companies in this space.


Azim Premji, the Indian software billionaire’s family office invests $150m (900crs) for a 10% stake in Manipal Global, the Manipal Group’s for-profit arm. Interesting factoid – Manipal Global, which operates universities in Antigua, Malaysia, Dubai, Nepal and an online university in India (Sikkim Manipal University) had revenues of Rs 1,170crs ($195m) and an operating profit of Rs 351crs ($59m) in 2013.


The Japanese are hiring large numbers of non-Japanese students from campuses, but they want these new recruits to ‘conform to Japanese corporate behaviour norms’. Sort of defeating the purpose, isn’t it?