Should Startups Be the New University Diploma?

Should Startups Be the New University Diploma?

With logic-bending stories such as Facebook, Napster and Apple coming out of college dropouts, you are absolutely right to ask yourself whether college is necessary.  

Even in India where education is traditionally embedded within the social status and prestige the family enjoys, dropping out of college is no longer considered heartwrenching.

The basket of success stories featuring college dropout-that-turned-millionaire doesn’t only contribute to good media fanfare. There is something about this choice of taking another path for which traditional institutions seem to be poised badly.

Let’s quickly have a look at the current state of the higher education industry in India. These have been culled from various sources:

  • India's online education market size is expected to touch $ 40 billion by 2017
  • The number of universities has grown more than six times in the last four decades
  • India has more than 33,000 colleges with majority coming up in the past five years

The traditional postulate on which past century educational institutions recline so comfortably was that a degree is the safest path to proper establishment and a ticket to the middle-class stratum. But what does the reality look like today?

  • 20-33% of the 1.5 million engineering graduates runs the risk of not getting a job at all. 
  • 76% of the 1,389 IIT Mumbai graduates got campus placements in the 2011-12 session, and only a little   above 66% of the total 1,501 could find campus placements in 2012-13. (taken from various sources)

Therefore, should college be discarded in favour of a completely new model of self-education?

I'd rather assert that the bark pillars we see in the Forest University, Dehradun, still stand for something more than an obsolete era of elitist rulers and medieval darkness. Those pillars were and still are the backbone of a healthy self-critical society looking up towards progress. It is not a question of whether universities are necessary today but rather it is about devising means by which they can reinvent themselves and find direction again. 

Though the new wave of entrepreneurial thinking casts a shadow on the old educational institutions, it at the same time offers an opportunity for them. And the opportunity lies in capturing and surfing on this entrepreneurial wave.

A Stanford report in 2010 states its office of technology licensing led to 8,000 inventions and earned about $1.3 billion in royalties over 40 years. Students of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, make pitches for $60,000 awards as a part of an 'entrepreneurial boot camp'.

This changing focus of universities does not merely end in their transformation towards more research-oriented centres of knowledge. The media has done its 'fair duty' in making us forget the global success stories whose beginnings were the school benches of century-old universities. You can practically counter every college dropout success story with a “less trendy” one started in between passing exams, stories including that of Dell, Wordpress and Napster.

What about the scene back home? Can we name a few indigenous stories of Indian universities successfully incubating startups? Certainly, but not in large numbers. Quickr has been silently building its foothold straight from the college days of its founders. Most recent examples include Flick2know and Jobspire. Indian universities are slowly encouraging extracurricular projects that are likely to result in successful ventures . A few examples: 

  • The Indian Institute of Technology is a trendsetter with its recently-introduced all year-long pitching competition. Winners push their ideas that could become a viable business model to judges and angel investors.
  • IIM Ahmedabad has already partnered with the government of Rajasthan to form Startup OSS, which has already spurred Payzip and ClearTax.
  • Delhi College of Engineering (now DTU), city's oldest engineering college, is starting a full-fledge incubator from March 2016.
  • Stanford Ignite, the seven-week in-house entrepreneurship course of Stanford Global School of Business, is now in five cities across the world, including Bengaluru.
  • Wharton School conducted a first-of-its-kind startup competition at its Wharton India Economic Forum in February. Zostel, a hostel chain for backpackers, won the competition and met its investors at the same forum.

This may not be enough to drive home the point, but it does signify a movement and change of positioning. Startups and not university diploma seem to be the next thing for the cosmopolitan young Indian. The inception rate technology product startups in India is growing at 14 per cent year-on-year. In 2014, the country had 3,100 startups and is expected to see 11,500-plus startups by 2020. In 2014, the startup ecosystem employed about 65,000 people. This number is expected to rise to 250,000 in 2020.

What should Indian educational institutions do to amplify this growth

1. Slowly embark on the journey of re-positioning that will transform them into a hub for research and development and breathing ground for new ideas. However, a pool of ideas is not enough. MIT or Stanford gives their students the ability to turn these ideas into products. For example, at Stanford students build apps such as shuttle app to know the schedule of shuttles on campus, and room finder app to find if there are rooms available on the campus.

2. Make pitches and business plan competition a continuous activity and communicate openly its importance and share in the student's overall academic achievement.

3. Connect deeper with startups from the local ecosystem. Over 90% of the startup activity in India seems to be happening in the top six cities of Bengaluru (28 per cent), Delhi-NCR (24 per cent), Mumbai (15 per cent), Hyderabad (8 per cent), Pune (6 per cent) and Chennai (6 per cent). Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Kochi, Jaipur and Thiruvananthapuram are the next emerging startup locations. 

5. Though startups have started participating in campus recruitment, most are limited to heavily funded ones (think Flipkart and Housing). There are also a number of high potential but impoverished early stage startups facing a shortage of talent for their operations.  Colleges should facilitate the process of match-making between local startups and students looking forward to "gain some flavour" and actual work experience.

Maybe, soon we will see startups turning into the new university diploma.

About the Author
Author: Peesh ChopraWebsite:
Peesh Chopra is Managing Partner, Peesh Venture Capital

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