And the world goes to… Ameerpet!

Did you know about a place called Ameerpet?  It’s a small corner of Hyderabad where a 100,000 people are studying technology at any point of time.  What Kota does for engineering aspirants, Ameerpet does for tech aspirants – namely plug the gap between college education (or lack therein) and what it takes to get a job.  Yesterday’s Economic times had this article.

Ameerpet picked up on the desperation of thousands of students like Sudha when, almost a decade ago, it morphed from a quiet, residential neighbourhood into a renegade IT hub. Every crumbling building here seems to be crammed with institutes offering courses in SAP, Java, Oracle, C, C++ and a host of others. The training institutes range from a hole-in-the-wall place to large sheds converted into classrooms that pack in a few hundred students. There is at least one new institute springing up every day, but most are low on credibility and use unauthorised software.  Every day, hundreds of people like Sudha throng Ameerpet. They come searching for low-cost courses; for the experience of working on ‘live projects’, which are smuggled from all over the world, or for a crash course to upgrade their skills.

Many people come from villages to pick up tech skills and join the employment pool – more on that subject in a later post.  Employees of tech companies come here to brush up their skills (and actually learn what their companies are trying to teach them through e-learning modules).  Many of them also teach here, earning a 500-1,000 an hour.

Its a sad reflection on our colleges that students need to go through significant additional training in order to be employable.  At the same time, it’s a testament to private enterprise that finds a way to fill the gap.  Getting to acceptable standards of employment is often good enough.

As a trainer at an Ameerpet institute puts it: “It’s like having a plasma TV and a basic one in front of you. The basic one may not give you the superior quality and status symbol of the plasma, but does it mean it is not doing its job at all?”

One solution to the teacher scarcity

Import them! Like many colleges in India are now beginning to do.  No longer are colleges content with the occasional NRI wanting to return to India.  Now they’re actively going out and sourcing teachers from other countries.  And in the process, if they are able to improve their brand image (Global faculty!) and enhance their cultural diversity – nothing wrong with that either.  Sure, we will be given a lot of reason for cynicism.  But fundamentally it’s a nice solution.

Full story here.

Incentives to learn

Narayan Ramachandran has a column in today’s Mint, talking about India’s missing educators – focussing on absenteeism among teachers in India’s schools (a point we have been referring to on-and-off in this blog).  He states that there seems to be a clear correlation between improving teacher attendance and student learning.  However, teacher absenteeism is a very complex problem.  For e.g.:

* Higher pay is not associated with lower absence

* Para-teachers, who work on contract and whose jobs are not guaranteed, are equally likely to be absent

* Attendance in unaided and government-aided private schools is only marginally higher than at government schools

All this points to a lack of dis-incentives (or, in less polite terms, the stick).   Which is then the focus of most interventions.  Narayan lists out several of the good ideas floating around:

1. Introduce a voucher system that allows households to choose between public and private schools

2. Introduce a credible process of monitoring teacher attendance, and link it to some form of variable pay

3. Create an output orientation that is around student learning and use that to measure quality of teaching (not the input metrics like classroom ratios etc)

The first solution is probably a good one, but has too many complex implications – and will be difficult to push through politically.  The second and third ones are good too, but have limitations.  For instance, measuring the output ignores the quality of the input.  Something that the schools in LA have discovered (covered in our previous post “Scoring the Teachers”)

An aspect I find less talked about is the student’s incentives to learn, and parents’ incentives to make sure they do.  Many people struggle to understand the cost-benefit of a good education.  It’s hard for them to see the NPV of investments in education – and many of them fail to take it seriously.  I’ve encountered a few volunteer groups in Bangalore that try and educate students about this – by displaying heroes from their community and educating them about employment (and salary) opportunities.  But these may be sporadic efforts.

We’ve assumed that there is a demand for education, and are killing ourselves on a supply solution.  But what if we focussed on strengthening the demand instead?  Would that not help create a stronger supply base?

We’ve seen it work everywhere else.  Why not in education?

Scoring the teachers

The chart above is from a study done by the LA Times on school teachers.  It essentially tracks the performance of a class on standardised math and reading tests over multiple years and correlates that to the teacher involved.  Since the class remains reasonably consistent over a year, the analysis takes care of sample bias issues that normally creep into teacher evaluations.

As one can imagine, the results have caused quite a debate.  The teachers union doesn’t like it (why would they!) and the parents have gotten quite curious about who they’re sending their kids to.  While the dust is still settling, it seems that some form of this assessment is going to become ingrained in the LA teaching structure – and that a lot of the US may end up going this way.

