In course of my visit in India, I am starting to get an idea of its new higher education landscape. This is why I came, and as I see things, I am excited by the opportunities it presents to education entrepreneurs.
Monday, October 31, 2011
I am visiting India, reconnecting with it after a long absence. Indeed, such absences change perceptions significantly, and as I start again, I am rediscovering everything afresh. My family context in India has irreversibly changed with deaths and divorces within my immediate family, and there is quite a bit of emptiness I have to deal with now. The same spaces, which I grew up in and to which I automatically assign some meaning, have transformed - and each encounter with them is torn between the inevitable fresh messages that they convey now and the nostalgia I associate with them. However, India, so far, having an opposite effect to nostalgia on me: It is allowing me to feel the inevitable lightness of being.
I am being slightly eccentric this time, by choice. I have kept myself away from Internet, mostly, except this one day when I checked an week's worth of mails etc. I have spent a lot of time in our family temple, not out of a new-found religiosity, but a sense of duty in my grandmother's absence, and may be because I wanted to revisit my identity. Then, I took a 36 hour train journey across India, something I have not done for at least 10 years, may be more, to come and see my sister in an airbase in Punjab. Along the way, I met interesting people, whose names I did not ask, and know about their lives and preferences; I complained about missing hand towels, cramped toilets and torn bed sheets, watched the ticket collectors soliciting for bribes from passengers without ticket, the railway catering men overcharging unsuspecting customers for train food service, and was pleasantly surprised to see that my mobile phone mostly worked along the way. This was my way of getting back to the India mode as quickly as I can.
It is something I needed to do. I have stayed away for long but I don't want to do this anymore. Right at this moment, as I type away this blog post after a long gap, the normalcy of life in London seems desirable. But I am almost certain about what I want to do in 2012: Re-engage back in India, come more often, eventually working out my path to return. Indeed, I see immense possibilities in India - an education system right for transformation, where the skills and abilities I have acquired over the last few years would be useful. If I have to find a purposeful life, this seems to be the land of the possible. I have learned, from my previous experiences, that one can't do much in India while being away; this is one thing my new life intends to change.
I obviously know how difficult it is to come back to India. It is more difficult than it was for me to go to Britain. One may think this is about expectations, and it indeed is: But, this country has become a different country since I left. In the new millennium, India seems to have got onto the bullock-cart of prosperity and a generation, which has not seen the difficulties of independence and war, and which has no time for the trademark despair and lack of opportunity of the 80s, has taken over. The material progress, the urge to get rich quicker than one's neighbour, has transformed the country - changing not just its 'Hindu rate of growth' but its 'Hindu value system'. In it, there is no apparent space for someone like me, with a wrong age, wrong ideology and wrong sense of priorities. My approaches to friendship, life and aspirations, all too romantic and idealist perhaps, are out of sync with the very practical land of the white tigers. I know that I have to transform myself quite a bit to be able to adopt and survive in this new country.
Indeed, this country has not changed much as far as state of affairs go. For all the talk of new India, it is still mostly the old India, Babus, the old Business houses, politicians of very predictable nature, that reigns supreme. The talk of enterprise is still muted, and the model of education is still Victorian. The ideas of progress is still governed by the idea of narrow ideas of individual well-being, not unlike 1870s Chicago or 2007's Dubai. Admittedly, the privileged class has widened, but the barriers of entry has got only higher. I know I shall need a different survival strategy altogether in this country, and living here may mean giving up some of things that I believe in. But the opportunities are still endless: I have been a diligent student of Higher Education policies, technologies, and developments across the world, and I feel excited about the education innovations that I can work on in India. In summary, I see this as a country in need for change, where change is critical for catching up with its own rhetoric.
Today, also, this marks the end of first part of my visit, which is about reconnecting and revisiting. Tomorrow, I meet the students and the owners of a successful Indian business school, where I may get associated over longer term. After that, I meet another company in Delhi, who I wish to work with in setting up a design training project, and finally another set of schools and entrepreneurs in Kolkata, some from my old life but some new, where I explore the options of taking our new business venture into India. That's part two, before the final parting, which must invariably happen soon.
Saturday, October 22, 2011
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Monday, October 17, 2011
This is a part of the work I am doing on Learning environments. We looked at the British Library as a team, and I am tasked with writing about its service areas. I, as with other things I learn or think about, thought it appropriate to post the report here.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
I don't fly Air India. I have suffered enough already, but if I needed any more proof, today's incidents in Gatwick added to the already dismal record of the airline. It proved again that bureaucrats, particularly the Indian ones, are absolutely hopeless in running a customer facing service. I am no lover of privatization, but it is absolutely certain that something drastic is needed in Air India.
