Sunday, December 30, 2012

Taking Stock: 2012

New Year is nothing but another morning, but it is the opportunity to start anew that we really cherish. The Year-end, in contrast, is quite under-rated - the crowds on New Years Eve seem to want to let it go as soon as they can - but this allows the time to pause and reflect, a luxuriant activity unaffordable for most of the year. But, without this pause, there is no new start in the New Year, no opportunity to do anything new, no breaking free - since we won't discover what kept us back. 

So, this is to 2012: The year that is on its way to history. At this point, this year is like any other: Fading rather than exiting, not with a bang but a whimper. But, may be, this will have a special place, as events in 2012 may change things in many places, which may have broader impact. When recounting the year, one may talk about less about celebrities who appeared and disappeared, or politicians who made it (Obama, Hollande, Xi Jinping, Mohd Morsi) and those who didn't (most spectacularly, Bo Xilai) or simply disappeared (Sarkozy, Romney): Rather, it would be more about children killed in Newtown, Cincinnati, which may change America forever, or an unnamed student gang-raped and tortured (eventually killed) in a bus in Delhi which brought out the pent-up anger among ordinary Indians which may finally change India's polity. 

Apart from those moments of shame, when the society we built seemed to be falling apart, the year may be remembered as one of living dangerously: The Euro-zone stood on the brink for most of the year, and financial Armageddon was always in sight. As we end the year, America stands on the brink, with its politicians freezing into inaction and inviting upon themselves, and the world, another financial disaster. And, indeed, the world may change for worse in 2013: The Americans may not be able to extract themselves out of the mess in the next 48 hours, and even thereafter, because, in a connected world, the result of falling off a fiscal cliff may be to able to never recover again. Europeans are not out of the woods yet: In a strange replay of what ails America, European politicians like Angela Markel and David Cameron will continue to play to their domestic audiences and endanger the broader union, allowing demagogues like Silvio Berlusconi to return from the dead (just as, in another generation, admittedly in a different context, politicians playing to domestic priorities allowed Mussolini and Hitler to emerge).

Indeed, we are now quite used to economic bad news, having lived with it, 24-by-7, for almost five years now. But, the bright spots are also vanishing. The great hope in 2008, after the Western Economies came to a screeching halt, was that the emerging economies, and its millions of new consumers, will drive the growth engine. However, that hope has mostly been dashed: BRICs is broken, as the latest Foreign Affairs cover declared. And, indeed, the big news of 2012 was about China's growth slowing, and the incompetence of India's government, and its total incoherence of its politics, was forever in the front pages. Even the Brazilians, the bright spot in governance, earned their reversals, showing off the weakening grasp of the government on crime and even economic management. The biggest news coming from Russia was about Putin's re-election, his intransigence on issues such as Syria and the travails of a Pop group which offended the Church, and South Africa, the new-found 'S' in BRICS, made news with its various miner unrests, brutal police shooting and finally, electing one of its richest men, a key supporter of the police action, as Number 2 in the Cabinet, further alienating the society.

More bleakly, the march of freedom, if there was one, embodied in Arab Spring, morphed into tension and unreason in 2012. The Egyptians elected a government which seemed to have a hidden design. The Syrians continued to bombard their own citizens. Israelis, with their ability to manipulate American public opinion, further bombarded Gaza and killed their annual quota of innocent people and children, all with impunity and swagger that will embolden tyrants worldwide. Iranians, perhaps following the example, continued developing their nuclear capability, preparing for a war which will surely come one day. The breaking down of Pakistan seemed to have thawed, but only in comparison to the breakdown elsewhere. And, if Sri Lanka's boots of brutality against its own people needed to be filled this year, the new entrants, the Burmese, stepped in, flaring up another campaign of mass murder, which will, with time, become another Islamic cause to contend with. 

This grim account above is not to deny that there were indeed bright spots, news of scientific progress, new breakthroughs in medicine, in understanding the nature of the universe, in space science. There were exciting new businesses that created products that solve old problems. And, most important of all, human creativity ebbed and flowed all along, and resulted in great literature, music, art and Cinema. We should not be oblivious to the irreversible ability of human beings to rejoice, to create and to make a difference. But, these bright spots, the progress, are fragile, and must be nurtured and protected. We entered into a new territory in 2012, when we got used to living with a recession, and seemed intent on turning this into a long term depression by political action (or inaction). At the same time, our societies came to a breaking point: Shameful human activities trumped progress, hypocritical politicians stood exposed, the world seemed dangerously intolerant and on the brink. The snake oil of continued prosperity lost, inevitably as it should, its magic: Suddenly, promises of middle class life seemed further than ever.

Signing off, then, the crowd may be right in wishing 2012 to go. However, they should also be fearful in what they invite in the form of 2013. We should indeed look forward to the New Year, as we have to. But, simply believing that human ingenuity will see us through crisis automatically may not be good enough. It may be time to do something about the world around us. 

In summary, then, this is a New Year like no other: We shouldn't just simply cheer. This pause to reflect should become a call to action, for each of us. This year, let this be a new start one person at a time.

 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Indian Education, Foreign Investment and The Search for Change

Finally, the debate everyone wanted to have, has kicked off: Deloitte, a consultancy, has started this round with a new report, India's Higher Education Sector: Opportunities Unlimited, Growth Aplenty, recently, and called for increased foreign investment in the sector. This reflects a shift of emphasis from 2010, when Grant Thornton, another consultancy, was talking about opportunities in Indian Education (Education in India: Securing the Demographic Dividend) and highlighted vocational training, backed by increased government spending on skills training, as the growth sector. Grant Thornton report was then predicting a 25% CAGR in the vocational training sector, reaching US $3.6 billion in 2012, which is most likely to be surpassed. Given the high school drop out rates in India, vocational training surely deserves the attention and can potentially

Discernibly, the government's focus is shifting, perhaps as the urban middle classes, squeezed by inflation, goaded by 24x7 news and frustrated with lack of employment and enterprise opportunities, are revolting, fragmenting India's politics but most importantly taking the streets more often than they used to. To avoid an Indian Spring, if only it is not too late, it is important for Government Ministers to get serious about urban capacity, urban problems and urban aspirations. The poverty needs to be eradicated, Indian agriculture must improve and we must build the infrastructure to help India's numerous villages, but it is no longer a choice between urban or the rural development: Despite vast improvements in literacy and rural income under its watch, this trade-off thinking has been the greatest folly of the current government, one, admittedly, it is desperately trying to correct now. Higher Education, the catalyst of middle class life, must therefore figure high on the government's agenda.

However, it is not just a quantitative change, more colleges and universities, backed by foreign investors, that will solve India's problems. In fact, one could argue that India needs less colleges, not more. The average size of India's colleges is just 500 students, and counting out a few large, mostly state-sponsored institutions, there are numerous, relatively new, education institutions with a few hundred students each. Indeed, such low numbers seriously hamper the ability of these institutions to invest in infrastructure or academic capabilities. Funnily, one reason why the institutions remain small is because India's regulatory agencies dictate how many 'seats' a college can have. There is very little discussion whether this regulatory framework is fit for purpose, which, clearly, it isn't: one clear indication is that one regulatory body, All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), attempts to publish a list of institutions which it 'does not approve', a list that is longer than the list of approved colleges, contains some of India's more commercially successful colleges. Some of its approved colleges have now 'applied for' de-listing, privately citing the sheer impossibility of attaining economic viability within the regulatory framework.

Slowly but surely, India may be reaching an inflection point: Demography is destiny, and India's young is showing up on the street, impatient with the failure of its political class to move the country forward. There may be a broader debate about the idea of India to be resolved between Hindu nationalists and the idea-of-India camp, but the urgent issue on the table is the opportunity, to lead a productive life and to have access to middle class lifestyle, for the millions of Indians in their twenties and thirties. The grand debates are not irrelevant, and indeed they would shape the nature and the viability of Indian prosperity, but India is at a stage where all traditional polity, all parties, must change of mindset,  align with the street aspiration and must deliver.

This change of mindset will not automatically accompany investment, private or public. The rising nature of Indian middle classes is completely missed by its policymakers, in government, business or outside: The private investment in education so far have ranged from money laundering, profiteering or simply recycling political patronage. The moment for the 'Private' solution, wherein the state steps back and let the market decide, may have passed: In fact, it may be downright dangerous for the state to step back now and depend on investment, foreign or otherwise, to create educational capacity. This is because investment is usually blind, and for all the claims of smartness, private investors tend to be enormously naive and capable of oiling the greasy palm. The foreign investment is likely to create more institutions at the already crowded top end of the spectrum, and create more opportunities for the socially endowed who already have all the options in the world. The key challenges of middle India, which is both a metaphorical and geographical concept, are likely to be passed over by the private investors.

