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

- Theodore Roosevelt

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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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