Sunday, January 29, 2012

My Pursuit of Happiness

A friend complained, I don't know how to be happy. Point taken: If happiness is about being content, I surely show symptoms of being unhappy. To be fair, she wanted to make the point that I possibly had everything that one could reasonably want, and therefore, I should drop the anchor and try to achieve steady state. I tried to counter and justify myself, which is quite usual in such friendly arguments.

In the end, it became almost a religious argument, without invoking God. I should be happy with what I was given, and make the best of it, she contended. On the defencive as if I am accused of being too greedy or ambitious (growing up in suburban India before the liberalisation, I am not used to treating those emotions as virtuous), I was laying out an argument that I saw life as an one-off opportunity to change the world, and since I have not achieved this yet, I couldn't rest.

Though it may sound a bit crazy and overtly quixotic, it is exactly what I believe. In the end, she told me I was too much of a dreamer, something which lots of people told me before. I used to treat this as a compliment, but I am now getting older and started regarding it a problem. If I am granted a wish today, I would want to be more practical. But, it is one of those things - if I am practical, I should not expect wishes to be granted; Instead, I am trying to team up, in business ventures and other projects, with people who are my polar opposites, just to keep my optimism in check. In the end, however, I don't still want to give up my dreams to change the world, at least till I get so old that I can't do anything anymore.

However, reflecting back on the discussion, I know I was making the wrong point. The question was happiness, not what I do in life. While I can't rest till I feel I am doing something meaningful, it does not necessarily imply that I am not happy. It is just that my happy state does not preclude hard work or risk - just think of those who feel happy with dinghy sailing - and it certainly does not look like resting. Yes, I seem to want to go back to past, and be able to enjoy a winter morning sitting on the terrace of my home in Calcutta and would regard that as a perfect moment, but only if this is a moment in life and not the permanent state of my life. I shall consider that as perfect laziness, rather than perfect happiness. Instead, I have things to be done, miles to go before I sleep.

And, finally, I feel perfectly happy now. This is the answer I should have given to my interlocutor. She may have thought I am unhappy because I said I am at a point of departure now, and started to think seriously what I do next. But my point was missed: I may not continue to work for the same employer for too long, but I have made my choice - to build a global higher education organisation - and feel perfectly happy with that. It may not be possible to achieve what I want to do in the current workplace, and I must look beyond, but this does not mean any conflict or lack of happiness: It just means that I must move on at some point of time.

I have done this before. In a way, my resume may look non-linear, I moved from job to job in every two to three years (the longest I did in one job is three and half years in my twenty year working life), but I can easily show all of those to be a part of one narrative. My ambition remained consistent: I wanted to see the world, I wanted to live a life full of intelligent conversations and exploration of ideas, and I wanted to do something which makes life better for people I served. This blog, written over six years now, has that same story written over and over again, as I moved through three different jobs: People who knew me from my school or college days would tell the same story. I shall claim that I have always been a perfectly steady state - a consistent pursuit of a singular goal - though this meant I had to do different things, learn different subjects and live in different countries.

In the end, then, here is my definition of happiness: Having a meaningful goal to live for, and being able to work towards it all my life. I can't complain - I have been able to do so for twenty years now without much disruption. And, above all, being able to define life with what I aspire to do, rather than where I work or what I own, is a blessing in itself. This is my pursuit of happiness: Being steadfast in the pursuit of a dream. Dreaming is an act of happy state of mind, I should have known.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Essays For A New Age: The End of Information Age?

Industrial age has long ended, the pundits proclaimed, and we live in the information age. Indeed, the world in perspective is downtown LA, not some remote areas of Congo, where some farming tools, if they could be afforded, would be a good idea. However, once the proclamation is printed in books legitimised by top publishers' logos and the authors credentials longer than their names, it must be believed. Further, that idea is already in vogue and typing these words on a remote computer hooked in some network, I seem to be voting affirmative with my action. However, one question remains though: It seems that history has indeed accelerated a bit too fast, and this information age, or network economy or whichever name one calls it, is precariously close to catastrophe just after it has barely began.

Call it the revenge of Congo, where children who would consider themselves lucky to have a decent meal a day and would not miss anything if the Information Age ends tomorrow: However, the Information Age is not just about cheap flow of data across the world, but the belief that everything is instantaneous and that the knowledge, subliminal in physical structures and human relationships, is the chief, or sole, source of value. This suits everyone better than the clunky Industrial Age conception that labour was the creator-in-chief of value: The new theory can make all lazy opportunists feel comfortable that knowing who to play, when to play and how to play the system actually make all the difference. But despite this fine logic, we seem to have reached the end of a paradigm, and the principles, which, in their short lifespan, spawned so much hope, look already limp and lifeless.