Indeed, the government does not necessarily have to step back with private or foreign investment, but this has been the orthodoxy so far, and indeed, such thinking underpins the reports from consultancies: However, for India, the government must try to reform itself and the way it thinks about Higher Education, but should remain firmly involved. For a start, there could be nationwide initiative on Higher Education: This could range from, at one extreme, a constitutional amendment to put the responsibility on the Union list rather than Joint list (a political impossibility, but this may facilitate coherent decision making) to a technocratic solution of creating a National Commission on Higher Education with executive powers, which may have Central, State and Industry participation, which should work autonomously, be free from political influence (something that may require a constitutional amendment in any case). The National Commission solution is more feasible, if there is political will, which is the problem in India but one would hope that the spectre of a Bastille moment will spur some political activity soon. The organizations such as AICTE should be disbanded and its functions should be integrated into the national, unified body, which may handle accreditation, quality assurance and funding function all within itself. And, indeed, creation of such a body should be accompanied by the government committing a significant allocation of its budgeted expenditure on Higher Education (2% anyone?). [There is a discussion that Indian companies must allocate 2% of their revenue or profits, the debate between the two is still on, to Corporate Social Responsibility fund, which is a form of stealth tax the government wants to impose]

Private and Foreign investment, once such a commitment is made and an overarching framework is established, may be greatly beneficial, but not without an unified strategy and at the cost of a retreating public commitment. However, one must commend the consultancies for creating a ripple: It is time, hopefully, to have a meaningful conversation about how India must move forward. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Coming Transformation of India

I feel optimistic about India just when others are feeling despondent, growth seems to be stalling and the media, with the daily diet of horror stories, is proclaiming the end of the world everyday. The Commonwealth Games fiasco, the corruption scandals, the crimes against women, the lethargy in decision making, have all painted a picture of drift and confusion, lack of leadership and a deep crisis in governance; but the fact that all these seem to be a crisis, that people are marching on the streets, the state seems perilously fragile, should be a symptom of a much more forceful, positive, change that would remake India.

India's chief problem has so far been that the state is so dangerously distant from the affairs of the street. This distance is about disconnection, of an unaccountable existence, of its functionaries and officials. This is inherited, in many ways, from the British colonial administration, whose mechanisms Independent India took over and kept intact. Primarily, this means two things: One, the Independent Indian State inherited the vast power without accountability befitting a colonial administration (and enshrined the same in its, British style, constitution); and, two, it assumed a very similar role as a patron - just as the Colonial Administration did - by forming coalitions with a handful of powerful people and attempting to run the country through a network of agents, and thereby, creating layers after layers of power, privilege and influence, each underlying layer surrendering to the interests of those above, and mechanics of the government suitably obscured from the view of all except the ones at the very top. 

Nehru was bold to insist on universal suffrage at the very beginning of Independent India, but not bold enough to consider Gandhi's proposal to disband the Congress Party and build India on grassroots organisation upwards: He instead imposed the patron state, with an automatically incumbent party (more like ANC in South Africa today), with a democratic mandate to soothe his, and his fellow travellers', liberal conscience. However, democratic election does not automatically mean an accountable state: Democratic election is merely a means of selecting the functionaries, one route among many possible ones. The moment the elections are over, the residual accountability needs to be built and sustained through other functioning, independent institutions. In other countries undergoing similar democratic experiments, accountability usually came from judicial activism, media scrutiny or the challenge from the civil society. In the history of post-Independence India, we have seen some of each variety of activism (though they were rarely coordinated, except before and after Emergency), but none of these really sustained, or persisted, to hold the governing interests to account. There were indeed many reasons: Because the Indian state maintained itself through dominant languages and a civil service instituted at the colonial times, which selected its members and operated on the basis of social capital, its institutions were mostly interlocked and incapable of challenging one another. There is a high society, and all kinds of power belonged there. No one really wanted to upset the apple cart as all of the important people were in it together.

The patron state paradigm creates a sense of entitlement among those who help to run it. Any conversation in Delhi, where the powerful is most concentrated, would usually include name-dropping of big government functionaries [the Mumbaikars usually merely recount serendipitous, and often fictitious, viewings of matinee idols]. With time, this leads to the powerful taking their status for granted - why else would I be expected to know that an Assistant Deputy Secretary in the Department of Aviation Modernisation (I made that up) is an important person when I meet his/her fourth cousin by chance (again, I made this up) on a Delhi-bound train - and eventually forget that every public role needs to have a public purpose. The term, 'taxpayers' money', does not have a popular Hindi equivalent yet: Instead, the term in use in Hindi literally translates into 'royal entitlement'. This entitled class, tightly guarded, which occasionally accommodated those populists who could work the democratic elections to their favour but only as long as they remain in their place, took the rent they earn, just for being members of the club, for granted : The corruptions in India, which persist across party lines, are merely a symptom of this structure of privilege.

However, the reason to be optimistic about India is that all this is history: The country seems to be poised to reach another turning point which is no less pivotal than its moment of Independence. This optimism is rooted in a simple hope - that demography is destiny - and the observation that suddenly, there are far too frequent marches on the street, public anger and activism, and more ubiquitous formation of 'crowds' (One has to remember that this isn't normal: Most Indian cities, designed by the British, do not even have public squares, meeting places where such movements can start from). Unsophisticated, spontaneous and leaderless, this isn't a revolution: But, then, as recent events elsewhere may have illustrated, revolutions are not what we construct them to be, post fact. They tend to be far less organised, far more ad hoc - leadership in revolution is situational more often than not, and the leaders emerge from the movement itself. I shall therefore not moan about the disorganized nature of India's public activism, in its headless form, but rather see the roots of an Indian spring and the beginning of the end of its 'convenience democracy'.

There are many who see the watershed moment will arrive in 2015. That coincides with India's General Election, one that should mark the end of another generation of Indian politicians and the beginning of the first true post-independence generation. John Elliot sees this as the monumental battle for the idea of India, with battle lines clearly drawn. However, this is also the time India's demographic peak arrives, its college going population soars, and people born after the economic liberalisation starts entering the working population. In this brave new world, the grand schemes such as idea of India may be less relevant than it is today, but others, such as decline of authority (as Indians move to the cities and traditional family formations start breaking down irreversibly), growth of regional mobility and preponderance of modern consumption may seriously challenge the patron state, and try to turn over its entitlement network. This may sound like chaos, but every nation must reinvent itself periodically, and a similar moment is upon India: It is a historic opportunity, but failing to do so will be like living inside a combustion engine.

Indeed, this hope is fragile and its outcomes unknown. But it is only so because the talking classes are so disconnected. The development talk, that many Chief Ministers and Politicians are trying to own, is a symptom that what sold yesterday, identity politics, may not sell tomorrow. The language of anger, such as shooting the criminals after summary judgement, is immature and ill-advised, but showing that instead of media controlling the streets, the street talk is taking over the media. There are grave dangers to civil society from a flaring of nationalism, which is the wave Mr Modi wants to ride, but India seems to be moving away from militant nationalism rather than towards it: It is not about growing tolerance, but a direct result of ubiquitous consumer identity and dizzying growth of regional mobility. The urbanization is bringing freedom, of all kinds, political, intellectual, financial and sexual, and allowing new ideas of individual to pre-empt the grand debate about the idea of India.

However, this is the time of breaking of the entitlements: Usually, this means flourishing of extraordinary creativity and new possibilities once the life after chaos commences. This is what we will be looking for, I am looking for: This would usher India's moment, finally.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What Makes A Global Manager?

I am writing a course on International Management and that allows me to research and reflect on who a global manager is (and, indeed, how to prepare one). I think many people embark on global assignments with little preparation, which happened to me in the past, and only learn as they go along. Reflecting on my own experience, I think companies can get a lot more out of their staff if they prepare them ahead for such assignments: The problem indeed remains that this is still a fuzzy field and it is hard to agree what one needs to prepare on.

The most usual preparation is indeed to talk to someone who had a similar posting before. So, if you are being posted to China, you talk to an old China hand, soaking up as much as you can. This is useful, but if this is the only thing you do, which often is the case, such preparation can be counter-productive. Usually, this means that the presumptions of that mentor gets passed on to you, and unless you are lucky to have a mentor who learnt and reflected well, which is a rarity in the action-focused world of business, that's a very bad place to be. 

