Luke Jeffers from Aberdeen, Scotland came to India to start an educational agency. Ten years later his venture Study Overseas established itself as India's premier educational consultancy. CSP speaks to Luke about the educational scene in India and the contributions of the Indian diaspora in the UK.
Please could you briefly describe the story of Study Overseas and your latest venture
Luke Jeffers: On 7 March 1997, I found myself on a one way flight from the UK to Bangalore. I had left my job at a Scottish University where I had worked for 5 years as an International Officer. My plan was to set up a British Education counselling company in Bangalore that would provide free quality advice to Indian students wishing to study in the UK.
I was 28 years old and despite selling everything I had in the UK to fund my new company I had only managed to scrape together just under £10,000, or 5 lakhs at the current exchange rate and this was to last 12 months covering all expenses both business and personal.
The internet was in its infancy in 97 so I knew that I needed to rent an apartment that had a telephone line so my fax machine would work! Without it I had no quick way of communicating with British universities. I was fortunate to find a small flat with a phone line in Jeevan Bhima Nagar off 80ft Road in Indiranagar. It had three bedrooms so I turned one bedroom into a counselling room and advertised my counselling services under my new company name - Study Overseas Ltd
Fast forward 10 years and Study Overseas Ltd had grown out of the spare bedroom of a Bangalore apartment into the largest British Education Counselling company not only in India but globally. The company employed over 200 staff across 10 offices in India and 1 office in London.
Study Overseas Ltd was sold in December 2006 to Navitas, an Australian Education Group and I returned full time to the UK.
I had a few years working outside the Education sector, mainly in property development, media and as a business angel investing in start up companies in the UK. Despite these being rewarding activities I returned to the Education Sector a couple of years ago and launched Connect2Students.com in the UK. This is a website/app designed to connect 2 students together who would not otherwise meet on campus or through mutual friends for the purpose of finding a flat, a flatmate, a travel companion, a date or another student to network with to get answers to their questions.
Among the many countries in the Commonwealth why did you choose India for your venture?
I had been attending British Council Education exhibitions in 1995 and 1996 on behalf of my then employer, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. During these visits I recognised the need for quality education agents in India who could give accurate free advice to students about what a British education could offer them.
In your experience setting up an educational consultancy in India, would you say India is conducive for non-Indian entrepreneurs? What were some of the challenges you faced?
The size and potential of the Indian market makes India a very attractive destination for non Indian entrepreneurs. From a business perspective the main challenges were poor electricity, in the early years we would have four hours of scheduled power cuts in Bangalore and then umpteen unscheduled cuts during the day. This was a challenge if you were working on computer or sending a fax! International telephone calls were enormously expensive in the late 90s. To fax a page of A4 it cost £1 (Rs 100 now). As I did not have email until late 98/99 my phone bill was enormous….it used to keep my landlord awake at night because the phone line was in his name!! On a personal level the main challenge was loneliness and feeling very foreign.
What do you think is the greatest attraction of India to investors both in education and business?
There is only really one answer - market size and potential.
In your experience with students the world over, what are your thoughts on the quality of students coming out of Indian institutions today?
Like all countries India has a range of academic institutions from small private colleges up to world class universities. The majority of Indian students I met were very focussed hard working individuals irrespective of where they had studied.
Often the key difference I would see would not be on knowledge but on practical skills: the result of larger class sizes and less exposure to equipment particularly in science, medicine and engineering.
What is the general perception of Indian students graduating in the UK. The US shows Indians are statistically much better off academically and professionally in the long run than other communities.
Indian students are generally viewed as committed students who recognise the value of a good education. Although English language ability can sometimes be an issue it is generally not the case with students who have studied in English medium during their school years. This is an advantage over students coming from China and other countries where the first hurdle is developing sufficient ability in spoken and written English to cope with the rigours of an academic course.
Perhaps doctors and businessmen are the greatest export to the UK from India. What is the skills they are identified with?
My father was a Consultant Physician and my partner is a Consultant Neonatologist so I have had a fair amount of exposure to employees in the NHS. There is no doubt that without the support of Indian doctors the NHS would struggle to provide the service it does. Doctors from India are seen as highly intelligent, professional, willing to learn and strive to do the very best they can for their patients. The UK is lucky to be able to attract such talent.
I have met a few Indian entrepreneurs who have come to the UK to start businesses or have been recruited into a UK job. Again key skills that can be identified are a commitment to work hard, to listen and learn and to be successful in whatever duties they are given. The entrepreneurs deserve a special mention as they have something extra: to come over to start a business is an enormous challenge which requires all of the above as well as a strength of character and importantly they are willing to take a risk.
Would you recommend India as a GAP year destination for students from the UK. What are the things that students usually look at before planning their gap year?
Yes I would recommend India to GAP year students from the UK. It would be good for them to see and experience a very different culture. I think the majority of GAP year students hope to make a small difference during their GAP year by doing some charitable or volunteering work. So the first thing they look for is a project or service that they feel is worthwhile and they can contribute to. Secondly they look for schemes which are well supported particularly in terms of assistance with accommodation and settling in.
In your perception is the Indian diaspora in the UK as a model community? What makes them so, if yes?
I believe they are. They are well integrated into British life and culture, there are no language barriers and I think there is a lot of mutual respect.
What are the memories you most cherish from your years in India? Did you get an opportunity to interact with locals here and experience the culture and taste the cuisine?
There are so many memories from 10 years living in India! The memories of the many colleagues I had in India is very precious, many of whom I am still in touch with today.
I did not have a car and driver for the first 5 years living in India nor a cook so I definitely got to interact with a lot of local rickshaw drivers, taxi drivers, shop keepers etc. I am a huge fan of Indian food, I did a lot of eating in those 10 years including going to a few weddings and experienced some excellent food!
One particularly memory I cherish, as it was such a bizarre experience, was the evening I went to a fashion show at the Windsor Manor Sheraton Hotel. I had never been to a fashion show before so did not know what to expect. When I arrived there were a lot of photographers taking my picture, I thought this was perhaps normal at fashion shows so just smiled away. I was then ushered by the organisers to a front row seat which I thought a little odd as I was a nobody in the fashion world and unbeknown to them could not afford to buy any high end clothing!
I knew this was a case of mistaken identity when during the interval a couple of young men in the hotel lobby approached me with a request for my autograph! It turns out that I have a passing resemblance to a New Zealand cricket player and New Zealand where in Bangalore that week! I explained I was not a cricket player, left the two young men very disappointed, and slunk back to my front row seat half expecting to be ejected once word spread of my true identity!
However I remained in my front row seat and at the end of the show was given a complimentary ticket to an elite after show party with all the fashion models and celebrities. I shared a lift to the venue with a young model called John Abraham. John of course has now gone on to have an international career and is quite a celebrity but back then he was just starting his media career so was not a recognisable face. I had an amazing evening, the like of which I doubt I will ever see again. To cap it all the next morning a pic of me on the front row even appeared in the Bangalore Times described as an “international visitor”