Because the sustainability of information age depended on us all being consumers. To strip production of value of its labour, we had to move to the idea of immediacy of production and consumption, and eventually consumption before production. This is further idolised with the economic doctrine of contribution-though-consumption, as long as we spend, we are doing our bit towards collective well-being (bankers do more for the economy than the poor, indeed). Indeed, as long as we consume, everything works smoothly: We pay first and then labour in the servitude. We don't create value through labour any more, we merely catch up. Consumption also establishes the New World in its entirety, where knowing is everything: At the level of mere mortals, it is about checking out Groupon, and at another level of power, it is about knowing, and thereby setting, the rules with which the societies are run. 

This is what Zygmunt Bauman would call the Society of Consumers, as opposed to the Society of Producers, where consumption used to be deferred until someone has really earned it. The first English sentence I learnt - Cut your coat according to your cloth - is a relic of a bygone era, the Economists would say, when cloth production was limited. However, the Economists, who miss all metaphors except for their own, should explain that you can wear a cloth made out of imaginary cloth, and everyone would still marvel till someone has the courage to call the bluff.

The bluff that is - there is no cloth, but just credit. The idea is simple and not unlike those Athenians who simply sold themselves into slavery because they couldn't handle the responsibility of being independent. But it was nice too - one could buy a lovely house, a luxury car, a few trips abroad - all against a lifetime commitment of compliant labour. The producers were problematic: They always demanded a fair share for their troubles. But we are all consumers now: We are already signed up to do a life in pursuit of what we have already consumed.

The problem seems to be that this removes any limit, previously the cloth or limits of what one could produce, from what one may seem to want, and any ethical obligation, the hard work talk for example, to work for what you want. The human civilisation, painstakingly built over thousands of years, suddenly seems to reach a mothball moment, an ideological freeze where the deception is so widespread that truth seems not to be true anymore. In short, the ground is ripe for theorization for another age, one that will strive to reconcile the moral ironies of information age celebrations and may help our thinking move forward.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Would Private Universities save the world?

In a recent article enlisted in Harvard Business Review's Audacious Ideas, Karan Khemka and Parag Khanna passionately makes the case for private investment in Higher Education and argues that expansion of the For Profit universities will bring growth back by being the best way 'to build a skilled labour force, create more jobs, broaden the consumer base, and ultimately sustain economic growth'. Apparently aimed at investors, they also list out why Higher Education could be good business: Its negative working capital requirements (because students pay upfront), steady and predictable revenue (because most students should stay full duration of the programme), High barriers to entry (regulation, land and capital), prices that rise faster than inflation, and more demand than supply, all the traits that are in evidence abundantly in an economy like India.

Apparently grounded in the market realities of a fast growing economy like India, all of these make sense. College is, despite soaring debts and reduction of public funding, seen as a sure ticket to middle class life, and most people want to pursue it now. With Gross Enrollment Ratio at 13% to 15%, Indian Higher Education is clearly ripe for a huge expansion in capacity. Admittedly, India is still one major country where public investment is expanding in education, but, as many observers point out, this is unsustainable and would soon come to an end. Besides, the tone of next generation Higher Education experiments worldwide has now been irreversibly set in Britain, with the most abrupt 'cultural revolution' in Higher Education than ever has been, with a near total withdrawal of public support to the HE sector almost overnight. The demand-led transformation of Higher Education in emerging economies, and the supply-side shocks administered in Britain, have already altered the dynamics of the sector: Private For-Profit Higher Education is all set to take over the world, and this 'audacious idea' may be only stating the obvious.

But, in a sense, the audacity of the proposed idea lay elsewhere. The authors suggest that the emerging economies need a different educational model, and For Profit universities are better suited to provide such a model. The central idea is that the emerging economies need none of the liberal arts fluff that great Western universities were based on, and the emerging market schools should focus on economically relevant areas of curriculum, technology and business, and produce skilled graduates that can power the economy. 

This is not new, but a rather discredited idea. There is a limit to how many Engineering graduates one can produce, before the economy runs out of creative capacity to find them meaningful jobs. The liberal arts and the humanities are also crucial in maintaining a democratic society - narrow technocratic societies have already proved to be dangerously dictatorial in history. The only way to rationalize the 'new model of Higher Education' propounded here is to accept a model of dependent development in perpetuity, where the creative capacity and leadership would be supplied by the Western economies and the emerging economies will need to supply the hands that do the work. 

