Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Today started with a false start, much like yesterday. I started early and landed up, prepared to queue up, at the Indian High Commission at Aldwych. There were no one around, except for a few odd souls like me standing around in search of a queue, and we all realized, only after a few minutes of private wondering, that the High Commission is closed for Eid. The guy who so helpfully enlightened all the lost souls did indeed pass on a rather tacky leaflet printed with Indian tri-colour, and informed us that he is a visa agent and he can help us without a need of a return visit.

Later at work, the discussions turned to India. Rather unexpectedly, as my previous suggestions to my colleagues were almost always ignored. The fear of India is understandable: It is exceedingly difficult to do business in, particularly for smaller companies. For all the excitement about India, very few foreign companies have actually made money in India. The reasons are varied, and primarily because the lack of research and market knowledge that most companies approach India with, but also because Indian business environment remains anti-entrepreneurial, at least in most states. Most of the foreign investment coming into India comes in the form of Foreign Institutional Investment, through the Indian stock markets, which is a rather volatile form of investment and have a rather limited impact on jobs and wide economy. The contrast with China, where most investments are foreign direct investment and go into creation of physical assets and jobs, and much harder to flee, is self-evident. On a smaller and personal scale, my colleagues' discomfort in making a sizable commitment in India and blocking that into property and business is understandable from that perspective.

But India remains For Profit education sector's El Dorado, a land of gold which no one can really find. Indian Higher Education sector represent a strange tale of broken promises and bad regulations, and each time the governments of the day realized that existing regulations are bad, they have updated it with worse regulations. All the various Indian state and union governments have done in Higher Education, apart from creating a few elite institutions which are more interested in creating graduates for the American economy, is creating a morass of an industry which functions as a sanctuary of black money and for pedaling unsuitable commercial real estate. Almost all discussions about higher education in India turns quickly into discussions of land and property, leaving the country's millions of young people in the lurch. While there is talk of Indian demographic dividend, without a functional higher education system which can productively channel the country's young energy and support the highly aspirational Indian industry, this may quickly turn into a demographic time-bomb. Lots of young people without productive skills and careers is a moral waste, and a threat to a country's stability: The Indian government clearly understands that, but the corruption and vested interests are so entrenched in Higher Education that they are unable to make much headway.

Whatever my colleagues may think of India, I obviously hold a different view. My experiences in India, in the first ten years of my working life, makes me deeply familiar with the opportunity and the energy of the Indian inner cities, the aspirations of the young students, of which, not so long ago, I was one. My experiences in working with computer education centres in the small towns of India, I shall claim, allows me a deeper perspective than most other people, particularly considering the fact that often the training centres I was associated with would have been first such facilities in the towns. I still miss the full ritual that these centres were launched with: Pujas, the speeches by local who's who, the ribbon cutting, the photographs in badly printed local papers, and the file that I would invariably carry back with cuttings and photographs for my seniors, to be added to big filing cabinets where all such imperial souvenirs were stored. The problem was, indeed, at a particular stage in such expeditionary stage of my life, we all forgot that not the number of centres, but the individual students matter: We mixed up being big with being good. I did learn the lessons in a hard way later on.

It is rather odd that I recall this now and recounting it here, having nearly avoided a similar mistake today. While my hands are full with what I am doing now, I was pursuing a project in my day job which would have significantly enhanced my commitments. I wanted to do that - this was the closest I could get to my dreams of setting up a new age business school - but this would have taxed my already stretched schedule even more. Besides, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm about the new project among other senior colleagues and I was increasingly worried, particularly in the recent weeks, whether I am again making the mistake of over-extension. Today, however, I feel much relieved as the deal fell through: This may mean different things going forward, but this will most certainly allow me a bit of space to think for myself and devote time to do things which have become more important to me personally.

In summary, again, a day of negatives and positives then, but I feel relieved, almost free of a responsibility, free to think about the future without the burden of the past.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Day's Work

Nothing happened today. Well, almost. The usual happened: I returned to work after a few days break - full of aspirations to get things done - but, unsurprisingly, end of the day, had most of my to-do list sitting pretty untouched. The small things I expected to finish were just too small to attend to, and the big things, too big. My time was eaten away by whatever I don't remember now. I came home rather late, struggling to finish a spreadsheet that must go tomorrow, and missed my commitment to go to swimming every day. Consistent with the day of false starts, that was my only consolation.

Indeed, I make it sound too gloomy. There were good things too. My application for Overseas Indian citizenship has finally arrived the Indian High Commission in London and I shall pop over tomorrow to pick it up. This is closest I can get to dual citizenship: This allows me to stay in India as long as I like and work if I want to, even get back my Indian citizenship someday if I manage to stay in India continuously for a period of five years. This, in a way, connects me back to the country I left earlier, and allows me to dream of return some day.

I have also got my hands on Clayton Christensen's The Innovative University, something I was intending to read for last couple of weeks. I read earlier Dr Christensen's Disrupting Class, and that was the start of my long and deliberate journey to Higher Education, and I am very much looking forward to read this one. I am also reading, and immensely enjoying Michael Lewis' The Big Short, a fascinating tale of Wall Street at the threshold of the economic crisis. My takeaway for today is a comment made by Sy Jacobs, an investment banker cited in the book, on the sub-prime mortgage industry, "Any business where you can sell a product and make money without having to worry how the product performs is going to attract sleazy people." Indeed, this seems like an observation on the For Profit Education industry of today.

I also took time early morning to write a draft of my idea of the Online Learning business. It has been a while I have done such exercises, and it felt good to try to get back in practice. I almost enjoyed, despite the extra time it took, to format my essay nicely and to add page numbers etc., not so much to make it readable but to make it look like a serious work. Surely this is quite disjointed, a series of discreet ideas barely hanging together, but I intend to return to this in the next few days time. This is indeed something I wish to do, but, for the moment, this is almost a practice, getting back to the habit of writing business plans which I made some effort to learn. I am still struggling with the new Excel - I am still so used to the look and feel of MS Office 2000 - and so far producing cash flow projections has proved to be a challenge. However, I am goading myself to think this is only just the first obstacle in the path of my entrepreneurial make-over, and I must keep going.