So this is what happened: Due to fog, this morning's Heathrow bound Air India flight needed to land at Gatwick. If this was any other airline, this would have been fine: The passengers would normally be taken on a bus to Heathrow, a 45 minutes journey. Not for Air India: Surely the Babus could not decide what to do with such an 'unusual' situation.
Their idea, therefore, was to fly the plane from Gatwick to Heathrow, about 30 miles away. The problem indeed is that the EU regulations demanded the crew had to be changed, as the original crew had already flown from Mumbai and couldn't undertake another flight. So a new crew had to be found and dispatched to Gatwick, and reportedly, this new crew lost their way in the Gatwick terminals.
Chaos, thy name is Air India, indeed. So the passengers had to wait in Gatwick for 8 hours - yes, eight hours - between 8am in the morning to 5pm in the afternoon, when, finally, a new crew took over and completed the 20 minute flight to Heathrow. And, all this while, characteristically for India's national airline, no one spoke to the passengers: No one knew what was going on and when they would be released. Reportedly, a passenger got frustrated and took his bag and walked off, only to be escorted back to the plane by Sussex police as the airline had not made an arrangement for disembarkation at Gatwick.
There are many lessons to be learned here, but I am certain that Air India does not learn lessons. It exists to be a plaything of Indian ministers and supply occasional leisure flights to them and their cronies, but it is absolutely hopeless in serving fare-paying passengers. I decided not to fly Air India ever again after one return trip to India where my flight was delayed, without announcements, for 5 hours at Heathrow and cancelled on my way back: I remember being treated like a hapless citizen dealing with government bureaucrats as if they were doing me a favour allowing me to take a flight I have already paid for. I also remember the chaos at the airport, where no one knew what they were doing, and the fact that they left the wheelchair bound passengers unattended when finally the flight was called and the mad scramble for the gate began. To enhance the drama, one wheelchair bound passenger left that way that day was Russi Mody, a past chairman of Air India, who possibly had to endure the drama with a certain sense of irony.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
I am in the middle of a teaching commitment, and having taken it up, I have started regretting it somewhat. This is indeed because of pressures of my day to day life, with many things demanding attention at once, not least the management work at the college. We are at an interesting point in the 'journey', when the changes I have been advocating for finally come to be implemented, and I am hopeful, the college will emerge as a completely transformed entity in the next 12 months time. My own business is also coming together, a logo, an office, ideas about technologies and courses, a partnership, various disparate elements: All of this is demanding my time too. Finally, I have reached the last taught module of my MA course at UCL, and this is possibly the most interesting one I have done so far. This is about learning and learning environments, and we have made trips to museums, cafes and finally to British Library to start thinking about learning environments.
At this time, having to teach 18 hours a week is quite demanding. This means long nights and starting early in the mornings to do the preparation. I don't, as a matter of principle, recycle my old materials when I teach: I try to update them with new information and incorporate things which I learned from the last session. May be I am being a bit naive and creating work for myself, but having signed up to be a professional teacher, it would have been wrong for me to settle for anything less.
But no regrets, as this teaching makes me revisit the assumptions about teaching and learning I had. The model of British Postgraduate Education is essentially research-based, and I had woven together a series of themed exploration based on their own personal experiences. That plan, quite elaborately made, lasted till my first contact with the class. Clearly, some of the international students I had did not have the experience or the inclination to do this at all. They were expecting to be 'taught', be told what is the right formula of marketing, and asking them to use their own judgement and come up with answers to difficult questions started to disappoint them.
Indeed, the other philosophy I wanted to carry was to be student-centric. Standing up to deliver the lecture, however, it is difficult to define what it means. Does it mean that I must do everything I can to encourage the students to do more, even if something is clearly beyond their capability or interest, knowing that this would possibly meet the end requirements of the course? Or should it mean that I allow the students determine what they would like to be taught, activities etc? Trying to do both, which, admittedly, I have been trying for last two weeks, is a struggle, and this has taken more time and effort than I initially planned.
One of my key problems is that most of the students I had didn't want to read. They were, instead, interested in knowing what would be there in the examination, and wanted 'notes' to address these areas. By no means, I am suggesting that this is illegitimate or problematic, but confining myself to these areas would have meant a series of disjointed conversations rather than any meaningful exploration of the subject. I handed out a number of reading materials, though the nature of these materials changed as we went along: I started with some scholarly articles, and soon had to move to more 'pop' ones. Again, this was okay, given my inclination to talk about concepts like Long Tail and how to compete against free in the class: I am anyway more in Fast Company and Wired territory than in the realm of Journal of Marketing. But it would be quite a significant leap for the students, I reckon, to transform their writing from where they are to where they need to be, writing academic pieces laden with references and complex concepts, in only a few weeks' time.
