Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Reflections and Interests: How My Life Is Changing, Again

My life is changing. Or, pivoting, as it should in the entrepreneurial journey. A year of bootstrap living teaches many things, not least what you truly desire, and I have reached the point of reconciliation with reality. This is, in a way, the time when I trade off my desire to change the world to the more modest aim of making the enterprise succeed. This is also the time when I understand what can and can't work - that I am no longer twenty year old and fit to the culturally acceptable stereotype of entrepreneurs - and finding other ways of making sense. 

This starts with finding out what I truly want to do. Indeed, my efforts to build something meaningful allow this to come out in sharp relief. And, indeed, my efforts to build a global network business is not recent - I have been at it at least since 2007 - and therefore, what I know now is accumulated over time, through successes and failures. For example, despite my continuous protestation, the point of my work seemed to be understood as making British Education available abroad: This is one of the last things I want to spend my life on given my views on global education. It is only through the effort of creating the business and making the pitch, I have come to understand how this incidental objective, that I took up a competence-based qualification available in Britain simply because I am in Britain, obscured my real goal - that of creating global learning networks around common content and exchange of views. 

In fact, I have come to commit the same mistake that I often advise against: One can't change the system being inside the system. So, my point that education needs to change isn't going to make sense as long as what I do is to promote the cause of education as it is available today. This is indeed a tough problem: We are only bootstrapping and don't have the resources to overhaul education as we know it. And, when reality knocks, as it does now, the only two options available are either to surrender the goals of changing anything and getting back in the fold, or keeping the goals of changing education and give up on the ambition of being a college. Our efforts at accreditation, designing the courses etc., made us look desperate for legitimacy, which we indeed were, and the people we were speaking to indeed saw that and judged us with the usual parameters - how many centuries have we been in business, how big are our buildings, how academic are our credentials - which was not going to work for start-up Higher Education.

The problem is that hawking the usual thing, some kind of easy to diploma delivered online the bad way, may be the easiest way to make money, but I have no aspiration to get into this. This option makes most sense for a small start-up, and it almost seems that everyone we talk to, wants us to do this, but it just does not float our boat. As we see now, we must have appeared incredibly vain to many people, as we spurned their advice to offer a cheap-and-cheerful diploma option, and talked instead about how we want to change education. They were right all along, but we were never interested. [I have always seen this as our Groucho Marx problem - we don't want to partner with people who would have us as partners!]

So, my problem is obvious: How do I make the enterprise succeed and yet not get subsumed by the usual journey to abyss that define For-Profit education, at least in most cases? My idea is to stop being a college. This sounds counter-intuitive, because it is, but this is more in line with what I want to do with my life. The central obsession of my life is to explore the phenomenon of technology-induced change around us - I want to go back to school studying this when things have settled down for me - and the central object of my work ought to be to create an education to help people make sense and negotiate these changes. This theme appears again and again, and yet again, on this blog, and this is exactly what happens in my interactions in person: I always talk about it. The objective of my enterprise, if it's to be successful, is to achieve the unity of pursuit - that I do just this one thing - and indeed, as I have come to realise, I should stop pretending to be a college as a first step.

Indeed, working to survive during these bootstrap days gives me more insight than I hoped it would. The whole business of teaching at the traditional colleges and universities tell me how ill-synchronised education currently is with technological change both inside and outside education; how little concern there is for the students; and how students are on steroids, seeking just the credential and not anything else: All these give me this central idea that education is so stuck to the old industrial world that it is never going to change from inside. It is an interlocked system of teaching, accreditation, funding, student perception and simple lethargy that will come in the way. Technology will change education, not superficially as in YouTube videos but profoundly, but it will change through creative destruction from outside rather than benign enabling from the inside.

My apocalyptic view is prompting me to rethink about my work and my life. All I want to focus on is this interface between education and technology, and I shall consciously shift my engagements to this plain. In the business, this will mean a pivot to the technologies of learning and building a platform for educational innovation, than trying to be a college ourselves. In my own practice, this will mean extricating myself from the old world teaching to committing myself more to research and writing on technology and education interface. This will mean going back to Graduate School, once I have enough money to study again, and committing myself to research this education-and-technology phenomenon. All this, I hope, will allow me to achieve an unity of purpose, in my life and work, which is, I only discover now, what I was seeking all the time.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

'Futureducation': What Technology Does To Education

Technology changes education. If it sounds some kind of obvious, it is not: There are people who will argue that there is unchanging, unchangeable, soul of education. But this besides, there is a huge gap between the claims about how technology could change education and how it actually changes. The point of this post is have a closer look at this argument.

To think about how technology can change education, one must think of not just technology in education, but technology in context. So, this discussion should not be just limited to how Fiber Optic connections make education through video ubiquitous, but about such technology creating new expectations, jobs and careers as well. So, it is not just that one should use video because it has become possible to do so, but because it will be a normal feature of the workplace or professions that the learner may go into. 

This is something like saying that one needed to read books in college when jobs and careers were dominated by reading from and writing on paper. But this is more than that: Because technology not only gives but also takes and destroys. Besides, that reading from a book would have been revolutionary in Jan Comenius' time: We are experiencing a similar media revolution now.

Once we start thinking this way, we see a strange dynamic in action. Technology makes possible a kind of education that we were doing physically before, at a massive scale; but, on the other hand, technology shifts the game and makes, at the same time, that kind of education redundant. Our debates are so much focused on the first kind of possibility and so little on the second kind of problem, that we miss the point very often.

This is my central contention: Technologies don't just make possible the old education in a new way, it demands a new education. It is not just a passive force serving the educators', or policy-makers', needs; it is an active agent which reshapes the trade. Medium is the message, indeed: Technology is the engine and the navigation system built into one.

There is a temptation to use technology to do things better, cheaper and more efficiently: We can give our students 24x7 access to learning, connect to them over a great distance, communicate to them almost instantaneously. The 'search' for knowledge, the central point of education, may have acquired a different connotation today compared to what it would have meant only a decade ago (before Google). All kinds of database systems can be designed to record the student behaviour and performance at an industrial scale. However, all these new abilities tempt us to build a new kind of education, where knowledge is codified and connected to 'learning outcomes', which are carefully designed and measured, content is clearly signposted and even collaboration is sequenced ("see this week's forum") and managed. The methods are so effective that we can even predict student preferences and personalise the content for them. 

However, at the same time, the technology outside makes the same conception of education that it creates somewhat redundant. We talk about human beings not needing knowledge, because it is so easily searchable, but mastery of context, which is not so well served in a technology-mediated communication. We talk about expert knowledge based on pattern recognition growing out of recurrent practice and deep commitment, because everything else can be done by technologies more efficiently than the humans, which runs in face of 'bite-sized' education that we so merrily construct with technology. We create accurate models of professional skills, but at the same time, professional identities become blurred from the assault of the amateur. 

