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NIIT's big plan: Teach one billion students!

Last updated on: June 15, 2011 22:36 IST

NIIT's big plan: Teach one billion students!

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Bhupesh Bhandari in New Delhi

The hundred acres of land, on the road from Delhi to Jaipur, were marked in government records as banjar (barren) and beehad (inhospitable).

Yet, the uneven patch has been fenced and parts of it landscaped in the last two years. Dams have been built on the adjoining hills to keep flash floods, which happen during the monsoon rains, from entering the campus.

An old jaal pilu tree, devastated for fodder and firewood by villagers and nomads, has been resurrected; a road meant to run over the old tree now gently curves around it.

Photographs, courtesy: NIIT University.

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Image: NIIT University.

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Some buildings have been constructed, and work is going on at a few others. The temperature can touch 49 degrees in the summer.

This is where Rajendra Pawar, the chairman of NIIT, wants to give shape to his dream project, the NIIT University.

There are 122 students studying engineering and business administration at the university.

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Image: Rajendra Pawar, chairman, NIIT.

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The students say that what drew them to the new university was the NIIT brand; it also doesn't seem to be their first choice.

Pawar knows that building the brand equity of an educational institution takes time - a problem that also crops up when he goes out to recruit faculty.

But he has a 10-year construction plan for the University, at the end of which, he hopes, there will be 5,000 students on campus.

Midway, he hopes the university will have proven that it can sustain itself financially through fees, grants, incubators and sale of intellectual property.

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Image: NIIT University.

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Meanwhile, Pawar is going all out to make NIIT University a green campus. A 1.6-km tunnel transports wind 12 feet below the earth's surface, where the temperature at all times is 24 degrees, across humidifiers and water curtains into all classrooms, offices and hostels.

Another duct, fitted near the ceiling, sucks out all hot air in the room. Ninety-seven per cent of the water (struck at a depth of 300 ft) is recycled.

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Image: NIIT university campus.

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The architecture is conventional Rajasthani, with courtyards and buildings close to each other in order to make the best use of shadows in the blistering heat.

A nursery has been set up for local trees, some of which, like the jaal pilu, face extinction. Pawar has sought the state's permission to green the neighbouring Aravalli hills.

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Pawar, along with Vijay Thadani and Parappil Rajendran, had started NIIT for IT education in 1981.

It set up centres across the country and offered consultancy to companies.

Out of consultancy was born the software division of NIIT, Pawar's recent success. In the 1990s, the software division stayed away from the high-volume and low-margin sectors like body-shopping and Y2K.

That's why it never had the scale of companies like TCS, Wipro and Infosys.

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After the dotcom bust of 2001, Pawar took some strategic decisions: One, software was spun off into a separate company, NIIT Technologies; and two, instead of horizontals, he chose to focus on verticals.

Almost 55 per cent of the business came from three verticals - travel & transport, BFSI and a mix of manufacturing and supply chain. These became the three chosen verticals.

The contribution of the other verticals has come down from 45 per cent to 12-15 per cent now. "The strategic choice had an element that was shrinking - that was a drag. Not any longer," says Pawar. "Our (profit) margins are Tier 1 margins."

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In fact, the operating profit margins of NIT Technologies at 20-23 per cent are better than IT education under NIIT (10-13 per cent). Also, NIIT Technologies is growing at a faster clip, and the two companies are running neck and neck.

While NIIT reported consolidated income of Rs 1,248 crore (and operating profit of Rs 67.20 crore) in 2010-11, NIIT Technologies closed the year with Rs 1,232 crore (operating profit of Rs 240 crore).

The reason, says Pawar, is that IT education still has a large contribution from emerging markets, though he has tried to move it up the value chain with acquisitions in the US.

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In IT education, Pawar has also had to battle quality perceptions. "Defects happen in any service sector," says Pawar.

"On customer satisfaction, placement and student performance, our matrix has remained very good. It's not an easy business because everyone has a personal experience. There are few institutions in the world that deal with both scale and quality."

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Hasn't NIIT lost mindshare in the education space to newcomers like Educomp and Career Launcher? "There have been at least four waves of training in the IT industry since 1981. Companies came and went; the only brand that stays rock steady is us," Pawar replies.

Another criticism that NIIT now faces, after the Infosys affair, is succession: who next, after the promoters?

While Pawar is the chairman of NIIT as well as NIIT Technologies, Thadani is the CEO of NIIT and Rajendran its COO, though Arvind Thakur, a professional who joined NIIT in 1985, is the CEO of NIIT Technologies.

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"If you watch the way we have projected our leaders for the past four or five years, you will notice that there's a next level that is running these individual businesses as presidents. Every six months, we sit down to look at the top 60 people. This has been happening for the past ten years," says Pawar.

His targets sure are ambitious. "Three million people have benefitted from our training programmes. What next? An idea doing the rounds is 'teach a billion'.

I don't know when it'll happen; maybe a decade from now," says Pawar.

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Pawar began to think of a university sometime in the beginning of the last decade. NIIT had diversified into fields other than IT education; its GNIIT programme, which can take up to three years to complete, had turned popular. Its net university was up and running.

The next logical step was the NIIT University. "We see ourselves as a global talent developer, rather than just an IT trainer for developing markets," says Pawar.

NIIT University is a non-profit company; so the money, though Pawar refuses to disclose how much, has come from the personal wealth of the founders and not NIIT - it would have been unfair to the shareholders of the company.


Image: Students in the NIIT lab.

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Over 10 years, the plan is to pump Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion)into the university; a tenth of that has already been invested.

At a time when there is growing disillusionment with the quality, and hence the employability, of engineers and MBAs turned out by colleges and universities, how does Pawar plan to make a difference?

The university, says Pawar, stands on four core principles: strong links with industry, technology-based education, research-driven mindset and seamless interface between various departments.

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The emblem of the NIIT University is the seamless Mobius Ring. Karan Singh, the chancellor of the university, has given it a Sanskrit name: Anadi (without end).

Some thought has also gone into designing the courses. The courses chosen for engineering, for instance, focus on emerging trends in a knowledge economy; thus, civil engineering is out.

Pawar has got nine of his friends, each a high-profile CEO, to mentor three or four students each. In addition, mid-level managers have been invited to act as coaches to students - they are in constant touch over email. "It helps them to keep in touch with youngsters," says Pawar.

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For MBA students, there is a "China immersion" programme where they are taken to China to see management education and industry at work. Pawar has started a two-year MBA (finance and banking) course with ICICI Bank for practicing managers.

At the end of the four semesters (two each at the University and ICICI Bank), all the students will get placed with ICICI Bank. More such partnerships, says Pawar, could happen in the future. To make a name, in the arid Aravallis, is anything but easy.


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