In conversation with educator, Dr. Akhil Shahani, Director – TSCFM, CEO – ASK.Careers 

In this exclusive interview with Allwin Agnel, Founder-CEO, PaGaLGuY, Dr. Akhil Shahani, Managing Director, The Shahani Group; Director, Thadomal Shahani Centre For Management; and CEO, ASK.Careers, answers a few burning questions about what the new normal means for the MBA space, and shares valuable tips for MBA aspirants.

How has your journey been in the education domain so far? 

It has been an amazing journey so far.

I started out in the year 2010, with the Thadomal Shahani Centre For Management (TSCFM). Over the next 10 years, I was involved in the formation and running of 5 more institutes as the Director of the Shahani Group, offering a total of 15 courses across them, in the domains of business, finance and so on.

I also forayed into Edutech with an app called ask.CAREERS, which provides a range of industry-oriented Post-Graduate & Professional Diplomas in disciplines like Management, Banking, Finance, Real Estate, Digital Marketing, Media etc, through a blended learning ecosystem.

When I entered the education field, few institutions existed. But now, several new ones have come up in the last five years. The older ones were, perhaps, complacent in their services earlier, but faced with healthy competition, all of them have had to raise the bar. Several schools and colleges, that could not provide quality education, have even had to close shop.

The increase in education institutions is good news for the sector and its most important stakeholders, the students, as they now have a plethora of educational experiences to choose from.

You said that the education industry has made significant progress in the last five years. What do you foresee for the next five years? 

Take the case of higher education now, particularly institutions like Ashoka University, O.P. Jindal University, Shiv Nadar University, for example. People who want to take education forward to the next level, supported by corporates, have funded these institutions. For instance, Jindal Law School comprises expert faculty, like senior advocates.

Reliance pioneered low-cost data, and others had to toe the line too. We all have easy access to the internet now. Although the pandemic is a bane for humankind, we are well equipped to deal with it today.

Schools, colleges, and universities today have ensured that students do not miss their classes during the lockdown. They imbibe lessons remotely, thus ensuring that learning goes on even as students, faculty, and other staff remain safe.

We now witness corporations prepared to invest in education startups, thus encouraging and supporting them. This development has led to improved quality in education with healthy competition and will continue to be a trend over the next 5 years.

We will also witness the impact of the pandemic on the industry in the next 5 years, leading to a change in how we teach and learn. The brick and mortar classroom structure will give way to a blended learning approach, combining traditional face-to-face learning with virtual classrooms.

Courses like coding, data science, AI and IoT will observe an increase in demand as technology continues to govern every industry in the future.

Even as the pandemic broke out, you have been a proponent of change in terms of adapting to technology. What do you think will be the new normal in education delivery in the long run? 

As recently as a year or two ago, many academicians had advocated for implementing blended learning and flipped classrooms, and training instructors in tech-driven modules. While these arguments found insufficient traction back then, the pandemic has helped open the closed mindsets of skeptics.

The world watched amazed as educators quickly blended their regular pedagogy with online teaching during the lockdown. Thanks to these teachers adapting innovatively to web-based lessons, class quality improved from monotonous blackboard lectures to more interactive sessions.

The faculty in our college also follows practices such as integrating discussions, polls, projects, etc., into lectures, to ensure students’ continued participation in the lesson. This method has proven immensely effective in engaging the class.

Right from K-12 to higher education, graduation, and every level of school or college, we see faculty indulging in more innovative digital methods, and devising different ways of imparting learning more effectively.

It is easy to see that edtech will play a far greater role in education, in the future. There is potential to make learning available for each and every child in this country, we just have to ensure we are upscaling our infrastructure so they can access it, and updating our policy landscape to make sure we equip them for life the right way.

Q: How should the upcoming graduates prepare for planning their career trajectory? 

A: I gathered some information on the “employability factor” from a few industry insiders. When I asked over 250 recruiters what they looked for in potential employees, they were all united in their answers.

Companies would hire a person who is: 

  • ethical
  • proactive
  • a critical thinker
  • a team player
  • an effective communicator

I was surprised that not one of them mentioned creativity as an employable skill. Companies in all sectors today look for an employee whom they can train with the least investment, for which the candidate would need to develop all these soft skills that companies are looking for.

Many institutions will say that they will train students for placements, enhance their soft skills, teach them how to clear interviews, and more. However, it is easy to identify which ones are speaking from a position of truth.

Finally, beyond the training, is the individual performance that makes the difference. Look at students graduating from Ivy League schools. Big corporations might offer very lucrative packages to a few, but smaller companies cannot compete with that and they proffer comparatively smaller paychecks.

The batch will churn out a mixed bag of graduates who will accept offers from big corporates or smaller companies, with salaries ranging from a few thousands to a million or more. Not all are equal. The offers they generate depend on the individual potential.

How can a college mentor a student or tap his employability skills?