I am also preparing to go to India. I have booked myself for flights in the last week of October - couldn't do any earlier as I am taking an intensive, three week, session for a new MBA class in the first three weeks that month - and intend to stay for two weeks. My to-do list in India is long, and priorities, apart from visiting my father and my sister first time after the two catastrophic deaths in the family, will be to get back in touch with India, travel around a bit and see some of business contacts, old and new, exploring what we can do to partner and extend our education offering to Indian students. Those who know me know that I am quite passionate about this thing, and though this visit is already becoming extremely busy, I am looking forward to it.

I am already too sleepy and must sign off now. Hopefully, I should be able to keep writing this diary, on and off, chronicling what promises to be one of the most interesting phases in my life.

Friday, August 26, 2011

How I Got Here: 1

My parents came from two very different families, and my childhood was defined by the differences.

My father's side of the family was rich and entrepreneurial, mostly self-taught, fiercely independent, disciplined and hardworking. My father, the first to go to university and with his teaching job at a college, was as much a misfit in the family as one could be. The family, led by the family patriarch, my grandfather's eldest brother, was apolitical, somewhat elitist and focused on building a great business. My father's popularity as a teacher and his superb musical skills would be fondly referred to, but his profession was almost treated as a hobby.

My mother's side was exactly the opposite. They were not in business: They were in politics and public service. My grandfather went to jail fighting for India's freedom, and my mother's elder brother was a leading light in the extreme left movement in Calcutta in the early Seventies and died a premature death when the Police shot him in his sleep. Other members of the family served as local Councillors and taught in schools, while their house was a hub for leftist politics in the city in the 60s and early 70s. All of them went to the university and got advanced degrees. True to the traditions of the house, my mother did a Masters in English Literature but learned and spoke fluent Russian. She would later turn down an invitation to go and work in Soviet Russia as she was expecting her first child, me, a few years later.

Unsurprisingly, my mother met my father at the University.

Despite these differences, there were common threads between the two families and this made my childhood happy. All of them loved books and music. Indian culture, Sanskrit, Hindustani Classical Music, Tagore's songs and poetry, Hindu scriptures and epics, were embedded in my everyday growing up. Both the houses were full of books of various kinds, and I could go on a journey of exploration from Vedas to Marx on my own. Interestingly, Gandhi was reviled on both sides: At one side, for not going far enough and stalling any armed insurrection during India's struggle for independence and for 'selling out' to the Indian bourgeoisie, and on the other, for undermining the great Bengali nationalist leaders, like C R Das and Subhas Bose, who led the bourgeois struggle for Independence parallel to the Gandhian journey of bringing the peasants and the villagers in the quest.

Indeed, I had to conform to the discipline of my father's house, to various things including fixed dinner time and an early morning walk around the neighbourhood with my grandfather, go to the neighbourhood school where they could keep an eye on my activities and my progress, play on the playground attached to our house, and confine my movements within the neighbourhood which was inhabited mostly by my extended family and was named after them anyway. This meant I never got to start smoking or dated a girl till I reached final years of college.

Within such a setting, I always found the environment of my mother's house, slightly chaotic but loving, open and full of exciting ideas, absolutely refreshing. I never stayed there for too long, regrettably, but would always want to go: In my college days, there was the added incentive of getting some extra pocket money from my grandmother, who steadfastly loved me despite my many digressions, which I would then spend buying books of blasphemous variety, Marx, Lenin, Gramsci and finally, when I started seeing the world on my own, Trotsky.

However, despite my intellectual wandering around, I deeply respected my family patriarch, who was unfailingly loving and as I would find out later, respectful of the otherness of points of views. I would remember, with absolute clarity, the fear I felt when one day he would walk in to my room rather out of turn and inquired what I was reading: I was, of all things, reading The Communist Manifesto at the time, and was deeply frightened that this would upset him. I was preparing myself for a long argument when he saw the book, but turned and smiled to me to say that reading everything was good as long as I had an independent mind to judge its content. I did not understand what he said, but was relieved at the reaction: I have only later understood the value of his advice.

In college, I could never got involved in Student Unions, as they were highly politicized and carried the agenda of one or the other mainstream political parties. I was too much of a non-conformist by then to sign up to any single worldview, and hence drifted close to the uninvolved, which, in the late Eighties Calcutta, meant the extreme left in hiding. I was soon attending informal book reading sessions, discovered Mao, learned about the caste battles in Bihar and helped selling a book - Reports From The Flaming Fields of Bihar - clandestinely.

I was studying economics then, and while my friends were fascinated by Keynes and Friedman, I was more of an Economic History type, perfectly at ease with Scissors Crisis in Russia and could talk about Great Depression for hours, but would see this as an invariable malaise of Capitalism than something that could be addressed by Fiscal or Monetary measures. Some of it, as this blog will stand witness, remains with me to this day. However, by the time I finished college, I have discovered Trotsky and realized that my friends were quietly shunning me. My proposal to read and discuss Isaac Deutscher's Prophet Armed in one of their book reading sessions, labeled 'Time to Open Minds' but confined to books by Mao and a particular version of Modern Chinese history, got me labeled as a heretic, one who had gone over to the dark sides. Surely, I left without regrets.

Looking back is always fascinating, but to think that I went from hawking Maoist literature to being a wannabe stockbroker in three years between 1988 and 1991 is still amazing to me. Serendipity perhaps, but this somewhat reflected what was around me. This was a time for great discontinuity in modern Indian history, a time of political uncertainties, when there was no omnipresent leader and the dynamics of Indian politics were changing suddenly. There was a Hindu resurgence, as was of the lower caste politicians. Suddenly, the Middle Class was in retreat from front-line politics, after having dominated it for most of the preceding forty years, in exchange of economic freedom. There were new opportunities, new businesses, excitement of a different kind in the air. This was the time I would go and see Oliver Stone's Wall Street and get an altogether different message: I came out of the theatre convinced that I want to be a good stockbroker someday. This was the time when I would sign up for a computer programming course, which would eventually change my life. But I shall keep that story for another day.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Back to Idealism

I am at an interesting phase in my life. In the last 18 months or so, my life has completely changed. Old responsibilities and attachments have died, and new configurations have emerged. My plans for return, which I felt about so intensely at the time, have receded to the background; but I rediscovered my attachment to India. And, overall, after spending many a year in waiting, almost in hibernation, I feel ready to go out and try what I wanted to do all my life.