This is, in my opinion, the central, implicit, audacity of the idea. The problem is that this can't be undone. The idea of For-Profit university stands on quick return for its graduates, something that can be achieved, or hoped to be achieved, through skill-based curriculum than liberal arts, which has a more subtle pay-off. In short, one can't possibly make profit out of a For-Profit doing something like liberal arts. But to deny that it is even needed is indeed audacious. 

This is also why For-Profit, while they play an important role in Higher Education, may not save the world.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Everyday Subversiveness

Grand narratives are dead is the great grand narrative of our age. It is the big idea that there is no big idea, just little moments. I subscribed to this even before I came across the post-modernists, when I started loving the moments, seeing everything as temporal, momentary. I know the post-modernists now: I almost believe in them.

But one grand narrative I continued to believe in. Perhaps, that was my biggest failing. That one can change the world. It was one of those quixotic ambition that allowed me to take my mind off the trivial, the fact that one has to live a normal life, settle down, have a mortgage and die afterwards. The rhythm of middle class life were directly opposed to my sole source of hope, that one can imagine and bring about a different world. This is why I never settled: I left once I felt too comfortable. I became a traveller.

Life is catching up with me, though. Sometimes, I ridicule the dreams I am having. I wish I could be more practical. I wish I bought a house, settled down in life - just like other people. Or, may be there is a better way of saying this: I accept my limitations. I accept that I shall never play cricket for the Indian national team, and can see I was never good enough. I know that I shall never be a Prime Minister or a President, as I ardently believed I shall be. Things like that, and I have started accepting that I have been fairly foolish all the time. When I told girls I dated about my ambitions, they mostly ran away: I thought they were impressed.

Maturity shall we call it: This gives me a perspective of a different kind. Despite these frailties, one can still change the world. Because it is your world, my world. The moments that I loved are not universal moments, but moments that we own: Own not in the sense of property, as with most things in life, but own in the sense of enjoyment. I can shape them. Just as Michel De Certeau suggested, I can choose to take the peculiar path from my office to the railway station, which allows me a momentary sight of a sunset, or I can just be a bit playful in office, practising my humour if such a thing can be done, just to keep myself entertained. I can write this blog, indulging myself to be a serious writer, without having to know whether or not anyone would like to read what I think about the world. Or, in the middle of an office day, using a few moments granted for lunch time, completely unplanned, I can wander around into an old cemetery reserved for atheists and sit by the place where Daniel Defoe was buried tomb-less, and admire his rather plain tomb which was built with the donations from children from all over England many years after his death. Yes, that moment, I remember my journey began much earlier than I actually ever travelled, from the childhood reading of Robinson Crusoe and growing up with the ambition of being a ship-wreck.

That settles it for me. There needn't be a conflict of grand narratives and our daily subversiveness. In a sense, great revolutions are an aggregation of these little moments, moments when we feel free and behave as such, all tipping over a point. All things build up, little by little. As Theodore Zeldin claims, people always changed the conversation their rulers wanted them to have. It is the power of doing little things, even as everyone seems to be moving about as a soulless pawn of a great machine, our moments of being ourselves, that keeps the grand narrative of changing the world alive: We indeed change the world, one moment at a time.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

McDonaldization of British Higher Education

Dr Rahul Choudaha writes about the franchising trends of the British, Australian and American Higher Education on his blog. This presents two interesting pieces of statistics: First, the British HE classroom is far more global than the American (15% international students in the system compared to USA's 3%,), and the second, a fact which is becoming apparent now, that more international students study for a British Higher Education degree outside Britain than inside it. In fact, this is a recent trend: In 2010, for the first time, the number of offshore students exceeded the number of students studying for British Higher Education degrees in Britain. However, the number is large: Out of a total 814, 495 international students studying for a British qualification, 408,685 was offshore, which is about half the number (slightly higher). Australia, despite a higher proportion of international students in country (21% as opposed to Britain's 15% mentioned earlier), has less students studying offshore (31% of total international students compared to Britain's 50%+).