In the end, software eating the world, as Marc Andreessen will see it, is true, but it is, by definition, eating itself too. So, the technologists claim that they will change education may be correct, but they may not have an idea what they will change it to. We may get excited about using the abilities of the future to become good at jobs of the present, but future is an one-way ticket. So, at the time of breaking of education, re-imagine: It is not just about what technologies could do, but what kind of society we are going to live into. It is not just about the computer code, but code of everything. Ignoring this complexity is just denial, just as the one those claiming education can't change live with.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

'Futureducation': Preparing For The Wrong Future

The last two decades were a great time for educational expansion. The ideas of mass education caught up, not just in the West, but also in the rest of the world. Population is no longer seen as a problem, but a source of strength, of consumption and of production, and 'demographic dividend' was added to our lexicon. Personnel quickly became Human Resources and then Talent, and in this transformation, education came to be seen as the key to unlocking the great wealth that lies hidden in the teeming masses. Especially in the last decade or so, schools, colleges and universities were built at a furious pace. Governments accepted the fact that they can't build the educational capacity fast enough, and looked for ways to build private capital into education, and entrepreneurs saw this as the new frontier of opportunity. The importance of education is one thing that everyone agreed upon.

Now, it is perhaps time to look back at all that has happened, and start asking an uncomfortable question: Are we mostly preparing for a wrong future? The underlying reason for asking the question, indeed, the shifting patterns of the labour market and the dis-alignment of educational institutions and ideals (see my earlier post). However, this disconnect is even more crucial when seen together with another key policy-making assumption - that of the hierarchy of the labour markets.

There is a model in the world in every policy-maker's mind about how their countries can develop, and usually, they follow the patterns followed by the industrial west: Increasingly mechanised agriculture releasing the surplus labour, which gets absorbed into factories and service sectors, producing goods and services for globalised trade. And, in this model, the world's jobs gets sorted out in an hierarchical order: Developed economies lose out their manufacturing and low skilled jobs to the developing ones due to cost disadvantages, and the developing economies cede the high value activities, design, branding, research, to the advanced economies because of their advanced education systems and pool of qualified manpower. This is a common sense narrative which has been accepted all across the policy-making circles, high finance communities, development business and even educators. This is the model that drives both the perceived need of education in developing countries and its intended outcome.

So, in lay terms, this means developing countries need to 'catch up education', prepare their students for basic jobs in manufacturing and service back offices, while the advanced nations need to move up the ladder and train for higher order thinking skills. This model is not just common sense, it also has empirical evidence: The rise of Asian Dragon economies, and then China, chipping away the manufacturing from North America and Europe, proves the salience of this theory of 'hierarchy of labour'. 

However, this may be a wrong view of the future.

To start with, the view that the countries will specialise in some areas come from the ideas of David Ricardo and its later refinements as done by Swedish economists Eli Heckscher and Bertil Ohlin, which states that if a country has comparative advantages in some trades due to the advantages in factor prices (cheap labour, for example), it will tend to specialise on the same, and import other products in which it does not have an advantage. But this, as we know now, despite its common sense appeal, may not hold in reality: The countries may develop similar industries based on the similarities of domestic demand, rather than supply side factors. So, a booming demand for cars in China may mean that China will develop a car industry and world-leading automobile companies, despite the fact that it may not have a comparative advantage in car manufacturing (which was true twenty years ago) compared to some of its Asian neighbours. [The Economists will call it the Linder Hypothesis] Given this view, the convergence of demand will mean a global convergence of jobs and work, and this means designers may be as much in demand in India as they would be in Britain. 

The second problem with the assumption of hierarchical labour market comes from the supply side. With the advancement of computing, the national comparative advantages may matter less than a global competition between human labour and mechanisation. There may be a prevalent view in developing countries that while computerisation may be destroying office jobs in the West, Indian accountants, underwriters and clerks are so cheap that they will remain in demand in the foreseeable future, but that may precisely be the wrong way to think about the future. Even overlooking the efficiency-adjusted costs (Indian back-office workers may not be as cheap given a level of efficiency), the costs of the machine-driven alternative is going down and the costs of efficient manpower in India is going up: It is this competition we need to be mindful of. And, indeed, one can't just win this game.

These twin reasons prompt the observation that all the 'skills agenda' adopted by the developing countries, mostly with the aspiration to develop a 'catch up' labour market, is completely misdirected. These initiatives are mostly failing to deliver, but those failures mostly relate to implementation. The bigger failure, which seems to lay in the future, is the fact that this may all be about preparing for the wrong future.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

'Futureducation': On Educational Change

Education should be changing: The kind of education that helped us create the workforce during the industrial expansion may not, would not, work at a time of computerisation and globalisation. While this may appear kind of obvious, this is not what we are discussing though. Indeed, there is a lot of discussion about globalisation and computerisation, but the discussion is focused not on the educational challenge, but on the politics of it: For some, this is an elitist conspiracy which needs to be resisted at all costs; for others, all debate on the path to profit is utterly futile.

In the middle of this charged debate lies the somewhat ignored issue: How can we create an education that helps people to adopt to this changing world of work? From this position, that change will happen is a given: One could clearly figure out that such changes have happened and those tried to resist it, rather than trying to benefit from it, usually ended up on the losing side. So, teaching people to deny change is doing them a great disservice, as many of those well-meaning individuals in denial of this impending change are guilty of doing.

This is not about accepting the cold economic rationality that all action is futile and we must submit to change as it is imposed on us. One aspect of an educator's practice is to make sense of the change, and in so doing, preparing the learners to take advantage of such change. At the time of such massive change, this becomes the preeminent responsibility: Without such sense-making, not just a vast majority of people is condemned into meaningless life, the changes, with all the inherent possibilities of making life better, become monstrous tools to cause human misery, which, in the end, becomes self-defeating.

The search for a political middle ground may also mean the quest for an educational middle ground. Even those who don't think all is well with our current educational models, usually keep their faith in tried-and-tested models of the past. Those who see the world going to dogs with the mindless pursuit of profit advocate a retreat to a monastic ideal, which perhaps never existed, of an education outside the realities of the day. On the other side, those 'realists' who ridicule this ivory tower thinking want to create their model with the businesses in charge of education, despite the evident problem that businesses are firmly rooted in the present, and the present is changing. Today's jobs, which most education today focus upon, are going: Educators are sleepwalking down a road to the past.

One may claim that education essentially looks backward, because only the tried-and-tested ideas and models can be taught, should be taught. The quality assurance systems, that nation states around the world have put together so painstakingly, are designed to maintain standards, not to disrupt the same. The students, looking for certainty, reward heritage and track record, and are usually suspicious of the new. The governments, belatedly conscious of the asymmetric information problem in education, insist on reducing educational outcomes to simple consumer standards, as does the industry of ranking and comparison. 