I have indeed made no secrets about what I want to do: I wanted to set up an educational establishment which fuses creative spirit, technology savvy and enterprise thinking, in a truly global context. Also, I am an unashamed idealist, and therefore think that this institution should strive to engage with global problems, poverty, climate change, intolerance, inequality etc., and the learners should emerge with an urge and a commitment to make the world a better place.

In a way, this is not new. All my life, almost all the things I have done, was a quest for these objectives. So was I doing when I was helping to take computer education to the inner cities of India, and in my little start-up back in the 90s when I really believed in the redeeming power of the Internet. This is what I felt when we were giving out scholarships to learn computers to 1000 girl students from Bangladesh villages in 2003, and when I was trying to promote English language and teacher training in the Philippines in 2008: I wanted to change lives, and make those involved a participant in the effort to make the world a better place.

However, while my idealism kept me going, I pretended to be a businessman. I have the sense of numbers, the gift of articulation, an ability to spot business opportunities and of natural leadership, all the things I needed to hide the fact that I am a hopeless dreamer, an undying optimist and a believer of the goodness of human nature. So, while I bragged about meeting my sales targets (which I did) by engineering the partnership with Unilever to give out the scholarships, my proudest moment was when I knew that this, unintentionally, made a number of girls stay in school, when otherwise their parents would have withdrawn them once they reach 8th grade, at which point the state subsidy stops. While everyone thought the talk of transforming the lives of inner city girls from maids to teachers is a good sales pitch for the wares I was selling, I was fascinated by the fact that I could play a part in this transformation.

Indeed, this is the reason I stayed in Education business, as it is the easiest to hide my idealism and make it look like business savvy. However, I have not made any attempts to make a transition to charity or state-funded education: All my interactions with those sectors, which invariably happened from time to time, gave me the sense of a bureaucracy and risk aversion: It seemed harder to contain my idealism and inclination to take risks within the bounds of such work than within the context of business.

The change now is that I am feeling a lot more in charge of my life. I feel now that I can tell the world that I am an idealist and my goals are to change the world, however quixotic that may sound. While I feel ready to start a business, I shall not do so to 'make money'; I want to do so to be able to devote all my waking moments in pursuit of something I want to do. Indeed, all I have done all my life will establish that I am a pragmatist and I have worked with what I got. However, I am fed up with how little I have achieved so far, and in true mid-life crisis style, I am feeling I am running out of time to do what I want to do. This is the reason, more than anything else, which makes me eager to walk out of the securities that I have built around myself and start the final adventure.

My objective is to set up a truly global institution, aimed at transforming the college. I have got a feeling that most young people lose it exactly at that stage, when education loses its meaning and becomes completely disconnected from what the life needs are. My ideas are to create a travel-first system of education, a distributed global institution where education happens in context, through a series of activities performed while traveling. I believe it will be the next big revolution after the invention of classroom, but more importantly, this will help us make truly global citizens, tolerant, respectful, responsible and aware. I am not sure whether we will have the resources to make this happen, but then resources don't matter: I am hopeful that we shall start conversations, which will bring this to the realm of the possible.

Corruption and India: Is Lokpal The Solution?

Indian media, and the global media has caught up lately, is completely obsessed with Anna Hazare and his Lokpal bill now. Indeed, Anna Hazare has caught the public mood by picking up the issue of corruption, which is all pervasive in India, and he is the man of the moment. His struggle at this moment symbolizes the rift between the new India, the India of the young people, and the old India, of the Raj mentality, of privilege and unaccountability, and this is why he is suddenly so popular. The government, inept and clueless, has made the matters worse by arresting Anna Hazare. Farcically, the reason given for arrest was a bungled attempt to impose conditions on the protest - the government wanted to have the power how many people can come to protest, whether they can come by car or by foot, how long they can protest etc - and they had to make a swift about turn when the comical nature of the arrest became clear. Now, the momentum is completely with Mr Hazare and the government is panicking and trying to get a bill against corruption through the parliament in the next few days. This is unlikely to placate Mr Hazare or anyone, and protests are likely to continue: This looks like the UPA government's undoing.

The whole saga of corruption and protests shows how fragile the Indian state, operated by mostly corrupt politicians on all sides, is. There is no doubt that something needs to be done about corruption. It is at all levels and includes the judiciary, media, education community, military, everything that one can think of. While vast sections of the society is left to fend for their own, cozy connections maintain a power and privilege gravy train running in Delhi and other big cities. The offenses committed are astounding. The deeply corrupt politicians dominate the government: One runs the Ministry of Agriculture and regularly encourages hoarding etc to make money (he is also the President of Indian Cricket Board and was deeply involved in the scandal of Indian Premier League) and the other is the Finance Minister, who has now been entrusted to write the anti-corruption bill.

Mr Hazare's solution, therefore, is to go beyond the state and create a supra-national entity to battle corruption. This sounds like an overtly technocratic solution: As one government minister argued, this body itself can become the super-hub of corruption. But Mr Hazare has the momentum and the government ministers continue to underestimate him: The people, particularly the young and ambitious, are fed up with the state and how it operates, and started losing faith on government to do anything. And, therefore,the supra-national solution, Jan Lokpal, however unrealistic, has caught the public imagination and it is not going to go away.