So, overall, teaching this MBA class was interesting. I have this suspicion that I learned more through this experience than did the students. It is only coincidental that this happened to be one of the most interesting times of my life and my priorities did indeed clash. This would also mean that I would not take a teaching commitment at least till next March, until after U-Aspire is completely set up and going. From that perspective, I am glad I did this now, as I shall take away an enormous amount of learning from this experience.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Steve Jobs' death certificate says that he was a 'high tech entrepreneur'. Indeed, but he is more than that: He is an entrepreneur's entrepreneur, an icon, a representative of a generation that is now passing. In his famous Stanford commencement address, he talked about his feeling that 'he dropped the baton as it was passed on from the earlier generation of entrepreneurs'. He was not just a carrier though: He was one who redefined the game.
An entrepreneur exists to solve problems. Steve Jobs was not a technology whiz or a finance guru. Steve Wozniak talked about his 'instinctive feel' of what the people wanted from technology. That makes him a rare genius, because most tech entrepreneurs don an evangelical garb and preach to people on technology. Steve Jobs seemed to have turned this evangelism on its head and became people's voice in the world of technology. That's where he made a difference.
Indeed, he famously said - 'it is not customers' job to know what he wants'. This may seem counter-intuitive in the business world obsessed with research, but this possibly separates entrepreneurial spirit than that of a mere investor. The French economist J B Say made that distinction two hundred years ago, but this seemed to have blurred over time and today, some very unpleasant people sitting in Dragon's Den have become entrepreneurial icons. The entrepreneur's job, however, remains to create, to solve problems, problems known and unknown: Increasingly, these days, this means solving problems that are only emerging but not known yet.
There is a certain beauty of Jobs' life that makes him stand apart. He was the purveyor of beautiful computers, beautiful movies, beautiful phones and mobility devices in our life. He fused the form and function, he helped embed aesthete within the practical. But his failures are more important than his successes, as they seem to give a sense of beautiful desires: He was ahead of his time and failed, but never gave up. He, to quote himself, stayed hungry and foolish, and only a great sense of discipline and duty can make one do that. Like a true entrepreneur, he was not merely practical, but an idealist, a dreamer of things that must be brought to life to make a world a better place.
In a world where things are increasingly alienated from people, Jobs made technology looked humane. That alone makes him a really big deal.
Sunday, October 09, 2011
BBC Wales claims that they have discovered that students can buy their University of Wales degree. They ran the documentary last Wednesday in their Week In Week Out programme on BBC Wales, claiming that students can just pay their way through. In the programme, the reporter made many bold comments, and claimed that Wales' national institution has brought the entire nation, presumably Welsh nation, to shame.
BBC was fortunate in its timing, as they broke the story just as a new Vice Chancellor was starting at the university. He was apparently unprepared for such a breaking news, and when confronted with the claims made by the reporter, he immediately ordered that University of Wales will stop validating other colleges' programmes, as it did earlier. His stance looked like the admission of defeat even before a single shot was fired. Admittedly, this may have come not prompted by the BBC documentary at all, but from soul-searching and other usual stuff that happens when new Vice Chancellors take over. In that case, this was disastrous timing, because this announcement confirmed what BBC was claiming, that University of Wales degrees conferred through partner colleges are indeed questionable.
However, if someone actually watches the documentary, they will have more questions about British journalism than British degrees. The journalist discovered cases of fraud in granting diplomas from two British qualification bodies, NCFE and ATHE, not of University of Wales. These diplomas could have earned the students some credit waivers towards the University of Wales MBA, as it could have done for many other courses in many other universities. These diplomas were offered not by any University of Wales accredited colleges, but small-time companies offering classes in rented premises. There was no direct evidence that the University of Wales, or any of its partner colleges are involved in any wrongdoing.
It is indeed distressing for me personally as one of the programmes we run in our college is validated by the University of Wales. I have been actively involved in diversifying the college course portfolio over the recent months and introducing other programmes, but I am aware that the University of Wales programme was run with integrity and great effort. Besides, there are thousands of students in colleges in Wales, which study for an University of Wales degree. It is a tragedy that a politically motivated BBC programme and a rather hapless PR team at University of Wales have managed to undermine all the efforts of all the academicians and threaten the future of all its students so callously.
I am fascinated by the fact that NCFE and ATHE can get away scot-free. They accredited institutions without fixed offices and questionable people which were selling these diplomas, and they can get away with suspending these colleges as if they were exceptions. However, since the University of Wales accepted these diplomas for advanced standing entry, the whole University validation has to be dismantled, and everyone involved with University of Wales must hang their head in shame. However, what about Ofqual, which validated these qualifications in the first place, and allowed them to be mapped against University entry? We know why BBC Wales will not expose the scam that goes on in British diploma market: It does not fit their agenda. But that's where the scandal really is.