However, this is discontinuous time. The discontinuity is not just rhetoric, but very real as jobs, institutions, governments and ideas all face roller-coaster change. Life in the future, and therefore education, will not be anything like we had in the past, recent or remote. And, indeed, education's current success, as evidenced by its rising popularity across the world, is its handicap; inability to change in sync with the world means that the whole institutional structure of education is likely to be undermined. The new life-forms may therefore be emerging: Who would have imagined that we will have a movement called 'un-College' in America, and efforts will be made in Britain to encourage those 'Not going to Uni'? One may look at the past and say how difficult discontinuous innovation in education usually was, but one must also remember that this is not an usual time by any measure

Friday, April 25, 2014

Thinking About Markets

It is time to talk about markets. Differently.

One may think there may be nothing new to talk about markets. After all, we have been talking about this endlessly for thirty years now. Markets as the mantra for everything under the sun, the panacea for all our ills etc. Or, if you are negatively inclined, for all the problems we have. Including a new word, to be spoken every time with the same disdain Lady Thatcher used for the word 'socialist', 'marketisation'. What more can there possibly be to talk about the markets?

For many, the last few years have shaken the unquestioning magic of the markets: It does not seem to solve all our problems after all. In fact, it can make things quite ugly. Many of the words, 'ethics' prominently among them, which were becoming antiquities have been brought back to use. On the other hand, there is little appetite to revive the old socialist past as we knew it: No one could yet come up with a satisfactory explanation why Soviet Union failed so spectacularly and why Communist Parties around the world continue to run out of ideas. So, a new conversation may indeed be needed, on both sides.

For me, the iconic figure of the market economy is not Margaret Thatcher, or Friedrich Hayek, but rather the 18 year old Miriam Weeks, or as the media likes to call her, Belle Knox. This is the student at Duke University who became a porn star to pay her tuition. (read her first interview here) Obviously, the university is red-faced about it: The whole academic establishment is embarrassed about her. The embarrassment isn't about the fact that they use market mechanisms to 'price' education so that it has gone beyond someone who both has the intellectual ability (otherwise she won't get into Duke) and the desire (otherwise she won't go that far) to pursue a college degree: The embarrassment seems to be that a woman using market mechanism on her body. The problem, if there is one, is not about sex: The college life is full of it (read Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons or follow the case of Duke's own Lacrosse team) and pornography is legal too. One may say it is about markets going too far, but those same people would take issues about the claim that markets should be kept out of education.

Miriam Weeks may indeed be recognised as a Feminist icon and the debate will revolve around the main issue - her right to her body: However, she also represents a frontier figure in the debate about the market, and the limits of it. It is unlikely to stop the march of the markets, and for most people, the fuss is completely pointless. But for those who settled on markets as the answer for everything, her case may present a particular dilemma which needs to be addressed.

Indeed, we must also pay heed to the broader discussion about the record of the markets. Those who seem to think, markets are behind all the marvels of the modern technology, and primarily responsible for the mankind escaping the Malthusian trap, are indeed distorting the record, perhaps intentionally. They are consciously ignoring the fact that the progress of technology happened on the back of massive public efforts in research and development and education, between the 1840s and 1970s, and if anything, leaving the market as the sole driver of our progress from this point onwards leave us with a serious risk of getting back to the Malthusian trap.

So, I return to my initial proposition: It is time to think about markets, differently. It is one of the wonderful human inventions, that happened without the 5-year planners and management experts having a say: It is therefore unlikely to go away. However, this is one of the many formats of organising activity available in human repertoire, and should be recognised as such. People such as Miriam Weeks should push us into thinking that there may be, should be, a limit to the market, and this may not be about pornography at all. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Banksy Problem

Seven works of Street Art by Banksy are to be auctioned at a London Hotel today. (See the story)

If you are not into art, or not into street art, should you care? 

I think the 'Banksy Problem' is not about art, but about all forms of creativity. It is about 'market' and 'non-market' debate, and the ideas of how to live. Today's story brings out the issues involved in sharp relief.

So here is a celebrated, but unknown artist, who would sneak in the middle of the night and create a graffiti. No one really knows what he, or indeed she, thinks about this latest auction. The hypocrisy of the auctioneer is evident: He is not doing it for money, he says, but to save the building owners who are fearful that with a Banksy on their wall, their buildings will be listed Grade 2 (a building of special interest where every effort should be made to preserve them). He further adds that he does not approve of street art, and considers it illegal. 

I am wondering what he may be doing auctioning the artwork - would you be selling drugs when you consider drug usage illegal - and why he would have to go through the troubles of auction, when he does not want to make money: If only he wanted to save the building owners trouble, he could have easily gone to a museum and given it to them.

Indeed, illegal or not, the artworks are lucrative, and the 'No Ball Game' one will probably be sold for several millions. There will be some rich individual who would love to show off their taste, and their wealth, by privately owning a Banksy, left on the street by an unknown artist who did not, apparently, do it for money. 

Instead of seeing this as an illegal art being sold legally, should this be seen as a legitimate aesthetic expression being privatised illegally? Indeed, there is no 'legal' basis of saying so: Graffiti is illegal, though widely practiced; private art collection is legal, and widely practiced. So, there is not a court of law which will uphold public's right to art, if challenged. But does the 'Banksy Problem', particularly accentuated by the greedy auctioneers and private collectors, make us think about issues such as creativity, expression, and the limits of the markets?

Private art may indeed be two way thing: A painter paints to sell it, and a collector buys for a great deal of money. In this, the equation is straightforward: The greater the money, the greater the art - the better known the painter. Banksy, however, subverts this, possibly intentionally, creating art not for money and then letting the private scramble happen. This act, I shall argue, exposes the assumptions behind valuing the art, and questions the morality of privately owning it. For example, is this the property of the building owner once the art is left on his premises? And, indeed, they are acting in the full knowledge, indeed in the fear of, such property being deemed important to public, and, therefore, upholding their economic rights as the building owner and undermining their duties to the community: How far is this moral or justified? And finally, that private collector, who would show off the Banksy in his garden soon, should he be praised or shamed - for privatising public property?

I am no lawyer, and no curator of street art: The 'Banksy Problem' creates a creative anguish in me as a private citizen. It shows me the dubious, even hypocritical, morality of the market we praise so much, and even the limitations of the laws we live by. It effectively challenges the morality of private art collection, and puts it in direct conflict with public's right to art, if there is such a thing. This is why I think this may be a problem for everyone.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Liberal Folly: How We Made Narendra Modi

This is an admission of failure. 

This is about Narendra Modi's rise to prominence, and his preeminent position in Indian elections right now. The fact that he may become India's Prime Minister soon is one of those dreadful prospects one has to live with. Whether this happens or not, though, this is one example how all those who cared about the 'idea of India' got it wrong.

Simply, the prospect of Mr Modi, with the blood of Gujrati Muslim's in his hand, enraged us so much that we talked about that all the time. When our self-interested friends claimed that it is not the genocide, but the stock market that matters more, we got so enraged that we talked about it even more. All this helped, rather than hindered, Mr Modi, who indeed turned this against us, with copious sums of money thrown along the way.

