Monday, April 22, 2013

U-Aspire: Another Update

I travel again today, first to Bangladesh for a brief visit and then to India. It is all work, seven cities in about three weeks, with a schedule mostly packed with meetings and early morning or late evening flights. And, like all times, despite the heat, work pressure and slightly haphazard nature of this visit, I am still looking forward to go to India again.

Working with Indian Higher Education institutions is incredibly difficult, because most has nothing to do with Higher Education at all. There are two kinds of institutions i commonly come across in India: One, a set of institutions obsessed with their own prestige, so elitist that they would put put Oxford and Cambridge to shame; and, others, mostly private, who are not interested in the process of education at all, and mostly want to confer degrees for a price. To have a proper conversation about things such as curriculum or pedagogic approach is well beyond the interest of the latter; the former do not want to engage in a conversation about such trivial matters anyway because they already know all the answers. For me, with my own obsession about creating a different, global, new and innovative education model, sitting through both types of conversations and being polite is nerve-wrecking.

So, my visits in India almost as excruciating as a somewhat choosy dating ritual, an unending search for people who are interested in conversation about education and willing to create an innovative model. Indeed, I have had a lucky streak last time, meeting up with a group of people in different cities who are educators, who have no time for the snobbery of the privileged institutions, and who are genuinely seeking ways to deliver better and more meaningful education. I was enthused, and did indeed think that the Indian Higher Education is finally changing, because, if nothing else, the students are voting with their feet and making it a more demanding business.

However, while this is true and the sector is poised for a revolutionary change (and particularly so if the Government steps back and gets rid of the various useless regulatory constraints that stymies the sector), there were always people committed to better education; just that in the middle of the overall chaos, they were marginalised, their appeals for sanity and meaning were largely obscure. I am getting lucky because the nature of our proposition makes the people who wish to talk to me is a bit of a self-selecting group. Though our plan is to strike a partnership with a good British university eventually and offer their degrees through the technology-enabled globally collaborative learning as we are doing now, I am somewhat glad that we are not offering that right now. Otherwise, I shall have a Groucho Marx problem of a great magnitude: We wouldn't want to sign with an institution which would want to sign up with us.

Currently, however, what we are talking about needs understanding, patience and commitment to make sense: It is nothing like an open-and-shut proposition like selling a British degree. So, the three institutions we have signed heads of terms with, and the other seven or eight we are talking to, the starting point has been to explore the possibilities of offering something new and valuable to their students, something that prepares them for hyper-competitive, hyper-global environment that they have to live and work within. Indeed, for a dating ritual, finding so many suitors within a short trip isn't a bad outcome.

However, a great believer of the law of averages, when I travel this time, I am not going anywhere new. I would rather stick to the people who we got as partners and develop a meaningful proposition with them. I have learned the lessons of trying to get big fast: The start-up phase of any partnership needs more effort than one would like to believe, and if we stretch ourselves over with too many partners, it won't work. So, our focus now is very much narrowed - a few committed partners in India, connected to our partners in the rest of the world, which will allow us to build a worldwide community of professionals committed to an education based on our mantra: Creativity, Enterprise and Technology.

At the same time, our global configuration is coming in play: I shall spend a few days in Dhaka before I go to India, meeting a few institutions in Dhaka and Chittagong exploring whether we can work together. I believe I know Bangladesh well - indeed, I spent some of my best years of life in Dhaka and built professional connections and relationships there which I deeply value and would always want to preserve. It is a great opportunity for me to re-engage with Bangladesh all over again: This is one of Jim O'neill's N-11 countries, and despite the wrong reasons it seems to make news for, it has a thriving, well educated middle class and a huge young population. It's a democratic country (despite its political troubles) and its democracy seems to have survived all the scares and looks irreversible.