The other thing to do is to read about the country, which, again, is very useful, but not sufficient on its own. This is because more you read that a particular nation is like something, for example, Indians have a different conception of time, it seems to stand out as a national idiosyncrasy. It is in fact useful to explore culture in general, and know that even one's own conception of time may appear peculiar to others, and that different people have different conceptions of time - and that Indian concepts of time (and space, and everything else) is one of those.

In a way, the best preparation for a global assignment is to learn see oneself with an outside-in perspective, and this is the most difficult bit. Whatever we do - talk to other people who had been in the 'post' before, or read about the country - it only reaffirms our inside-out view. If an Indian ever written a book about an expatriate manager living in his country - I am not aware of any such book but just using it as an example - that would, from the vantage point of the expat's own culture, seem chauvinistic, and it won't be widely available, at least not in the expat's own country and language.

I am aware of this problem as I have lived an expat manager's life: I have been posted in different countries and had my best years professionally during the time. However, I started with exceptionally bad advice, and have seen other colleagues suffer as they took that advice literally and behaved accordingly. Indeed, people who imparted that advice were smart, experienced and successful, but they let their own world view affect their advice. I also know how difficult it is to get to know a country without learning to read materials in its own language. I was lucky that my first outstation posting was in Bangladesh and I spoke the language: So I could read Bengali books and know about the country as it sees itself (and loved it). This is always difficult when an expat is trying to understand the country through his own language, as most people who would write in his language either share his own presumptions and experiences, or trying to write 'for them'.

I think it is important for all the global managers to remember that they are not just an ambassador for their own country or culture, which is an exceptionally challenging responsibility by itself, but are also lucky to belong to that very small group of people who are connecting the world. This is an exciting, very special, opportunity, and often you get this once in a lifetime. However, it is exceptionally hard: Going to live in another country and working there is nothing like being out there as a tourist or a conference delegate. Particularly in countries where relationships are everything - most of Asia, Latin America, Middle East and Southern Europe may fall into this bracket - holding a mirror to oneself and preparing for such assignments is extremely important. I am aware that this does not happen ever so often. This is exactly what is making me burn midnight oil and come up with something that may prepare these global ambassadors better.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Making Global Education

This is a bad time for globalism. The recession has renewed the fear of the others, and various politicians, from Japan to Italy to United States, are inventing foreign bogeymen to obscure their own failures. Companies, while desperate for ideas and for growth, are receding to respective homelands for safety: The only international bit they would still like to do is to keep their cashes stashed in tax havens. In fact, by doing so, they have given global business more bad press - Starbucks dodging taxes, Wal-Mart paying bribes and various banks, almost all of them, defrauding customers and governments alike.

Critics can say that this was bound to happen and globalisation is a sham: But when it comes to climate change, nuclear disarmament, human rights, the issues that the same critics love, they concede that there is no alternative to concerted global action. I shall contend that global connections (or disconnections) are a function of technology and due to progress in transportation and communication, distance has irretrievably died. The fear of the other that keeps globalisation at bay is a tool for inefficient, self-serving political machine, a system fit for another era, a set of people with dated values who seemed to have sleepwalked into our time. Globalism isn't rhetorical, it's real: Its our back-from-dead nationalist politicians who are really the voodoo dolls.

Indeed, differences are alive and well, and they ought to be, as human diversity works for us and allows us to do complex things. But being different does not have to make us fearful, because such fears have always caused trouble, whereas great prosperity was created when we overcame those fears. Our society works on adjustment, and we must now expand our field of vision to include those who are different from us.

As with other things, my take is that this has to start with education. The education as it is now comes in two varieties: A nationally grounded variety, which displays the politicians' handiwork at its worst, where purse strings are pulled and various national stereotypes are embedded in the students' minds; and the other, at a more advanced level, where a neo-liberal special species doctrine is preached from the business school pulpit, where a special band of marauders are prepared to live a life steamrolling differences and undermining societies, creating the demonic globalisation that the Muppet-politicians then use to whip up the fears.

However, global education isn't a new idea. In fact, educators around the world have been trying this for at least a century. They were in the fringe, as their models did not suit the government-funded version of the system, and they were labelled sages and visionaries (in effect, impractical men and women): One such example was Viswa-bharati (the world school) in Bolpur in West Bengal, which was formally started in 1923 (the school was operational since at least 1905) with the Nobel prize money of its founder, Rabindranath Tagore. The founding idea of the school was to step outside the British colonial education, which was designed to produce pen-pushers and bureaucrats in the service of the Raj, and to imbibe creativity, love of nature and globalism in its pupils. It is a tragedy that the ideals of Viswa-bharati was forgotten soon after Tagore's death, when his successors, Mahatma Gandhi and eventually Jawaharlal Nehru, integrated the project into India's national building, turning this into just another university, if slightly exotic, tasked to produce bureaucrats in the service of the new Indian state. However brilliant, Viswa-bharati's globalism was dead and buried alongside its founder.

Tagore saw the horrors of nationalism well ahead of his contemporaries, and spoke about its perverse nature as early as in 1905. He persisted even in the face of hostile public reception, particularly in China and Japan, where nationalism and national pride  were seen, in 1920s, the great force of freedom and progress (just as in India today), and his lectures proved so unpopular that some of them had to be cancelled. Tagore remained a marginal figure in India's independence movement because of his nuanced views of nationalism, he and his education project reviled by his compatriots as 'empty internationalism' and shunned (his chosen successor, the great Bengali nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, refusing to take on the responsibility); indeed, his globalism was never fashionable, not even in his dying days when the world was plunged into the horrors of nationalist slaughter of the Second World War. Tagore's efforts were modest, but heroic for a single man; and certainly, he was not alone in envisioning and creating a globalist education. Thus, the founding ideals of Viswabharati now needs revisiting, and dare I say resurrecting, as we face another long global recession, like that of the 1930s, which is inexorably sucking us into abyss, putting tinpot dictators in place and reviving the nationalist rhetoric across the globe. A global education, aimed at the creation of global students, leaders, managers, is more in need than ever before.

Indeed, one has to be mindful of the neo-liberal variety of global education, that which steamrolls differences and imposes a near-imperial view on the world, and which is precisely the reason why global education gets equated with an arrogant, disconnected mindset: We need global education, but in a reinvented form, which respects differences and celebrates, rather than attempts to reduce, human complexities and variations. Global education isn't, and shouldn't be, fitting economies into standardised models and having a touristy view of national idiosyncrasies; It is rather about knowing that a range of mental models exist in the world, and each has its own sphere of validity and legitimacy. It is about humility rather than arrogance, about discovery rather than evangelism, and, if this is forgotten, about learning rather than collecting fridge magnets. 

If someone is wondering whether I am in a time-wrap and whether talking about globalising education now, just when localism is on the rise, is a good idea, we must remember that the global recession, for which globalization is blamed, is actually a product of lack of global integration, or shall we say, lopsided global integration; and, indeed, the greatest danger that comes with this recession is to get back to our murderous nationalist habits. In summary, there was never a time when creating global education, that based on understanding and tolerance, was more important.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Future Literacy

A little survey on my favourite research cohort - students - and everyone tells me that they don't read books anymore. I am not delusional - I already expected that - but I am still sad: It is as if no one cared about the death of my old friend. But there is more than that: I am also puzzled how to teach a Postgraduate qualification without books interfering. Some younger friends tell me that this is a Generation X problem though, something like dementia, people successfully complete research degrees without reading books, which may very well be true. However, this is a personal problem: I live surrounded by books, I spend most of my money on them and my greatest regret in life is about being separated from the collection I built up over the years but had to leave behind in India when I migrated. So, I talk in books - my teaching is often walking through the ideas etched on paper, and my efforts in the classroom are mostly focused on making students discover the joy of that secret Shangri-la. In an age when reading books is uncool, my methods and I may sure look outdated.

So, I moaned: I asked why they don't read books. The most common answer was that they used to, but life's other priorities have taken over. I fully sympathise - that happened to me too, that keeps happening to me at times - and I know how hard life can be for a full-time student while they work part time and also live a full-blown social and family life. Just too many things to do to take time to read! For me, when I feel similarly submerged, I try harder: I surround myself with books, taking out my full quota from libraries, stealing few minutes out of work hours to stroll down to charity shops, and even, in my new start-up avatar, set up meetings in the cafe inside Waterstones at Trafalgar Square, so that I am still surrounded. I usually read several books at a time, often reading only a few pages at a time, often violating that strong affectionate linear attention that the act of book-reading demands: However, that is my act of love, just like stealing a kiss, so that I am reminded of love. And, then, finally, inevitably, the noise of life subsides and I am able to read a book from end to finish, sometimes through a night, which gives me the sense of fulfilment, a successful conclusion after waiting for that moment to come. It is an elaborate dance, perhaps too elaborate, but this is my way of having a sentient existence.