The fact that Mr Modi is the front-runner in polls today poses not just one problem - that a man of such terrible record could be elected - but several others. He is an authoritarian ruler who is surrounded by loyal goons, who has failed to protect innocent citizens and treats himself above the law. He depends, almost solely, on the distortion of the facts and avoid scrutiny at all costs. He is backed by powerful friends and his vision of India is to make it more of a tycoon economy. He flaunts a record of development in Gujrat which is phony. He is corrupt and unapologetic about it. He is backed by unnamed foreign interests, which will surely extract its pound of flesh. 

But, in speaking about Gujrat 2002, we failed to talk about all this all the time. Swapan Dasgupta mocks us that we hoped that Mr Modi's record would stop BJP from electing him as the Prime Ministerial candidate, or that the BJP seniors will come in his way. He is correct: Mr Modi's rise caught us in a confusion: We wanted to believe that common sense will prevail and took too kind a view of BJP's leadership. And, at the same time, Mr Modi's apologists did two things: First, they used Gujrat 2002 as some kind of banner item - they wanted to take pride how they taught Muslims a lesson - and used the liberal anger to block any discussion; Second, they appealed to a narrowly self-interested middle class, with a promise to think of themselves at the expense of everything and everybody else. 

Mr Modi, if he gets elected, will be a disaster for India. Three reasons: 

First, because he would fail to deliver, and in his style, will try to distract attention with diversionary tactics, such as actions against minorities or a possible war with Pakistan. 

Second, he would let his cronies eat, bigger and better slices than the Congress, because he has no scruples.

And, third, he would divide India. Friendships will be undone, and the assumptions about human nature will have to be remade. In the parade of carcasses, there will be little hiding place.

In the end, the Middle Class has to pay. Just as they did in Germany. But this failure will be a disaster for everyone, whoever is involved with India even remotely. And, finally, it is the liberals who ceded the place: Not just by failing to provide an alternative agenda, but also by walking into the trap laid by Mr Modi and talking too much about the genocide.

It will remain our mess to clear.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tired of Facebook..

No you may not be tired of life. The streams of other people's lives can be overwhelming: It may make you a retro-phile, full of nostalgia for the secret gossips or unrequited love, or all those things that were staple of the 80's teen-life. Suddenly, what was boring - you may not even remember how you really spent all the time that you now spend on Facebook - may look exciting. The fact that you can't find the girl who fascinated you in college on Facebook may be pathetic - you should have told her then - but then Facebook won't really change all that. Facebook or not, you are still alive.

Oh yes, Golden Age is always in the past, just around the time when one was twenty! If only - and there goes another list of moments missed, things unsaid, all those mistakes and missteps. But then, is it not a happy feeling that those are safely buried, gone, hopefully forgotten, rather than protruding out in your timeline? At times like this, should it be called Facebook Fatigue, forgetting seems to be the sweetest of all human capabilities: Because you forget, you live again.

So, if we don't want Facebook as a chronicle, what about Facebook as a conversation? This continuous stream of words, photos, videos, love and hatred, politics and pure emotion, the narratives of connection and disconnection, of those various lingo rising and fast falling in fashion - isn't this the primordial soup of modern life? Isn't this where our relationships are born and made? One at a time, you may say, in love with all those analog life-forms which come as person and not as streams. You may still want the lazy but the routine walk that never makes a good photo, the conversation about dreams which wouldn't be video-worthy, that utterly incorrect thing that you want to say without attracting moralising gazes - you may still want to live, without Facebook.

What about Facebook as a convenience? Would it not be nice to have everyone on there, so that we can keep in touch? But then, you may think keeping in touch is an active business: You reach out, you meet, you call, you write, you pursue, you want to know, you remember - when did keeping in touch become equal to being 'fed' the details of someone's life? If so, you are keeping in touch with Justin Bieber every day.

No, this is not Anti-Facebook, because it is so dear to those one loves, but it is the rejection of the expansive claim - that you sign out of life if and when you sign out of Facebook! Facebook is a big nation, bigger than those we don't care to know about, such as Bangladesh: But that's the precise point - it is not a nation and you may not want to immigrate there yet. If you feel drowned by all those lovely photos, inspiring quotes, uplifting videos, smart quips and funny jokes that keep coming, you are still living: And life goes on, if you forgot, outside - and once you close the lid of your laptop.."And how the silence surged softly backward,/ When the plunging hoofs were gone."

Monday, April 21, 2014

Is Average Over? And What To Do About It?

The claim: The age of average is over. Tyler Cowen says this, so does Tom Friedman, Andrew McAfee and others. All those middle class jobs, Administrators, Receptionists, Secretaries, Accountants, are going, and will be gone in the future. 47% of all of today's professions, mostly the refuge of the average among us, will disappear. The only jobs left will be those which require extra-ordinary capability and professional skill of some kind. 

In short, middle class is doomed. The economists have a solution - a sort of a negative income tax, or tax credit as it is known in Britain - to provide for them. All those who complain about dole must take note: We are heading for an universal dole of some kind. Though this does not sound very promising, this is at least better than those practised in some developing countries, where, if you missed the bus, you are left to fend for yourself. Welcome back Welfare State, though this shows we are running out of ideas.

In a way, 'average' is the bedrock of our society and culture. The politicians want to represent the average Joe. The average person drives our economies, quite literally as cab driving is a solid middle class profession (and one that is likely to disappear). The average person keeps the chunk of the economy going, by buying the stuff we array in the shops. Culturally, the average makes our mass culture possible, by flocking in everywhere from football grounds to the pop shows. The death of average is indeed bad news for everything!

It is time, therefore, to think who is average and how do they become one. To be sure, this 'end of average' does not necessarily present a zero-sum situation. The 'average' is not those who are behind the top 1%, or 10%, or 15%, the average are those who aim for the middle, for those professions and jobs that are going to go. This, we may accept, is less determined by the natural distribution of intelligence in a population, but rather, this is socially constructed, made possible by the way we organise our education and our work.

Tom Friedman as always, makes a powerful, if slightly overstated, case for this: The way to beat the average is to (a) strive like an immigrant, (b) connect with work like an artisan and (c) bring out your 'extra'. Now, indeed, that's more a matter of attitude, values and commitment than of talent! This is useful advice, but this may need to be accompanied by how we think of success, smarts and performance. It is not that this change is needed to accommodate those who can't catch up on the traditional scales, it is rather because once machines take over the jobs where we devoted maximum energy so far, we shall need other smarts to progress. The day computers completely take over the analysts' jobs, the awkward interpersonal skills that most analysts survived with may need to change: To build the new human-machine partnerships, a new sense of ability will need to be discovered.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Developing Global Expertise : 3 Exploring A Framework

I am working towards a framework for developing global expertise. In my mind, it starts with a disjuncture, a disconnect, when things don't turn out the way it should. This should indeed be easy, it happens all too often when one travels to another country or starts working with someone from a different culture. Or, so we think. In reality, though, it does not happen that way at all. Even when we travel, or start working with someone from a different culture, we still remain within our own context: The disjuncture does not happen, we reject anything odd as an anomaly, an exception. So, my starting point is how one could establish the starting point - the disjuncture!

