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Harvard Comes to India - An Opportunity for Entrepreneurs? Online programmes offered by foreign universities are becoming popular but need local support

By Abhinav Mital

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If you are a working professional, chances are you would have seen advertisements for a Harvard University programme in your LinkedIn or Facebook feed. Click on the advertisement and you will find an opportunity to proudly don the crimson crest, right here in India, by enrolling in one of their many paid online programmes. Harvard is not alone. INSEAD, Columbia University, Tuck School of Business and many others are following pursuit.

Have the Ivy Leagues finally decided to open their doors to the millions of aspiring professionals in India? And more importantly, does this create opportunities for entrepreneurs? Let's find out.

Old Wine in a New, Bigger Bottle

Many foreign institutions have been present in India for years but perhaps not in the conventional sense. In the early 2000s, a number of top-tier foreign universities started offering bespoke executive education programmes targeted at corporates and senior management. These programmes flourished along with the economy and despite their hefty price tags, the lure of a prestigious brand has kept them going. The online programmes we see now are essentially offered by the same executive education departments but come with more "mas' appeal. Predominantly aimed at today's upwardly mobile working professionals, these can be two-three week courses on business basics to specialized 10-12 week certificates in analytics. And while such programmes may burn a $2,000-3,000 hole in your pocket, the hook is simple—a glittering brand on your resume from the comfort of your home.

The Packaging is of Strategic Importance

Apart from the obvious advantage of easily accessing large student pools, these online programmes are of strategic importance to foreign institutions. Firstly, being less than 12 months long, they are outside the purview of the government regulator. India's complex education regulations have long prevented foreign universities from offering degrees in India. In sharp contrast, Kellogg School of Management, Yale University, INSEAD and Cornell University, among others, are operating over 1,000 programmes in Asia with India being the major exception. Secondly, being fully online, providers don't have to fly down their celebrity academics. Not only does that reduce administrative headaches it actually makes these programmes extremely profitable to offer. Lastly, these programmes are a good hedge against a cooling economy. As corporate purse-strings tighten, so does spending on lavish "perks', such as the aforementioned executive programmes. During such times, individuals seek to upskill and improve their chances of finding a better job (or saving the one they have!). And what's better to make you stand out than a specialist certificate from a global brand?

They Need Local Entrepreneurs to Sell Their Wine

The biggest pain point for foreign institutions is getting students to enroll. After all, a $3,000-programme is not a DIY online purchase in a market like India. You need marketing, enrolment advisers and accompanying local infrastructure. And that is where the opportunity lies. A few Indian start-ups have entered into distribution and management agreements with these brands in return for a royalty fees. But it's only the tip of the iceberg. The number of foreign brands seeking India, variety of programmes and support services needed are all expanding. And it's not just universities. Some of the most prestigious K-12 schools are already eyeing the Indian market. The opportunity is there for willing and credible entrepreneurs.

So What's the Catch?
For starters, a foreign programme can be quite expensive for an average India. That puts pressure on customer acquisition costs and requires strong marketing capability. The current state of the Indian partners suggests break-even is not that easy. Many of the foreign brands don't enter into exclusive contracts and take a long time to sign-on. Having credible links into the old boys club at these institutions goes a long way. Importantly, the value of the programmes needs to be proven by driving acceptability among employers. Providers must ascertain learning for students, especially if the programme is fully online.

Harvard is not just here, it's more than that. Foreign brands are creating opportunities for entrepreneurs to build great businesses. The education sector has never been more in need of innovative and resourceful entrepreneurs than today.

Abhinav Mital

Co-founder and Managing Director, LINC Education

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