Therefore, I told my students that: That it is like having no time to read at all, an act, or the lack of it, that may condemn them to ignorance. Then the truth came out, slowly but inevitably, everyone in the class reflecting and confessing that it is not that they don't have the time, but book-reading has been squeezed out of their life as the Internet has taken over. They read online, which is reassuring for me as a teacher to know, but still painful as a book-reader. We launched into a discussion about relative merits of Internet reading thereafter, the discontinuous culture of Internet reading versus the patient pursuit of books, the digital versus the intensely physical, musty smell and all, experience of reading. There were clearly two sides of the debate, a muted disbelief that I am even trying to defend book-reading: It was cast to be one of those age versus youth, old versus new, debates, where the new ideas must eventually win.

But, indeed, I am not denouncing Internet: I am a old digital hand, having fallen in love with Internet before the web was born. Indeed, I did not read on the Internet then - that is precisely my point - I connected with people. For me, coming from those bulletin boards, Internet was a live experience, connected, noisy and full of people, not a solitary one to disconnect and to read. I came to blog writing almost naturally thereafter: Internet was a place to talk, to have a conversation. Then, when it was still a green screen with blinking text, Internet sat neatly with my various other habits, talking to people, writing by hand, book reading, watching Star Trek on Television etc. I am no one to tell people to digitally disconnect, as I can't. But, I felt, telling me that reading on the Internet is squeezing everything else out is like being able to speak, but not able to read, is one thing consuming the other to nothingness, an intellectual poverty rather than enlightenment.

We must labour on this point further. Socrates denounced writing, because he thought mental faculties needed to remember and argue would diminish as a consequence. This is cited as a classic (indeed, classical) example of fear of the new media, but there is a somewhat broader point (as with everything Socrates ever said or did). The new media shouldn't impoverish us, not replace our old literacy but to add to that. Take for example the great education innovator Jan Comenius, who used the great innovation of his age, printing press, to the pressing education problem of costs of teaching, and came up with textbooks, which revolutionised teaching but eventually undermined other skills, of remembering and understanding the classical literature, and resulted in Victorian classrooms. This is one example at hand where the new media replacing the old impoverish us, rather than adding on to it, something that Socrates so presciently observed.

We may be time-poor, but this is my point: Internet represents a different opportunity, that of sharing and connecting, and must be treated as such. I am greatly enthused by the experiments in social reading, where it enables reading together, but not of interactive texts, where the voice of commerce (what else to expect) can interrupt the one on one conversation between the book and its readers. I am an enthusiast of new media skills and would go as far as possible to acquire it, and writing this post on my laptop plugged on to the wi-fi at Waterstones, I celebrate it too: But, may this not be at the expense of what we already have, a great ability to transport our voices over time, as represented in the frozen form of books, the ability to read deeply and without distraction, and imagine, without being told what to think by the ubiquitous voice of the salesman who must, and always do, intrude whenever we drop our guards. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Point of Higher Education

Higher Education is in crisis, it was proclaimed. MOOCs and various other avatars, depending on who you ask, either cause the crisis or present a solution. The government is in full retreat, after making access to Higher Education central to democratic legitimacy, and indeed, various interest groups are up in arms. Central to this debate, various debates as we should see it, is the question what Higher Education is for: It is on this question, rather than any other, where the battle lines are drawn most clearly.

Like any other public policy debates, there are lots of rhetoric and lots of fudge on this: Terms such as 'Opportunity Society' has won votes and lost meaning many times over. The scarecrow of loss of competitiveness (to South Korea, mostly, these days) and the teardrops shed on 'lost soul of Higher Education' compete for influence and column-inch. But all these various shades of grey can eventually be put in two boxes - the 'Power' argument and the 'Productivity' argument.

The 'Power' argument, first: The proponents of this talk about making of a better person through Higher Education, someone who can critically analyse what's around him or her, shape the world rather than be shaped. The point of Higher Education, in this view, is to create an empowered class of individuals, who lead and shape the destiny of others. In this view, higher education is, at its core, the pursuit of freedom, which must be free by design itself. However, at the bottom of this argument, there is this assumption that the educated must be allowed to lead: The great hallo of intellectual freedom, in essence, is freedom for few thus initiated.

The 'Prosperity' argument, in contrast, is about money and productivity. Higher Education, in this view, is a tool that equip its holder the ability to produce, directly or indirectly, economic value. In a way, this is the open doors argument, the 'opportunity society' view, which allows all-comers to have a chance. This side of the argument, however, accepts the power argument implicitly, and accepts that freedom and self-consciousness isn't for everyone. The proponents of higher education for prosperity is happy to let the Power Higher Ed live on, just that they want a share of pedestal and dish out similar diplomas. 

The 'Power' side of the argument, however, resents the 'Prosperity' proponents as terrible pretenders. Despite the latter's inherent acceptance of an unequal world, indeed many prosperity proponents themselves are recipients of power higher ed themselves, the former sees this as a terrible land grab. For them, 'Higher' in Higher Ed is not just about the number of years on a education leaflet printed in some ministry, but this 'higher' is higher as in Mount Everest, shrouded in mystery, beyond the reach of the charlatans and the commoners: For them, Higher Education for Prosperity is as revolting as opening Shangri-la for honeymoon packages.

Unfortunately, despite claims on the contrary, there is no 'Freedom' school of thought in Higher Education. That argument has been usurped: Freedom in Higher Education is either freedom for few to do the high thinking, or the freedom to consume for all, leaving the high thinking to few. The politicians, mostly educated on power schools and themselves seasoned players of the power game, sold the prosperity snake oil and the guise of freedom: Freedom to consume as opposed to freedom to think, indeed.

Depending on which side won the argument, we have the two typologies of Higher Education system dominating the landscape. The prosperity argument seems to reign supreme in United States, while the power side has been entrenched in the UK; the countries which model themselves after these two globally dominant models have created systems along the lines - India a 'power' dominated system, South-East Asia and China a prosperity driven one.

Indeed, higher education debate is a many-headed hydra - so it is useful to be able to start somewhere. I have found this typology, of power and of prosperity, useful as a start point, as it helps to sort through the rhetoric and the slogans, and the various pseudo-models that are spun out from time to time.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Education to Employment: A Flawed Prescription

McKinsey published a report on 'Education to Employment: Designing A System that works' in an attempt to draw attention to an urgent issue: With 75 million young people unemployed around the world, and twice that number unemployed, this is becoming one burning issue and indisputable proof that the current system does not work. Mckinsey argues that educators and employers seem to live in parallel universe, and this causes the problem. Their solution is to bring the two together: To make more employers educators, and educators employers, which roughly translates into more vocational education. However, I shall argue, that the problem runs deeper.

First, educators and employers indeed reside in parallel universe and would always will. Educators' job is, or at least should be, to enhance the capability of the learner, so that, if employment is the goal, their earning potential could increase. However, the employer, usually a business, wants just the opposite: His profits are based on availability of cheap labour who can do the job. They want skilled machinists, but in such abundant supply that they don't have to pay more. In fact, it would be great for them if they can get a steady supply of shop-floor ready machinists every year, so that they can replace the previous years recruits, who would by now want a salary increase, with a new intake of recruits. 

Second, the employers are focused on today, as they should be. They require people who can do the job today, and do not care about whether their skills are future-proof. If the technology changes, they would want to discard most of the old hands and move on to the next crop of the graduates. On the other hand, educators, For-Profit or not, have an obligation to upskill their charges with something that works for them, regardless of who they work for, and ability to adapt as technology changes.

It is therefore a surprise that the contrasting attitudes of employers and educators come as a surprise. Besides, pinning down the youth unemployment - and its consequences, such as wasted lives and various untimely springs in the Middle East - solely on the education problem is not exactly accurate. If we haven't noticed, we have replaced any job that could be replaced by use of machines. We have made capital flow more or less freely, latest is the Government of India wanting investment in retail sector so that efficient, read jobless, supply chains could be built; but on the other end, movement of people from one country to another have been severely, and artificially, restricted. And, finally, using a flawed vocational education system, something that is usually touted as a panacea to all our jobs problems, we have built an army of people with dead skills, and used them as canon fodders of our industries of the day; as the jobs disappeared, we have left a whole generation stranded, and labelled them, at our convenience, as 'benefit scroungers', 'takers' or now, the '47 per cent'.

