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‘Apeejay Education is excited to be in the UAE to promote educational excellence’

Working with the Seed Group, will help us achieve our objectives, says Mr Aditya Berlia, Co-Promoter

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Earlier, this month, a company of the Private Office of Sheikh Saeed bin Ahmed Al Maktoum, Seed Group teamed up with Apeejay Education, belonging to the Apeejay Stya and Svran Group, to promote excellence in education and innovative instructional practices.

As a part of the strategic vision for expansion, the Group will bring its renowned education brand and services to the UAE and the Middle East to serve the community and the ecosystem. It will help Apeejay by being their local partner to foster long-term collaborations, enter the market with a position of strength, and forge strategic partnerships at the highest level. The cause of education paired with excellence has brought both these partners together.

With this, Apeejay Education is all set to revolutionise the educational landscape in the UAE and the Middle East.

Mr Aditya Berlia, Co-Promoter, Apeejay Stya & Svran Group, and Pro-Chancellor, Apeejay Stya University in an interview speaks about how technology has brought about new avenues for education, what their plans are in the UAE and the Middle East and what is an ideal institute.

Excerpts:

Can you tell us briefly why you decided to explore the UAE, and especially Dubai?

It’s really a long multi-decade long story. Our family has been involved in the UAE in one or the other since the 1980s. We have seen in front of us how incredible this place has grown. We’ve always been excited and from our heart wanting to be part of this journey. And so it’s not so much as a decision that, let’s look at the UAE as a market. And to be honest, the market is fantastic. It’s growing, a lot of new people are coming in almost every day, particularly post-Covid. I think it’s probably handled Covid, best in the world. And second, it has created a true reputation for itself as being well-governed and a place that is serious about people and serious about business.

So, for us, our education commitment is almost, I think now six decades old. And therefore, combining these two loves, the desire to see us being a part of the UAE journey and as well as making an impact socially. I think that’s what really brought us here.

What are your plans for the UAE and the Middle East as a leading educational institute in India?

One of the things that we discovered post-COVID-19 is that how much education is cherished, loved, and needed by students across the world. We knew this, but I think what really honed it in when people were sitting at home and wondering: ‘Will I ever be able to go back into the classroom’? ‘Will I ever be able to resume the normalcy of structure of education’?

Our excitement about being in the market is that on one hand, people here already know us. Many of them have worked with us. Many of them come from the Indian subcontinent and have experienced the quality of education. To share a large number of our alumni, a large number of our former teachers and principals are here in this market already. So it doesn’t feel like coming to a new place. Honestly, it feels like coming to a second home.

I think that’s what truly excites us, being able to bring that level of quality, innovation, and values that we have always prized at Apeejay Education to the UAE and work with fantastic people here who share those values and who want to do amazing things together.

How would you describe the educational sector’s evolution over the last few decades?

We’ve been over-investing in education for years. We put a computer in every classroom in the early 2000s. We had mandatory coding education for every student for all years starting, I think, in 1996. We were all in the cloud, and the first one to really implement the cloud fully in 2008 and 2010. So, we’ve had a huge pipeline of what we really wanted to accomplish, but we’ve also had a lot of key learnings.

We learnt earlier on what works, and what doesn’t work. Things that can be done, things that sound nice are very glamorous but don’t really have a long-term impact. And I see, particularly in the UAE, a massive opportunity in the next five years for a huge digital transformation. For me, the best part is we should spend a long time convincing our key stakeholders about the need for this transformation. And that includes students, parents, faculty, teachers, and regulators. Where we have to demonstrate to them that this can be done and what is the value of it.

And what COVID-19 did was put all of them front and centre. And so it’s a great joy to now work with them because the question is no longer do we need a redo or a digital transformation, but rather how, when, and what. And that’s wonderful.

What efforts has Apeejay Education made, or is making to prepare students for the digital world that awaits them?

We fundamentally believe that a lot of things that you teach have to be practiced in the culture of the institutions. So, if you’re saying we want to be a digital-first organisation, does that reflect in every single thing you do that is the DNA of your organisation? And I shared earlier, we’ve been focused and obsessed with technology for decades. One of the wonderful choices that every single student, and this is since 1996, has to take programming classes all the way from pre-K till they graduate. It fundamentally changes how they interact and how they work with technology. All of our teachers have adopted this incredible technology-first approach, not just in the tools they use, but the attitude that they bring to the system.

When the lockdown happened, we were fully online, exams and everything, in about 24 hours. And one part of that was all the technology investments we had done. But honestly, the major part was that our students and teachers were ready. You know, no one slept for three months. It was a 24 hours job to sort of really support this effort and get it done. But because they imbibed those values on technology, because they had lived it for so many years earlier, it wasn’t a jarring transition.

