Saturday, December 17, 2011

Summing Up The Year: 1

It is that sort of time of the year when I am tempted to look back, as well as look ahead, at the same time. The festive season is already here, with the police closing traffic at the West End for shoppers' convenience and the weekend parking charges at our local shopping centre shooting up from £3.50 a day to £16.30 a day: The work at office is coming to an inevitable halt as people start to disappear for their year-end holidays. I can't wait to end this year, one of the most difficult in my life, but a strange sense of melancholy overwhelms me somewhat. It seems it is the time to say a final goodbye to so many people who have already departed, but those who I so dearly loved and thought I would never let them go, whose memories lived with me every waking moment during the year: It seems, with the turn of the clock this year-end, they would finally step back and become a part of my past, never to return to presence yet again. 

However, this was also a year spent in preparation, as most of the other years of my life. I kept my head down and was building a private college. I was already into it in 2010, but through the current year, step by step, my involvement and my responsibilities expanded, and despite the ever-so-often disappointments, this was a journey I enjoyed. If I started the year as an incurable optimist, the experiences made me face the reality, indeed to get overtaken by it. In many ways, I feel more able now: I feel proud that I have not given up on dreaming, yet, even after so many false starts.

I spent the year working for a Private For Profit College in London, which built its business serving overseas students coming to the UK for British education. During the year, the British Education system was torn apart by the Tory government: On one hand, they dismantled the British university funding system, making most universities vulnerable to market forces and potential bankruptcy, and on the other, it started making the field alluring to For Profit Higher Education corporations. The corporatization of British Higher Education looked imminent. However, before the Private Education industry could seize the opportunity, the Government quickly and decisively tore into the student visa system and created an unseemly bias against the For Profit Education industry. The students in these colleges, including ours, were stripped off their part time work rights, or the ability to bring dependents to the UK, while the universities kept the privilege. It is a classic policy muddle, as if the government wanted to cut the private sector off the equation and wanted to hand over the market to the universities, but was completely unaware of the ground realities that this will anyway drive most students away to more welcoming destinations like Australia and Canada.

Admittedly, the existing student visa system was badly implemented and this led to abuse, but instead of tackling the implementation issues, the government started fiddling with policy, making Britain a very unwelcome place for students coming from outside the EU. These changes effectively meant that the British Private Education sector was to be squeezed out of its market, to be closed down altogether and replaced with large American corporations. The M&A activity in the sector began immediately, with the larger colleges being snapped up by large trade buyers. The smaller colleges were immediately chased by private equity in search of a cheap deal and quick cash out. There were moments, forced by the imperfect conditions and tightening market, I felt like giving in and advised the board that we should look for a private equity buy-out. However, at saner moments, looking at the relative strengths of the college and the relatively stable financial position, we decided to keep going as an independent college and explore M&A activities later, if the need arises. A new management team was put together to change the college's business model and to prepare the college for this new marketplace.

It was unlike anything I have done before. I have worked in larger organisations with stable businesses, and while I have always contributed with innovative ideas, this was always to develop the business, not to replace the business lock, stock and barrel. What's more, while we are tasked to reinvent the business, we have to do this while maintaining the continuity as far as possible. This means that we are supposed to make a revolution without breaking the china, and prepare the organisation for a very different business with the existing teams of people and mindset.

This was more or less the story of my year, a continuous zigzag through despair and inventiveness, a continuous stream of thinking the impossible and living the idea day by day. I needed all this, because the biggest problem was always my out of bounds optimism, and I needed this injection of realism, the ability of living with disappointments every day, to balance the same. With hindsight, this seemed to have worked. We have definitely raised the standards of education delivery in the college, and now taking the battle to other areas of the business: That of restructuring the organisation, creating professional functions like Finance, HR and Marketing, reinventing the recruitment channel from scratch and building a new product portfolio. We are currently in the middle of a very audacious experiment - that of retiring more than two-thirds of the courses that we currently offer and replace them with new partnerships and courses. All this makes my life complex, with a quarter-by-quarter agenda of things to be changed, all without rocking the boat too much.

As the new year starts, I shall be back, in a certain sense, in my familiar territory. The last 18 months, when I stopped travelling and started teaching, was some sort of a sabbatical, a much slower life than I ever lived, stable but unexciting. In the new year, I am expected to build a recruitment channel for the college, a new one which can meet the requirements of the new realities. This will put me back right in the middle of things I do best: International partnerships, product innovation, etc. Indeed, this will go hand in hand with the work that I shall do for the On-line Education business that I am involved in, and allow me to connect to India, and other countries, more closely.

I almost feel my holidays are over: Can't wait to get back to my normal life.

1 comment:

Jose said...

Yes very true, the student community faced the same issue. While in India Britian seems to be still an option, the students whom are here who had work rights which are taken off and of the students of the colleges which are shut down are finding it difficult to cope. There were friends of mine crying over the disappearance of University of Wales. When the Giovernment tried to filter the students with bad progress, there were a few good students who ended up in a mess though the optimistic still survives.

The reason of moving out of the EuroZone will damage the country's economy with new taxes coming on to the city. Toring the EU apart will finally let the financial capital being moved to emerging markets or back to New York which will even hurt the country.

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