McKinsey's views will carry weight, and The Economist has indeed jumped into the fray with this article, pointing that the government spending in the universities and the latter's growing prominence is part of the problem. However, as with these things, the unspoken bit is what the employers do. Like every other debate in our societies, while there are two sides of the debate here - employers and the educators - we can't really examine who the employers are and what they do. It becomes really simple to say that we have a jobs problem because, apart from various structural issues cited above, the employers are not interested in employing. Most employment happens in For-profit organisations, which are run with two principles, that they must maximise profit, and less employment = more productivity = more profit.

The jobs conundrum, therefore, needs to be recast: We indeed have a problem of wasted lives, but that can't be solved with jobs. Educators have a problem, and that is not that they don't focus on employment; it is rather the opposite, that they do. Almost oblivious that there are not enough jobs in the market, they buy into, rather uncritically, the mantra of a better job for a better life, only to leave their pupils with disillusionment and self-blame. It is a time for collective wake-up and call the bluff, as some researchers have already done (See Brown et al, The Global Auction, 2011), but that may be unpalatable for those who can really write and publish these concern-raising reports. However, as long as we continue to self-delude, we are unlikely to do anything till the members of the broken generation take it upon themselves and change things.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Breakpoint: Another Pivot

Start-up life is exciting: Disappointments and rejections come thick and fast. Just when one thinks that there is light at the end of tunnel, another endless tunnel starts. In what could be the reverse of bungee-jumping, indeed one would imagine the sky having gravity after talking to any aspiring entrepreneur, one lives the life in spurts of joy and endless despair thereafter; indeed, it is this experience that is thrilling, indeed only after all of it is over, and would be material for heroic stories for telling one's grandchildren, minus the silly bits. 

There are lots of silly bits, unavoidably perhaps. At this time, slightly sulking from the latest disappointments, I am onto this what's-going-wrong quandary, and the thinking whether the whole project is quixotic, only to realize quickly that the main problem Quixote had was of not accepting the world as it was. The mantra of what I am doing now is to be able to pivot, to change and to adapt; and my solace should come from good old Darwin - the one who adapts, survives.

We are trying to build a college from ground up with entirely start-up finance, which is too complex for a lot of people. Besides, we are right in the middle of the fault line of two investment mindsets: The education investors are somewhat horrified at our audacity to build a new college with shoe-string investment, whereas technology investors won't touch such a regulated industry with a bargepole. It seems we are too ambitious - a fault I freely acknowledge but it seems to be catching up with me - and trying to do much. 

So, this may be the time for a pivot, the word I am growing find of. It may be time for us to choose one mindset, of technology or of education, rather than trying to ride two horses together. This may mean giving up on being a 'college', at least for the moment, and focus on creating a supplement to college education. We can still do what we set out to do: Create a business education programme for post-recession world, which will talk less about steady lifelong big company careers and more about the real life, of change, disruption and innovative possibilities, that a graduate actually has to live. And, besides, we shall make it a really global proposition, allowing students to travel and study, to see global businesses from inside.

To achieve this, and yet give students something they would want, we are building partnerships with colleges, in different countries, to weave together a programme, which will sit alongside their regular programmes, on global business, which will blend travel and study, combine online and offline interaction and be based on student research, even at the undergraduate level. We would stay outside the Diploma marketplace and the regulatory rigmarole that comes with it, and rather build innovative programmes offering life-changing experiences and deep learning, which can then sit alongside various education offerings our partners already have. Where we shall add value is to bring the global and local together, at the time when globalization is hotly contested and localism is back with vengence, just in its most intolerant, chauvinistic form. This is indeed a bot of swimming against the tide, but for better, I would hope.

We use technology to do what we are proposing to do: But technology isn't the main thing here. The whole thing wouldn't happen without technology. What we are not trying to do is to sell British degrees abroad, which is the only bit the investment community often gets. What we are trying to do is to bring a global community together, on shared values and ideals of global exchange and communication, and the assumption that all businesses are now irreversibly global. We would often say that we are building a platform - allowing our audience to indulge and think that we are talking about sophisticated technology - but how we see platform as a combination of technology, people, process and relationships together, and indeed, values, sharing across the board a deep faith in globalism and of openness, collaboration and toleration.

What we do is nothing new, nor too expensive (we are funding it with our personal savings and credit cards so far) - but measured by the rejections we have so far got, from investors who want something tried and tested, I am ecstatic that we are on the path to build something really novel. I know how that statement sounds, and I am fully conscious of the risk of self-delusion, but even before we got into the rejection territory, I wrote in this blog that investors are yet to understand the mechanics of education business, particularly Higher Ed. They would usually want a factory proposition, because most models the business schools teach them are about reducing everything to a factory model. They are slightly foxed by what educators do: From this disconnect comes the really bad oxymoron such as result oriented research, balanced scorecard for education institutions and all that. In fact, I am so interested in how the investment community see higher education, and indeed, if there is a business model of higher ed which fits the private investment mindset, that I have now made this the subject of the thesis that I write for my Masters at UCL.

So, here I am - pivoting and adapting - at a rare moment in life when I am presented with an opportunity to build something. I am overwhelmed, however, by the goodwill of friends, who came over and offered investments, small sums but enough to get us going, get the model and the first courses established. There is a hard road ahead, and I am bracing myself for a long period of hard work, but this experience, if anything, is more rewarding than anything else I have ever done: This is a special moment when change, more than continuity, is smarter strategy.    

Friday, November 30, 2012

Books Become Social: An Idea For the Future

I am already a fan of Open Utopia, an experiment in social reading. I met this with a pure deja vu feeling: First, an article by Jennifer Howard on the project, and then, coincidentally, an email from a Linkedin contact complaining about how rough Amazon and the various self-publishing organisations treat the authors, set me up for this. If I was feeling despondent about books and more so, about creativity, here is the answer.

Indeed, I am talking about the idea rather than the specific project. Open Utopia is an experiment, carefully crafted, though I think Utopia is rather an unfortunate choice. This experiment could have been easily crafted on some other book, one, I may hope, that had a world-changing impact, and by implication, showed a deeper confidence in the way the future will indeed play out. Open Utopia, I would like to believe, is not an utopia, but more a precursor of an excitingly creative future.

Printed books have to change. Those of us in love with paper, with that intimate warmth and musty smell that put us to sleep every night, know that there is something wrong with it. As we enter the realm of a different generation, those who, almost universally, saw computers at school, say, books may seem old-fashioned. But more than that, printed word may appear increasingly stale, particularly in comparison with the openness and creativity on the web.

The travails of my writer correspondent in the hands of Amazon is somewhat relevant here. His narrative suggests that the big beast, he called them the proverbial elephant in the china shop, do not care any longer about the writers. They know they can roll them over. It was fascinating in a way because I am a fan of Amazon: I find their customer service amazing, their strategies so smart. But the story suggests a shift which I have seen elsewhere: A power shift from producers, in this case authors, to consumers, which is the essence of the markets and, by extension, seen as a good thing. However, I have noted this shift elsewhere too - in Higher Education - where in the name of student choice, the power and the prerogative were passed on from the producers, in this case the faculty, to the self-appointed gate-keepers of choice, managers of various creed at the colleges, and finally to big businesses which embody the management ethos.

So, my thesis is that information industries go through extraordinary phases of creativity when a new medium empower the producers to create unhindered, but, in a phase like this, the power of choice gets passed on from producers to consumers, and invariably to the self-appointed purveyors of consumer choice, the big businesses. Tim Wu makes a similar point in his The Master Switch, though he looks at telecommunications and Internet, rather than publishing and education. However, the patterns are quite similar: Creativity usually prospers in safe environments, where the creators have the choice, rather than in those where they are subject to the vagaries of consumer choice; and invariably, the consumer choice comes about as a potent force only through proxies, the big businesses which act as the gatekeepers of that choice. This eventually stalls creativity, and finally, again a breakthrough technology or organisational form come about, reorganise the producers and creative actors, and a new cycle of creativity starts all over again.

I notice in books a similar degeneration, and was quite worried that the new technology, the Internet, was being employed, at least thus far, to create forms which extend the lock-down version of Amazon monopoly. I refused to buy a Kindle, as I did not want to hand over my freedom to read to one platform and one company. But the appeal of this platform seemed unstoppable, particularly for a generation which has loved to hate books as a representation of the old, top-down, 'dad's universe'. The cool electronic Kindle and its cousins represented no freedom, only a more controlled experience, but the novelty of the medium, embedded in the buzz of creativity around the web in general, seemed to have obscured the fact altogether.