The government (and the opposition, all politicians in a way) is counting on this momentum to fed away with time: After all, they have kept their business going based on the public apathy in politics. But this time they may be wrong: What's happening in India may be seen where Arab Spring Meets Cultural Revolution. What was a deeply apathetic people may have suddenly organized, by social media first and then with mainstream media doing a catch-up, on an issue which plagued India since Independence. But instead of protesting against an autocrat, as they are mostly doing across the Middle East, the Indians want a dissolution of the state machinery as it stands today, and are seeking a revolution in governance.

India never tried a root-and-branch reform of how the state is run: It had continued the class divide of British Imperialism after the Independence with brown sahibs replacing the white ones. This was unsustainable from day one, but no leader was large enough to stand up to it (except Gandhi, who, in his will, alluded to the problem and wanted to disband the Congress Party - but he died too soon), and now, with a young population and urban growth, the old, corrupt, privilege-based state has come to a breaking point.

This is where the consequences of Mr Hazare's struggle may become catastrophic for India. This is not just about corruption: This is showing the fissures of Indian republic and its mishandling of the demographic time-bomb. With so many young people so disaffected, counting on public apathy is not a good strategy. The government ministers, however, are completely clueless about how to deal with the situation. In a way, this has started looking like the farce in Kremlin in 1991, when Soviet Russia's demographic time-bomb was about to burst and the government machinery, disconnected from the people by layers of corruption and public distrust, did not have a clue how bad things were or what people wanted: Eventually, the soviet state completely imploded.

So, in conclusion, while Mr Hazare's solution looks silly and unrealistic, unless a solution that satisfies this generation of Indians could be found, the Indian state is in danger. This is possibly the most serious challenge the idea of Indian republic has faced since its birth, and it is not doing too well in facing up the challenge.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Does For-Profit Higher Education Serve A Social Purpose?

I am interested in Higher Education: I believe that expanding Higher Education opportunities, through private sector participation if necessary, is key to create opportunities of social progression. I am not alone in this - this is possibly the most commonly held view in the UK and the United States - and this allows me to think favourably about what I do. Even if the Private Higher Ed is run for a profit, I argue, this performs an important social function, and helps change the society for better.

At this time, however, I am trying to question this deeply held belief - does it?

The reason I question is because I am at that time in life when I feel like questioning everything I took for granted. In a way, I am starting a new life. I am out of the burn-out I was suffering around this time last year and have a far more positive world view than I had before. Despite the series of deaths in my family, I have lost four very close people since this January including my brother, and indeed, because of such traumatic transformation, I believe my life has started afresh. It is the time of re-purposing my life and to do so, I am exploring, researching and questioning all the things I accepted unquestioningly before.

My faith in private higher education comes from my life experience and of the transformations I have seen myself. Without private sector stepping in and expanding education opportunities, my life would have been very different than it turned out to be. I chose to study Information Technology in a private school, NIIT, back in 1990, and this changed my life: There was almost no public provision at the time where I could have gone and studied IT at the time. I have also worked many years, 12 years between 1993 and 2004, in the sector, expanding the same opportunity to other young people in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam, either at NIIT, or at Aptech, or in my own business, and seen many people transforming their lives after taking a diploma. It is quite natural for me to believe that the same can happen to higher education.

However, after spending last few years exploring the private higher education sector, somewhat indirectly between 2004 and 2010, and then as a direct participant since last year, I am not so sure. There are a number of reasons why I think private higher education, in its current form, may end up doing more harm than good to social mobility and progression.

The first reason for this is because of supply-side problems of Higher Education. Higher Education historically have been restricted to a small group of people, who in turn ran almost all the important social institutions. The sudden massification of Higher Education provisions, the rapid expansion of university places and colleges, have created a deep bottleneck of getting appropriately qualified personnel to run the Higher Ed classrooms. This has created a multi-tier system in Higher Ed provisions as the Governments tried to absorb it into the latest political agenda: There are lots of bad public universities out there which has all the pretensions of the good ones but none of their capabilities. The private sector, so far, have solely focused on the quantity problem, of expanding higher ed provisions to more and more people, but have done almost nothing to address the quality issues. Therefore, while the number of degrees issued have expanded, we have had a qualification inflation, and most degrees have become worthless. This meant the social disparity continues as usual, notwithstanding the fact that more people have degrees now: It is just that more people with degrees are unemployed now and more people with degrees to go to jail than ever before.

The reason why private sector failed to address the quality problems in Higher Education is quite obvious: The returns at the quantity end of things were more obvious and attractive, and this has skewed the investments significantly. Also, in most countries, regulation on private sector Higher Education is quite lax, the only thing a For Profit education company has to prove is that they have enough money and resources, and therefore, we have had a gold rush of a kind, some of it, predictably, by cowboys of different variety. It is only now the pay-off problems are becoming clearer, the public are asking questions about the activities of the private sector and the governments are scrambling to lock the gates.

With my experience in For-Profit Higher Ed, I can think of a number of things the industry has got wrong. First, the industry is founded on opportunism, not the high purpose of advancing social opportunity. This meant the wrong kind of investors usually get attracted to it, and therefore, most companies are committed to a short term agenda (with some notable exceptions). Second, this is an industry which has not yet found its business model. With some notable exceptions, For Profit companies focused on narrow teaching led segments of higher education at the expense of everything else, and could only sustain their lead till the time larger public sector providers caught up with them. Higher Ed, which should involve, to some degree at least, advancement of knowledge side-by-side with teaching, is ill-suited for this approach, mostly. Hence, For Profit companies struggle to repeat their successes when it comes to higher education mostly. The teaching-research-innovation model that works for the top universities is not one which can be adapted for For Profit education sector easily.

