What I found interesting in the world of higher ed last month, with some added thoughts and views. I work for the Times of India Group, where I am presently kickstarting our university venture. All views are personal. 


The Economist devotes its cover story (the Asian edition has Abe on the cover though) to chronicling the shifting landscape of higher ed. See edit as well as their lead story. Nothing new to anyone who is a regular reader of the trade press, but a useful summary of the key trends that are rippling through higher ed.

For those interested in exploring alternate models of higher ed – there is a brief mention of an alternate model to the 4-yr university degree by Anant Agarwal of EdX in the Economist lead story, I encourage you to check out the fascinating Stanford2025 site which details 4 possible alternate models to the traditional 4-yr degree. I particular think the Open-Loop model detailed there as an exciting possibility!


Lots of chatter in the US trade press over the collapse of Corinthian, a for-profit education major teaching 72,000 students across its 100+ campuses. At its peak it taught 110,000 students and was valued at $3.4bn. The case is illustrative of the regulatory headwinds in the Obama regime that have slowed the growth of the for-profit education sector and is likely to lead to more bankruptcies.

Corinthian and its peers such as ITT Tech, EDMC get almost all of their money from US govt student aid programs, not the students themselves who then are in hock to the government. Concerns have arisen as many of these enrolled students typically do not graduate or are registered in courses that are not relevant to the marketplace, thus unable to find jobs and in huge debt. In recent times, much has been made of rising student debt, likening it to the next subprime.

Concerned by rising student debt and the weak graduation / placement rates of the for-profits, the US government has tightened screws, linking release of funds to placements, graduation rates and made it mandatory for students to bring in 10% of the funds. Hit hard by regulations that have led to falling enrollment rates and slower and lower release of the fed funds, for-profits are beginning to go into a death spiral.

Read Paul Fain in Inside Higher Ed and Floyd Norris in NYT for a good sum-up of the Corinthian saga.


The new BJP Government plans to set up IITs and IIMs in every state, a proposal which has met with the usual criticism. Worth looking at this humorous if a little repetitive take though. ET looks at the experiences of the 8 IITs and 7 IIMs set up since 2007. An interesting dichotomy emerges – the newer IITs have had a relatively better ride than the IIMs. This is thanks to

1) easier availability of engineering faculty and leadership for the newer IITs thanks to an established engineering education infrastructure (NITs, other Tier 2 institutes) throwing up faculty and leadership, greater number of Engineering PhDs vs Management PhDs

2) lesser impact of remote locations on the IITs, as opposed to the IIMs which have struggled with their presence in small town India compounding their inability to hire an already scarce faculty, as well as hobbling interactions with industry and attracting recruiters


Udacity, the MOOC pioneer who has now pivoted to providing lifelong vocational education in partnership with corporates, is launching a Nanodegree. This is a set of courses taken over 6-12months, priced at $200 per month, that lead to a certification (nanodegree) in areas such as Data Analytics, Front-end Web Development, iOS Development etc leading eventually to entry-level jobs in these fields. AT&T, Salesforce.com etc have signed up as anchor partners, and AT&T has reserved 100 internship slots for Nanodegree holders. Udacity seems to be muscling into the territory occupied by the likes of DevBootcamp, HackReactor, General Assembly etc who have tasted success with coding bootcamps, where they teach programming in Python, Java, iOS development etc to newbies in 9-12weeks, typically costing $10-15K. See NYT for a more detailed look at the nanodegree.


Starbucks, in partnership with Arizona State University (ASU) has announced an initiative under which it will reimburse fees of employees including part-timers registering for an online degree at ASU. Conditions apply as this article reveals, not all of which are entirely favourable to students. They are all favourable to Starbucks though, helping it attract cheap labour, keep this labour longer, and get some positive press in the bargain.


Trouble looming for the Mittelstand? Applications and enrollment are dropping in Germany’s vocational schools, part of the famed 2-tier education system, thanks to students wanting to study in universities and better their prospects. As a result companies cant fill in vacancies – one in three Berlin companies couldn’t find enough apprentices last year. See WSJ for a deeper look.

Meanwhile in China, they are converting nearly 600 universities (half the total public universities) into polytechnics, which will train students in engineering, technical and manufacturing fields instead of pursuing “over-academic, highly theoretical studies”, as stated by Lu Xin, a Chinese minister. They are trying to replicate the 2-tier German education system of academic and applied tracks, oblivious of the fact that the same is coming under stress in Germany. The move has been sparked by unemployment of around 15% in the 7.3 million large annual graduating cohort. Read more here.

For those who are interested the equivalent Indian annual graduating cohort is about 3.5m.


HBS launches HBX, their online-only preMBA program. With this HBS seems to have settled the debate around whether they should have a full-fledged online MBA (no, they say). For an interesting take on the background debate that led to this, do read this NYT article. PreMBA programs (also called B-School Summer Camps / Bridge Programs) are an interesting niche in the B-School marketplace, helping Liberal Arts students bone up on accounting, discounted cash flow etc. 