We are also on the verge of signing up with two institutions in China, which will make the proposition on the table fairly diverse. This is where I am scheduled to travel next, at the end of May. We have started various conversations in East Africa, East Europe, Middle East and Southern Europe, and hope several of these entities will sign up and start delivering our programmes by September. So, after this visit, my frequency of visits to India may reduce (particularly as we explore the possibilities of opening an office in India) and other engagements, particularly in China, may increase.

Of course, with all these institutions coming on board, we shall reach the level we can support with our current infrastructure. Next, our plan will be to set up (or acquire) a relatively small institution in London, which will run the same courses as our global network, and house the tutors and academic administrators as well as a research facility. When I come back from India, this is the next project I shall be on to. Of course, this means raising capital and recruiting new people, but the business is growing quickly and this is indeed a very good problem to have.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

International Students in British Universities: Time To Start Thinking

I participated in a discussion on International Students in British Universities yesterday, organised by the Society of Research in Higher Education (SRHE) Policy Network. This was at the London Metropolitan University, which is where Policy Network events always happen: However, the university being at the eye of the storm of the immigration debate over the last few months, the event assumed a particular, if unspoken, significance. As usual, it was very well organised - one tends to meet very interesting people and gets to hear perspectives never previously thought of - and presented a friendly and open environment for everyone, a fairly mixed audience, to participate.

This post is not so much about what was discussed. I am in no position to write any comprehensive summary, and have no intention to report on what was primarily an open and frank conversation. However, there are a number of broad issues that came up and are worth considering within an wider audience.

First, there was a clear concern for the sustainability of the British universities in its current form, with the rise in fees starting to hurt and international student numbers starting to fall. There is indeed a bit of a chain reaction being felt this year from Russell Group universities dropping their grade requirements, pushing the mid-ranked universities to drop theirs and so on and so forth, until the universities at the lower half of the league table have nowhere to go. Indeed, they are being squeezed by the new private providers, which are both cheaper and offer a no-frills education in the most popular subject areas, from the bottom. 

Second, despite the Tory rhetoric of getting the 'best and brightest', the International students are not going to come back. There is a worldwide competition for them, and the British universities are not particularly generous in rewarding them to come to Britain. Besides, the British universities are so used to the idea of international students as a source of revenue to cross-subsidise the 'home' students, whose fees are still capped, albeit at a higher level, that they are unable to adjust to the new paradigm of international students, wherein they would be welcome in the institutions to enable a different kind of knowledge creation, required, arguably, for this 'global' age.

Third, a point made very succinctly, if slightly counter-intuitively, at the meeting is that there is something inherently problematic how the whole sector viewed international students. This permeates into this talk about British universities becoming unsustainable as the international students stop coming, because they make up almost 20% of the total student numbers and 78% of the students in Taught Masters programmes. In fact, this mode of internationalisation has corrupted the sector's ability to compete at home, argue in one voice for public support, and, like American universities, find and create alternative sources of revenue on the face of disappearing state support. Besides, this has also spawned some of the most scandalous trends in the British academe, unrestrained franchising (leading to McDonaldization, as Phil Altbach argues), employment of agents who tend to find marginal students rather than 'the best and the brightest' and a management practice which cares less about academic values and integrity and more about marketing strategies to sell irrelevant education to unsuspecting and uninformed students.

In summary, this was an insightful session to look beyond the woes of UKBA induced curbs, and an opportunity to examine the practices of British Higher Ed sector in general with regard to institutional students. It is a rare opportunity, because the discussions in British academic circles are usually extremely inward-looking, almost in denial of the exciting possibilities and developments in the International Higher Education (the corruption through 'soft' international revenue being a very plausible explanation). Besides, discussions such as these explore adequately the rhetoric of market economy, which is pushing us into a 'market society' by stealth, introducing the logic of the market not just in areas where economically minded transactions bring best value, but also pervading practices which were traditionally in other domains. The possibility of 'Mode 3' knowledge creation, that of creation of knowledge not just with social capital but also with the investiture of transnational academics (and of students) at the heart of the process, is indeed perverted when the international students as seen as money-balls only to be served for fees and excluded promptly at the end of their 'course' is possibly a great illustration of how the market society thinking fails in imagination.   