However, I think we are arriving at a game-changing moment for the industry. After years of light touch regulation, the governments are tightening the control over the For Profit education sector. This is not necessarily bad: In Britain, For Profit sector has done very well for the schools, which is a highly regulated sector, but became a disorganized mess in Higher Education, where the regulations were virtually non-existent. The regulations, though some of it distinctly ill-conceived, generally raises the bar for the industry, and unleashes a round of creative destruction, leaving only the fittest to survive. A similar thing is happening in America too, and this is forcing the For-Profit Education sector to look for a more balanced business model. This is a time of crisis, but also of innovation: I am certain that what will emerge out of this uncertain time is a more sustainable model of For Profit higher education, which is clear about its social purpose. That outcome will be worth all the trouble we are facing right now.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Capitalism's Final Triumph

If the stock markets are to be believed, the US and the European economies are on the verge of a double-dip, a second recession in three years, which will possibly, inescapably perhaps, lead into a long great depression, the second time in modern history. Whether or not that really happens, one thing is clear: If we thought the recession of 2008 would be a short-lived affair, it turned out to be far more persistent. With governments and central banks across the OECD countries frozen into a rudderless chaos, as against their initial strident response with big stimulus and matching rhetoric, we can only expect the worst now. And, if this happens, this will transform our societies completely and reshape history, remember the last great depression ended in a global war and ensuing detente lasting over six decades, and these days and weeks would go down in history when we brought this upon ourselves, through our collective senselessness.

The warning signs were all there. In 2008, we knew the banking system we had was not working. We knew that the bankers could blackmail any government as they are the keepers of joe public's purse. Bankers could get away with murder with a too big to fail argument, but at the bottom of it, there was this strange system where we entrusted our savings with the same institutions which, through their investment banking arms, gambled with it, and took a disproportionate amount out of it as their bonus. The governments of various countries talked vainly about breaking down the retail and investment banks, but could do little in the absence of coordinated global action: The banks simply threatened the big national governments that if they try to regulate them, they will simply decamp and leave. So, even at the time when the banks brought various national economies on their knees, the governments merely handed out a ransom to them to keep going.

Seen that way, modern banks, global and multi-functional, are possibly the most dysfunctional institution in history to have a role of the economic growth engine and social arbitrator of value. They are a strange cohort of very smart but deeply dysfunctional people who mixed up money for power and power for pleasure. They will beat the court of any medieval autocrat in their arrogance, and make the Borgias look like school-children in the intricacies of their conflict of interests. For all the talk of accountability of the governments, who have to go begging for votes every five years, banks have no answers to give: Their balance sheets are mostly opaque statements of value, of valuation done within a cozy community of bankers and credit rating agencies, all of whom may have gone to the same school and frequent the same clubs and bed the same women; the real value of their assets, in most cases, become only apparent after a number of years, when the executives who took the decisions at the time have mostly collected their bonuses and are long gone.

This strange practices, celebrated under the name of market capitalism, brought us our first recession. However, the governments talked endlessly and did nothing to change the system. In fact, they gave in to the bankers and stopped the stimulus. Most governments gave in, despite the experiences of the Great Depression of the 1930s, to the protectionist pressure coming from within their countries, upped the nationalist rhetoric, cracked down on immigration as if that was the cause of all trouble. Right wing governments took their place in various European countries, together driving Europe into a sort of closed door economy, intent on disenfranchising its most vulnerable citizens, the pensioners etc. Whatever stood for as the idea of modern state in Europe was attacked and liquidated - riots in Paris and London symbolized the early signs of the decline of the national states - and the politicians looked like puppets in the hands of bankers. In the United States, a similar trend, though presided over by a supposedly centrist president, gathered momentum: With elections due next year, a recession will almost certainly mean that a right wing takeover, protectionism, nationalist rhetoric etc, is far more likely than it was before.

So, we failed to learn the lessons and here we are, facing another long period of depression which will possibly reshape history. But this, I shall argue, the moment of capitalism's final triumph rather than its moment of demise, as some of the left-wing commentators are hoping for. The biggest challenge of capitalism is the democratic nation-state, which is anti-capitalistic as its primary legitimacy comes from the diffusion of political power, which is not aligned with the capitalist tendencies and aspirations of concentration of economic power, among the faithful, shall we say. In a perverse twist, the capitalism's greatest crisis looks like its moment of vindication, when the democratic nation state, a creation of modernism, looks desperately out of sorts, its political power curbed in the face of global capitalism. This is possibly the moment when market capitalism gets its greatest triumph, the win over the democratic nation state, which is disintegrating itself under the post-modern lack of faith in any grand narratives. Life without grand narratives, just living between different objects of pleasure, is exactly what the sort of Meta-Capitalism stands for. It seems, finally, its moment has come.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

New Opportunities in British For-Profit Education

British Higher Education is set to change beyond recognition in 2012, not just in terms of rising student fees, but also in terms of the structure and offering of the sector. It is fair to argue that as the country moves from public funding of higher education to a tuition fee led provision, one inescapable consequence is to broaden the scope of participation of the private sector Higher Education. This, despite the resistance from the certain sections of the academic community, is already accepted as a policy direction and new players are set to position themselves to gain a share of the newly opened up market.

This is also a time when what constituted British For-Profit Education industry is at a crisis. The government has introduced significant changes in the student visa regime, limiting the access and the privileges that the Non-EU students had to education in Britain. Introduced with a clearly protective slant, these policies are designed to be temporary, but effective enough to drive major changes in what has been a largely unorganized sector. This new muscular regulatory environment is creating new opportunities for growth through mergers and acquisitions, and in general terms, improving the profile of the sector and generating interests from serious investors.

The third important, and overarching, trend is the global growth of middle class, particularly in India, South East Asia and Africa, where the crumbling education infrastructure is unable to meet the demands of a rapidly expansive aspiring young population and home-grown businesses hungry for globally skilled professionals. The demand for world-class education, provided by, pre-eminently among others, American and British universities, are at an all-time high. The pay-off, in terms of a good job and a good life at the completion of studies, is clear even in the middle of a worldwide recession.

These three intertwining trends open up an opportunity to create a serious, globally focused, for profit education company in Britain, which uses modern technology to transform educational delivery and earns its profits by leveraging arbitrage within the great requirement of a global education and highly fragmented, place-based delivery models that exist today. Such a venture will be timely, as the British Higher Education transforms itself and the For Profit companies are allowed a more respected, important space in the scheme of things, and relevant, as British Higher Education must pursue innovation to reach out to students across the world and not lose them to the next tier competition coming from universities in Canada, Malaysia and China.