British HE is at a crossroad and this scandal does not help. Most importantly, this story will confirm the popular view, created and sustained by motivated journalism, that most HE institutions are just conduits of visa fraud and most international students in Britain are nothing but after a work permit. Both of these perceptions are false. The government is currently systematically undermining the British HE, and they would be delighted with this programme. The government's grand plan of making HE limited to Oxbridge and disenfranchising the British Working Class from having a shot at middle class life has worked so far: They would need more such great journalism from BBC to keep their demolition campaign going.
I believe bookshops have fallen victim of books.
Why else, as more people read books and talk about books, bookshops keep disappearing? Recently, another grim report pointed out more high street bookshops went bust, and appealed, in a very British fashion, for more government support. It is as if subsidies will save bookshops, while books desert them.
I love books and bookshops. I spend entire afternoons, when I can, browsing through bookshelves. I buy a lot of books online, but that has no pleasure. It is not like feeling the book in my hands and knowing whether I can read the book, whether I want to read the book, before buying it. Amazon has done a lot - allowing me to peek inside the books - but still bookshops retain their charm. Amazon does not, even with its considerable resources and best efforts, give me the conversation I can have with a fellow book-lover at the counters of my favourite bookshops.
I think the worst enemy of bookshops have been the bookshop chains. They are usually quite good in finding and stocking the right titles, but they treat books as commodities to sell. And, when books become commodities, their innards could be stripped and digitized, and they could easily be sold, at a discount, on the web. The bookshops die, then, and with it, the book-loving, though book-reading may go on.
Books are, as I am trying to make the point, an object of love, a piece of identity of the person who owns them. It is only a sign of time that one believes that Kindle can become a repository of our personal library. Despite its great storage capacity and other numerous technical advantage, Kindle is good for books which the owners want to hide. Indeed, this allows a wonderful way to read Erotica standing in the middle of a crowded bus, but one wouldn't want to read an identity-defining book in that manner.
I have seen, in a different context, what happens when bookshops die and the government tries to step in. This is in Calcutta, my home city, where I spent numerous hours, during my college days, hanging around in College Street, a square lined with bookshops and cafes, publishing houses and second-hand bookshops coexisting side-by-side, a place full of smells and talks of books. However, when I returned there after two decades, on one of my trips home from England, I saw a place transformed: The once-proud publishers and bookshops are now desperately dependent on government purchases for state libraries. Again, this is stripping books of their character and identity, and equating them with what's inside them: The beautiful books of my college days are now all reduced to flimsy pages and cheap covers - it did not matter any more if anyone wanted to preserve them, but it is good business if the state libraries keep replacing them from time to time.
But I am an optimist and think that books are reaching a tipping point. They have sort of reached the heights of being impersonal and electronic books will finally kill off the ugly books and online bookstores will kill off the bookshop chains. Then, we shall, yes only a handful of us, ironically the long tail of book purchasers, the lovers of books, get back our bookshops and conversations, our books which will have a personality and be a piece of our identity, which will be a tool not just for quite reading but our connection with others.
Thursday, October 06, 2011
Wednesday, October 05, 2011
Sunday, October 02, 2011
Indeed, you may simply say that I am having a mid-life crisis, but I brought it upon myself. For me, such crisis is the core of a sentient existence. This melancholia, in short, is not about the life lost, but a discovery of the inherent limitations that life must be lived with. Like, I came to England seven years back to see the world and learn: But I gave up in return things I dearly loved: Enjoyment, in workless bliss, of the wintry mornings in my family home in Kolkata, or the quietness of vast grounds that surrounded our house in Bolpur, a small university town a hundred mile away, where we would sometimes go for weekend breaks. Indeed, I have previously derided the tendencies of people to remain in their zones of comfort, but I am not sure, having left mine, that one choice necessarily turned out to be better than the other.
So, as I return to look at the future as a blank slate, I know what I wish to do: Return. The return is, again as I have written before, as much a journey as leaving home was, and demanded somewhat greater courage as this would require reversing most of what I am about now. I am fully aware that life-after-return is unlikely to be as idyllic as I visualize now: Nostalgia always gloss over unpleasant bits of the past and remind only the sunny bits. However, the idea of return is, in a way, part of a never-ending journey that a traveler must undertake, and a promise which remains unfulfilled most often, yet remains the keystone of a meaningful life if one has to be lived.
My journey has given me a lot: I have discovered a purpose of life. I now know that I wish to build an educational institution where the learners learn to live with our new, global, world, explore its technological and human possibilities, and know more than mere numbers and try to make it a better place. I know such education can only be achieved through learning and traveling, as I somewhat did, and I wish to open similar opportunities to people everywhere around the world. My plans to set up a global education company, therefore, remains fully reconciled to my idea of return: I wanted to set up an office in India in any case. I have become, irreversibly, a global citizen: It is time to go see the world one more time.
Saturday, October 01, 2011
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