Saturday, April 13, 2013

On Permanent Recession

It has now become a habit: A turn in the stock market, followed by as much excitement as possible on the TV and predictions on the newspapers that finally world economy is turning a corner. This then is followed by the trivial and the ordinary, politicians trying to claim that they are in charge of the future, daily chores submerging the global trends, an odd story of million dollar acquisitions breaking the gloom just a little - and then bad news returns in force, a triple-dip recession, an anaemic job market, another nation tottering on the edge of bankruptcy, a storied company shutting the door. This is followed by more claims from the politicians, that they are in charge of the future and what we need is more of the same, and then another cycle begins.

This seems like events, moving forward, but the truth is that we are getting used to our own stories, that we shall get over with this recession with a bit of time, that it is all our past folly and that of governments long voted out, and sins of a few wayward bankers, oblivious regulators and economists. Indeed, this is the best story we can get, and the only story we know. Our middle class sensibilities are deeply steeped with this illusion of stability and progress, and more of the same is the only thing we have learnt to want.

The only thing our policy-makers know to produce more of the same available is to keep supplying more money, cheaply. This has been going on ever since those fateful days our collective folly became apparent: The interest rates have been kept low by coordinated action of the money-makers, and markets were flooded with more money, quantitative easing being a common place euphemism. This has not worked (As The Economist reports 'The World of Cheap Money') and the economy has remained on the life support; hence, our cycle of short-lived euphoria and catastrophic downturns continue. 

However, I shall argue that the policies we have tried to adopt to get out of recession are making the recession more permanent. This hope of distant cure and the over-reliance on economic theories of the last century has allowed us to avoid looking at current social and economic realities. All the British governments, Labour and now Tory, have done when confronted with recession is to go out of their way to protect the politically powerful asset-owning classes, completely disregarding the market adjustments that are well under way. In summary, despite the persistence of boom-bust cycle in Britain, because its economy is so utterly housing dependent, no lessons have been learnt and the current Chancellor is again hoping to ride out of recession on the housing broom!

Indeed, style triumphs substance and words are spun to obscure evidence in mass media democracies, and so far, baby-faced politicians have managed to ascribe all the blames to their less attractive-looking predecessors; they have also managed to sell their own agenda on the hope for recovery into a distant future, and opted, instead of dealing with hard issues, to pussy-foot around with monetary manipulations. However, all the talk has hardly encouraged business creation, demand for investment goods or created social mobility that underpins the creation of a meritocratic economy.

The only way to get out - and everyone seems to know this already - is to allow a financial equivalent of a bloodbath, a period of massive adjustments where asset values are allowed to fall back at real levels. There are a number of problems with this, indeed: If they do, a number of banks will go bankrupt, because they have so many mortgages on their books: However, there is no real choice to get out of this mess without allowing asset prices to adjust to real levels. It will mean misery for everyone, in the short run and this is why no democratically elected leader is willing to do this. But, slowly, we are coming to a point where such a wind-down will be unleashed upon us, and it is somewhat better that it is managed through a policy initiative than a massive, unintended contraction.

Seen in a way, this is a Corn Law moment of the contemporary capitalism. Corn Law was the last grasp of the landowning aristocracy, which wanted to prohibit import of corn to keep prices high for their corn, and indeed rents high for their land; eventually they had to give in to the Makers, people who made industrial revolution possible, who wanted food prices to drop, so that wages could drop and industrial production could flourish. We have reached another such point, where the interests of the asset-owning classes, the ones the governments keep protecting (The British Chancellor, George Osborne, even calls them 'Wealth Creators' and successfully argued for reducing the top rate income tax in their favour), are at direct conflict with those who can create jobs and wealth, the challenger entrepreneurs, and unless the priorities shift from encouragement of asset owning to wealth creation, we shall remain sunk in a perpetual recession.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Towards a 'Global University'

U-Aspire is meant to be a 'Global University'. It is not unduly ambitious: This is indeed the plan. It is not just rhetoric: This is an article of faith in the founding team that a platform must be created to serve the groundswell of global aspiration. 