The success in British degrees delivered offshore has come with the opening of international campuses, first in Malaysia and Hong Kong, then China, and now spreading into other countries like Sri Lanka and India. Much of this expansion has come through franchising, where a local partner puts up the money and infrastructure, and the British university allows them to deliver their degree through validation or franchising (a distinction I shall return to soon), though some of the Malaysian campuses have been funded by the universities themselves. However, this successful commercial model raised many concerns, primarily from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which seems to have grown a dislike of the validated programmes, first admonishing University of Wales (UoW) and then Leeds Metropolitan University over the last summer, for their activities in Thailand and India respectively. Dr Choudaha also points to an article by Phiip Altbach, where he talked about 'McDonaldization' of Higher Education, primarily referring to the franchise model so favoured by British universities.

Dr Altbach has been an astute observer of the global growth of Higher Education, and indeed, of its fastest growing phenomenon, the For Profit sector. His observations are right on the money: The franchise model, which will only grow further as getting a student visa to Britain becomes more difficult (the Home Office reported a 13% drop in 2011, and a more dramatic drop is surely on its way as the visa regime further tightens in April 2012). His observation that while taking out a McDonald's franchise (and for that matter, any good brand name franchise) cost a significant amount of money, in terms of infrastructure and franchise fees (hovering around $1 Million), the university franchising is very cheap, requiring only some rented space and some fees and expenses paid to the university.

Here, an important distinction must be made to the two formats of franchising the British universities have done so far. One model is franchising, where a degree, offered by the university, is also delivered by the franchise partner in an offshore location. The university sets the curriculum and the term dates (though there may be some flexibility subject to discussion), oversees the delivery of the programme through 'link tutors' (members of the faculty who do the academic coordination) and sets or approves the assessments. The university also sets the admission criteria, though these are usually accompanied with a catch-all 'widening participation' clause, which allows the partner to take in people who may otherwise be left out. In most cases, the university sets a minimum number per course, but more often than not, they forget to put any maximum. 

There are indeed some inherent limitations of this franchising model. This is what Dr Altbach primarily refers to in his McDonaldization essay: This model is about literally delivering courses what the university delivers in their home country. One could argue that this is the essence of the offering, that offshore students want to do a British degree. However, questions can be raised how much value a degree set in local context of Britain (with its attendant readings and assessments) offer to the students studying at an offshore location, often in a surrounding much unlike the university and taught by people steeped in a different cultural environment.

Some of these issues are addressed by the other model of validation, which has found favours with some universities. With this model, university assumes the role of quality assurance and oversight of the programme, but the curriculum is written by the partner, often contextualised to their local environment and built with inputs from local tutoring team. The partner sets the term dates and admission criteria in discussion with the university, and can propose various Accreditation of Prior Learning (APL) arrangements. The university has oversight of the delivery, but are more closely involved in assessments, whereby any assessment carrying more than a certain weight is approved by university appointed external examiners and overseen by a moderator. All award boards are also attended by external examiners and moderator, and decisions and reviews are made through Joint Study Boards (JBS).

In many a sense, this is what Dr Altbach alludes to in his essay, as a model akin to Intercontinental Hotels. This has worked very well for many partners and universities, and the University of Wales (UoW) made millions out of this model (despite pricing themselves wrongly) before it all came tumbling down as they lost control over the channel. The problem is, while validation is possibly a better model for international expansion, with various scandals, QAA has taken a deep dislike of this: With UoW suddenly admitting guilt and overturning the validation model in favour of franchising (which will come in play in September 2013), and Leeds Met getting lambasted for their validation activities by QAA, the universities are expected to move away from this model altogether. So, despite this being a more potent form of arrangement, we are likely to see a greater growth of franchising, and faster McDonaldization, than there should have been.

This is problematic, because the universities tend to be quite bad at franchising in the first place. Apart from their inability to set the qualifying criteria for the partners right and failure to protect their brands when a partner fails to do their part (For example, the TASMAC failure, which I wrote about before), they are quite bad at setting the prices and adapting to a risk-based, shared revenue model. Usually run by respective faculties and their staff members, the franchising operations of the universities are unable to navigate the business realities of the franchised operations, have very little ideas or concerns about the partner's commercial model and financial exposure, and very little resources are dedicated in monitoring the partner's activity or to support the partner with training or information. Finally, most British universities, despite their student mix, are surprisingly outdated in their world view, and view most of the other countries with a sort of colonialist's perception, which leads them to overlook important trends and opportunities.