Also, most of this may happen in a classroom or workplace setting, rather than travel (which I am now getting to think about - whether I start working on a travel learning model) and hence, I have to find a way to simulate 'disjuncture'. I don't think this is a particular challenge though, because disjuncture often have to be simulated anyway. Most people don't automatically draw such insights from experience - I have seen people spending a lifetime in different cultural setting and yet never experiencing one - and such insights need to be given. I am compiling stories of such disjuncture. There is a good movie about an American expat relocating to India which I usually show to my students, which has a happy ending and all (complete with falling in love with an Indian girl - you can see the movie here): There are other case examples from business research underling such disjuncture as well.

However, such disjuncture quite narrowly focuses on 'culture' - the way people are - and encourage superficial adjustments, whereas I wish to address the issue of behaviour at a deeper level. Expertise is not about wearing a smile and nodding your head correctly: It is about addressing professional challenges and maintaining ethical behaviour in the changed context. Arriving at this not only means dealing with the disjuncture as told - bow when handing over business card to the Japanese business partner - but reconciling it with one's own professional behaviour and ethical standards at the same time. My quest, therefore, is to create a framework that can address such issues.

I am drawn towards a framework suggested by Angel Cabrera and Gregory Unruh of Thunderbird, which defines global expertise as a combination of three interrelated competencies - Global Intellectual Capital, Global Psychological Capital and Global Social Capital. Global Intellectual Capital is knowing about the world, Global Psychological Capital is about knowing the ways of the world and Global Social Capital is about knowing people and having friends globally. This is a far more comprehensive set of competences than the superficial 'cultural' understanding - and also more demanding. However, for me, 'expertise' is more than about the length of your handshake anyway.

So, how do I help my learners develop the three 'capitals' as above? Indeed, the task is complex because such understanding is usually hindered by normative judgements about the 'right' way of doing things. This every person has, knowingly or unknowingly, and it is culturally embedded. We indeed use the words 'ethics' and 'integrity' quite easily and rather uncritically, but most people will struggle if asked to explain what they mean, particularly in the context of real work. The start point of developing these capitals is actually a way to understand precisely the culturally laden nature of our assumptions: This is not to say such assumptions are invalid, because that is the only way to arrive at such values and beliefs anyway: It is about understanding and accepting the nature of those assumptions - as opposed to them being the only true way possible - is what matters.

I am therefore designing an activity to start with, which allows people to examine their own assumptions, by first becoming aware of them. Once this is achieved, the three 'capitals' become easier to acquire. Indeed, this needs to be followed up by Intent, to understand why one must acquire the 'capitals'. This, then, will lead to a plan to acquire the 'capitals', understanding them, exploring the models and resolving the issues around own behaviour and comfort zones. Finally, this should lead to a cycle of application of the learned concepts, which should, in my scheme of things, lead to another cycle of disjuncture, intent, plan and experience, and so on and so forth.

My planned sequence of activities then is this:

1. The Disjuncture - An activity to explore own assumptions that underlie behaviour

2. The Intent - Understanding the challenges of global engagements

3. The Plan - Understanding the three 'capitals', planning to acquire the same by exploring various ways to do so

4. The Experience - Applying the learned behaviour in different aspects of global work, and through this, exploration of own assumptions, yet again.

I am currently putting this learning programme together for a course that I wrote for U-Aspire and want to implement shortly for a group of managers in the UK. But the idea will be to structure this broadly in cultural terms so that this could be easily done for other settings and cultures as well. Indeed, I shall believe that learning is not just about design, and more will be revealed as I start doing it. I know that the simple terms, such as 'knowing cultural assumptions', run deeper - this may need to be explored over and over again, in the context of not just 'national cultures' but the particular influences that particular learner may have had. And, accordingly, all plans are personal - and while I must design the learning, I must keep open the outcomes and be able to accept a variety of views, values and approaches. This is just the first step in this very interesting activity.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why Building Universities Should Not Be About University Buildings?

India is building new universities, at least at a rate of one a week. Same is true for many emerging countries. Building universities is seen as the panacea for lack of modernity. The route looks ever so simple: More universities will mean more people in Higher Education, which will mean better skilled workforce and higher productivity, and hence Higher GDP - and everything else will follow.

India is also a great example of what could go wrong with this formula. The universities are being legislated into, but most become weaklings at birth, most with only a few students, limited number of disciplines, almost no research activities and no industry linkages: The prospect for future GDPs don't look that bright. If anything, they hardly herald a promising future and rather stand as monuments of wasted opportunity. 

However, anyone will be impressed if they visit these new institutions. Some aberrations aside, they are mostly shiny new institutions with adequate infrastructure. Visits to these institutions are often like visits to industrial parks, the customary tour of the premises go on for ever. The commitment to building an university becomes clear in the vast array of buildings and facilities, Tennis Courts, Gyms, Swimming Pools, one gets to see: It is only the lack of conversations about usual things, ideas, students, values etc., if noticed, may explain the problem.

But it is supposed to be that way. The regulators, in India, elsewhere, give huge emphasis on building and infrastructure: Indeed, building universities must start with university buildings. Often, the regulatory norms are more about students per square foot than ideas and conversations. And, this is not an Indian problem: The conversations in and of the universities in the West are often the same. However, it is one thing for established universities to be in the real estate game, and quite another to equate budding ones with them. But this is exactly why the regulatory frameworks seek to do.

Where is the problem? I came across the clearest statement of the problem in Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn, or more precisely, a quote from Jane Jacobs included there. This is what Jane Jacobs says:

"Only operations that are well-established, high-turnover, standardized or highly subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants, and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts - studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and table can absorb uneconomic discussions - these go into old buildings...

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings."

Nothing against the shiny new buildings then, but it somewhat explains why these new monuments of modernity across the developing country landscapes are dumb tombstones of disaster. The obsessions with new buildings are often the reason to hand over something that was supposed to be about ideas and conversations to the men who are only interested in square feet. The very nature of the buildings perhaps legislate out 'uneconomic discussion' of the kind universities were supposed to be made of, and turn them into coaching factories. And, by so doing, university making does not concern itself with creation of a new generation of thinkers, but an army of industrial workforce who will soon be out of use by the advancement of technology.

This question has relevance for the Vice Chancellors and University Administrators in the developed countries too, where facilities management and real estate play are often a large part of what they do. But they can still satisfy the 'established operation' qualifier in Jacobs' formulation. The developing country regulations, which has effectively handed over university making to the Real Estate players, are indeed inexcusable: Ironically, it is they who are in the need of new ideas.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Developing Global Expertise: 2 The Reason for 'Globalism'

Before we talk of the mechanics of how to develop global expertise, we must attempt to answer whether such an endeavour is worth it. The education system as it stands today has changed its goals, from the modernist vision of 'Reason' to the promotion of National 'Culture' in its glory years, to the current idea of Developing 'Excellence', which, as Bill Readings argued, means very little. But even if the efforts to promote a national culture looks spent, and the universities today are multinational corporations with great sophistication, they are decidedly in the business of 'soft power', which is, crudely put, about exporting 'national culture' to faraway lands. The object of the universities, therefore, is grounded on national values and cultures, or what goes in its name, and 'globalism' of the kind we are talking about is quite alien to its DNA.