Higher Education is an innovator's paradise now, as most people seem to agree that it is broken. The Higher Ed sector collectively may not have made a smooth transition to post-industrial economy, and the need to do so is urgent. And, this transition will change everything: Not just the institutional structures and cost of delivery, which is a huge problem, but also the academic roles and cultures, and deeper embedded values. This isn't about public and private, whether or not Higher Ed should be a business, but really about finding a way to equip a global, aspirational, mobile generation, a generation of 'Makers', as Chris Anderson will call them.

In context, 'Global University' isn't a grand ambition, but just the minimal starting point. Because, for this generation, the generation that went to school after the full force of consumer Internet was unleashed, Global is default and national is exotic. Indeed, the nationally funded universities, steeped in cultures of pride, prestige and pedigree, do not get 'global': It is for them to solemnly proclaim the superiority of their respective national systems, which they promote as the only universally desirable way of learning, rather than accepting how culturally and industrially orientated they are. Indeed, beneath their radar, the culture of the Internet, of connecting, of creating, of sharing, have become powerful and ubiquitous enough now to empower a different starting point: This is what we are about.

Sceptics may argue that a GLOBAL PEDAGOGY is not be possible. They say, Indians (and the Chinese, and the Thais) love Rote Learning, and the Britons are so steeped in the Socratic tradition, but then, they must have been sleeping soundly for the last hundred odd years. The Victorian system of Education is what one still has in India: There is nothing Indian about the Indian system. And, we have nothing against the Victorian system - it was a product of its time and a great system that served the industrial age, with the expectations of predictable work, discipline and commitment. It may still serve some countries well, as they aspire to become industrialised or to run world's back offices. Britain (and other developed nations) may have moved on as the patterns of work has moved on, the demands of a post-industrial society have reshaped how the students are taught.

But, now, even the Indian education system is unlikely to remain the same. Unbeknown to those who missed out on the deeper values of the Internet, there is a global generation of makers on the rise everywhere: Those who will unleash a new industrial revolution, those who will employ the technology of bits in the world of atoms, those who grew up immersed in global networks of connection and conversation, of ideas, of creativity, of enterprise: This is a different generation needing not the illusions of non-existent middle class life, but the power to shape their own future, globally. And, for them, a Global University is just the minimal starting point.

The other challenge may be the creation of a GLOBAL CURRICULUM, because, indeed, the place has not stopped to matter. There are deep embedded values of the place, the 'local', which must be respected and enhanced. But this is where Internet thinking is challenging the parochialism of the Higher Education community: Place must be seen in context of the Global. It is no longer inside out vision of the world, it is outside in; Going global is no longer an adventure, because the current generation is born global; for them, local is to be explored, loved and respected, immersed into, an adventure in reverse. And, all of this is possible, if one stops thinking about curriculum, a prescriptive construct, and start thinking frameworks, a set of rules, ideas and competences, but to be filled with content drawn from global and local contexts in a balanced way.

So, will the Global University be an expensive proposition? It can not be, because the aspirational makers demand efficiency, and not bloated prestige. U-Aspire, therefore, isn't about creating new, expensive, capacity, but to reshape the existing ones, classrooms, libraries, and all, linked together with technologies of learning and human connections, a global social network united in value systems and commitment to a new kind of education. In its full expanse, the Global University will be a platform, a lean, efficient one, with a focus on making its students productive and to serve the new world of work and new communities around them, connecting and rebooting the existing educational enterprises.