The social book, which uses the new medium for what it is, opens up a new possibility. Indeed, it is possible to see Internet as one giant book - remember Tim Barnes Lee's early inspiration came from the idea of Commonplace Book, the genteel habit of fact collection in one massive compendium - and it evolved quickly into a place to meet. One could be fooled by the apparent solitude of the act of reading, but the book-readers know that it is actually a conversation, both with the author and its characters, and the expression 'on the same page' is there for a reason. The social book, a book as a place to meet, is an indicator of the future of the book more than its Kindle avatar.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The 'Inside Economy': Recovering From Rhetoric

Joshua Cooper Ramo somewhat spills the beans in his latest article in Fortune (read here) and says a thing that everyone knew but was afraid of saying: That, to quote Ramo, "globalisation has a reverse gear". Citing arguments that would be familiar to those who followed Pankaj Ghemawat's work (see his TED presentation here), Ramo makes the case for the "inside economy", one made of local consumers and producers, that is fast filling the gap left by the receding global trade.

The point is - we know this already. India, as I have argued before, rode through the tides of global recession looking inward: While its outwardly-orientated industries, IT and Aviation for example, took a beating, the ones serving domestic demand, manufacturing, retail and financial services delivered steady growth and jobs. China turned its economy slowly from an export-driven one to one aligned to local consumption - the slowing of Chinese growth, in my view, is an indicator of this change, rather than its fallibility - and, as Ramo argues, America is doing the same.

However, while the facts are quite clear, the interpretation of it begs a debate. In Ramo's view, this somewhat means we have overdone globalisation, moved too far too fast. However, in reality, we actually never got started. Indeed, the rhetoric - of 'flat world' - and its messiahs, such as Tom Friedman, overtook the reality; this, coupled with neo-liberal conquest of the world, made us, at least those of us who read English language news, believe that globalisation is complete, irreversible and a natural next step in history. This is 'globalony', as Pankaj Ghemawat calls it, a sensationalism that may sell books but eventually leads to reactions such as Ramo's, which denounces the effects of something that never happened. This is where the 'inside economy' argument starts getting problematic.

The 'inside economy' isn't a new reality, but one that was always there: Just that it was unexciting and didn't get the share of the rhetoric. Let's consider India: The middle class boy who huddled through a newly formed Engineering College and suddenly is sent abroad, may be making it his first Aeroplane trip, made a much better story than those village boys who goes to the city and sets up a small shop, but the latter is both more numerous and had more impact, in relative terms, among people around them. The Chinese trinkets, flooding its own market and Asia, were not hailed as the coming of the great power, but the produces of its slave labour, our shiny new iPads, certainly were. And, the worst kept secret of American business was its 'inside economy' - only 1% of any American company had any operation abroad - and the reason American businesses do well is because they could tap into a ready market of consumers who were willing to take risks.

So, in the end, Mr Ramo's presentation isn't in line with Mr Ghemawat's, but its opposite. Mr Ramo seemed to have bought into the flat world exuberance, only to suffer disillusionment as he discovered the twists and turns. His conclusions, in retrospective, are dangerous: We did not do Globalisation too fast, we never did it. We mixed up globalisation with the movements of global capital, which surely moved faster than ever, but that makes no difference to people and lives and even real businesses. And, besides, if we have to get out of this recession, what we need is more globalisation, not less.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

India at Crossroads: Waiting for Mr Modi?

India faces a momentous election in approximately 18 months time, but next week, its first battles will be fought. Gujrat's enigmatic Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, will face elections in his own state, and most probably win. A big win, as predicted, will set him on course to be the Prime Ministerial candidate for the Hindu Chauvinist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which will, given the woes of the current ruling coalition, put him in a pole position to win the premiership.

This will be a tragedy for three reasons. 

First, this will turn the debate about India's future into a debate about its past: Mr Modi, despite his new development-friendly avatar, represent a Hindu supremacist view of India. His track record, which he is desperate to leave behind, irreversibly features the pogrom he organized or encouraged or tolerated (depending on what one believes), which killed more than 2000 muslims and displaced ten times that number, making Gujrat a more homogeneous state than it was before. His possible ascendency in Delhi will revive the possibility that he may wish to do the same across the country. While his strategists assiduously deny that this could ever be the case, pointing out the vast minority population of India, they leave unsaid that without a strategy of that nature, it would be impossible for Mr Modi, at best, to be a more than one term Prime Minister. Mr Modi, and BJP in general, has failed so far to present a coherent idea of India which is any way different from what the current Congress government is talking about, except to emphasize 'efficiency'; with Mr Modi in ascendency, everyone will see that this is only a shorthand for authoritarianism.

Second, this will also represent a win for a tyocoon-friendly top-down vision of economic development, which India already has enough of. This is a model dependent on export revenue, foreign investment and a free-for-the-rich play. Last few years have shown that Indian economy's resilience comes from its chaotic bottom-up structure and domestic demand. While this makes a less spectacular story than the shiny new factories, big investment MoUs and prosperity of a few as developments in Gujrat have shown, the bottom-up people-driven model may be the only one that may suit the wider country, which includes more people than just the Hindu Male Gujrati businessmen. India remains a resilient, large, diverse country, with many competing visions and different interests: However inconvenient that may seem, this has allowed India to build a more sustainable grassroots model of prosperity and development. Going back to Mr Modi is going back to the 'India Shining' days, which meant a lot of easy credit fueled middle class hoopla, without an expansion of productive capacity or sustained consumer demand.

Third, this may mean further strife with India's neighbours, who will be uneasy dealing with Mr Modi given his track record. Indeed, one may argue that it does not matter what they think, but that is precisely the mistake Mr Modi and his advisers will be prone to make. India's foreign policy, like everyone else's, may now need to pivot to Asia, as this is going to the most exciting, as well as most dangerous, economic play and strategic arena in the world. Whatever we have seen so far, this is not what Mr Modi or his advisers will be comfortable dealing with (though one must also recount how little the UPA government has done in this regard, and the only Premier to have seriously tried an Asian pivot was Atal Bihari Bajpayee, the only BJP Premier that India has ever had).

Indeed, one may not need to take a Modi premiership for granted. The UPA government has all these 18 months to make amends, and it is finally getting back into action. Even if BJP comes to power, Mr Modi will be unacceptable as a Premier to half the country, and various regional politicians, with whom a coalition must be formed, would prefer a more benign candidate. The BJP has proved to be an extremely fractious party itself, and may fail to fall in line behind Mr Modi. And, Mr Modi, who is currently testing the waters, may settle for the bird in hand, and may never want to leave Gujrat politics for an uncertain future in national politics. 

Whatever it is, there are clear and present dangers, and those rooting out for a more tolerant India, with a sustainable model of economic development and sensible foreign policy, must remain forewarned of a lurch towards extreme right and extreme uncertainty. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Counting Down to Christmas

Finally, it feels that I am in the home stretch to end what has been a freaky year. In a way, I am exactly where I was a year back - not a good thing - in the middle of raising money for a start-up business and completing various personal commitments; seen another way, I am far down the line, not just a year older, but much wiser, having gone through a real double loop learning with business, and having connected with a number of very interesting people along the way. I feel confident and happy, and looking into 2013 to be the year when all this must deliver.

Standing still isn't any good, and I regret that the fact that we haven't moved much forward in real terms. For this, I blame the middle months and a diversion, a period when we abandoned the start-up proposition and tried a MBO of a much bigger entity. There was an enormous learning, but we failed - in my estimate - to consider the human factor at play, a mistake I regret personally. One of the things I consider my strength is interpersonal intelligence, and with hindsight, I know I completely overlooked the some of players in the equation and their personal agenda, and somehow got blind-sighted by what people told me rather than what they meant. In the end, we lost time working on a deal which was destined not to happen, and ignored the proposition that we were already working on, a year earlier.

Learning is one thing I take away, and that is not just about watching out for stakeholder interests next time around. I should have already known this. The deeper learning is about what I really wanted. The most valuable piece of advice which I was given during the year was that I need to focus back on the UK, rather than talking global all the time:An advice immensely valuable, as all my schemes are always global and therefore complex for investors, but something I choose to ignore, because that's what I am, global at heart and in search of excitement in life. Even if it makes sense to take a local health food franchise and make millions hawking stuff to people, that may not be my idea of business: I want to do things that I love, rather than what would make me money. And, it is finding what I love is possibly the biggest learning that happened through the year.

Almost always I knew that dumbing down our original proposal and fitting it around something to do in Britain - an intelligent interactive enterprise training to be delivered alongside college courses, for example, indeed a me-too, undifferentiated proposition solely based on 'better quality' claim - would have been attractive to some of the investors we were talking to. They didn't like the level of complexity of the proposal we were putting on table, a global play in a regulated industry using emerging technologies. I also knew that positioning the proposition to education investors, rather than technology ones, had inherent limitations. However, let's say the story of 2012 was about being honest to myself: We didn't want to sell the idea as a technology play, because we did not see it to be, and our deep conviction was that we were trying to change higher education, and create a global model of it, and using technology to achieve this. The fact that we saw the easier route, yet argued against taking it as we didn't believe in it, gave me, progressively, an idea what I really like to do in life.