This is not to deny some parts of our education system is more global than others. As one would expect, Business Schools have adopted a decidedly global perspective, and their rhetoric, over time, has taken globalism as the default state of the world. Pankaj Ghemawat of IESE Business School in Spain calls this 'Globalization Apocalypse' and has argued that such triumphalism is premature. However, rather paradoxically, such view is 'Post-globalist' rather than a commitment to globalism: This assumes that the differences do not matter any more (and Prof Ghemawat's argument is directed at disproving this). This view of the world presupposes a world of 'Coffee-coloured' people, as the evolutionary theorist Oliver Curry at LSE argues that all human race will eventually become (see this BBC story about the future of humanity circa 3000AD), or more modestly, of 'Global Cosmopolitans' as INSEAD's Linda Brimm calls the new generation of people emerging right now. 

But the idea of a global education is more than about creating a foot-loose elite, which is what global cosmopolitans are. The idea of Global Cosmopolitans, eloquently portrayed in Professor Brimm's book (Global Cosmopolitans: The Creative Edge of Difference; INSEAD), brings out many of the advantages of globalism, which we shall return to later, but perhaps eludes the question whether this is applicable outside the hallowed halls of a world-famous business school. Because, failing to do so is precisely what gives globalism its bad name: It remains an elite plaything which touches everyday life but on which very few people have control.

Developing a theme of globalism in education is therefore a matter of democratising global thinking and that way, legitimising it. The globalisation of capital, consumption and businesses are not sustainable unless there is also globalisation of ideas, people and values. The first set is the Business School globalism, the globalisation apocalypse that we have all loved to hate: The second one is supposed to be the educator's globalism.

There are different reasons why educators should embrace it, and this is not just to catch up with businesses and capital. The reasons could be any of the following, or all of the following:

One, because that seems to be the way of the world. One could deny globalisation and even try to resist it: Indeed, one can point to the rejuvenated national chauvinism across the world, in the West as well as in the Emerging world, as evidence of this. But the nationalist feelings are not progressively disposed - they may use the rhetoric of compassion, such as Gordon Brown's 'British jobs for British workers', but essentially these are reactionary stances mainly aimed at electoral pandering - and mostly abandoned in favour of global businesses and capital. The other side fighting globalisation is also trying to raise a global resistance, the global '99%', and hence the ideas need clarifying. The best way to shape globalisation is to engage with it, rather than denying it: This could be one reason to put globalism at the heart of education.

Two, education is essentially global anyway: If education is about finding ways to engage with the world, one can't do this hiding away at home. If education is about critical consciousness, that can't be achieved through fanatic rejection. If education is about change and new ideas, globalism provides an excellent basis, and a great starting point, for the same. Professor Brimm talks about the advantages of global cosmopolitans: Seeing change as normal; being outsiders to fixed cultural rules and creativity as a way of life; experimentation with identity and constant quest to reinvent self; expertise of the emotional and subtle aspects of transition; and, ability to learn and to use new ways of thinking. The rootlessness that she is celebrating has its great advantages. 

Three, One could argue that being global has great advantages in terms of reinventing the local. Hiding our heads in sand is hardly the way to keep our communities functional: However, rediscovering the contexts and reshaping those communities perhaps is. This is what Eliot was alluding to, perhaps, in "knowing the place for the first time" in Four Quartets. In more modern terms, this is what Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist is all about. And, indeed, this is what Pico Iyer sees as the point of answering 'where are you from' question. (See the video)

Indeed, this is not a new thing. Gu Yanwu knew this in Ming times: "To be wise, you need to read 10,000 books and walk 10,000 miles", he said. The Enlightenment reason was secular and global, to be embedded into education, though the ensuing imperialism had a different agenda. It is only at the twilight of nation states, today, education can rediscover globalism. In a way, this is not something new, but just going back to basics after all the other options have been exhausted. This must not be about surrendering to the idea of a global super-race: This should be about unlocking the human potential everywhere.   


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Developing Global 'Expertise': 1

The issue my work primarily concerns with is how to develop the 'global expertise' of the people that learns with us. Often, this is a bit too woolly, what is global expertise indeed, as expertise is seen as an ability to do something specific. And, in that is our first challenge - working out a definition and explaining why it is important.

'Global Expertise' grows out of the common sense dealings with globalisation around us. It is about being able to work together with people from all over the world, who come to work in and with our businesses. It is about taking opportunities that may be available to develop our expertise, and to derive best value for them. This is about adjusting with transient communities - communities that change all the time around us - rather than clinging to nostalgia and some fixed ideas about how life should be. And, yet, within this melee, global expertise is about developing a sense of self, a set of values, a professional identity and integrity, that transcends the fluidity of the context.

So, essentially, global expertise deals with the transition that we are having to deal with: With globalisation, our communities are becoming less stable: Our businesses, our neighbourhoods, our professions and increasingly our places of worship and our families look different and diverse. We face two challenges with this: First, how do we make it work? And, second, what does this mean for us personally? 

And, often, lack of global expertise means two sets of answers, each opposite to other. The first is that this is all bad: A rejection of globalisation. This is not about right or left, conservative or liberal. This answer cuts across such boundaries: Whether one thinks that it's the wily bankers or the poor people eating his lunch is somewhat inconsequential for this discussion. What matters is the united reaction that we must go back to our roots, the fixed communities, and reject all of these influences. This, ironically, comes from the personal sense of uncertainty: It is not just that we feel under pressure, but also because we don't know what is right or wrong. Our value systems seem challenged, and surely, that's not a great thing.

The second reaction is precisely the opposite: That this means turning a chameleon. This means mastering what's called 'cross-cultural' expertise and doing as 'Romans do'. Just that it is impossible to draw a line and know one is in 'Rome', because such behaviour may be needed all the time. And, besides, because it is so difficult to change one's value systems and behave differently, most people are trained to fake it: 'Cross-cultural' working is often about being politically correct, flaunting superficial knowledge and respect for other cultures and modes of behaviour. Such expediency may help in some negotiations and win orders for salesmen, but this indeed has one of the two long term effects: Either such superficial behaviour consolidates the objections one has to alien culture and turn them more a bigot (hence, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, more and more of global bankers and businessmen are exposed to be closet racists) or such sustained behaviour convince someone that there is no fixed standard of ethic or integrity at all - a slippery slope! 

