Ankit Mehra is the CEO and Founder of GyanDhan – India’s first education financing marketplace, trying to solve the education financing problem in India. He graduated from IIT Kanpur with a Mechanical Engineering. Post his graduation, Ankit worked with CapitalOne, USA, for around 7 years. He left his job in 2013 and went on to pursue an MBA from IESE Business School – University of Navarra. At IESE, Ankit witnessed a lot of his MBA colleagues facing troubles arranging finances for their studies. The slow and opaque application process and lack of financing options that did not account for future employability prospects of the students were contrary to the risk-based pricing framework he was accustomed to building at Capital One. In order to fill in the gap, he decided to move back to India in 2015, after his MBA, to start GyanDhan with the aim to simplify access to financing for higher education and make it meritocratic and easy.
In the last decade, students are slowly moving away from traditional courses like B.Com, B.Tech, M.Tech, MBA, Medical. These courses offer a set career path with higher salary packages but are competitive and crowded. Students, however, are overlooking traditional courses for programs that provide newer experiences, cultural exposure, and the gleam of living life on one’s terms. Niche courses abroad offer this experience, the freedom to choose their area of specialization, and provide interdisciplinary learning opportunities. It is no surprise that overseas universities and institutes were the first to introduce these courses; the main reason behind students rushing to overseas universities. For comparison, IIM-Bangalore introduced MBA in Business Analytics last year, a course that already had a strong foothold in the US and Canada.
The pre-pandemic world saw postgraduate degrees in a few value-addition courses like Marine Engineering, Urban Design and Planning, Econometrics, Game Design, and Development come to the forefront. This trend was slow to catch in India, where a postgraduate degree is still perceived as a stepping stone for doctoral education. Though a few Indian universities were introducing courses like Public Policy, Gender Studies, Diseases Biology, Ecosophical Aesthetics. The pandemic, however, pushed these courses to the forefront with a force as the EdTech sector boomed. The lockdown saw tremendous growth in the user base of online learning platforms that offer cost-effective courses with an interesting and fun curriculum. After the lockdown was lifted, students scrammed to find these courses at abroad universities at a lower cost. A study published by the Western Union also corroborated this fact as it concluded that 52% of students prefer to study niche courses, moving beyond the Ivy League universities and university rankings.
The study also concluded that students choose niche courses abroad when they are strapped for money but want to experience a new world. A mainstream course, like MS in Computer Science or MBA, from an abroad institution, will cost more than INR 50-60 lakhs, whereas some niche courses can be funded under INR 15-20 lakhs. Considering that the university ranking and reputation are not a concern in niche courses, they can be pursued from institutions with considerably low tuition fees, funded through personal finance. It is another reason why niche courses at universities abroad are witnessing a surge of international students as they do not have to jump through hoops to fund their education.
The popularity of niche courses will continue to grow as students perceive these courses with the freedom to forge unique career paths. A Gender Studies student has the option to work as a Human Resource Manager, a social activist, or get placed in a law firm. Similarly, a Public Policy graduate can work as a journalist, a Government Relations Manager, or a PR and Marketing Manager. Students are prioritizing self-dependence, opportunities to travel, and live life on their terms while choosing courses to study abroad. Professional courses like Artificial Learning, Machine Learning, Data Science, Robotics also dominate the list of popular niche courses in a post-pandemic world where the importance of technology and digital transformation has increased.
We at GyanDhan also saw a rise in the number of loan queries to fund programs apart from the traditional STEM and management courses. As a result of the pandemic, 46% of students prefer a hybrid model of teaching and are more inclined to join a course that widens their field of study without restricting them and offers interdisciplinary learning opportunities. Niche courses provide newer career avenues helping students fetch unusual jobs while extending a curriculum that is not monotonous. These courses help professionals inculcate hard skills that recruiters are looking for, creating a demand and supply of niche courses. Keeping these requirements in mind, students are choosing niche courses with a good curriculum, analytical approach, interdisciplinary learning, greater scope of employment, and entrepreneurial skills. Students are also shifting their preferences to gain better learning experiences and in-person sessions with industry experts.
While the niche courses are gaining traction, the ideal approach is that students get into a broad-based undergraduate degree program, vastly opening their field of career opportunities. Overspecialization at the undergraduate level makes the professional transition difficult and can be professionally limiting. Choose a degree program that offers interdisciplinary learning and then apply for a highly-focused master’s degree. Indian institutes are catching up to this trend with institutes like IITs, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Rajiv Gandhi Center for Biotechnology (RGCB), introducing degrees in niche courses and programs. Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) have begun offering an Inter-Disciplinary Dual Degree (IDDD) Program wherein students can obtain a B.Tech degree in parent discipline and M.Tech in an interdisciplinary area.