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GMAC’s goal is to connect Indian students with local B-schools

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-05-2014 Prashant K. Nanda

New Delhi: Sangeet Chowfla is the first Indian-American to head the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the company that administers the GMAT test. Chowfla, who took over as the new global president and CEO of GMAC in January, said in an interview that he is aiming to localize the global test by connecting local students to local schools in countries such as India. Chowfla also comments on the Indian education market, reverse brain drain and whether tough immigration rules in some countries and currency volatility is holding the growth of GMAT in India. Edited Excerpts:

As the new president, what are the fresh ideas you are bringing to the table?

As an organization our effort is to connect talent with opportunities. Talent is a candidate, who aspires to pursue management education, and opportunity is management education and the career beyond. What we are trying to do is to adapt to the changing world.

But we are at a point when it is beginning to segment: the flagship programme of our industry used to be the two-year MBA programme, then we entered the one-year MBA, now there is specialized masters programme, lots of executive education programmes, etc. So, the various things that is happening is the evolution of the industry in programme diversification and candidate diversification.

There is growth of candidates in emerging markets like India and China; and increasingly in regions like Africa, Latin America. So what we are doing is really providing access to these candidates…. At the same time, we are working with B-schools in other regions of the world in terms of connecting local talent with local business schools.

Can you localize your offerings?

Yes. GMAT is not a test of elimination. It does not test your knowledge like many local assessments. It’s a test of predictive validity…trying to predict how successful you will be in a management programme. It’s important for a school that a cohort of students has similar capability. From students’ point of view the most important investment of your life—your choice of B-school matters, so you choose a programme where you will thrive. In a way, GMAC is like shaadi.com—a match maker.

We have the opportunity to work with countries like India to actually provide that (assessment) technology where assessment shifts from being tests of elimination to tests of performance.

Are you trying to connect Indian students with local B-schools?

That’s our goal. We are not there yet. We fully accept that there is a lot of work to be done. But our goal is that we are not just providing connectivity to Indian candidates to schools in the Western world… We can provide our assessment technology to the India environment.

As you know Indian testing environment is very fragmented—more fragmented than any other nation. We have CAT (common admission test), we have a lot of single school tests, etc. Not necessarily a very good thing for the industry because fragmentation reduces choice.

Students have to make a decision which schools they want to apply to before they start taking the test. Elsewhere in the world, you take a test like the GMAT, see how you do, you look at the schools which fits in my consideration range within my particular skill set, within my economical and geographical preferences and the apply to the appropriate schools. But that option is not available to many students in India.

What’s your prescription for India?

I think we need more inter-operability. Both public and private sector needs to come together to build assessment which are more predictive in nature. It does not do good to us to have highly quantitative assessments where we have cut-offs like 99.some percentage. It rewards a lot of studying, but business education is about capability, not knowledge of facts.

How are you positioning yourself right now?

Right now we have the primary assessment for Indian students looking to courses around the world. We are beginning to become a credible assessor for Indian students in a variety of programmes in India. Five years down the road, we want to provide our technology to build broader assessment for India students to Indian schools.

A huge number of Indians don’t take GMAT. Is it because of immigration rules in some countries, currency fluctuation or cost of foreign education?

To some extent it’s all of the above. The other factor is what’s the absorptive capacity of schools overseas—if you are Harvard Business School, you take a certain number of Indian origin students because you have to make your diversity mix… at some point you get these natural limiting factors.

Definitely cost is a factor; immigration is a factor particularly to those who want to continue to work in those countries. As economic opportunity improves more will like to come back (to India) and immigration may become a less of a factor. But there is certain capacity overseas and that’s why India has to create its own capacity. India has capability to develop (the capacity)

That’s why we are interested...to be relevant to Indian students for Indian schools in addition to providing access to foreign schools.

Are you diversifying?

We are diversifying into more testing environments. Recently we launched a new self-assessment test in terms of your leadership and inter-personal skills. We are looking at using assessment in recruitment because we have predictive technology…so there is diversification of testing.

We provide a wide range of services to B-schools beyond the tests. Primary among them is research and data—we do seven global surveys of the management education landscape. We are working to professionalizing and standardizing the growing management education. We recently made a $10 million grant to fund what we call management education for tomorrow. (As part of that) we financed one out-reach programme of SP Jain (Institute of management and Research) in Mumbai where the MBA students work with disadvantage students.

When your company appointed you as global president, was there a conscious focus on India?

Clearly, the board in selecting me was trying to select somebody who would grow and diversify the reach of GMAC. My career is pretty much build around building local businesses. One of the reason why they picked up me is my global perspective…so we are very clearly stating we want to be relevant in other parts of the world.

(What we have started) focusing is providing more relevance to candidates applying within their regional kind of context. We have to provide tools and processes —where we are saying we are here and we are part of a place called India. We are a global organization, we have no home…we aim to serve candidates wherever they may exist. More and more are existing in places like India.

How do you see India as an education market?

First, India has a huge student body which is very ambitious and aspirational. So you got the demand side. On the supply side, business schools across the world are populated by faculty of Indian origins. The dean of some top schools like Nitin Nohria in Harvard, Soumitra Dutta is the dean of Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, and Deepak Jain formerly with INSEAD and Kellog School, etc. are of Indian origin. Indians have permeated in business education than perhaps any other industry.

Yes, India is a destination in itself. We are building world class institutions—IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management), ISB (Indian School of Business), number of other top private ones, some new ones are coming up with aspiration to be world class.

Rome was not built in a day and it takes time build great institutions. Combination of that with overall development of India will address some of the infrastructural issues to attract foreign students to study in India. Other factor is the opportunity that Indian businesses provide to global students…once all this falls in place it would be a great destination for management education and engineering education. Where we are lacking is quality of research.

How do you see GMAT becoming a pathway for foreign students to India?

There are still concerns about living in India...(issues of) access to house, local transportation, environmental issues limit the willingness of students particularly from the developed world to come and live in India.

That is changing... Global diversity is very good for business schools, but local environment limits the willingness of students.

A report based on a research report in the US has said that those taking GMAT perhaps lack entrepreneurial skills and are not ethical and criticizes GMAT.

I think that particular article, I am aware of, mistook correlation and causality. We reject that. There is no proof of correlation that taking the GMAT leads one to have ethical lapses. That’s a little bit of stretch.

Correlation is we have gone through a period which has had ethical lapses by management of some major corporations around the world— around the financial crisis. If you just correlate that business leaders who have MBA and have took a GMAT at some point—then you have correlation between these people that they drank milk when they were children. But there is no casualty between milk and they having ethical lapses.

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