Global Expertise is what one needs to push back against both of these tendencies. It starts with the acceptance that we are in a new phase of history and we should accept this changing communities as our own. This is not just about knowledge, but also understanding and behaviour. The fixed patterns of behaviour so encouraged by stable communities may need to be revisited, both for the changing nature of the communities and changing nature of life. However, the big challenge is that we have to do this without losing a sense of self, our commitments and our values. This, in turn, means that we have to transcend the system of identities that we have grown up with and adopt a new one.

Lovable ideas such as Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants have been around for a while and people have somewhat accepted them (though they raise mostly similar issues). The idea of being the second global generation, particularly after a 100 year interruption (the first one ended somewhat around 1913), is more difficult. But this is what it is - one would hope that there will be no rude interruption like the last time - and we don't have much choice but to globalise our lives, our work and our thinking. Developing global expertise is to be able to do so without losing our sense of self. 

Indeed, there is a big question how exactly one does this though: This is not the kind of thing one could teach through a set of instructions of some kind. Unfortunately, even universities and colleges don't do a good job - because they are built around 'national' value systems, of one way of thinking being better than the other. They see the 'foreign students' as more of a confirmation of their own value superiority rather than an impending call to arms to start thinking globally. Building this expertise needs careful exposure to global cultures backed by considerate exploration of questions of values, ethics and professional standards, and often, as it happens, remaking quite a few of them. Therein, indeed, lies the challenge, and the opportunity, for us to do something unique.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

On A 'West Bengal Model of Development'

My particular interest in West Bengal should be obvious: That's home. And, with all my familial and cultural roots firmly embedded, it is unlikely that my quest to be Global makes any difference to this feeling. In fact, the more interconnected my life becomes, I feel more connected to Bengal, even more responsible. It is a chromosome thing, as Amit Chaudhuri may have illustrated, and whatever I do, I can never truly stop caring. This brings me to one of the things I always wanted to do, build a coalition of all the people who care for the place to bring together in a global conversation on what can be, should be done. Indeed, this is not about government and politics - the state's politics remains toxic - but rather a civil society thing. However, as the recent rise of Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi has shown, the civil society's moment in political conversation may have come: 2014 and its momentous election may just be the perfect time for all concerned to engage in the conversation.

West Bengal is perceived to be one of the most backward states in India. This is not true, but the perception stems from lack of development rather than actual backwardness. In many ways, West Bengal has gone backwards than forward since 1970s, and therefore, while states like Punjab, Haryana, Gujrat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh registered economic progress, West Bengal's stalled economy has given the impression of a giant failure. 2014 may be a great moment to start rethinking its prospects.

Indeed, one has to start with many problems that the state still has. Lack of growth and populist administrations have emptied the state coffers and today the state has a huge debt burden, which constrains any policy initiative to stimulate growth. The central government in Delhi has been singularly unhelpful in the past, primarily as West Bengal has mostly been parties in opposition since 1977 (with some brief periods of respite, when the state's governing parties allied with coalitions in Delhi). Besides, the state's internal politics did not help. The Communist rulers indulged in systematic politicization not just of state's bureaucracy but also all public sectors, and filled the positions in Public Hospitals, State Colleges and Universities and other organisations with people politically allied with them. The recent changes in the Government, when the Communists were defeated by a party championing local interests, the incoming government led a purge, but retained the formula. Besides, this is also one of the most elitist states in the country, which is surprising given its long tradition of left activism and unbroken communist party rule for more than 30 years; however, communist rule usually promotes rather than undermine the hold of the elite on power, a strange lesson of history we are beginning to learn.

However, there are some good things, which never gets spoken about. For example, the state has strong agriculture, which was strengthened, one thing that must go to the credit of the communists, with effective land reform. West Bengal's villages do comparatively better than other states of India, though its urbanisation remains problematic. Rupee is still cheaper in West Bengal, it buys more stuff than other places, a competitive advantage West Bengal can't do most of given that India remain a singular unit in monetary and trade terms. West Bengal has a good commodity economy, but again, something that the state can not really leverage because of the control of Delhi. Finally, it has a great diaspora - very successful people in India and abroad - and a close cultural linkage with Bangladesh; it has done very little to leverage those strengths. Its location could be strategic, given that it is closer to South-East Asia, one of the world's most dynamic regions today, and its capital city, Kolkata, is the only Indian megacity with ample supplies of drinking water. 

These and more, it is time to re-imagine West Bengal's future. The political discussions in West Bengal were so far fragmented and interest-driven, but one great thing that Narendra Modi may have done for West Bengal is that he has put economic development squarely in the middle of the political agenda. And, so it should be, though Mr Modi's politics is perhaps the last thing West Bengal needs or wants. However, the national conversation about economic development and ways to achieve it may now kickstart a discussion in West Bengal.

In many ways, West Bengal's economic woes is a result of central policies dictated by Delhi, and it is time for the leadership of the state to assert its demands and try to get its way. For all its faults, the Trinamool Congress of the current Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee may be at the right place to do so: They are not an appendage to a national party, as the Communists were, and can take an unapologetic view about the state's interests. Besides, this election may make her a kingmaker, by giving her the third largest block of members in a divided parliament. This may give her the negotiating position to not just secure debt forgiveness, which will be a minimum to get the economy going again, but also leverage in other areas which the state desperately needs.

For example, West Bengal's economy depends crucially on its relationships with Bangladesh. Ms Banerjee has squandered early opportunities to reach out to Bangladesh and build the relationship on a new platform. This election may give her a second chance. It could be more or less difficult, depending on who gets to power in Delhi: A Narendra Modi led BJP, driven along communal lines, may make the relationship with Bangladesh more difficult. However, a moderate coalition, even if it is led by BJP (but a less triumphalist one, if they don't get their way with Modi) may follow a common sense path of strengthening India's deteriorating relationships with its neighbours. Bengal has maximum to gain with such a strategic pivot. In fact, one of the key agenda for Bengal's development could be the establishment of a free trade area with Bangladesh, with unrestricted movement of goods and even people. This may sound a radical suggestion and the other states may be uncomfortable with the suggestion: However, one may create a special Indian visa for Bangladeshis which allow them to stay in West Bengal legally without restrictions, and vice versa. This will indeed solve the illegal immigrant problem - because no immigrants will be illegal - but on a more serious note, this will accept the inevitable and expand the economies of both sides and reduce the animosity. This will expand the markets for West Bengal's enterprises multi-fold. Indeed, this kind of relationship should also include a fairer sharing of water from the rivers flowing from West Bengal into Bangladesh, and on a reciprocal level, road access to India's north-east through Bangladesh and a possible gas deal solving Bengal's energy problems. 

