‘Building an ecosystem and fostering an industry-academia relationship is crucial for the education sector’

‘Building an ecosystem and fostering an industry-academia relationship is crucial for the education sector’

Anand Sudarshan, Chief-executive and Managing Director, Manipal Education

Anand Sudarshan moved to the education sector after spending several years in the information technology (IT) industry. Prior to joining Manipal Education (Manipal) five years back, Sudarshan was president at Adea International responsible for global business at the IT Services and Solutions company. Sudarshan joined Adea through the merger of Netkraft Private Limited with Adea, where he was CEO. Prior to that, he co-founded The Microland Group.

Sudarshan joined Manipal with a clear focus on enabling rapid growth for the whole group. Over the last few years, he has played a crucial role in expanding Manipal’s educational services in the Indian market, establishing Manipal-owned institutions abroad and overall, consolidating all operations of the group.  He also led Manipal’s investments in companies like MeritTrac and TutorVista, with the vision of roping in bright teams and creating the overall ecosystem for the education sector.

He had a freewheeling chat with S. Prem Kumar of The Smart CEO on challenges in the sector and what needs to done to revolutionise this sector.

Your background was in the IT sector, one that is vastly different from the education sector. What prompted you to get into this space?

Yes, they are completely different sectors. Except for the fact that both sectors work on the “moulding of minds”, they are very different. But, education was something I was always keen on. My mother happens to be a professor. I have grown up in an atmosphere of higher education at home. I have done some teaching whenever I had time and in that sense, it has always been core to me.

In addition to that, I am a firm believer in working on growth. I think, as a management professional, one needs to look at his/her core and decide whether he/she is a gardner, an undertaker, a mechanic or an engineer. I personally believe I am a gardner. A gardner’s primary role is to nurture growth; we have to grow in the right direction and de-weed certain areas of a business. It involves a lot of nurturing of people and processes and orienting the whole company in the right direction.

I had spent several years in the IT industry and I began to feel the sector was very mature. It needed large-scale operational focus rather than focus on growth. I wanted to move into a growth sector, where the sector as a whole could grow 3x or 4x.

At the time, I met Ranjan Pai who was the head of Manipal Education and Medical Group (MEMG) and we had a great conversation. He wanted to take MEMG on a terrific growth path, and the group as a whole was willing to make the investments, let go of certain things and Pai was open to a different way of going about it to pursue growth.

What is your biggest challenge today at Manipal?

Execution. The biggest challenge is execution and there are several challenges to this in India. I think the regulatory framework is not geared to address rapidly and in a sustainable manner the problems in this space. The reforms process is going to be crucial.

The second big challenge is the availability of good faculty. We have vitiated ourselves by not attracting the best and brightest to become professors. This problem needs to be solved.

What are your top two reform suggestions for the government?

I have plenty of suggestions! The most important, I guess it has been repeated several times, is the government should stay away from funding education institutions. It should create the environment, but that should be its role.

Two, the government today spends thousands of crores in creating infrastructure, which in my mind, is a depreciating asset.  Instead, it should use this money to fund students – an appreciating asset. If you truly believe that young Indians are your biggest assets, government needs to allocate funds in this direction. I am talking only about higher education here. You need to fund their higher education and research and that is crucial in the long-term.

All of us need to understand one thing about the education sector. An investment made today, has its effect on the economy only five or six years later. So, we need statesmen who look beyond governments, look beyond who the ruling party is, to solve these problems.

Let us assume we have 10 years to solve the ‘dearth of teachers’ problem. How do we solve it?

Overall, we need two things – more teachers and more time from teachers.

To increase the number of teachers, we need to actively encourage people with the right attitude to pursue a Master’s degree after their Bachelor’s. This should include funding living expenses for students while pursuing their Master’s. This funding can come from corporates or government. Organisations like Infosys, Wipro and Tata Group have done this for years. But, we need many more such organisations to do their bit. A culture of research should be spread; we need to create teaching assistants, research assistants similar to what happens in countries like the U.S. and all these things will help increase the number of teachers. This, however, will take time.

Short-term, we need to create and spread the concept of adjunct faculty – part-time teachers who are qualified to teach. There is a whole process that needs to be created – we need to teach qualified people how to teach, we need to assess if they are the right people and so on. Government needs to reduce its requirement on the number of full-time faculty an institution needs. I think both these together can solve the problem, though it will happen over a period of time.

It seems that in a country like India there is space for hundreds of Tier-I and Tier-II institutions. What is preventing us from implementing a plan to make this happen?

There is one thing you are assuming in this question. University education is the only route to higher education. That in itself is a question to me. I think there is space for vocational education as well.

Several people are asking this question – do we go the university education route or do we go the vocational education route. I think the basic problem is – it is not an ‘or’, it is an ‘and’. We need both university as well as vocational education.

The other aspect is we need to focus on the ‘outcome’ of education, rather than saying this is a Tier-I institution and this is a Tier-III institution. The IT industry, for example, has clearly showed what the industry-academia combine can achieve for this ‘outcome of education’. Look at the number of people who are finding jobs. Every one who is graduating from college says, “I have a cousin who is working at Infosys, at Wipro.” They have heroes in the family. The key takeaway here is – jobs were available. The outcome of education was made better, because of jobs being available. The IT industry created training programs to bridge the gap in the ability of a new hire. All I am saying is – the ecosystem has to evolve and it is the outcome of education we need to focus on.

It is not only about the IT industry. Larsen and Toubro created it in the industrial and construction space. We need several such organisations, on a fairly large scale, to commit to creating jobs and building this ecosystem.

Should ecosystems be locally driven? The change that has to be done is too large scale, how do you go about implementing it? Should we get local business leaders to get involved with institutions in their city, like how it happens in the west?

Will getting business leaders involved with institutions in their city help? Certainly.  But, can we replicate the complete model adopted in countries like the U.S., probably not. For example, you build an institution in a college town two hours into the outskirts of the city; students can still get there. Roads are good, infrastructure is fine and it is certainly not a hassle for students. But, in India, there are other challenges. Can you get students to travel that far? Cost of land is extremely high. So, maybe, we could get students on a videoconference.

My suggestion is, understand the outcome we want for a student. Borrow ideas from the west, but go about implementing it with Indianised strategies. We need to break down the problem and constantly look at outcome for a student.

Finally, what is your favourite aspect of working in the Indian education sector?

Plenty. I thoroughly enjoy working in this space. But, if I have to pinpoint one aspect, that would be bringing in the use of technology to make a difference to the education sector. This has prompted several business leaders, outside of the academic realm, to contribute to the Indian education sector.

Overall, Ranjan and Dr. Ramdas Pai related this once to me, which I can never forget.  “We will have to be relentless in our goals, without sacrificing on our core values in this space” and till date, this has been the best conversation I have had with Ranjan.

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