Home / Companies / People /  Atul Temurnikar | Bridging the education gap

Singapore: Switching careers in one’s late 30s is often to do with survival or about reaching a dead end in the workplace or just seeking a break from boredom and burnout.

For Atul Temurnikar, it was all about believing he had what it takes to tap a market opportunity. His career change saw him venturing into the education space after a 14-year stint in information technology (IT) firms HCL Technologies Ltd and International Business Machines Corp. (IBM).

By 2001, Temurnikar, in six years with IBM, had become its country manager for retail in Singapore. His professional and social life involved a lot of interaction with Indian expats and most of them complained about the difficulties in getting their children to adapt to the school system in the city-state.

“Almost nine of the 10 kids who came to Singapore from India were studying at a lower class here due to the difference in the education systems," he recalled in an interview. “The academic year was also different between both countries. This created psychological problems for some kids, and parents also found it difficult to downgrade their children to a lower class."

“The curriculum was different—Singapore has a Cambridge derivative and India has its CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education)—but for language and mathematics, there was a lot of disconnect, and a real need in Singapore for an international Indian school," he said.

Quitting his job, Temurnikar decided to give it a shot. He put all his family savings and also got his wife Aparna’s help to secure a S$500,000 loan to set up Singapore’s first international school for the children of Indian expatriates. From a single outlet in 2002, the Global Indian International Schools (GIIS) network today stretches across seven countries, including India, with an annual revenue of about 360 crore.

“Someone had to take the leap. Whether it was economically viable and whether the target audience would take to that concept, we did not know. We had to rejig a lot and face our critics the hard way to ensure we really had a sustainable model," he said.

He also believed that the timing helped his cause—many Indian professionals moved to Singapore in the 1990s when the country opened up several sectors, including financial services, shipping, oil and gas, manufacturing and IT.

Temurnikar, 50, is the chairman and co-founder of Global Schools Foundation, the holding company for all GISs.

The foundation currently has three schools in Singapore, with the average fee being about S$10,000 a year, compared with the S$20,000-45,000 range for other international schools in the city-state.

“The lower fee was done intentionally. The first driver for us was price. Families with two kids should be able to afford our schools. We are the first professional school group that has operations in seven Asian countries," he said.

Temurnikar had come to Singapore a decade prior to venturing into the education space. After finishing his engineering at Visvesvaraya Regional Engineering College (now known as Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology) in Nagpur, Maharashtra, he joined HCL in 1988 and was posted to its Singapore operations in 1991.

Five years later, he left to join IBM at their ASEAN South Asia office. His wife Aparna has continued at IBM.

Born in 1964, he was the eldest of three children, and grew up in Nagpur, where his father was a mining engineer with Coal India Ltd and his mother a doctor.

Within four years of starting operations in Singapore, GIS began expanding outside the city-state, and set up the first CBSE curriculum school in Malaysia, Thailand and Japan.

“Indian expats living in the neighboring countries were aware of our initiative in Singapore. We got a lot of requests from Malaysia and Japan to open schools there. We were technically the second Indian international school in Japan—but we helped set up the first school there," he added.

Temurnikar said the group was attempting to maintain quality at the expense of expansion, and pointed out that the group declined an offer from a Singapore government-linked fund that wanted to support it to set up 500 schools globally.

“We decided it was not technically feasible to set up 500 schools. We decide on locations where we find we can make a difference. If a city has more than adequate number of good schools, we will not go there. Right now, we are focusing on metros and certain select cities in India and the Middle East—Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman—and these markets have a huge demand for high quality schools. We are also looking at Hong Kong and South Korea," he said.

Earlier this year, Global Indian International Schools Holdings sued Baring Private Equity Asia, which had agreed to invest up to $100 million in it, and alleged that the PE firm had vetoed acquisitions in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Vietnam, in a bid to seize control of the firm. In 2011, Baring had reached a deal with Global Indian International Schools to invest in it via four tranches of convertible notes.

A Bloomberg report on 14 April, citing court documents, said Baring’s investment was subject to Global Indian International Schools meeting a 2012 profit target of $9.8 million, and giving the PE firm at least a 15% yearly return on each convertible note.

“There is arbitration and there is a civil suit on in the Singapore high court. The PE investment was mainly for inorganic growth that the organization wanted to have. For reasons best known to them, they did not allow the money to be used for inorganic acquisitions. We said the money is sitting with us in the bank—we want it to be deployed and if you are not keen on deploying, you can take it back," Temurnikar said.

He also said the company had a standing credit line with the International Finance Corp. for a loan of up to US$30 million for expansion to India, Indonesia and Vietnam, and alleged that Baring had not allowed the company to take these funds.

Temurnikar said GIS was the first to suggest CBSE roll out a global format on the lines of the Cambridge system which can be adopted by any school globally.

In 2005, GIS had presented India’s human resource development (HRD) ministry with a white paper on a proposed CBSE-International (CBSE-i) curriculum.

“We said—just like Cambridge has an international version, which has nothing to do with the national politics of UK, and is completely independent of UK jurisdiction—why can’t we have something like that. We set up a model for them. CBSE liked the idea, they worked on it, set up a committee and then launched this version. CBSE-i is very aligned with the IB (International Baccalaureate) syllabus here and meets the expectations of colleges here, but is still in nascent stages—the first full cycle of CBSE-i has not taken place," he said.