The plan for 2013 is therefore simple. We shall go ahead and create this global education proposition, regardless of when and how much investment we get on the table. The last few months taught us about the bootstrap life and improvisation; they also taught us that there are more than one way to get towards one's goal. Personally, the last few months in particular, but also all the events leading into it, taught me the value of remaining focused on what I really like to do and making every day count, building skills and abilities that could plausibly count towards my final objectives. This is the life I want to experiment with - in the remaining 30 days to Christmas: A focused life of making everything count.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Commonwealth Dream: Why Britain should move on

There is talk of reviving the commonwealth, particularly among the British Tories, as they drift away from Europe. William Hague talks about putting the C back in FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and various advantages of doing business with commonwealth countries are mused about. There are sceptics, such as The Economist, who highlights the various roadblocks, and particularly laments that various commonwealth members are not compliant followers of the British, or Western, view of the world. [Read the article here]

The point, however, is not whether commonwealth is relevant from the point of view of Britain, but from its other members, particularly the old colonies. Unlike what the modern British citizens would like to believe (and a comment to that effect was made on The Economist article), Commonwealth was set up much before the liquidation of colonies, and not to assuage the post-colonial 'guilt'. Commonwealth was extended, after India's independence, with modification, as the new Indian state wouldn't accept the Queen as the Head of State and was republican, to maintain British influence, and to retain the trade advantage over and above its other European and North American competitors. In political terms, this was Britain's attempt to cling to a hangover of an empire, in a world being divided in two competing cold war empires at the time.

The reason, therefore, why Commonwealth has lost relevance can be understood from its history. The cold war empires eventually overwhelmed any other grouping; Britain got too busy maintaining its position as the preeminence as the American ally in Europe and NATO; but above all, the ex-colonies moved on and left their hangover behind. One question that the Tory strategists forget to ask is why Britain is any longer relevant to the Commonwealth nations: The Indian companies invest in Britain and snap up British assets because it provides them an easy way into Europe. Replacing the EU membership with love for Commonwealth will make Britain a marginal entity for its commonwealth members.

While the Economist article accuses Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India and South Africa for blocking Britain's efforts to create a Human Rights Commissioner in the Commonwealth, one has to stop seeing this as an evidence of disregard of human rights in these countries, and see this in context of the pointlessness of the commonwealth. Britain has to come to terms with its declining influence in matters like this, and instead look at its warming climate to become a more pleasant tourist island. 

If Britain is to retain its place in the world as a preeminent economic power, it has to exactly the opposite of what it is trying to do now. It has to maintain an ever-closer relationship with Europe, and become its connector to the rest of the world. It has to preserve its universities and scientific, cultural and artistic tradition, not destroy them by depriving them funding and support. It has to come out of the besieged island mentality and let foreign businessmen, workers and students continue to inject vitality, enterprise and knowledge in its economy. In short, Britain has to adjust to its post-colonial realities, and shed its colonial hangover, once and forever.

For India, Australia, Malaysia, and most of other members of the Commonwealth, the future lies in its relationships with China and America, rather than in the old associations with Britain. All the countries speak English, jolly good, so that they can talk between themselves and with the Americans. The Indians are getting to the point of overcoming their past - and they must look East to be able to do so. If British pretension at telling these countries what to do is seen as neo-colonialism, it indeed is: So is this brouhaha with Commonwealth. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The For-Profit Debate: An Essay in Progress

While the public policy shifts to encourage the growth of For-Profit Higher Education Institutions in the UK are discernible, relatively little is known about how these institutions operate. The policy makers, driven by the agenda of cutting public spending, have significantly altered the way Higher Education is funded in the UK, and at the same time, allowed significant concessions to private for-profit Higher Education institutions in the hope that this will attract private capital to the sector. Apart from recently lowering of the bar on how many students an institution requires to qualify for degree-granting powers, and the proposed extension of VAT exemption to For-Profit institutions, the government has even allowed For-Profit companies to take over and convert Not-for-Profit degree granting institutions into one of its own, in a significant departure from how Higher Education institutions have been formed in the past. (THE, No. 2078, 29th Nov 2012, PP 6-7)

The main body of literature available on the functioning of the For-Profit Higher Education Institutions is to be found in the Press rather than within the academic domain, and the available commentary is mostly anecdotal and informed by a conservative negativity in an attempt to paint a black-and-white picture of poverty of the private sector (usually ignoring the For-Profit/ Non-Profit distinction in the UK). On the other end of the spectrum, the Business Analysts employed by the investor community project a somewhat opposite scenario: Parag Khanna, an influential commentator and Karan Khemka, a Principal with Parthenon Group, a consultancy, writes (HBR, Jan/Feb 2012): “In some countries, regulators have limited the expansion of private colleges and universities or the potential for investment in them. This is counter-productive. Private investment in Higher Education leads to more enrolment in Higher Education.” The article was titled “Enrol the World in For-profit Universities: Growth and Wealth will follow” and was listed as one of the most audacious ideas for 2012 by Harvard Business Review, a leading business journal.

However, in the United States, when the For-Profit Higher Education has shown remarkable growth in the last forty years, there is a growing body of research and literature in the functioning of For-Profit Higher Education Institutions.  While undeniably the growth of the For-Profit institutions in the US is deeply connected to a uniquely American Higher Education system, the trends and trajectories of its development are instructive. While proprietary colleges existed in the US for a long time, its rapid growth were set off by the Higher Education Amendments of 1972, which allowed students intending to study at For-Profit institutions to be eligible for federal student loans (commonly known as ‘Pell Grants’). A parallel development was set off in the UK recently by the Browne Review (2010), which transformed the system of Higher Education funding from one based on institutional grants to a system of student loans, and allowed For-Profit institutions to compete for it, which led to a significant restructuring of the For-Profit sector in the UK, and a rapid expansion of some of the institutions. In the light of these parallel trends, the literature from across the pond is both useful and instructive.

It is also to be noted that the current debate in the UK about For-Profit Higher Education is expectedly influenced by the events in America, where a major Congressional review of the sector took place recently, uncovering many unsavoury practices, and as a consequence, limiting the access to public funds the For-Profit institutions may have had. Also, in response, American For-Profit business leaders, laid out a vigorous defense, explaining the ethical violations as anecdotal and an aberration, rather than the norm in the sector. Andrew Rosen, the President of Kaplan, John Sperling, the Founder of University of Phoenix and Chairman of Apollo Group, and others argued eloquently about how For-Profit institutions are essential in creating a mass Higher Education system. The case they made has been based on (a) how the college fees have risen above inflation and therefore the need for  'efficiency' to reign in the cost spiral; and (b) that 'Harvard Envy' (a term Mr Rosen coined, to signify the drive of Public and Not-for-Profit institutions to become ‘bigger and better’, without regard to the bottom line) is driving public and private not-for-profits into more research pursuits, ignoring the core instructional activities, while the latter means more to the students.

To make sense of this debate, one should start with the well-laid-out rationale for the existence of For-Profits: To deliver the economic growth that the democratic governments need for its legitimacy, more and more citizens must be able to participate in a knowledge economy, and to leverage available technology for productivity growth and for improvements in the quality of life; and universal access to Higher Education is the only way this can be done. However, Higher Education suffers from an intractable 'cost disease' (which the economist William Baumol illustrate with the case of ‘String Quartet’, the highly skilled maestros who play Beethoven, whose productivity haven’t risen since the 19th century, but costs have), and a more efficient means must be found to allow for its mass expansion. Hence, the need for a For-Profit solution, which will allow deployment of private capital in solving this urgent social requirement, and which, to become profitable, will eliminate the 'cost disease' and deliver mass Higher Education at a lower per capita cost to the state.
Given its contextual importance, whether and how the For-Profit institutions could actually eliminate the 'cost disease' should attract more serious enquiry, but it hasn't: The passions the debate generates, with most scholars and scholarly practises being put on the dock, outweigh the urge to pursue a more disinterested investigation. Despite a growing number of students opting for For-Profit institutions and tectonic shifts in public policy, there is very little to go by except the witch-hunt in the trade press and self-congratulatory publications from the For-Profit players themselves (and from various analysts and consultants). However, the battle lines are clearly drawn, and in the UK, where the Government has recently unleashed most profound changes in the Higher Education in last half-century, the debate on the legitimacy of the For-Profit institutions, and indeed of a new wave of For-Profit led expansion of Mass Higher Education, is under way.
For-Profit institutions in Britain, unlike their counter-parts in America, are at an early stage of their evolution and somewhat less prepared for their new-found role in the limelight, and therefore make an easy target for its detractors. The sector consists of mostly proprietary institutions, with limited capital outlay and sparse physical and academic infrastructure, mostly servicing international students from newly industrializing countries. The sector is deemed to be 'efficient' and offer a cheaper way to study, the reason why it attracts international students who would otherwise have to pay a 'overseas fee' in Britain's public institutions and subsidize the relatively richer 'home' students. However, the critics argue that most of these For-Profit institutions are deficient in almost every other count, inadequate infrastructure, poor teaching, credibility of awards, and stand out for 'cheap is cheap' rather than 'value for money'.
However, neither For-Profit institutions nor the criticism are new, and Graham Greene predated many of today’s detractors by his portrayal of ‘St Ambrose’s College, Oxford’ (When Greek Meets Greek, 1954), which offered solutions when ‘war conditions prevented (one) from going to Oxford’ and offered ‘degree-diplomas…. at the end of three terms instead of the usual three years’. Greene’s take on its teaching and assessments would also resonate with today’s critics of For-Profit Higher Education:
"'Priskett here is the science tutor. I take history and classics. I thought that you, my dear, might tackle - economics?'

