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My grandfather migrated to Malaya (now Malaysia) from south India in the 1920s and found work as an accounting clerk with the British Broadcasting Corp. His children were born there before the advent of World War II, and after the Japanese overran Malaysia and Singapore in the 1940s, had their schooling system switched from English to Japanese. As a result, my mother could speak a smattering of Japanese until she passed away since she had learned to read, write and speak the language when she was very young.

After the Japanese occupation, many overseas Indians in Malaya also joined the Indian National Army set up by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Some of my mother’s family were killed in action fighting the British at Imphal, and another learned to fly fighter aircraft in Japan. When he retired, he had been an international pilot for Air India for many years.

After 1947, my mother and her younger brother benefited from the largesse of a young, newly independent India, which was grateful to members of the Indian diaspora who had participated in the nation’s freedom struggle. They were both awarded government scholarships to study in India since Malaya, then still a colony of Britain, did not have enough worthwhile medical or engineering colleges to speak of. My mother completed her MBBS from the Madras Medical College entirely with the help of scholarships awarded to her by the government of India, and her brother was in one of the earliest batches from the first Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), where he won a gold medal. Both went on to study further and my mother returned to practice medicine in India.

India has become a magnet for students from other developing countries. In the 1970s, Bangalore was overrun by Iranian students while the Shah was still in power. Most of them left soon after Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, their families unable to send over sufficient funds for their studies and their Yezdi motorbikes, which they loved to zoom around the town on. Many from other nationalities stayed, and continue to pour in.

Private Indian universities have looked to form partnerships or set up campuses in the countries where these students come from. Manipal Global Education Services now has full-scale set-ups in Malaysia, Dubai and even in Antigua, this last one focused primarily on training doctors for the US.

While this sort of ‘offshore’ or ‘nearshore’ provisioning of educational services follows the traditional model used by Indian information technology and business process outsourcing (BPO) firms to provide services to western clients, it also has the important component of providing the ‘South to South’ trade in services that I spoke of in a recent column, since it focuses on developing countries from where students still come to India to study.

Now, in a melding of both traditional educational services and information technology services, a new industry in ‘educational managed services’ has been born. This industry is not unlike the remote infrastructure management or “RIM" services provided by firms such as HCL Technologies Ltd and Tata Consultancy Services Ltd to their western clients. While the actual computers and network still stay put on the premises of clients, Indian technicians sitting half a world away monitor them as a ‘managed service’. Scores of technicians stare all day at a large theatre-like screens that shows all of the UK- or US-based client’s hardware and network connections and apply patches to fix the client’s network or computer infrastructure in case they begin to fail at specific pressure points. The infrastructure is still the client’s—no capital investment in buying or moving the infrastructure is made; the infrastructure is just managed from afar.

Meanwhile, the ‘educational managed services’ industry focuses on providing the soft infrastructure needed for conducting courses—the coursework, software and instructors to provide university-ready modules for sophisticated training in computer programming, financial services and design and media such as computer animation for movies. They attempt to first work with industry to make sure that these modules are of use, and not just another medium to deliver an archaic curriculum. All this is accomplished without ever having to go through the administrative procedures and steep capital investment required to set up an old-fashioned university campus.

Ashwin Ajila, the boss of a firm called iNurture, a fast growing seven-year-old start-up in this space, says demand for technical education in India has been booming in the wake of the outsourcing industry and iNurture has now established a presence in over 30 campuses in India. In recognition of the ‘South to South’ trade in this sector, it has also focused on countries in Africa, South Asia and South-East Asia in a bid to capture the growing markets there. Ajila quotes statistics that show the demand for educational services in these developing economies is expected to grow by 70% over the next few years and avers that these countries are natural markets for his company’s wares—essentially ‘university education in a box’.

As technology advances, allowing these services to be delivered even more efficiently than they are today, educational managed services firms could experience exponential growth in developing countries.

The large US and UK names that are trying to set up a presence in such countries still charge an exorbitant sum for their degrees; their product is geared towards capturing the sliver of the population that is rich enough to spend on a western education, and not on the proletariat schooled at home. Businesses like iNurture and its competitors, which focus on the home country’s own universities, have a bright future.

Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has personally led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.

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