It is pivotal to understand that a lot of learning happens outside the classroom. Encourage student to explore beyond the walls of the college, develop their curiosity, and get them to engage in campus activities like festivals and projects.

These drills automatically enhance the students’ communication skills and develop their team-building abilities, besides making them think proactively.

Colleges should also encourage students to seek online internships. Internships need not come from companies. They are available when you look for them. The skills you have developed by engaging in various activities automatically demonstrate your leadership potential during interviews. These students are often rewarded with the best offers too.

There exists a lacuna between people’s ideas of what education is and how they try to implement it. How do you work towards minimizing the gap between perception and reality?

Thadomal Shahani Centre For Management focuses on creating employable students. Whether the student is pursuing graduation, or a short term course, our college works on developing the students’ employability skills, which will help them excel in their careers.

The first is the ASK benchmark, where ASK stands for attitudes, skills, and knowledge. We gauge students on these aspects throughout the program. It is easy to manage anything we can measure.

We set certain parameters in each of the three aspects of ASK, and show the students where they stand within each of these parameters. We then focus on training them to enhance their scores in ASK.

Out of a score of ten, we insist on raising their scores to eight on communication and ten on teamwork. These scores are mandatory for their placements in top companies. We also inform the students that their final scores will be shared with recruiters.

This score sharing motivates the students to work on improving their skillsets while also aiding recruiters in selecting the right candidate whose profile fits the role they need. This sharing of students’ skillsets is unique to our institution.

Would a student whose score in communications is eight on ten get placed in investment banking? What are the challenges that students face in their journey from one point to another?

There are no guarantees on placements or sectors. If a company requires a person to have good communication skills, the student with a good score can hope for a good chance of getting placed there.

Our college mandates students to find internships every semester. We guide them in finding the right companies for internships and finally the job too, however, the effort must come from the student.

We also make use of behavioral science models to teach them various skills. For example, during group assignments, we ask each student to grade the rest of the group on their contribution to the project.

The students know that they must perform well as they will be evaluated by the rest of the team, which ensures that they learn to work well in teams. These scores are averaged over a period, and hence become valid in the long run.

Are there any other pedagogical changes that you have implemented in your college? 

Besides the ASK benchmark system and the self-internship, we have initiated social projects. Our students have been working at the stray animal hospital near our campus.

When the hospital ran out of revenues, the students appealed to pet owners to sponsor kennels, offering to name them after pets who had passed away. Grieving pet owners were more than willing to sponsor the kennels, as they viewed this act as a way of memorializing the departed souls.

Additionally, we offer an MBA, from a UK Business school, where we teach them globalization. Many schools do not look beyond the US when they talk global. But we include case studies from Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, etc. in our curriculum.

Students must grasp the concept that an idea that worked in the USA may not work in Asia or Africa. Trying to implement American culture in a Chinese company is a recipe for disaster. We have thereby broad-based our curriculum to incorporate global ideas that work indigenously.

Once the pandemic set in, all educational institutions have been using platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, etc. to impart lessons. But there has been a significant drop in student participation. How can schools and colleges overcome the challenge of passive lectures?

A: The class must be interesting enough to keep the students engaged. People have low attention spans, and students will not be eager to listen to a teacher giving instructions in a monotone.  Unless the class is interactive, you will lose the student to several distractions which the teacher has no control over.

Students have many devices at home that lure them away from lessons. Keeping the student engaged in the class, however challenging, is the only way to keep the class interactive.

Our college works on class engagement in unique ways. A coordinator is present in the online classroom to monitor students’ activities, and question students when they stray from the lesson. The tutors here are called facilitators.

These facilitators randomly pick out a student to question during the lesson. Since the questioning is random, students are alert as they know they could be the next person the facilitator may call out.

Our content team has prepared a guide for facilitators to keep the class engaged, which are available for free download on our website for anyone who would like to use them. The idea is to understand human behavior, and use that knowledge for the benefit of conducting classes.

What mindset should students nurture to take the best out of online learning? 

The student must nurture the same mindset to get the best out of online learning that he would adapt to learn anything. Firstly, whether you learn something new or old, you must keep an open mind. Secondly, accept that you can fail.

You do not give up if you fail, but pick up again and keep trying till you succeed. If you find it difficult to follow the lesson, you do not switch off, but work on grasping the lesson. Do not sit on the problem, but ensure you overcome the challenges. Thirdly, you must listen to others – your teacher as well as classmates.

Keeping your mind open to learning from others goes a long way. You must have an open mind, be willing to fail and try again, be prepared to listen and be proactive. This mindset will help you succeed in any environment, be it online lectures or any other aspect of life.

We recently ran a poll on PaGaLGuY.com, and roughly 7800 MBA aspirants amongst the 8300 who participated in this pool, felt that MBA programs are overpriced, and do not do justice to the value that they are currently churning out on the online education space. What are your views on the value addition an MBA program gives through online classes? 

People, who felt that MBA programs are too pricey, must have also watched the free videos available on YouTube. Yet, they are not satisfied with those free courses, but pursue an MBA degree.