'I don't know anything about them.'

'The examinations, of course, have to be rather simple - within the capacity of the tutors. (There is an excellent public library here.)  And another thing - the fees are returnable if the diploma-degree not granted.'

'You mean...'

'Nobody will ever fail', Mr Priskett brought breathlessly out with scared excitement."  


This essay intends to explore the rhetoric around the For-Profit Higher Education in an effort to advance the understanding of the sector beyond Graham Greene’s prescience. The author’s own work in the For-Profit Higher Education sector provides a perspective, as well as the emergent body of work, both scholarly and in business domain, about the functioning of these institutions. At the outset, however, one needs to recognize that the sector itself is in the middle of a great change: Primarily because of the new immigration regime, the burdens of which fell primarily on students at For-Profit colleges, have deprived many of these institutions of their lifeblood. In an estimate done by EducationInvestor, a trade magazine, roughly 2000 such institutions, big or small, have gone out of business in the last eighteen months due to lack of student demand (EducationInvestor, April 2012). The change in the regulatory regime, which accompanied the immigration controls, has also upped the costs of operation of a For-Profit institution and required fresh investment in physical infrastructure, at the same time as the demand is contracting. The effort required is well beyond most proprietary institutions, and has led to a number of ownership changes, the proprietors bailing out either in favour of Trade Buyers, mostly American For-Profit Firms looking to expand in Britain, or Private Equity, investor firms who want to restructure the operations of smaller institutions, and sell them for a profit to the trade buyers later.

However, despite the ongoing consolidation of the sector, and the infusion of new capital, it is still unclear whether these changes will result in a sector fit to deliver the efficiency that the policy makers are looking for. The claim that ownership by a larger corporate body rather than individual proprietors result in greater efficiency and more publicly spirited institution stands rather battered by the findings of the recent Congressional investigations in United States, which portrayed a picture of a largely fly-by-night sector afflicted with the problems of predatory selling and flawed economics maintained on a life-support by subsidized student loans. The below-par graduation rates and above-average student loan default rates made some observers identify this sector as the source of a new sub-prime debt crisis there. In light of these observations, an inquiry into the structure and functioning of For-Profit Higher Education in Britain become more significant, as an increasing amount of public money gets diverted into the For-Profit institutions.

The government has farmed out the responsibility of ensuring efficiency in the For-Profit Higher Education institutions to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA); the underlying assumption is that gaining 'Confidence' from QAA will put For-Profit institutions at par with its Public sector counterparts, and thereafter, they could be expected to do the same job.

However, the limitation of this approach was apparent soon after the new regulatory regime was set in motion: The For-Profit institutions operate with a different set of rules and norms altogether, and serve a different kind of student population. To meet its mandate, QAA had to create a limited version of its review framework, presenting it something like a half-way house, to accommodate the For-Profit institutions, increasing complexity and defeating, in a way, the very goal of creating an unified accreditation framework for Higher Education. The For-Profit institutions, even the well-endowed ones like Greenwich School of Management, which is one the biggest recipient of the Student Loan Company money, fell short when they opted to go for the 'full' review with QAA. There may have been a number of reasons for coming up short, though it was interpreted as general lack of quality in For-Profits in the trade press (such as Times Higher Education); however, this further illustrates the requirement of a more informed discussion about what the For-Profits do and how they can play a part in the Higher Education sector.
 
In order to achieve an understanding, therefore, this essay would explore the differences between the Public, Not-For-Profit and For-Profit models, as only the understanding of such difference can help construct a picture of the For-Profit operations and critically explore how it can fulfil its public role. A review of literature, and further exploration based on author’s own experience, highlight three major themes, across which such differences can be studied:

Perception of Risk: For a For-Profit institution, the biggest risk is indeed the lack of demand, and therefore revenue and profits; for a public institution, a large number of which operate with some form of taxpayer guarantee, the risk is of failing to meet the requirements of public scrutiny. For Not-For-Profits, which has a greater exposure to public scrutiny but lower exposure to the pressures of growth compared to For-Profits, the risk perceptions are more akin to public institutions. These differing perceptions of risk define the organizational ethos and dictate operational priorities: The For-Profits are usually as obsessed with marketing and recruitment, and continuous growth, as the public institutions and Not-For-Profits will be with capacities, process flows, and record keeping. A For-Profit institution, which would see close correlation between profitability and just-in-time capacity creation, would usually struggle with a Quality Assurance System primarily based on capacity building.

What Teachers Do: There is also a fundamental difference between these different kinds of institutions in how they perceive teaching activities. The traditional Not-for-Profit institutions evolved out of teaching communities (or individual teachers), and most of the conversations around universities, notwithstanding the current bureaucratic avatar of a public university, are about academic freedom and community. However, For-Profits are industrial form of organizations where the teachers are, among others, tools of production. The usual just-in-time thinking would usually mean pre-dominance of non-tenured teachers on hourly contract, with attendant limitations on creativity and commitment. Treating teachers as resources, For-Profits operate to extract the teaching time as efficiently as possible, but so far, this meant botched application of scientific management techniques (because teaching is very unlike factory work, and more like performance art) into organizing teaching.

Despite the limitations of this teaching model, the For Profit advocates cite the growing cost and consequent unsuitability of the current model of teaching employed in the public institutions. In what should be treated as a paradox, many For-Profit institutions in Britain employ teachers moonlighting from the public universities: Often, this is what the For-Profit institutions will highlight to impress the Quality Assurance Agency and other regulators. However, this practice implies an indirect public subsidy to the For-Profit model, a fact the regulators have so far overlooked. The role of teachers in the For-Profit institutions therefore present a potent area of inquiry, with significant implications for public policy and student experience.


Educational Objectives: For-Profits often operate with the assumption that creation and delivery of knowledge can be separated, something completely antithetical to the founding faith of modern Higher Education. The allure of no-frills teaching, something that the institutions proudly proclaim and policy-makers directly or indirectly endorse, is strong, but this essentially changes the role of knowledge in Higher Education.

More paradoxically, the fact that teaching and knowledge creation can be separated is indeed at odds with the current business thinking, which indeed views knowledge as a commodity, but something that still must be produced and competed with: So, it is the production, preservation and dissemination of everyday knowledge, and turning every employee into a knowledge worker, is seen as the only way to survive and thrive in the current business climate. The schools therefore want to focus on teaching and deliver a fixed body of knowledge, whereas businesses believe that it is continuous production of knowledge that keeps them competitive.

The For-Profits claim to be employer-friendly and represent a more career-focused education. The regulators, operating within market paradigm, would usually see this as a strength of the For-Profits. However, this paradox of knowledge lies at the heart of For-Profit education. Many For-Profit institutions offer, in the words of a major Indian For-Profit institution,  'attitudes only' education, turning the whole student life into a consumer experience.


As the above observations suggest, there are important contradictions at the heart of the claims of the For-Profit institutions in terms of expanding educational capacity, being teaching centric and offering better instruction and equipping graduates better for a career. In the following paragraphs, this essay will explore the For-Profit Higher Education institutions along these three axes, and look in greater depth the evolution of the UK For-Profit institutions in each of these areas. Finally, and speculatively, a projection will be attempted to chart the course of future development of the sector. 
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This is an essay in progress, purported to be part of a longer work on For-Profits. I am posting this online to generate conversation and any feedback will be welcome.

 

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