The Temurnikars have two children—23-year-old Arjun and nine-year-old Arohee, who studies at GIS’s Balestier campus in Singapore. Arjun, who also did his schooling in the same campus, is studying in the US.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Why did you decide to expand to India—you are just bringing back the same CBSE curriculum. While this may be your strength outside India, how does it help within the country as India has no dearth of CBSE schools?

If you are looking at the product, it is very different from what you have in India. The curriculum is the only common factor. But the entire packaging is different—we studied many schools overseas, including the good ones in Singapore, and took the best things that they were offering. We found international schools were very strong in non-academic activities—sports, leadership, innovation and doing community service. We put all this together into a framework that allows our students to do these things while doing CBSE. In India, schools don’t spend too much time on non-academics because they are bothered about results. We want to work on nurturing interest areas and hobbies of student as well as getting them to develop other skills like public speaking. When we tested our model, we found the results were astonishing—when we were doing this model in the overseas markets in 2007, our governing board members advised us to take it to India. People moving back to India don’t have a problem if they are with GIS in Singapore.

What were the challenges that you faced as you expanded outside Singapore? How did you address these challenges?

The quality of teachers is always a challenge. We have to work on acquiring good talent and also internally developing it. We run an internal teachers’ development programme and skills development programme—each teacher is required to spend a minimum of 80 hours annually in learning from these programmes. Getting good talent in some countries like say Saudi Arabia is extremely tough—the immigration laws don’t help us. The 80-hour training is part of the solution. The other way to address the problem is to inspire people to come in join us—we have the lowest attrition rates in Singapore when it comes to international schools. This is because people like innovation, independence and they like to have opportunities to excel in these these areas. We provide that.

Of late, there is a lot of debate in traditional and social media on the education system in Singapore. Some share the view it is too rigid, others have been calling for changes while many want it to remain as competitive as it currently is. As a person in this segment, what is your take?

These debates are related to the changing environment—people have decided to get engaged. The discussions which earlier used to be below the carpet, or one-to-one, have now started surfacing in social media and on the Internet. The government has to be reactive to discussions on social media and see if there is merit in the arguments. Because of the changing times, and the way the entire education is evolving worldwide, it is becoming necessary for Singapore also to adopt best practices in education from other countries. Ultimately, the ministry of education, the caretaker of all schools here, has to ensure that the schools are re-orienting themselves to integrate the best practices and, at the same time, they also have to be more reactive to the views of parents who are the stakeholders; then parents will feel that their points of view are being heard. These debates are happening all over the world—not necessarily in just Singapore.

You said you have the lowest attrition rates among international schools in Singapore, and that you provide a platform for innovation for teachers. But what can a teacher do in terms of innovation?

It is not necessarily just innovations in the classroom – it could be innovation in teaching methodologies to increase learning outcome. The goals are shifting now. In the old days, schools used to be focused on syllabus, curriculum and how teachers delivered it. Board results were used to measure how effective teachers were. We have shifted the goal posts from defining what teachers’ deliverables are, to defining what learning is. Parents are now looking at a very comprehensive development and gone are the days when you had just three professions to choose from. Today some of our students have gone into sports, into entertainment, films and people have realized that they can be successful in other areas too.

How can teaches keep pace with the changes that technology brings. Earlier students met only in school, but now they are connected to each other all the time through their mobiles, internet and social media. Earlier students could only interact with their teachers verbally during school hours, but now they can do it at any time over email or social media. Earlier disputes and fights between students happened in school – now it can happen outside over platforms such as social media.

The classroom interaction between teachers and students has not changed – that remains as it is. What has changed is the mechanisms and modes of engagements. While classroom engagement used to the primary engagement earlier, now it is SMS, email, WhatsApp and our intra-net. The other thing is that teachers used to be engaged to a limited period of 6-7 hours/day, but now they are almost engaged on a 24-hour basis with the students. On an average, every teacher has about 150 students to deal with. The teacher is now engaged not just with the students, but their parents too, and their roles have become far more dynamic and time intensive - we tell our teachers that this is a 24-hour job. They have to be there when students and parents need them – there are no timeframes of how long they should be working, but they have intranet and a Facebook equivalent social portal to connect with parents - so they are in instant touch with them. Expectations of parents are also changing – with social media they expect instant answers. If they don’t get a reply to their emails or their queries with a day, they are up in arms – when people’s expectations are changing like this, we need to reorient ourselves.

You come from a country where most students can have access to universities if they qualify on merit, or can afford it. The system here is different - university seats are limited.

My understanding is that the seats are proportion to the demand and the manpower needs of Singapore’s economy – whether it be the universities or the polytechnics, the courses they offer as well as the number of seats, they are tuned to the industry’s demands. So you obviously don’t want to have a situation where all are graduates and then don’t have people to work as skilled laborers or on vocational skills. This is industry driven and that is how it should be in every country. The industry here is finite and the number of university seats will be fine-tuned further as the industry moves forward.

As Singapore approaches its 50th independence year, how do you see its future? What are the challenges?

Singapore will have to deal with external factors creating uncertainties here - like events in the Middle East which can have an impact on our financial markets. External dependencies are going to affect Singapore because its economy largely driven by exports. Be it the 2008 financial crisis or the outbreak of Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) SAARS in 2003 – the government and locals have to be prepared for challenges like this. Even in businesses, people have to be aware that they can be downsides. During the 2008 crash, the government gave financial incentives for companies to pay part salaries, and we (GIIS) got close to $2 million in assistance. The government is very reactive – businesses too have to be equally reactive and be prepared.

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