Monday, August 15, 2011

India: A Moment in History

Today, as India celebrates its independence day, let us return to the derelict house in Beliaghata in Kolkata, where Gandhi took refuge on the day of independence of India. There he was, frail and all of his 78 years old, not in a celebratory mood. The independence, celebrated with pomp in Delhi, where Nehru read out his famous speech, delivered in English, was nothing alike what Gandhi visualized.

This is what Faiz Ahmed Faiz would write in his 'Dawn of Freedom', which assumed a different view from Nehru's awakening of a nation:

These tarnished rays, this night-smudged light --
This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,
we had set out in sheer longing,
so sure that somewhere in its desert the sky harbored
a final haven for the stars, and we would find it.
We had no doubt that night's vagrant wave would stray
towards the shore,
that the heart rocked with sorrow would at last reach its port.

Friends, our blood shaped its own mysterious roads.
When hands tugged at our sleeves, enticing us to stay,
and from wondrous chambers Sirens cried out
with their beguiling arms, with their bare bodies,
our eyes remained fixed on that beckoning Dawn,
forever vivid in her muslins of transparent light.
Our blood was young -- what could hold us back?

Now listen to the terrible rampant lie:
Light has forever been severed from the Dark;
our feet, it is heard, are now one with their goal.
See our leaders polish their manner clean of our suffering:
Indeed, we must confess only to bliss;
we must surrender any utterance for the Beloved -- all yearning
is outlawed.

But the heart, the eye, the yet deeper heart --
Still ablaze for the Beloved, their turmoil shines.
In the lantern by the road the flame is stalled for news:
Did the morning breeze ever come? Where has it gone?
Night weighs us down, it still weighs us down.
Friends, come away from this false light. Come, we must
search for that promised Dawn.

[Translated by Agha Shahid, This translation was first published in Annual of Urdu Studies 11 (1996), now made available by MINDS@UW under a Creative Commons license.]

That search, of promised dawn, I shall contend, is still on. While our usual independence day mornings were about unfurling the flag in public libraries or schools, and then watching Indian military march past at various state capitals and Delhi, followed by a boringly predictable display of India's various folk dresses and dances, every Independence Day morning is a new reminder of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's vision of False Dawn, of what we have not achieved, to be celebrated in penance like Gandhi's morning in Beliaghata, which he made a day of fasting. While our day is usually one of noise and celebration, it should be a day of silence, dedicated to the millions that died in the wake of partition. While it is a reminder of our huge military strength and our ability to wipe out Pakistan of the face of the earth, it should be a moment of remembrance that we have tried that mistaken course before.

Nothing can be taken away from the achievements of Independent India, but our selective memory affects the country's ability to stay the course and deliver sustainable prosperity to all its citizens. It is not just the Babus in Delhi and Calcutta and Mumbai who had won the Independence, it is rather those little people who got sacrificed at the alter. For those little people, of a different generation now, fighting with the same Indian state they helped to create in various fatigues in the jungles, trying to cling on to their ancestral lands or indigenous cultures, freedom has not arrived yet. Independence Days are reminders that we should reach out to them rather than sending helicopter gunships for them: This is a message still terribly lost on our leaders, our intelligentsia and our gentlemen.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Global e-School, anyone?

First of all, who would want to be a global entrepreneur? Finding local opportunities and building business on that basis is what entrepreneurs usually do, leaving the international trade bit to the big and the bold. But at the heart of entrepreneurship today, lies the n=1, r=g equation, that near-romantic idea of finding the best ideas and solutions from around the globe for that one, the one at the front of the till, special customer. I shall argue even small enterprises need this; otherwise, in the copycat world, they can't go on surviving. Competitive advantage is not just for the big guys!

For me, entrepreneurs are a different set of people. They are the new alchemists, if I can borrow an expression. What's important in that label is not the gold part, I am not sure alchemists ever made Gold, but the search part, the dream part, of an Alchemists' life. They are the people who believe in their own capability to turn an idea into gold, okay metaphorical one. And they put everything on the line for this, their career, well-being etc. They are not the one who wait for the workday to end, but wish it could go on forever. They don't crave for security - security is for the wimps - but only possibility.

If there would be a time when we need a set of people who could turn dust in gold, we need them now. Whatever we thought was gold has turned into dust, and we need a new set of leaders. This new set, shall I say, have to be different from the others, in the sense that we are no longer in a boom-time economy. Without being pessimistic, it is only reasonable to think that we have entered into a long depression, which will last for five to ten years perhaps. Except that this new breed of leaders who can get us out of here.

The way the new entrepreneurs will be different from their predecessors will not just be about being depression-era entrepreneurs, but that their business ideas will possibly be fundamentally disruptive to the host societies. The model of society that we have today has failed: Its economic institutions are just one manifestation, but we are heading towards a huge social upheaval and a culture meltdown. The tensions among various cultures and religions in the world will tear us down, but even before, we have to deal with the internal schism within the Western societies, as evidenced in Norway killings or British riots. But amid the chaos, lies the opportunity: The new entrepreneurs will discover huge global arbitrage in the semi-globalized world and turn that into opportunities of disruptive innovation. In short, I am saying, they would attack social norms and change social institutions and transform social relationships: That's the new 'social' entrepreneur for all of us.

Can one possibly train these global entrepreneurs? I am a believer of a distributed e-school approach: That these new set of people should travel around the world seeing and living inside different cultures and societies and be immersed in a journey of discovery of opportunities. I am talking about four gap years of intense studies and unending travel and meeting people, learning of language and culture and technologies. I have no market research except a deep conviction that the college education today is the source of the problems we have. We only train people on narrow skills and to pursue selfish gains, almost erecting a boundary wall of snobbery and exclusivity around them and telling them to forget about the people outside the wall. The opportunities, however, lie just outside.