Not all MBA programs are overpriced, but you can take them case by case to see which of them are. If you paid up to $4,00,000 for a two-year program at Harvard, you might call it pricey, but you know what you get when you enroll in an Ivy League business school.

If you have paid a large amount of money in a college that is hardly recognized, and you do not get much out of it, this is not value for your money.

Choosing an MBA program is not like choosing a restaurant where you go to have a meal. If the food or service is not good, you will not go back there. But a college where you pay the fees is a one-time investment. You must research the right program and institution before you enroll in a college.

I appreciate what PaGaLGuY is doing for academics. 

Institutions market their programs and hard sell them. People buy and sell awards for a few thousand rupees. But, at PaGaLGuY, you share genuine feedback about institutions and courses on your website.

You talk to people and gather data, which is invaluable for your readers, who need to make informed decisions about their careers and get their money’s worth.

What should the industry do to deliver value for the fees they collect from students?

During the 80s we drove Ambassadors or Premier Padminis. The Maruti 800 was a fancy car then – we would book one, and wait for ages for delivery. This analogy is to drive home the comparison of IIMs’ fees in the past viz-a-viz what they charge now. IIMs were totally funded by the government then.

The B-school market has become competitive now. Institutions must cover their infrastructure cost and factor profits in their fee structure. But, if they charge INR 25 lakhs as fees, they must also justify this in their return on investment. This discrepancy in fees and return on investment is not restricted to India, it is a global phenomenon.

B-schools across the globe are different – neither the programs, nor the students who pursue them, are uniform.

A student, who only needs to check a box that qualifies him as a management graduate, would not join Ivy League schools. You will find a range of students, who pursue a program for what it is worth.

Some may settle for programs that charge INR 1,00,000 as fees, as this would give them the qualification they need to fill in their profile. Others may look for the value-adds in the program. Students select programs based on the courseware and specialty, and B-schools based on locations.

For example, a person who resides in Mumbai may not pursue his graduation in Kolkata unless he has converted IIM-C, because they or their families do not wish for them to live away from home.

Several students opined through many polls we conducted in the last two months that they would defer admission this year. We have also noticed the fall in registration in the past two years. What are your suggestions to students regarding deferrals?

We have noticed that in India, most students pursue graduation immediately on completing under graduation. They have learnt theory in their B.Com or B.E. and learn more theory in the MBA. This theoretical knowledge sans practical know-how diminishes the employability skills of graduates.

Students who work for a while before they pursue graduation fare better than those who do not work before graduation.

Deferring graduation for a year is a good idea, but a deferral need not mean a wasted year.  Given that stepping out during the pandemic is not safe, people can seek jobs that let you work remotely. Use the time productively.

What are the positives and negatives in the NEP 2020?

I observed in a television discussion where I was a participant, that the government representatives said that everything is hunky-dory, but members of the opposition could only see the negative side. The truth lies somewhere in between the two.

The National Education Policy is a refreshing idea in concept, with great guidelines. However, education is a state subject. The policy may be central, but each state has its own method of implementation.

At least 25% of the children from less supported backgrounds must be represented in schools, according to the Right to Education Act.  How many schools around you have slum kids? Although each state has chosen to implement it, not all children in the slums are in schools today.

The government has spoken about encouraging students as critical thinkers. The idea of cross-functional degrees sounds good too.

But we do not see the implementation of the policies. Some institutions have claimed to practice silo-based education, encourage students to think critically, and offer courses with cross disciplines. But the students do not get any guidance on how to become critical thinkers or function in a cross-discipline.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission had come up with a continuous comprehensive evaluation system, rather than an end-of-term one. The evaluation would include leadership skills, sports, etc.

But this too had become theoretical. If students only tick boxes, how does one gauge their leadership skills? The need of the hour is innovation at the grassroots. Institutions must guide the students in the right direction, and they need not depend on government policies to innovate and implement.

The National Education Policy 2020 also does not recognize one-year graduation. The solution lies in implementing course credit transfers. In this regard, the Malaysian model of education is a winner. They have interactive education, and work with course credit transfers between local and international institutions.

Is an MBA the only choice of graduation? If not, what else?

One must have a broader view of education. The stereotypes of good academics in school, engineering, graduation, and a high-level corporate job must change. There are various career paths open today.

Take hospitality, for instance. A person who aspires to be a chef is respected today. He needs qualification in hospitality and catering. An MBA is not mandatory for a chef. He can pick up the basics of management or finance from a short course, or do an executive MBA, instead of a two-year program.

One of the reasons why several MBA institutions have opened in India is because this is the least regulated part of higher education in India. But the NEP regulation has eased the offering of degrees in other areas like hospitality, wellness, and many more subjects.

Today students have access to quality education across different disciplines, and they realize that several career options are available.  This choice is a win-win for all concerned.

Stay connected with fellow students on PaGaLGuY for CAT Exam 2020 Discussion

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