So, what we get in the end is an inefficient model, but with all the problems that a successful 'McDonaldization' will mean. George Ritzer's four aspects of McDonaldization of society mar the McDonaldization of education, too: Efficiency, defined in a very specific sense at the expense of everything else, gets defined as student completion, resulting in the creation of a degree sausage machine; Calculability comes in the form of the invoice that the university sends out, the more the merrier even if there is no space to sit in the classrooms; Predictability takes away the joys of learning and exploration, so much a core proposition to undergraduate student experience, and is delivered in terms of standard, but out of context, readings and assessments; and finally, control is exercised by the University and its representatives, often a faculty member not fit to teach on the University's home programmes and who loves his/her curry and yearly shopping trips to exotic locations, to ensure that 'heathens' are following the rules. Quality and the experience are bandied about, but are conveniently kept vague. 

It is a strange success. We need more transnational partnerships in education, not less. We need opening of the minds and building of the bridges. But this needs to be a two way process, not one. We need a radically different approach than McDonaldization: Not a standard model implanted elsewhere where people will pay for it, but an eclectic adaptation of the best things of British education for the culture and context of the host country. It makes interesting reading to see how the Founding fathers of the first American colleges, Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Princeton, followed the Oxbridge model in their architecture, but rejected the faculty-run model and built a strong central administrative control and a powerful Presidency. They contextualized model and created the foundations of a Higher Education system which will become the best in the world. Indeed, this needs to start with the recipients, with a debate in host countries what kind of education they need. The British HE has much to offer to the rest of the world; the McDonaldization is only undermining its value.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

India 2020: A New Future for Kolkata

I wrote a note on Kolkata, the city I come from and would always belong to, in July 2010. Since then, the post attracted many visitors and comments, mostly critical, as most people, including those from Kolkata, couldn't see any future for the city. My current effort, some 18 months down the line, is also prompted by a recent article in The Economist, The City That Got Left Behind, which echo the pessimism somewhat. 

I, at least emotionally, disagree to all the pessimism: After all Kolkata is home and I live in the hope of an eventual return. Indeed, some change has happened since I wrote my earlier post: The geriatric Leftist government that ruled the state for more than 30 years was summarily dispatched,  and was replaced by a lumpen-capitalist populist government. Kolkata looked without a future with the clueless leftists at the helm; it now looks without hope.

However, apart from bad governance, there is no reason why Kolkata had to be poor and hopeless. It sits right inside the Commodities belt in India, and should have benefited from the competition and rising prices for commodities in the world market. It could have been India's gateway to the East Asia and China, the most exciting region in the world. As Robert Kagan points out, this is also the most sustainable of big Indian cities, with ample supply of drinkable water: Assuming that in near future, water will become more valuable than oil, Kolkata indeed has a lot to go for it.

Then, there is its people. Though it lagged behind the rest of India in terms of mass Higher Education, it still boasts about its elite institutions and their very high quality graduates, who, alas, mostly leave the state afterwards due to lack of opportunities. The usual complaints that Bengalis are lazy and unimaginative, made many times over as a reaction to my earlier post, do not hold as the ones migrating into other cities and countries fare perfectly well, and go on to set up businesses and create wealth and opportunities. So, looking rationally, Kolkata's poor state of affairs is largely of its own making, rather than circumstances.

One can and should indeed blame the left front government for the state of affairs. However, it is too cliched to repeat the accusation that they drove the industry away. However, I shall ascribe the decline of Kolkata to the culture of defeatism that they promoted for their political gains. This was a perfect cocktail,  their political line for a large part of their thirty year reign was that Kolkata was poor because the Central government, the government in Delhi, discriminated against its interests, and the victim mentality of the Bengali aristocrats which lost its landholdings in the partition and the refugees from East Pakistan who never got a decent settlement because the Muslims actually never left West Bengal as they did in Punjab. Also, there was truth in that claim: Kolkata never got the benefit of its access to mine and mineral belt the way it would have if it was not part of India. It is an accusation similar to the one Alex Salmond is making for the case of independence of Scotland, and like the Scottish independence, it was made too late in the day. Apart from the merits of this claim - minerals lie in neighbouring states and Kolkata is the conduit for these to reach the global market - this translated into a sort of defeatism that the government of the state and the people themselves couldn't do anything about the decline. It might have been good politics at the time, and allowed the leftists a long stay at the helm with low accountability, but this thinking proved counter-productive in imagining a future of the state away from the commodities, and sapped the energies of the City and its people.

Unsurprisingly, this new government, which came to power in May 2011, followed the same political lines as their predecessors, and blamed Delhi for everything that is wrong and could not be ascribed to their predecessors in the State. This stance is disingenuous, as the party in power in the state is also part of the governing coalition in Delhi. However, the political allure of such 'blame others' rhetoric is proving hard to let go. The current government is keen on hyping up the Bengali identity as much as possible, promoting and idolising the regional culture, as a part of their political strategy of playing hot-and-cold with the Indian union.