Re the full-fledged Online MBA, it is not offered at any of the Alpha B-Schools such as HBS, Wharton, Kellogg or Booth. They are afraid that this could end up diluting the physical MBA degree. In this context, I recall an interesting conversation I had recently with Mark Fuller, Dean of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, a solid tier2 MBA program. He says that the stigma attached to the online MBA is disappearing. In 10 years, he says, 90% of the MBA will be online. 


The best way to make sense of all that is happening in higher ed globally today – the rise and plateauing of MOOCs, the emergence of exciting startups such as Codeacademy or Enstitute, the decline of once hoary institutions such as Thunderbird etc – is to see it in terms of unbundling.

Essentially a university education is a bundle comprising services such as subject learning, internship / hands-on experience, access to a network of peers, access to employers etc. Michael Staton, a VC / Entrepreneur phrases it better as a “packaged bundle of content, services, experiences and signals”. Thanks to improvements in technology and bandwidth, it is now possible to unbundle specific components and offer it better and cheaper.

We see this happening with internships (Enstitute), learning (MOOCs / CodeAcademy) and even credentials (Badges). In each case a company has identified the specific service or experience, and has leveraged technology to create an offering that is relevant and compelling enough for a segment of the population, typically those at the lower end of the education market, to switch allegiances. 

Now we are beginning to see the untangling of assessment from the overall bundle of education services in the US market. Historically assessment was part of the core set of services that a Higher Ed Institute (HEI) offered. It was linked to the delivery of academics, and in many senses was inextricable from it. The rigour of the assessments was testament to the quality of the academic offering.

Now thanks to players such as CAE, ETS and ACT, you can chose to get yourselves assessed (in addition only, not in lieu of your grade transcript!) and share that data with your prospective employer. While it is not an alternative to the CGPA, it is fascinating that an assessment industry is beginning to build outside the core academic track.

Between CAE’s CLA+, ETS’s iSkills & Proficiency Profile, ACT’s Workkeys assessments, students have a wide choice of assessment options. While each has its niche, fundamentally all these products are trying to assess students’ performance on workplace competencies.

Why is this happening? Why aren’t employers happy with the grading transcripts that universities provide? Why are universities watching silently at the rise of an assessment industry that could parallel their grading & assessment function? I can see 3 clear reasons for these.

  1. Employers do not think that the degree offered by Universities at the lower end (private / for-profit) is doing a good job of signaling quality or mastery of competency.

–       Students who graduate from such low-end colleges are cobbling together credits across a variety of institutions such as community colleges, online providers etc. This makes it difficult for these colleges to ensure a standardized product unlike a leading institution such as Vanderbilt or Williams.

–       The low-end colleges are also not doing a great job of providing essential workplace skills such as critical thinking, presentation smarts, report writing, data evaluation etc

–       Grading & assessment process in these colleges is not up to the standard. Hence employers’ view that an additional signal is required.

  1. In a competitive marketplace, students are trying to get a leg up on their peers by arming themselves with an extra arrow in their quiver.
  2. Increasingly students are beginning to acquire skillsets outside classrooms. This could be through a free online site such as Coursera / CodeAcademy or a paid-for site. Their education is a mix of courses which have credit-equivalence and those which do not get them any credits. Hence the need for a third-party assessment to signal that they have acquired competence in these areas.

While the above is written keeping the US market in mind, it might be useful to check if there are parallel developments in Europe as well. This is a development that I plan to revisit in my future blog posts.


A few months back, I attended the ‘first-ever Rita McGrath Summit in India’ – yes, that is what it was called. During a break I asked Rita McGrath, #6 on the Thinkers50 2013 rankings of Management Thinkers, and author of the influential The End of Competitive Advantage on the 3 essential strategy primers that she would recommend to strategy newbies.

The following is what she shared – this was more of a spur-of-the-moment response, and perhaps may change if she sits down to perform a definitive listing. Still it makes for an interesting list, and possibly interesting reading.

  1. Playing to Win by Roger Martin & AG Lafley
  2. Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt, especially the 1st part, she says
  3. Can You Say What Your Strategy Is? by David Collis. This is actually an HBR article, not a book.

In addition she also recommended Big Bang Disruption and anything by Scott Anthony.


From Peter Greenberg, Travel Detective via Fortune

“Here’s a related caution : If you want to search for fares online, remember that you may create an electronic record of your interest in the process. And if you don’t buy that fare the first time around and then go back online a few hours later, the fare may have magically gone up. How did that happen? Blame cookies, those data-tracking devices embedded in your browser. The airlines claim they don’t do this, but if you want to minimize the possibility of those surprise price increases, when you want to revisit a fare, clear your cookies or use someone else’s computer.” – Fortune, 17 March 2014 issue