There are obviously merits to this approach.  Parents, tax-payers, government have all got a right to understand just how good the teachers are, or aren’t.  But by focusing on standardised test scores (English and Math only), one can also cause teachers to teach-to-a-test  – something we’ve all seen a lot of in India.

India struggles with coverage, the US with quality, Korea with the cram factories.  No one’s happy, which means there’s a lot of opportunity!

The quest for good colleges

How bad is the education system…

“There’s no confidence in the state schooling, hence the reason so many send their children to evening tutoring classes. For the families who can’t afford the extra tuition, the likelihood of their children passing the entrance exams into the top schools, colleges and universities is close to zero. It really is a snobby prestigious concept that better families get their kids into better schools.”  Many see the divide between the rich and poor as a catch-22. For the poor, regardless of their child’s potential and intelligence, it is unlikely their offspring will get the top spots in the universities.

“…education is more important than anything, including childhood.”

In cram schools, the tutors teach us carefully how to get better scores technically and efficiently. Then we can double-check what we studied at school on the day. My parents sent me to a cram school to pass the entrance exams. The reason for attending is simple; to get a better score than before,” he said.  Unfortunately all this hard work comes at a price: “Of course, the studying was very, very stressful. We barely had private time and I couldn’t chill out with friends as I would have liked. Some just dropped out because they could not handle the pressure.”

Sounds like an IIT coaching class?  No, we’re talking about the cram schools that are increasingly prevalent in South Korea, Japan and China – where tuitions are now starting for children at the age of 4.  Full story here.

Meanwhile, the US seems to think that it needs to take a leaf out of the educational system of India and South Korea.  The grass is always greener on the other side!

The latest on the war against cheating

Now, anyone who has been to college (in India or US) knows that there is a continuous tussle between “the system” and the students. Cheating at exams is a common problem, and in a unique case of competitive evolution, both parties find newer ways to beat the other side.

Here’s a fantastic article in the NYTimes that talks about the latest ammo purchased by the colleges to beat the cheats. Fascinating stuff, really.

As the eternal temptation of students to cheat has gone high-tech — not just on exams, but also by cutting and pasting from the Internet and sharing of homework online like music files — educators have responded with their own efforts to crack down.

As an extreme example of life-time learning, one student tried the Ghajini approach to cheating:

As for Central Florida’s testing center, one of its most recent cheating cases had nothing to do with the Internet, cellphones or anything tech. A heavily tattooed student was found with notes written on his arm. He had blended them into his body art.

PhD problem

The US can rejoice.  PhDs trained in the US are likely to stay back in more cases than not.  In this article in the WSJ theres data to refute the contention that Chinese and Indian PhDs are moving back to their home countries where opportunities abound.

62% of foreigners holding temporary visas who earned Ph.D.s in science and engineering at U.S. universities in 2002 were still in the U.S. in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available. Of those who graduated in 1997, 60% were still in the U.S. in 2007

Specifically, 81% of Indians who completed their PhDs in 2002 were around in 2007 (chart below).  One of the interviewees puts it well

“One of the most important things with an academic background is the work that you do, and is it exciting? I’m not saying there is no exciting work in India. Many people have gone back and started companies.”

Apparently things haven’t changed that much since I finished engineering.  Want to excel in technology? Go to the US.  Want to stay in India?  Do an MBA.


Great for the US.  Not so good for India.  PhDs are critical to the process of innovation and advancement of knowledge.  We need to find a way to get them back, and a booming economy is not enough.

Education: Worse to Bad

TIE has formed a special interest group (SIG) on education, which is great.  I wonder why we don’t have a lot more SIGs in Bangalore – ostensibly the silicon valley of India.  Perhaps entrepreneurial activity in the city isn’t all that it is cracked up to be?

