Stuck in beta: TeamLease Skills University needs a work-study balance


Manish Sabharwal is one of the foremost evangelists when it comes to skilling in India. The co-founder and chairman of TeamLease Services, India’s largest staffing company, Sabharwal is relentless in his mission to mainstream skilling, with his op-eds a near-constant across India’s leading dailies.

Knowledge: One Of The Most Valuable Asset

Unsurprisingly, conversations with Sabharwal, too, are peppered with one-liners related to skilling. One of his favourite tenets is ‘prepare, not repair’. It’s a key spoke in his ideological belief wheel, and it’s this belief that led him to fashion TeamLease Skills University (TLSU), India’s first such privately-owned institute.

Located in the heart of the industrial cluster in Vadodara, Gujarat, TLSU has had a singular mission since it opened its doors in 2013. Churn out job-ready candidates for the market. “We already have over 200,000 students. It’s India’s fastest-growing university,” says Sabharwal.

As a university, its existence is almost disruptive to the whole idea of higher education—a banal system that currently shuffles students from schools to colleges to a job market they’re largely unprepared for.

TLSU wants to fix that broken link. It’s keen to trim the fat around knowledge creation, focusing on a theory-light but practice-heavy curriculum and pedagogy. TLSU, according to Sabharwal, is a university of the future—an attempt to bridge the huge employability gap between education and employment.

According to the India Skills Report published by the Confederation of Indian Industry and placement company Wheebox, 63% of employers feel no job seekers meet the “required skills”. Worse, the leaked Periodic Labour Force Survey in 2018 showed that four in ten formally trained young Indians are unemployed. And while there are many universities spread across the country—993 as per the All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19—they have a gross enrollment ratio of just 26%. Clearly, while degrees might be popular with Indian youth, university campuses are definitely not.

These abysmal figures spotlight the dire need for an institution like TLSU, where off-campus training forms a larger part of the curriculum than classes on campus.

“We only launch courses that we know have a demand in the industry. There’s no point in offering a degree without a job,” says Dr Avani Umatt, the provost at TLSU. According to information shared by TeamLease Services, TLSU currently has 400 students enrolled across a variety of courses. The university has a 100% placement rate till date.

As TeamLease co-founder, Sabharwal has enjoyed a ringside view of India’s skills market. As a founding council member of the National Skills Development Mission, he’s been plugged into crucial policy decisions aimed at unlocking skilling for the masses. Now, Sabharwal has turned educator, sensing both a business opportunity and the chance to shift the higher education paradigm.

But despite Sabharwal’s strong claims about TLSU’s growth and importance, TLSU is still largely in its beta phase after half a decade of existence. For one, it’s facing an existential threat from older, more established colleges in its vicinity and nascent skilling universities in states like Rajasthan and Haryana. Second, vocational diplomas don’t hold much allure in a degree-obsessed country like India.

For the sake of its own existence, TLSU needs to bridge the parallel worlds of work and study. On a war footing.

New, Improved, Frugal.

How TLSU came to be is a mini urban legend on campus. Almost every faculty member is familiar with it. Impressed by Sabharwal’s speech at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in 2012, the state government, then under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, approved TeamLease’s proposal to set up a university. The company put forth similar proposals in other states but to no avail. A year later, TLSU opened its doors.

The TLSU campus is a humble, three-storey building situated in a corner of Vadodara’s ITI park. ITIs or Industrial Training Institutes, were the first and till recently, only conduit to a vocational education in India. According to experts that The Ken spoke with, ITIs are a mixed bag quality-wise, and often list outdated “trades” like stenography.