Indeed, bringing together such a global e-school is a lot of challenge, as this disrupts everyone's idea of education: of factory processing impressionable minds within a box called the classroom. But I know that educators around the world are thinking about the same. They are concerned that what they do in the classrooms are not producing those leaders who will make the world a better place, but rather those who will scurry for cover of job security and an anonymous and pointless existence rather than sticking out. But, in a world where higher education is primarily funded and regulated by the national governments, everything has to be thought in nationally boxed ways. Often, that is not a good idea.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Trouble With Peace

There is this interesting idea making rounds to make the whole world leave in peace for just one day. This is a brilliant idea: Once people know how it is to live in peace, violence will never be the same again. Lots of violence in the world is because some of its participants never knew how it is to defer to another person's point of view, how to have compassion and how to set aside their own ego at times. Also, indeed, they never understand that the greatest show of power is not to do what they could have done rather than doing things to prove that they can do it. This is the point about recent London riots, where a perpetrator was saying that they had done it to show the rich what they could do. So, a day of peace, just a day, would require everyone to stretch and do all those things completely alien to them: This, I would believe, would be so magical that they wouldn't be able to return to violence the next day.

I am usually an utopian enthusiast of such wild ideas, but I see a problem here. Violence, in fact most violence in the world, is what Zizek would call Objective Violence. This is about the violence of the system. We are too worried about the Subjective violence, where someone is doing something to someone else, but this is different: This is sublime, everyday violence that robs people of their dignity and happiness. A prime example of objective violence will be the coalition government's policy to withdraw the benefits, without consideration and consultation, from lots of people. The implicit assumption, circulated in the media, was that most people on benefits are cheating the system, which is not true, but the government needed to demonize them to create the rationale for the withdrawal. Now, there are genuine people requiring benefits and they would possibly lose their homes because of the changes. This is objective violence manifested by the system.

This is the trouble with peace: While we talk about people shunning violence, we only talk about the visible, subjective violence we see. However, many of the incidents of subjective violence is manifested by the objective violence, the raw corruption of power, the subversion of informed opinion through media campaigns, etc. This is not a justification of subjective violence, but peace, shunning the physical, visible violence, will not have the desired magical effect till the time the systemic violence is so widespread. This is a harder challenge for those who are genuinely interested in changing the world.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

What Riots Taught Us

London has been burning, quite literally, for the last few days. A mob took over its roads and attacked its shops and people. Police, stretched thin across the city, rushed from place to place, ineffective in the face of the new generation rioting coordinated on Twitter. Fire Services, struggling with a number of major fires in the city and the suburbs, were out-manned and out-witted. Politicians, London's Mayor and Britain's Prime Minister among them, had to cancel holidays and fly back to London. Strange images of burning houses and littered streets emerged in the world media. The usual bliss of London life disappeared: An unusual unease reigned.

This may turn out to be an inflection point of sorts in history. The riots are unexpected, because this was not prompted, despite what was initially claimed, by anger of a particular community. Yes, this started from the shooting an armed black young man in North London, but the violence elsewhere was crowd-driven, coordinated through social media and motivated by a general disregard of order. It was a strange atmosphere with lots of young people hanging around near the riot scenes as if there was a party going on. One rioter, caught up with a journalist, bragged that they are showing the rich what they can do, and said they have looted enough wine to keep drinking through the night.

The government seemed ineffective and clueless. The Home Secretary, despite her tough talk, proved clueless about how to react to the situation. Indeed, she was arguing for a while that the government can cut police numbers without risking violent unrest. The 'robustness' of her wisdom was on public display for at least 48 hours. Having practiced her 'tough' image only in immigrant bashing, she did not know how to her job when the moment came. The Mayor of London, completely out of touch with what's happening, first refused to return from his holidays, and was only persuaded later, presumably by the rising public anger, to show up. David Cameron had to return from his holiday too and may privately be cursing the sheer incompetence of his deputies. But he would be clever enough to know that this does not just show the inability of his cabinet colleagues to do their job: This demonstrates a much wider trend where the legitimacy of the state is being questioned and undermined.

The troubles will hopefully subside tonight and normal life will return. But the riots showed the fault lines clearly: The withdrawal of the welfare state in Britain is leaving a lot of people without cover, and the American-style self-service state is yet to arrive. We are living in a vacuum now, therefore, and this means a lack of respect and even fear for everything around us. It marks a sort of liberation of the mob among us, and lot of it was not led by 'sheer criminality' as claimed by the Ministers but by a 'cavalier disregard' of authority. A quick take on who is rioting tells us that many of them are common people, graphic designers, teachers, salesmen, plainly unemployed, the usual folk who would say 'hello' to you next morning, and who became a part of the mob just for the heck of it: This is exactly where the usual approach to Criminal Justice starts to fail.

So, as we pick the pieces from the riots and resume normal lives, we should spare a thought about the meltdown of authority. This may just be a glimpse of the mob future of Britain, and indeed, elsewhere: With our financial system nearing chaos and social system broken, we have to make some efforts to reweave what is boringly called the 'social fabric'.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Reinventing College

I am on my journey to create a world college. The idea is to draw students from all over the world, to campuses all over the world, learning different cultures and ways of doing things while doing the core curriculum of a kind. This will be education through 'walking 10,000 miles, reading 10,000 books' : Not quite though, but in a somewhat similar method.

I shall argue that our current system of college education is too narrow, too technical. There are lots of debates whether people learn anything at all while in college. I think they do, but mostly wrong things. These are usually the best years of people's lives, and they spend it learning outdated things in an outmoded way. They mug up shallow texts and ideas, in pursuit of selfish goals and prepare for a world that does not exist. I think college should be a far more exciting time than that.

This is a time when students should see the world and learn its diversity and its enormous possibilities. It is the time when they discover that knowledge is embedded in real life, and not an end in itself. They should learn about people, of different colours and kinds, and learn to respect otherness. They should learn about the languages and cultures of the world, and of different professions. This should be the most exciting time of their lives, a time that shapes their world views and hopefully makes them capable individuals and world citizens.

