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India on mind, Carnegie Mellon University thinks digital

Jared Cohon, President, Carnegie Mellon University
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President has been trying to push “digital education” as the next big revolution in the sector.

Just a few years ago, Cohon, one of the most respected educational administrator in the US, met Apple CEO Steve Jobs, requesting him to insert an application to deliver undergraduate courses on the iconic iPhone, on an experimental basis.

Jobs refused point-blank, saying educational applications were “boring”.

Cohon, however got a more encouraging response from Facebook’s maverick co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg. He went to him with a simple offering — digital education is good, but it misses out on social interaction that students develop while living on the campus. So could fill in this gap in the digital platform? Zuckerberg told Cohon he did not understand the digital education business, but he would be willing to integrate Facebook if the university built applications for such an interaction.

Cohon says: “Digital education is a disruptive technology, as it could bring education at a lower cost to the masses. But, more important, it is an ideal way to reach markets like India, where cost is a key factor and the majority knows English.”

Mellon may be a private university, charging a steep $50,000 annually with no scholarships at the undergraduate level — certainly more expensive than other competing US universities. But the high costs have not deterred Indian students from coming here in droves. They constitute over 8 per cent of Mellon’s 11,000-strong student fraternity, and, as many as 150 of them are in the undergraduate studies. This is the reason why Mellon is aggressively pushing, despite its constraints in making India one of the key markets in its ambition to become a global university.

“Our strategy in India is clear — we will collaborate with local institutions, as we don’t have huge resources to invest. We will offer our faculty, courses and technology. India is surely one key market for us,” says the soft-spoken Cohon. As part of that gameplan, Mellon has tied up with Shiv Nadar Foundation and is offering undergraduate courses in their university in engineering, mechanics and computers. In the four-year course, students study for two years at Mellon and two in India, and get a Mellon degree.

But the next step is to go for post-graduate studies as well as research with the Nadars, though no time period has been envisaged for this. Cohon is also looking at tying up with Indian companies to set up centres for research and post-graduate programmes for their employees. He says Mellon has been able to commercialise products and technology developed in its labs and research centres. “We can collaborate with companies or institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology to commercialise products or technology built in labs,” says Cohon.

Mellon is also open to the Indian corporate sector providing funds, which could be used for financial assistance to students in the US. But, he also believes that the chances of such deals is rare, as Indian companies are more keen on setting up their own universities and foundations of education within India.

Mellon believes the experimental digital education model could be an attractive proposition for markets like India, where most students know English. Building the course material, of course, costs a lot — about $1 million for one course, but the cost can be spread across a larger number of students. Cohon says: “Of course, the key issue is to ensure quality of content and have intelligence built into the software to assess whether a student is learning. Surely, these programs that we are now working on at the undergraduate level will be prepared at a fraction of the cost of a physical course, but a business model has to be built.”

Have US universities fundamentally changed after the financial meltdown and 9/11? Are these universities losing their earlier attractiveness? Cohon answers in the affirmative. He says there are three things. One, in the aftermath of 9/11, there has been a significant rise of universities in Australia, Singapore and western Europe, especially because getting student visas in the US was getting increasingly difficult. Two, the financial meltdown obviously meant that many of the rich families and companies, who funded universities, reduced their support. So financial assistance dried up. And three, non-US universities are improving in terms of quality and are also cheaper in many cases.

Mellon, however, has already taken rapid strides globally. It has set up a Mellon campus in Qatar, and is running programmes in Greece, Portugal, Australia and Singapore, to name a few. In Qatar, for instance, the financing of the campus, including paying the staff is completely taken care of by the Qatar Foundation. In Portual, its programmes are supported by the government, which wants the country to become a higher educational hub. In Greece, it is supported by a local telecom company.

So, is Mellon looking for government financial support? Cohon rules that out, saying the Indian government already has many other areas in education that it has to look at on priority. But, he is looking forward to a legal framework that would define the entry of foreign universities into the country.

Cohon also wants the perception that Mellon charges heavily and makes massive profits to change in India. “We are a not-for-profit organisation and our fees are higher because we are a privately run institution,” quips Cohon.

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