This is precisely the wrong thing to do, I shall claim. The starting point in moving Kolkata forward is to believe that Kolkata has a future. And, that its own people and its government need to deliver this promise of the future. The prosperity and success that we dream of is unlikely to come about as a handout from Delhi, and therefore, it is best to stop fussing about it. There is no point pondering over the unfair terms of trade any more: In an open, competitive global economy, these policies will matter less and less. It is best to look inside and resolve the internal challenges, the key reason for Kolkata's decline, before it is too late. I shall point to three challenges/ opportunities that come to mind.

First, Kolkata, and West Bengal, is more elitist than most other Indian states. Its polity is dominated by the urban upper caste middle classes, and so are its best institutions and government jobs. Despite the land reforms under the left rule, possibly their best achievement, Kolkata's society has changed very little. Indeed, a number of upper caste educated intellectuals left Kolkata in the last thirty years precisely because of this social change - an invasion of sorts by the rural masses - but yet this was not deep enough. In a way, the Left Front government created a sort of rural prosperity through land reforms, but failed, eventually, to provide the next step - to urban comfort and modern prosperity - to the beneficiaries, and eventually became a victim of its own past success. The current government represents this ongoing struggle for Kolkata's soul: It has been put in power by the force of rural disenchantment with the lack of social and economic mobility, and was also seen, at least for the moment, as the saviour by the middle classes which ran away during the left rule. This should have been an opportunity: However chaotic, this is the moment when a coalition can be built between the disaffected rural youth and the English speaking gentry. A social revolution changing the antiquated power equations which kept Kolkata and West Bengal poor seemed to have started during the Left rule, but it is time to make another new beginning.

Second, related to the above, is of Education. I shall argue that the only job a government in Kolkata needs to do is to create and maintain an education system in line with the changing social agenda and global economic realities. The left front government systematically under-invested in the state's Middle tier schools and colleges (which served the urban middle class) and tried to invest in primary and secondary education for the rural population instead. A good thing at the start, it soon degenerated into a morass of mediocrity as the leftist policy makers failed to move on and provide the next level opportunity to its own beneficiaries in the rural schools. And, besides, the under-investment in education for middle classes meant that Kolkata missed out on India's service sector revolution. Indeed, it had a number of elite institutions which served the very best of the urban intelligentsia, but these students were soon leaving the state afraid of being caught in the 'invasion by the villagers', politicisation of the academia, declining industry scenario and perverse effects of the affirmative action in government recruitment. This is the biggest mess inherited by the current government, and they have already proved themselves completely unable, and unwilling, to confront the challenges. The policies pursued so far were the inverse of the left front policies, rightward turn to correct the leftward turn, but there is little evidence that they can ever build the meritocracy, openness and transparency that can empower an education system fit-for-purpose in a newly industrialising state playing the catch-up. The education system is broken and needs to be re-imagined, which is an opportunity, and new partnerships, between public, private and social organisations, have to be built. There is nothing that the current government has done so far prove that they understand the challenge or serious about it.

Third, the state has to look beyond commodities and be perceptive about the opportunities arising around it. The state, and the city of Kolkata, is surrounded by one of the poorest region of the world. National boundaries do not matter much when people are hungry, and Kolkata's slums were overcrowded and disease ridden and full with people from Bangladesh, Bihar, Orissa, Nepal, Indian north-east and indeed its own villages. A rather shocking recent statistic, however, points to an opportunity: In the recent years, Kolkata's population has declined. This decline is marginal, but hugely significant: How can a sprawling city in the middle of a desperately poor neighbourhood have a declining population? This is indeed less about Kolkata's decline, and more about the new-found peace, stability and prosperity in the neighbouring states and countries. All of a sudden, Orissa is prosperous, Bihar is an example of governance, Nepal is peaceful and Bangladesh is looking into the future. If things go well, India may soon have transit rights through Bangladesh, opening up the Indian North-East. And, the most dramatic change in the region is brewing in Burma, the biggest country in South-East Asia (and the second most populous): There is a slow but sure march to that country opening up to the world in the next few years time. All this is a huge opportunity for Kolkata and its people: Of trade, of jobs, of building bridges and opportunities. They don't have to live off the mines and minerals produced in neighbouring states and by extracting the surplus from landless peasants; opening up the mind and looking East provides a great opportunity. There is no reason to slump into despair for the mistreatment from Delhi, but as the power of the world shifts from the Middle East to Asia Pacific, it is time for Kolkata to shape up for a new role and be the guiding spirit for rest of the India into the region. Indeed, the current government is caught up in its own web and have little imagination, but this would be an opportunity for them to lose. 