It was more of a sort of quick adaptation. And we found that was very unique to us. We saw a lot of other people, a, lot of known brands in education who had invested in technology or were talking about technology, but it hadn’t seeped into their DNA. And I think that’s a big change that we see. And it’s something that we bring to the table, it’s that culture of technology that works throughout the organisation.

How has COVID-19 affected you, and how have you dealt with the resulting challenges?

COVID affected all our stakeholders. I would say our transition and reaction to it was in phases. First, was the mad scramble to make sure that we deliver on our promises to our students, their parents, and to our stakeholders providing an extraordinary education wherever they are. I think pre-COVID, our rate of expansion of our institutions was very organic.

We felt that one of two or three per year was a good way to go. But through this period, the number of people and partners all across the world, quite frankly, I know MENA (Middle East and North Africa) being a large region of it, but even Europe and the US are coming to us and saying, “Hey, you guys knocked it out of the park. Teach us, help us, support us, and help us grow.”

And so for us now, the entire move is not just about focusing on world-class education institutions, but enabling existing and other education institutions to also grow. And, you know, we win when they win. And so the idea is to create those partnerships all across the region. I think that’s very new thinking that we have got in the last two years. But it’s simply not enough for us to focus on our institutions, but really to enable and help others to achieve the same high quality on a joint partnership basis.

What do you consider to be an ideal educational institution?

In the 70s and 80s, we used to use a phrase that, we unlock the full potential of a child or a student. And I think it makes me sad because everybody just seems to have cut, copy, and pasted that, and it’s become like every institution claims.

But the biggest question is, how? Can you answer how is the culture of your institution really supporting that? If we say we are supporting entrepreneurship, how many opportunities for entrepreneurship do our students get on a day-to-day basis in the classroom? Are the teachers supporting them in trying something new, taking risks, and really doing something different?

If we say we have human values, how does that reflect in your evaluation process? What signals are you sending to your students on a day-to-day basis? The activities you do, and the kind of feedback that they give. So for us, an ideal institution is the one that lives, really lives, and practices what it’s trying to teach. Kids these days are super smart. They are going to look and say, ‘Hey, you’re telling me this, but you are doing this. You are saying that this is what matters to you, but you’re incentivising this’.

And so an ideal education institution actually embodies the values, the curriculum, the mission that it’s really trying to uphold. And, you know, that could be lent in. We have a view on what we believe a great educational institution should provide. And for us in a few words, is to create extraordinary leaders who are able to act for today and for tomorrow. That’s, of course, a very big summary of it. Every institution has their own purpose. And we love seeing often diversity of offering that exists in the world. But if ask for the ideal, the ideal is when they embody those offerings, when they embody the value proposition that they are giving to students and parents, when they walk the line, walk the talk, really do what they say that they will do. That to us creates an experiential space where students truly are learning and imbibing what you want them to learn.

What do you hope to achieve through your partnership with the Seed Group?

We’re very excited to work with Seed. I think, although we are very familiar with the UAE, we have been here, we have friends, we have customers, and we have a whole bunch of people on the ground as well. But what we loved about Seed was the unique insight they bring to the market, as well as a very determined procedure to allow partners to succeed. We felt that by working with Seed, we could perhaps accomplish what would take us maybe three to five years in maybe one to two. And so we’re very happy to work with a partner who shares our values, and our long-term understanding of how people work with each other.

Our partnerships in other markets tend to work out for 10, 20, and 30 years. And in the space of education, honestly, even 12 years is very short-term. And so part of it is understanding the expertise that Seed brings in this market, but secondly, the desire to work with a partner that we feel we can be partners with, not just for our short entry for this product or service, or enablement in the UAE. But something we can continue for 10, 20, and 30 years ahead as well.

How do you believe Seed Group can contribute to achieving that goal?

It starts all with a simple question of values. Do you trust each other? Is there a semblance of good faith that, ‘Hey, we are on the same journey together’? We have a long-term destiny as part of our value system. We believe that we are going on a journey which is highly impactful and which will take us several decades. Our goal is to try to enable our partners to do the best that they can. And if our partners are doing the best that they can, they will allow us and in fact, make us the best that we are. And at the end of the day, our focus is on our end customers, our end consumers, the people who put their trust in us, and our partner ecosystem. And so having that connectivity between all of us allows us to really present a valuable and worthwhile proposition all across our customer ecosystem.

Shalini is an Executive Editor with Apeejay Newsroom. With a PG Diploma in Business Management and Industrial Administration and an MA in Mass Communication, she was a former Associate Editor with News9live. She has worked on varied topics - from news-based to feature articles.

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