Saturday, June 09, 2012

Going Forward, Going Backward: My Next Life

Two years into a career in Higher Education, it is time for me to take stock.

I have been working in education for last twenty years, starting with computer education in India, but also spending time in e-learning, management training, vocational education and finally, English language learning. It is in the course of my previous job, which involved setting up English Training and Vocational Education outfits in different countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, I became convinced that Higher Education is the next 'killer app', the 'thing' that can improve lives of people and create prosperity and progress. It was simple demography plus productivity kind of realisation, and travelling around Asia is the best way to see the scale of the opportunity and the scale of the challenge: That's exactly what I did.

It was a no-brainer that I left my job to take the circuitous way into Higher Education. Britain, with its predominantly publicly funded higher education and a distinct way of doing it, isn't the ideal place to start thinking about innovations in Higher Education for an emerging mass market. So, I did three things: I started reading American books, enrolled myself in one of Britain's top universities to study Higher Education and went to work with one of the British private sector colleges. It was like three parallel lives together: The Americans indeed built a country on the strength of a Middle Class powered by Higher Education (a model rest of world seemed to want to follow), and saw Higher Education as a great enabler of the economic productivity, a message, having spent most of my life in commercial education space, I could identify with. However, my studies, in University College London, alongside colleagues from British Academia and the Anglican Church, centred around an ideal of Higher Education modelled around the primacy of the great tutors and free exploration of knowledge through reading around the area and critical engagement, a wonderfully stimulating experience, but greatly dissimilar to the American model driven by clear end objectives and clever design. Finally, at work, the real muddy waters of international education, where a sprinkling of bright and ambitious students jostled with, and mostly got crowded out by, a great multitude of ambitious but less academically inclined students who had chosen the study route to immigrate and seemed to have their priorities shaped that way: This is where the ideal of free exploration and clever instructional design meet its match, Higher Education as a commodity, and I learnt a great deal sweating to engage students in critical discussion when all they wanted is exam questions and a degree in the end.

These two years was meant to be my apprenticeship. To figure out what works and what may not, to understand the nature of the demand and the challenges of the delivery, the values of a good education and the mechanics of money. If this was about developing a 'world view' of higher education, this effort has been quite successful. For example, I came from For-Profit education background but came to appreciate the need for alternative models for Higher Education. With first hand experience of the feeling when our business became other people's numbers, I learnt that a world view built around spreadsheets is as fragile as my native, 'tacit' optimism (in the end, I discovered Michael Polanyi). Being at the sharp end, I discovered the idiosyncrasies of the money men, and their arrogance that they must always be right because they have the money. This was a significant shift of perspective: Suddenly, innovation was no longer the preserve of education as a business, but I started seeing at as an integral part of the practise of a committed educator. This also became the background of my graduate work, which is meant to be a study of what the students want. With experience, I could go beyond the crass consumerism that I experienced in my classrooms, and saw its origin not in the intellectual limitations of the students, but the institutional expectations of higher education, carefully constructed through a multitude of means, including through the messages given out by the higher education sector as a whole and the individual colleges in particular. I came to see institutional power shifts - from the church and its trustees to the professional faculty to the fund managers and their appointed managers, all appropriating the power in the name of students. In a sense, I started as an incorrigible idealist and ended as an incorrigible idealist, but the journey was rewarding in building a more informed perspective.

As I move forward to the next phase of my life, which is, as it was meant to be, about setting up a Higher Ed institution which draws its reputation from the lives it transforms rather than pupils it rejects, one that is aligned to the future and carries the message of creative enterprise, rather than of the past, which was about being a company man (or a public servant) in context of a largely predictable world. This two year exploration of Higher Education was meant to be my enquiry into the art of the possible, of the practises of financing, organising and delivering higher education, which could be used in the enterprise that I wish to pursue. Indeed, there are many things I learnt not to do: Like Higher Education is indeed a matter of managing details, as well as having a bold vision, and lack of one can not be covered by excellence in another. I have learnt that the market driven financial model that works for other businesses may not work for Higher Education: The financial planning horizon of the investor must be in alignment with the financial cycle of the business. And, the trouble is, the financiers think, with usual arrogance, that they know the best in everything and can override the financial horizon of the business. The biggest task for an educational enterprise is to seek out an investor whose plans are in alignment: This is possibly why philanthropic organisations usually do a better, and profitable, job in Higher Education than the state-owned, or for profit ones do.
I am making today a break with the past, and a new start. I have done this before, taken on blind turns, and on each turn, life turned out better than before. This time, there is a difference: I have prepared for a while. I am hoping this will give me one thing I always truly wanted - a life of the mind; this may be less financially rewarding than what the other avenues promise, but if there is one thing I can be good at, be happy with doing, this may be it. Finally.

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