So, surely, I see a new future for Kolkata: A magical, art deco city reimagined in the new festive lights of creativity and imagination, prodded by a new education system unleashing the new energies released by the people surrounding the city as well as from its inside, powered by new enterprises focused on the opportunities arising all around it. The city is sitting right in the middle of the most exciting opportunities arising in the world: Should we fritter this away just because we can't govern ourselves?

Saturday, January 07, 2012

India 2020: How To Win Friends

Try telling any Indian that nationalism is a dated ideology and they would think you are completely insane: True, nationalism is alive and well in India. Indeed, South Asian region is possibly the most nationally conscious in the whole world now. Follow its newspapers, television, various proclamations of political leaders or the usual dinner table chatter, and one gets to see a nationalism of extremely sensitive variety, often brandished and easily offended.

One can count this as a huge achievement. Churchill's observation that India was no more a country than the equator was true at the time of its pronouncement, a mere hundred years ago. The British empire walked into India virtually unnoticed because there was, to be honest, no India in any sense: They traded with various Nabob's territory and bought the empire over a few years. One can argue that India was discovered, somewhat, by the dismemberment of its territory, which every Indian now resents to, and with the creation of Pakistan. In a sense, not only Pakistan was born out of a negativity to the concept of India; modern India was born as a reverse image of what Pakistanis imagined.

But that seems a long way away, at least now. Effectively, an India was imagined and sculpted, its thousands of years of History remoulded with a new imagination and even its Gods rediscovered in a new form. That's usual with nationalism. What Ashok's roads, Akbar's armies and British tax codes couldn't achieve, Bollywood movies on Television and Cricket (till the recent debacles, one may argue) achieved within a few short years. This is an India both in denial and a counterclaim of its own history, forever in search of its rightful place in the world.

This India is deeply disturbing to its neighbours, as they were undergoing their own nationalist transformation. From a self-effacing Bengali nationalism in Bangladesh to almost technocratic pride in Pakistan, to the search of Sinhala identity in Sri Lanka and a new secular Nepal unhinged from its King, the whole region seems to be deeply obsessed with what may be called, with justification, an European disease. The world, for these nations, seemed to be defined by a few arbitrary lines drawn by some colonial grandee rather than the nature: It is a race to prove that the countries that exist must have always existed.

Nationalism is always about redefining the past and we have already paid the price once in Europe. It seems that the game is addictive and we can't just get out of it. There is every possibility that South Asia will become nasty. The competition between neighbours are always there, but also a general dislike for India and Indians, as a regional bully and its attitude that they are the only real 'country' and rest are just there. The problem with nationalism is that everyone thinks the same and claims to be authentic.

The problem with India is that this does not help its search for rightful place. As the Second most populous nation on earth, it wants to be on global top table, at least wherever the Chinese get an invitation. But, the trouble is, it can't even get out of its own backyard. It behaves that narcissistic lady who spend so much time in front of the mirror that she can't go to the party. When it claims that it should be consulted in world affairs, its failure to get along well with its neighbours come to haunt it.

One would wonder why, with so many intelligent leaders, India still can't get over it. One reason is that intelligence does not help solve problems arising out of self-obsession, and Indian polity is sort of self-obsessed. It is waiting for the world to recognise its greatness: Alas, no one other than those trading in Indian bonds has any time for that.

So, one should now make a start. The trouble is that this start must be made by moving to exactly the opposite direction than we were moving so far. Don't punish Pakistan by not trading with them, but just go and open the borders and let the goods flow. That would be the undoing of the ISI lot, really: The Generals can't keep inciting the hatred if there is nothing to hate. If one reads Indian customs codes, one wouldn't think India is a great power (or aspires to be) and Bangladesh is just a small country neighbouring it. It looks like the opposite, that India is terrified that Bangladeshi goods will flood the market and Bangladeshis will drive Indian workers out of work. How exactly?

India, if it has to achieve its imagined greatness, have to get out of hole that it has dug for itself. As the big country, it is up to us to start the respect culture: We respect the others, we shall get respect. And armies don't win friends: They can merely keep enemies away. So, lining up Jawans on the border is not the way to build a great country: It is merely behaving like an insecure and quarrelsome neighbour. I think before India start thinking that it should have a role to play in solving world's problems, it needs to solve its own and of its neighbours. That Indian leader, who does not see Pakistan as a threat, but an opportunity to build a productive partnership (as with the others in the region), will take the country to the next level.