I know most of it sounds terribly idealistic, but we need a return to idealism. Otherwise, education will fail its students. It will be out of sync with the world that it is expected to make a better place out of. We shall sink into, as we do now, bad behaviour and fear of unknown. We are currently staring at an abyss of intolerance and violence: If that's the reality, idealism is preferable to realism.

This is also the time when college education is increasingly being questioned for its worth. Peter Thiel has been handing over Thiel scholarships recently encouraging bright young students to leave college and start their own enterprise, intending to show college is a waste of money and time. And, indeed, it has become so, mainly due to the elusive quest of college education to train people for jobs: In a changing world, as one should expect, it is hard to train people for jobs that will be waiting for pupils in five years time.

The college education has therefore failed to deliver its promise. And whether or not we count colleges and universities as key institutions of a democratic society, they sustain the middle class dreams and are therefore indispensable. Mr Thiel's scheme, though innovative, suffer from elitism: He is undermining an institution which has turned around so many lives and lifted many people from their preordained destiny. His point is taken, that college is not delivering value, but his emphasis is mistaken, that therefore the college is pointless.

We are at a time of fear and despair. At the time of writing, there are riots going on in parts of London. The US treasury has just lost the 'most secure' credit rating. The Eurozone, and consequently the European Union, is dramatically nearing collapse, driven by a north-south schism. The global stock markets are melting down, and it seems the party of globalization is finally and decisively over. Norway has just suffered its worst Neo-Nazi violence, and if the indicators are correct, there will be more such atrocities in Europe and America in the days to come.

The only way to turn this around is by creating ideas, and people as carriers of those ideas, of a new world: respectful, harmonious, peaceful. We need a new generation of people who start afresh, who are global and enterprising. Education must deliver this: Education has to rediscover itself to deliver this. One way to do that is to put diversity and respect for otherness at the heart of education.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

My Goals for 2012 and Beyond

I am in the goal setting mood already. Usually, one leaves it for the end of year; so I did every year. However, this year, I failed to do this: 2010 ended with me in a disarray, and my brother's untimely death in the New Year completely threw me out of gear. In fact, since the start of the year, I have lived a hibernated life, not doing much at all, just trying to keep things going.

It is a bit of a shame that I lost these 7 months in that mode, but I feel ready to move forward again. However, I gained tremendous experiences in teaching and managing teaching organizations, and read widely around the area. My professional credentials also look better with the acquisition of the Masters in Education, which I should complete by this December. The taught portion of this course should finish by September, which will free up quite a bit of time for me. I shall surely have to do the Dissertation in the Autumn, but since I am focusing on the growth of Open Learning worldwide, it should be closely aligned to my interest and will help me further my other professional goals.

In short, there are three things that I want to do now:

First, I want to develop a learning platform to deliver cross-border higher education, which will include putting together appropriate technologies and partnerships worldwide. I feel ready to travel again, and this time, I am looking forward to it. I may do this within the context of my employment, or as an independent entrepreneurial venture, but this is one thing I want to achieve in the next few months.

Second, I wish to understand India better: I have traveled around India and read extensively about its rise. But I somehow missed out on the period of the rise, having lived abroad since 2001. I am preparing to do this little private project of traveling around in India and particularly understand the phenomena of the rise from the eyes of someone whose been away, and who has been conscious of many of the shortcomings of the rise because of the particular political or regional background.

Third, I wish to engage in a serious but small experimental learning project in India. I have tried this before, but my brother's illness and death set me back. I shall endeavour to restart this and see whether I can create a special purpose High School/ College in India offering courses which are slightly out of the way: Things like entrepreneurship perhaps. I hope to take this forward alongside the other two things I am preparing to do, and hopefully I shall get the support of my network in achieving this goal more than anything else.

There are other long term things on my agenda as well. I shall now seriously look for an university which will help me extend my open learning work into a Doctoral thesis, but this can wait for a few months. I want to build professional linkages in America, Canada and Latin American countries, and very keen to find opportunities to travel and do collaborative work: This will be on my agenda for the next year (and may be I shall try to learn Spanish or Portuguese for this).

A Presentation at a Youth Conference

Yesterday I was speaking to a group of extremely bright young people about future, career and aspirations. If anything, this was a humbling experience. I seemed to have started from a point, that of undermining their intellectual capabilities, but was soon aware how motivated, aspirational and knowledgeable the audience was. This is a far cry from the usual crowd I get to speak to, but this is the crowd who we intend to appeal to when we open a new college offering courses in Business, Economics and Entrepreneurship in the next few months.

There were a number of presentations from other equally accomplished people, coming from different career streams. Some worked in politics, others in Media, public services and banks. This was indeed quite a Hindu thing, arranged by Asian Voice, a newspaper for British Asians, and the City Hindu Network, which is a forum for young British Asian executives working in the City of London. Indeed, the audience drew from all kinds of age groups and religion, but one could clearly see a distinctive Asian profile and without a trace of immigrant accent.

In the ten minutes I was given to speak, at the start of the proceedings, I did not have much of a brief. At the hindsight, I could have focused on my career journey and why I chose to be in education business. However, without a brief, I stuck to a rather general presentation, talking about a discontinuous future, the challenges it presents and five things that one should look at preparing for the future - after Howard Gardner's five minds - Have a discipline, Build a Synthesizing outlook, Be Creative, Be Respectful and Be Ethical. I would have loved to show some clips from Steve Job's Commencement Speech at Stanford, but had no time to do so.

Overall, I thought I missed the mark by a wide margin and that's an honest admission. This is something which I have to work out as I go forward. The rest of the event was all about setting goals and knowing, with mysterious certainty, where one would end up. Most of the audience already knew: I met a 15 year old who definitely wanted to be a Brain Surgeon, and was only deterred by the thought that in ten years, Robots may do all the operations and surgeons may not have a job. This is the kind of certainty I never knew in life, and my message regarding the uncertainty may not have had the resonance.

I ended my presentation with Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish message but this was still a humbling experience, of being with people so certain of the future. Not that I have converted - more than anything I find such certainty boring - but this was my first real encounter with the British Asian community, where there is not much scope for doubt or dithering.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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