FOR OVER HALF A CENTURY, SUCCESSIVE GOVERNMENTS IN NEW DELHI HAVE made sporadic attempts to attract foreign students into India’s higher education institutions. In the early years after independence when there was heavy emphasis on Afro-Asian unity and the Non-Aligned Movement, a large number of scholarships were offered by the government-sponsored Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR, estb.1950) to school and college students from African, Asian, and newly independent countries under various programmes such as the Cultural Exchange Programme, General Cultural Scholarship Scheme, Apasaheb Pant Scholarship Scheme, Commonwealth Scheme, Technical Cooperation Scheme of the Colombo Plan, Reciprocal Scholarship Scheme, Scholarship for Sri Lanka and Mauritius, SAARC Scholarship Scheme and ICCR Scholarship Scheme. However the early enthusiasm of Afro-Asian students for Indian higher education tapered off as the Central and state governments tightened their grip on the country’s public colleges and universities, eroded their autonomy and drove academic standards southward. With not even one of India’s 35,000 colleges and 700 universities — some of which were established over 150 years ago — ranked in the authoritative league tables of the world’s best universities published annually by the London-based rating agencies Quacarelli Symonds (QS) and Times Higher Education — despite the best efforts of government and ICCR — the number of foreign students in India’s higher education institutions is estimated at a mere 27,500.
Meanwhile, promoted only by word of mouth and information passed along informal grapevines, right from the early 1950s, a few dozen among India’s 80,000 English-medium private schools have been steadily attracting students from abroad, especially from the 20 million strong Indian diaspora. Barred from high-quality English medium schools by formal and informal apartheid practiced in former British colonies and protectorates, a large contingent of children of prosperous businessmen in these territories — were packed off to boarding school in India. An unsung achievement largely ignored by politicians and the media is that India’s much maligned private education providers, particularly vintage boarding schools such as Woodstock, Mussoorie (estb. 1852), Kodaikanal International (1901), Hebron, Ooty (1899), St. Paul’s, Darjeeling (1823) among others, have hosted batches of primary-secondary students from the US, Thailand, South Korea, Nepal, Kenya, Bangladesh among other nations for several decades.
In the new millennium this quiet migration of school students to India has received fresh impetus with the promotion of a spate of new genre, capital-intensive international schools distinguished by sprawling campuses, state-of the-art infrastructure, often foreign headmasters and affiliation with
offshore examination boards such as Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), UK and International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO), Geneva whose school-leaving certification is unreservedly accepted by picky universities around the world.
Offering infrastructure and curriculums
comparable with the best in the West at a fraction of the price of private CIE/IB education abroad, India’s English medium international schools — which aggressively market themselves in foreign countries — are drawing a rising
number of students from abroad, particularly from neighbouring Asian countries which don’t have a strong English language learning tradition. Although official statistics relating to the number of foreign K-12 students aren’t available, according to Raj Mohindra Consultants, a Mumbai based
education advisory, they may well exceed the number of international students in India’s higher education institutions.
If India’s popular legacy boarding and new genre international schools are attracting a large and rising number of students from neighbouring countries and further afield in the new millennium, a substantial share of the credit for this
welcome development should accrue to the Kolkata based – Afairs Exhibitions & Media Pvt. Ltd (AEM/Afairs, estb. 1994) and its visionary promoter-managing director Sanjeev Bolia, a commerce graduate of Kolkata University who hit upon the idea of showcasing K-12 best residential schools nationwide and abroad. One of the three sons of Tej Singh Bolia, a Kolkata-based self-employed supplier of hardware and engineering equipment to education institutions, after graduating, Bolia resisted family pressure to join an accountancy firm and organised Kolkata’s first computer exhibition-cum-seminar in 1994.
“India’s IT revolution had just started and there was tremendous interest in how these wonder machines worked, and computer training institutes were keen to create awareness about the growing importance of computer literacy and education. Our debut exhibition received an excellent response although I lost money on it because I hadn’t budgeted for numerous expenses. Nevertheless this failure made me aware that career guidance and counselling services were completely unavailable to students emerging from the school system. I began researching and learning the nuts and bolts of the institutional exhibitions and career counselling and guidance business, and in June 1995 with Rs. 60,000 borrowed from friends, I staged my first higher education exhibition-cum-career counselling fair in Kolkata. Afairs Exhibitions & Media Pvt. Ltd was incorporated in 1995 and broke even in 1997,” recalls Bolia.
Initially the company organised education fairs mainly for private professional and higher education colleges seeking students, and parents/ students looking for quality study programmes in reputable institutions. However in 2004 it held its first Premier Schools Exhibition in New Delhi and Mumbai, creating a forum for K-12 schools to showcase their institutions to parents anxious to provide their children superior schooling. Since then the company’s India and International Premier Schools Exhibition (IIPSE) has become its star show, and has not only created a national market for top bracket primary-secondary schools, but has impacted them upon neighbouring countries and beyond.
Currently the AEM services portfolio comprises four exhibitions-cum-fairs staged in 27 cities across India and eight national capitals abroad through the year — the Career Fair, Admission Fair, IIPSE, the annual IIPSE Conference for school heads and educators and The Great Indian
Education Fair (TGIEF) which displays a mix of schools and higher education institutions abroad. These events are staged in rapid succession in 35 cities during carefully selected months of every academic year.
For instance the Career Fair takes place annually in six cities in April-May after higher secondary exams are written to enable school leavers to choose suitably priced undergrad/professional colleges. Admission Fairs are organised in nine cities for school leavers who may have missed the Career Fairs. Likewise, IIPSE education fairs are staged in 16 cities in India and TGIEF in eight national capitals abroad. Thus almost through the year, high-end schools showcase their infrastructure and curriculums for parents to pick and choose primary-secondaries which will be best suited to their children.
“Organisation and management of school and college exhibitions is a high-risk and complicated business which requires meticulous planning, careful budgeting and timely execution. For a start, it necessitates bulk buying of media space and time well in advance to negotiate affordable rates. With time-bound and scheduled media space having been purchased beforehand, project execution at pre-scheduled times is of critical importance. Simultaneously exhibition stalls pricing and on-site project management to plan stalls, entry and egress, facilities including food and beverages, and often academic seminars staged during exhibitions, require management skills of the highest order. In Afairs the critical function of media space and time purchase is negotiated by Bolia himself, and down the line he is supported by an experienced team of directors with excellent marketing and management skills.
“Venue selection, timing and scheduling, advertising and sales promotion, media buying, onsite conceptualisation and design, floor management, demographics
and demand assessment, coordination as well as attention to detail are necessary for success in this business. Many firms have entered the education exhibitions and fairs sector but haven’t understood its complexities,” says Vivek Shukla, a commerce graduate of Kolkata University who signed up with AEM in 1995, led its charge into foreign markets in 2007 and is currently director of international projects of the company. According to him, during the past 20 years the company has developed an institutional clients base of over 1,000 schools, colleges and universities who have showcased their institutions in 27 cities in India and eight countries abroad, attracting over 2 million visitors. “Afairs is the only company which provides interactive forums to K-12 schools across India and abroad,” adds Shukla. “This translates into 80,000 parents/ students visiting the information and admission stalls of colleges every year for face-to-face interaction with senior faculty and admission officers of exhibitor institutions. This interaction is of enormous marketing and career guidance value to institutional managements and parents/students. This explains why we have retained 80 percent of our exhibitors for over five years, and the number of visitors to our exhibitions keeps increasing year on year,” says Shukla.