Coming back to education.  A couple of quick observations:

1. Scale continues to be the biggest challenge for entrepreneurs.  Whether in terms of students, teachers, infrastructure

2. In the quest for scale, quality seems to be taking a back-seat – the general focus still seems to be on improving the masses and improving employability.   This is not to say that there are no quality players – there are several – but they are a marginal voice today.  This despite the relative lack of price sensitivity in the sector.  I see this with a lot of schools too – a desire to replicate the model, but not the soul.  Sadly, a DPS in Bangalore is not considered the same as a DPS in Delhi

3. Technology provides some opportunities to address both scale and quality  – but not many people have cracked the model so far

4. Regulations are improving, but are still a challenge.  Most entrepreneurs are forced to work outside the mainstream – or find areas where there are currently no regulations (e.g. e/m learning, test prep, primary school etc).  Alternately, you have to find a way to work extensively with government (e.g. Educomp)

5. Supply is improving.  We’re still on the upward part of the hype cycle – so there is a lot of entrepreneurial and VC activity in the space.  Several models are being experimented with

Overall, its not time yet to bring out the bubbly.  But things are improving.  As one panelist put it very well, things are going from worse to bad.

There’s still hope!

The press hype about attacks on Indians in Australia

I just returned from a week-long trip to Australia. This was my first trip down under, and I was looking forward to talking with the cabbies on this trip. Usually Indian or African immigrants, cabbies all over the world tend to have compelling life stories and a unique perspective on the state of the society. I tend to meet punjabi cabbies in most US and UK cities, and get even more interesting tidbits from them because of the desi connection.

On this trip, there was this additional issue about the glorious Indian press, and their panic-laden-headlines (case 1, case 2, case3) about how Indians were under racist attack in Australia. It seems, going by headlines, that Indians all over the country are being selectively picked up for attack for their ethnicity.

It seems that ToI needs to make a study of statistics mandatory for the hysterical headline writers. If they’re going to lie so much, they may as well do it with a professional demeanor. Lies, damned lies, and newspaper headlines.

So in Brisbane, my cabbie at the airport was Ravinder Singh from Gurdaspur, Punjab. All of 25 years old, Ravinder was an MSc in IT, and was in Australia to do a course in commercial cookery. “Hmmm…sardarji wants to be a chef! Must have that punjabi flair for finger-licking food”. I thought to myself. However, inside that cab, this seemed odd. His culinary avocation was at variance with the smell of Subway sandwiches in the taxi (extra onions and double dose of bell peppers, from the smell of it). I pressed him to tell me more. Anything to get over the smell of stale bell peppers.

It seems that Australia is woefully short of hair stylists and cooks. I didn’t see many long-haired hungry people during my trip there, but I take the economist’s word for it. As a result, they are allowing foreign students in these subjects to come study in Australia ($23k AUD) for 18 months and then get a Permanent Residence. Many Indian students  (about 20,000 or so) had come to chase their Australia dream. The cookery degree was just a cheap way to get access to the country.

It also turns out that the Indian students who come for the PR tend to come from middle class families. Having spent their family fortunes in getting the cookery degree, they can’t afford to pay for expensive housing, and tend to find rental accommodation in shadier parts of the cities they study in. This makes them targets for neighborhood crimes. Not because they are Indian, but because there is crime in the parts of the city they live in.

Earlier in May 2010, the Australian govt has figured out they don’t need any more imported hairstylists and cooks. Now they need cardio surgeons and IT professionals. Yeah, right! Well, that puts the status of many people like Ravinder Singh at risk. Now they have put in their hard earned family money, but will have to go back home with a degree in cookery. No wonder they feel cheated.

And Hey! ToI. Here’s a quick lesson in mathematics: If the crime rate in a city is 7090 offenses per 100,000 population, then there will be 7090 cases of people being mugged, assaulted or killed. For a city with 100,000 people, some of the targets of these incidents will be Indian. If, say, 13 of these 7090 cases were against Indian people, would you still say that there are “racial attacks” on Indians? Maybe. But the question that would justify alarmist headlines is: “are there disproportionately more attacks on Indians in this city as compared to the general population”.

As for the cabbies I met in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, I have to tell you that they were the happiest cabbies I met anywhere in the world. They were happy with the standard of life and their future in their adopted country. Thanks for asking!


This blog has argued in favour of freeing up our education system.  Here’s one more reason why:

“The Union Cabinet was today understood to have decided in principle to dissolve the Medical Council of India (MCI) whose chief Ketan Desai has been arrested by the CBI on graft charges…  Desai, who was arrested on April 22 by CBI for allegedly accepting bribe to give permission to a Punjab medical college to recruit a fresh batch of students without having requisite infrastructure, has already submitted his resignation to MCI Vice-President P C Kesavankutty Nair

Medical colleges across the country require MCI’s permission to increase the number of seats, to set up new medical college, to add new courses and also to increase student intake.”

Give it up folks – let go – the market will figure it out for itself!