Thursday, September 01, 2011

Searching For A Domain

Domain as in an area of deep expertise - not the web variety - as I am trying to discover my T-skill. This has become an article of faith for me that to be successful, everyone, me included, will need T-shaped skills - a lot of different interest areas, but one deep skill, as in the letter T. I have lots of different interest areas - history, photography, writing, literature, education, marketing and advertising, travelling - but to be honest, I am not entirely certain about the T-skill. I did say I shall spend six years studying and learning about Higher Education worldwide, and I have now spent two of those six. I surely feel confident to talk about it, and I am increasingly fascinated by the politics of Higher Education. I do think that this will be one thing I shall stick around with, study more, research, work within the sector - this may indeed grow to become my T-skill someday.

In fact, I may have said I found it already, but as they say, spending time with people smarter than you is always helpful to wash away any pretensions of being an expert. I spent an hour in the afternoon listening to Professor Nicholas Barr, of London School of Economics, who is a renowned expert on public economics and was talking about the university fees reform in the UK. It was fascinating getting such a nuanced view - indeed enriched by other people in the audience, which included the Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University - of what the university fee reforms address and what they fail to address. From my own point of view, I could see one bit everyone carefully avoided discussing is the role private sector can or should play, and Professor Barr was, rightly, of the opinion that private sector options will take some time to make a serious contribution to the HE provisions in Britain.

There were a number of ideas I came back with. One of the key ideas is a pupil premium, based on the idea that it actually costs more money to teach an academically challenged student than a good student. Indeed, most of the university funding in Britain seems geared towards the top universities - that indeed is the basis of the rhetoric - but one can't possibly see how Britain can remain an internationally competitive society if it chooses to focus on only a few top universities and ignore everything else. The other interesting idea, which came from the hosts, Social Market Foundation, is to make the institutions bear the risk rather than the taxpayers. The idea is simple: The universities receive the loan from the government and act as some sort of a guarantor for the students' repayments. The key idea behind the suggestion is that the universities should be responsible for students' employability and their future earning potential, but the elitist bias of the suggestion was quite plain. Professor Barr did point out that the universities will then be super-selective, and exclude demographic cohorts like women, who have a much worse repayment rates for income-contingent loans as they would take breaks around the time of child birth and child minding. This will surely be socially regressive and will do nothing to widen participation, which seems to be the key driver behind the reforms.

I have also started reading D Bruce Johnstone and Pamela Marcucci's Financing Higher Education Worldwide: Who Pays? Who Should Pay? which is a happy coincidence. I do believe that we are living in an idea of deep shifts in higher education and this is one of key interests, both from the professional angle, but also from my interest in history and social dynamic.

Apart from this one hour attending the seminar around the lunchtime, this was quite a demanding day. I had various preparations to do for different internal meetings, as well as to meet a number of students who seemed to be turning up at their will. I managed to get my OCI done, though not before three different trips to the Indian High Commission. It was as chaotic as ever, and my first feelings after getting the OCI papers in hand was one of relief: That I may not have to queue again and go through the process at this particular place anymore. The second feeling was the joy in reconnecting with India - I can now travel at will and this is exactly what I shall start doing now.

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"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

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And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
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