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Lakshmi Iyer, Sannam S4, India

India in the next 10 years is an economy that is going to double in size and no country with a serious international education agenda can afford to ignore India.
November 9 2012
6 Min Read

Lakshmi Iyer is Head of Education at Sannam S4, part of a new breed of “market entry” specialists providing educators with tools and staff they need to develop an on-the-ground presence in India. She talks to The PIE about how the company is evolving and its move into the USA.

The PIE: Tell me more about Sannam S4..

LI: Sannam S4 specialises in market entry and, amongst other things, we support a range of institutions via a platform that we offer called Launchpad. To date, 18 institutions have started pursuing objectives using this platform.

The beauty of the platform is that allows you to get off the ground pretty fast [in India] without having the need to form a legal entity to support your activities. Staff are on our payroll and staff are deployed in an advisory capacity to fully to support the institution on the ground.

The PIE: Who is using your services so far?

LI: Currently, we work with 11 British universities and one Irish, American and Australian institution. We have clients such as the University of Nottingham, University of Leeds, University of Exeter and so on, who think it is important to have a recruitment agenda on the ground. Some, such as the University of Ballarat in Australia, use us to run a due diligence project to ensure students they are trying to recruit from India are of really good quality.

The PIE: What gave you the idea to start up the operation?

LI: Sannam S4 was set up by Adrian Mutton, he is a serial entrepreneur. He wanted to set up a software firm in the country and he found it really tough to set up something in India and that gave him the idea. SannamS4 stands for the most widely cultivated red chilli brand in India. The name was chosen because Adrian is a big fan of chillies but the idea was we want to bring flavour to institutions in India but not to the extent that we overpower the entire recipe!

“Until now, American institutions have been reticent about Indian students but now they are looking to engage with India”

The PIE: How many staff do you have?
LI: We have operations in 5 cities: Delhi, Bangalore, Bombay, Chennai, Pune. In Delhi we have close to 50 people, and outside of that another 20-odd staff members.

The PIE: What do you do exactly for a university who wants a hold in the Indian market?

LI: Institutions may want to engage more with the agency network or directly support students. We offer them solutions, go out and recruit an individual and bring them on board on our payroll and educate them fully on the institution. They then drive the various recruitment objectives being set, on a day-to-day basis marketing the institution by liaising with agency network, representation at student fairs..

Gone are the days when there was just one British Council event –  there are a lot of people running fairs. It does not become financially viable for institutions to attend (from overseas) and we have at least 8-10 countries very aggressively trying to recruit students now.

The PIE: Are these staff accessible at an office?

LI: Staff are very accessible at our offices across India, in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. The majority of our customers work with agency networks and meet students and parents in their premises apart from obviously schools and colleges.

The PIE: How are agencies in India viewed?

LI: Agency recruitment used to be a panacea but a lot are now looking at engagement beyond the agency recruitment model. The pool of students who want to study abroad hasn’t grown as it has in China, for eg; so institutions are now looking at developing links with local institutions at their own level… looking at partnerships where students can spend 2 years in India and 2 years abroad, for example. Guidelines around these kind of arrangements [are evolving] but Universities Grants Commission UGC did state that such reciprocal relationships had to be with Times Higher top 500/Shanghai Jiao Tong 500.

Indians can be rankings-focused… staff also have to educate people about the merits of an institution if you are not in the Times Higher top 500. A change of mentality is happening about subject strength rather than overall ranking; this is happening but it is going to take a while.

The PIE: And what is your role? [more>>]

LI: I work with all our customers who are on the ground and work with the education advisors. We don’t just offer Launchpad – but that has earned lot of favour in the sector. I also work with trade bodies who are interested in promoting education in India. India is not homogenous, it is 26 states, 3 Union Territories plus the capital city. Each state is very different in terms of attitude to money, the kinds of students you will find, English language capability; it is quite mind boggling to be honest, so I work with government bodies, I’m involved in trying to educate them to work with the Indian market.

We also have Graduate Development Services – Sannam S4 just won a UKIERI bid in conjunction with University of Dundee contract to go and find 20 internship placements for British students who want to come to India and undertake internships here. This service was actually developed by us for our existing customers to help their returning Indian students.

And we have just signed an agreement to support a consortium of colleges being brought to India under the aegis of Association of Colleges. These colleges will work to support India meet the challenge of skilling over 500 million people in the next 10 years or so.

The PIE: Ok, so tell me more about your graduate services…

LI: This is a service to help returning Indian graduates to plug back into the job market. We set up interviews for them; find internships. There is no charge for existing customers to promote this service back to their students– but a small charge for students who wants to participate in this service.

Remember, 90% of India is a Masters market. If I was to enrol in this service – it would be valid for the entire duration of my course plus 12 months after I graduate. Students get newsletters about the labour market… access to our resources to help get their cv together and we will keep them posted about internship opportunities we can find. .. just before students come back start we try and find them real job opportunities.

The PIE: You mentioned student preferences changing state by state?

LI: First thing, India is a postgraduate (PG) market, not many parents can afford to fund 3 and 4 years of education in currencies that are several times stronger. Down south, you will find more students keen on engineering and science. In western India, there will be more business and engineering students; east India is a very small market, but if you wanted to find really good quality humanities students, that is where you are likely to find them, for example.

“Some states are quite notorious in terms of reputation for students wanting to leave country somehow by forging documents”

Some states are quite notorious in terms of reputation for students wanting to leave country somehow by forging documents. If you are an institution unaware of these kinds of dynamics, you might get caught in a situation which is totally out of your control, because of lack of knowledge. States such as Punjab, Gujurat and Andhra Pradesh are areas where institutions have traditionally had a rough ride.

The PIE: Do your counselors personally interview all applicants they send through?

LI: Yes many universities expect that staff members should have met an applying student at some agency office. They should have established academic credibility before the institution makes an offer – in the long run this approach is going to help an institution.

The PIE: What are the trends now in terms of country choice?

LI: Every year there is a flavour of the season… When I started 10 years ago, it was just the US, UK and maybe Australia. Now, you are also looking at countries like Canada, Singapore, New Zealand, Malaysia, Ireland, Germany: countries you never even thought would have a stake in the evolving recruitment sector. Germany is a classic example – it is seeing year on year growth of around 20%. In  2011, almost 6,000 Indian students went to Germany for higher education through DAAD. They are getting access to some of the best science and engineering minds in our country.

“Today, recruitment has really suffered in the UK because of Post-Study Work rights”

India is quite a migration-focused market too. Today, recruitment has really suffered in the UK because of Post-Study Work rights. Most British unis have seen a drop of 30% from India and from what I understand from talking to institutions, India has been worst in terms of its reaction to PSW.

The PIE: Which countries will be the winners do you think going ahead?

LI: I think the Canadians – they have set up very ambitious goals for themselves for the next 10 years and all government departments seem to be singing from same hymn sheet. If you ask me, that’s a big thing. They are all working towards same goal – all provincial governments which have large stake in how things are done,  each of those provinces seem to be taking consortium approach to marketing what they have to offer. Canada has had some tremendous success in India in last couple of years. And Germany has also been quietly working away in the background.

The PIE: Your plans for the future?

LI: We have very big plans – we just opened our Boston office. Until now, American institutions have been reticent about Indian students but now they are looking to engage with India. It is going to be a big market for us. LaunchPad has proven to be a very attractive platform for customers and we expect to see that continue, providing access to the the right kind of resources on the ground to driving institutions’ agenda forward.

India in the next 10 years is an economy that is going to double in size and no country with a serious international education agenda can afford to ignore India.

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