As always, we wait.

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Uses of Scepticism

Finally, the partying over, and I am back to work.

I have to get used to writing dates with '2012' at the end, but that always takes a bit of time. But there is a sense of a new start: 2011 was one year I could not wait to see the end of. This isn't new that I am seeking a fresh start, a break, both of the lucky sort and with the past. That, indeed, is the spirit of New Year, when the world is assumed to have magically changed with the stroke of Midnight Hour, and, admittedly, with some expensive fireworks sponsored with public money. However, this year, I start with a sense of beginning, and ending, a certain wish of seeing things through an year. That is sort of new for me.

I now know that I want to be in Higher Education. The career change decision I took several months ago seems to be working and I enjoy what I do. I see prospects here, both in Britain and elsewhere, and I believe this suits my temperament and skills. I have now worked hard to get started in private Higher Education, though the journey was full of roadblocks and extremely challenging. However, I have accumulated experience and knowledge of the sector, and observed the practises, both good and bad, first hand. I now feel reasonably prepared to move forward.

While I am convinced that we need more provisions, and not less, for Higher Education, I am not entirely sure that For-Profit, in the narrowest sense of the term, is the right model to build a successful education business. Indeed, having observed India's insistence on not-for-profit education and what it entails, I am equally certain that bureaucratic oversight of how much surplus an institution is making is a recipe for disaster: The Indian government surely has to understand that it can't force people to be charitable. However, I believe the assumption that Profit maximisation by firms will automatically lead to greater social good is a discredited assumption: Friedman didn't see that the businesses wield enormous power over policymakers and they would do anything to control the rules of the market, block new entrants and shortchange customers, and thereby maximise profits without taking into account full social costs of their activity. Because of this, For Profit may not be the right model for businesses like Education, where the social costs may be huge and long term.

This is the line of thinking I start 2012 with, and wish to spend time on. While my aspiration is to build or work for an education business which shares Google-like ambitions of changing the world, I am not sure that could be possible within education, where the competition is less fierce. One can't allow the rules of the market in education: Educational institutions failing may not be a good idea and can have devastating effect on communities around them. And, since, one only have to operate within a relatively controlled space, this is a sure recipe for inefficiency and, with the willing and all-powerful bureaucrat in charge, corruption. I have indeed worked for at least one For Profit company which took education seriously and did a very good job at it, but I have also seen it lose its way eventually as the pressures of growth became enormous (as the faceless millions of retail investors demand appreciation of their portfolios), and used the walled garden of education business to try to ramp up and diluted their offering: It is the cautionary tale that always remains in my mind.

However, this represents a big problem for all. If For Profit model does not work, because there isn't really a market in education, and the age-old, monastic system of education, as embodied at the heart of the modern public universities, is useless in meeting the new demands of mass Higher Education, what is the solution? The governments simply can't keep up with the demands for status, livelihood and knowledge that their own economic priorities, of allowing social mobility and creating consuming and production habits fit for modern marketplace, seem to create: They are hoping that private capital will solve this problem. But it is a well acknowledged fact that this model isn't working too, and we must soon find another, or face a social backlash of the most severe kind. I have chosen to pursue the exploration: My theme for 2012 and beyond seems to have been set.

One thing I know is that there is no easy answer. And, in cases such as this, a dose of scepticism, rather than my characteristic optimism, is helpful. Indeed, there is a point in keeping faith on human inventiveness and knowing that we will solve the problems if we allow enough time to pass. However, one can't just sit and wait, as there will be social strife, broken dreams and wasted lives, as we see all around us: I see it on a daily basis at work. Accepting no easy solution and keep looking is possibly the best thing I can do. And, this, rather than anything else, prepares me for a long ad arduous journey in 2012, rather than any feeling that I have already done what I needed to do.

In a way, the growing realisation that we must look elsewhere and find a better model for education defines what I do in 2012: Not just move forward with my own plans to create a Higher Education institution, but also to connect globally with the intent to learn. I have always wanted to be involved in research and writing: I am hopeful by the end of the year, I would be aligned to these activities more than I am currently. My optimism helps me move forward, but hopefully scepticism about conventional thinking will help me keep the directions right.

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How To Live

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

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

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

- T S Eliot

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