A Global University, as conceived here, is a network more than a place: It is an idea to unify work and learning, ideas and conversations, private aspirations and public commitments. It will be one of those institutions which will embed students into a global network from the word go, allow them to move from one place to another taking their credits around, understand local contexts with a global perspective (just the opposite of what our nationally grounded curriculum teaches us), and commit themselves to global well-being, not just their own, or their nation's. Global University, in the end, is an old idea, then: A resurrection of the old humanist spirit well explored by the great thinkers through the ages, and a common age-old belief in our common global future. An old idea, but one whose time has finally come.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

A Programme for Global Employability

We have been working on a programme for 'Global Employability' for a while . The shape of it now finally crystallising, after labouring on for several weeks and exploring various different ideas.

This is indeed as much a statement about our approach to education as it is about the subject matter of employability. We have researched the area quite extensively, particularly as we had to explore not just what it means in the UK, but also what it signifies in our key target markets, such as India. We find a pattern, a pattern that we were keen to break away from. Most of the programmes we reviewed takes employability in some sort of old fashioned, static sense, which is no longer valid in our crisis-prone post-recession world [As the entrepreneur and author Tim Clark says, Career is a verb now!] What we do at U-Aspire is solely focused on preparing our students for this, contemporary, world of work. Our starting point is to align with a world shaped by possibilities of technology and globalization. This is deeply embedded in all we do, the education we offer. So, in the end, we ended up challenging the whole idea of employability and have built our programme from scratch.

 Indeed, to start with, we did not simply see the point of a certified course, when the only proof of employability is having an employment. But, as we explored the courses and talked to people who take these courses, it was easy to see the requirement.Career options today are vexing even for the Brightest. Besides, this is not just about getting a job: There are many people without a job, but there is also a great number stuck in dead end jobs without future or hope. If education has to be about hope and change, one has to look at the whole 'employability' phenomenon with a fresh pair of eyes, and overcome both the lack of ambition embodied in the current crop of employability programme as well as the limited perspective of the 'employability' skeptics.

Employability, seen from this aspirational perspective, is not about getting to the lowest rung of the career ladder, somehow getting through the door. Employability is, and this is our starting point, about being in charge of one's life and being able to do something that one wants to do. So, it is about the switch from being career victim to the owner of one's own career, calling the shots and crafting the strategies.

This is indeed employability thinking upside down, because the existing programmes (no matter what you call it, employability training in the UK or 'finishing school' in India) are all about writing CVs and developing better dress sense, set in getting through the door paradigm. We want to develop instead a programme where one thinks of one's own career in more active form, something that one can plan and transform. This is, we surmised, right for our audience, ambitious and bright students all over the world, and consistent with what we are trying to elsewhere in the business, creating courses fusing Enterprise, Technology and Creativity.

So, our employability programme looks quite different in shape: This is less about a desperate jobseeker and more about the 'start-up of you', as Reed Hoffman calls it. This is about being in charge, understanding the global opportunity, actively seeking to define a career for oneself and having practical and workable strategies to achieve so. The skills, writing the right CV, dressing up better, ability to present and converse, all appear in context, but they are not the point: The point is to put the learner, the owner of one's own self, in charge.

Why do we still call it an 'employability' programme? Does that sound unambitious? Our view is that employment isn't dead, at least not yet: The companies are hungry for smart employees, who create value for their employers by creating value for themselves, by moving forward in their lives they move their companies forward. This is the kind of employees our programme is designed to enable. This is indeed about employability, but its aspirational 21st century variety.

The programme we designed now is, therefore, full of ambition, intensely global and constructed of tools and ideas right from the playbook of modern social media and business thinking. This is about connecting people globally and unleashing the power of aspiration, of enabling everyday entrepreneurs who bring new ideas to our daily lives, and of starting a new conversation about work and life. We connect experienced global mentors and ambitious learners, and bring in real employers to create a long term view of what employability means.

We started off somewhat as sceptics but have become a real converts now: Designing this programme was as pleasurable as anything we have done yet.

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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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And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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