Now, all of this seems politically impossible, but this is an example how politics, and nothing else, is actually the reason of West Bengal's poverty. Integrating Bangladesh and West Bengal's economies will bring enormous benefits to both sides. The usual objections - that some people will lose out - are just excuses: Won't some people lose out if one starts building factories or roads (or, on the other hand, starts building a solely agricultural economy)? The process of development has winners and losers, and it is the state's responsibility to provide the social insurance for those who lose out. All the other objections, that poor people from Bangladesh will overrun all the land, is equally idiotic: People don't leave their land unless they are desperate, and when they are desperate, they come anyway. If anyone is thinking that the Indian Border Security force has erected a Chinese Wall around India's borders to keep the aliens out, they should go and visit the place themselves: They will soon know the charges that people smugglers on both sides levy. And, if this is a Hindu versus Muslim narrative, we should start growing up a bit.

Financial Restructuring and Open Doors with Bangladesh can create a new climate of development in the whole region, but those by itself will not be enough. There needs to be what the Development experts will call 'Capacity Building', because the developmental capacity of the state, its infrastructure, its institutions are in a very poor shape. There are some very specific areas of improvement one can see the government of the state can make.

First, they can reach out to the West Bengal's diaspora. This is a rich and successful diaspora, one that has a very strong sense of cultural identity. The new government, after they replaced the Communists, did make some attempts to reach out. But those efforts were mostly directed to the pandering of the rich and the powerful living in the West, following Narendra Modi's formula of developing a Non-Resident patron base, and completely overlooked the significant disapora spread over in other Indian cities, from the software engineers in Chennai and Bangalore, Bankers in Mumbai and Media men in Delhi. These are people with deep connections and ability to change things much faster than the American Doctors and British accountants: And, often, American Doctors and British Accountants come from the family of Bengali Civil Servant resident in Delhi. Also, while this business of reaching out to diaspora in other Indian states were mostly a parochial affair, West Bengal should approach this more like Deng, to learn, to engage and perhaps with an open mind. West Bengal's diaspora is not just Bengali: Kolkata was a cosmopolitan city, and the brilliant Punjabi scholar at the LSE that I got to know, but whose family home is in South Kolkata, is as much a part of West Bengal's diaspora as anyone else.

Second, the government, can, must, start rebuilding the health and education system. West Bengal has lately caught up with the private school, college and university model, popularly used in other state's to ramp up their education capacity. Ditto for health. However, the failure of sole reliance on private capital is abundantly clear and it will be foolish for Bengal to repeat the mistakes. It should, instead, learn from the experiences, and build a carefully balanced public-private model, assuming that the Fiscal crisis could be resolved. But the state may need to take a role, in making sure that the developments are dispersed all across the state and not clustered around the South-East.

Third, there needs to be a serious plan for urbanisation. One of the state's big problem is its over-reliance on one big city, which is falling apart. The efforts to build other cities, such as Durgapur, Siliguri, Asansol and Haldia were stunted, given the poor infrastructure and lack of capital investment from the state to create conditions for sustainable development. Again, possibly a public-private model is the answer, opening up new places for city development but doing so in a strategic manner. This will not only mean rebuilding these stunted cities (and re-energising Kolkata's infrastructure), but also building new cities. Indeed, one could also do more in getting private investment by building special infrastructure: An Academic City around Bolpur, a Medical City around Raigunj (if the AIIMS finally happens there), hubs of commodity marketing around Asansol, are all ideas worth considering. There is indeed a certain sensitivity towards land acquisition for industrial development in Bengal, particularly because the land is often highly fertile and also, ironically, because of the success of land reform. But, because of the relative success of agriculture, Bengal's next logical step is urbanisation: If this is done in a sensitive and fair way (and not in the arrogant and corrupt way the last Communist government wanted to push through these) and if there are clear benefits for those who would lose their land, one could indeed pull these projects through.

All of the above needs leadership, a change of political culture and indeed, eradication of corruption. Most observers watching Bengal has quite a bleak outlook on this regard. However, one thing that counts in Bengal's favour is that it still has a publicly minded middle class: Often, the overriding concern of Bengali middle class workers, usually expressed in idling discussions affectionately called 'Adda', is the state of the world around them rather than the state of the house prices and stock market indices. While one could argue that such idling and anti-materialism make Bengalis poor, it equal makes them capable of political action and effective change. This is why one could still keep faith on the eventual emergence of a 'Bengal model' of development. It is perhaps the right time for such discussions to start.   

Monday, April 14, 2014

India 2014: Democracy and Development

Indian election is quickly turning into a battle between democracy and development. Underlying this tension, there is a thesis that democracy is only a luxury and can wait. Despite India's pride in being a democracy, this idea is as old as the country itself. Many people thought it was madness to have democracy in India, a poor and illiterate country at the time of Independence, in the first place. The privileged, the upper caste Hindus, the landlords, the princes, the educated, almost always thought this was a disaster. Indira Gandhi's brief adventure in authoritarianism was cheered on by many of these people: This was perhaps the reason why she was so wrong-footed eventually - everyone around her told her that this was great idea until the voters threw her out. Wealthy Indians nowadays point to China's development and blame their own democracy for failing to catch up, and this has become well accepted among the rich, powerful and the non-residents. Middle Class Indians therefore desire a 'strong leader', who can ride roughshod over democracy. The talk now is of the 'Gujrat model of development', which means better roads and e-Governance, though the assembly only met a few days every year and all dissent is ruthlessly suppressed.

One could attempt to justify democracy morally. The strong state that the middle classes advocate may not look that appetising if they try the famous test proposed by John Rawls: How would it look if you are on the losing side? But if we set aside the moral question for a moment, because all morality in India now is treated as a left-liberal dogma (something that the left-liberals should be happy about), and deal solely in the realm of the practical, the arguments against democracy looks fatally flawed. 

This logic that development brings democracy, which is now lapped up by National Chauvinists who argue that democracy matters less in an underdeveloped country. Though they profess to hate everything European and stand for truly Indian identity, this 'development first' is indeed a very Western idea. Worse, this is a Western neo-imperialist idea, entertained by those who would privately rather believe that India should not be exist as an independent country at all. If anything, that a poor country can indeed boldly experiment with democracy while it attempts to bring about development is a very original Indian idea, which lies at the very heart of the modern Indian state. And, I shall argue, despite all the disappointments we may have had, this idea that democracy can precede development was remarkably prescient and is still very relevant.

The problem of development, as modern Political Scientists show, does not come from democracy; it rather comes from the lack of it. To understand its reason, we should look closely at the nature of Capitalist development itself. Why is it that this has proved to be a more durable model despite the great initial achievements of the command economies such as the USSR? Surely, those economies built the appropriate legal structure, and a very effective mechanism of power, to focus solely on 'development'. However, the development as we know it, the ability to develop technologies, to continuously strive for productivity, to take risks and start enterprises to solve existing and future challenges, goes hand in hand with one of Capitalism's least liked features, the 'creative destruction', the itinerant liquidation of the structures of powers and creation of new hierarchies in its place. So, it is not just the socialism that the rich and the powerful should be afraid of: Capitalist development should be at least as disconcerting.

A reading of history shows that countries developed as that country's elite had been defeated and was forced to give up their privileges. This is why revolutions and civil wars, tragic as they are, often brought about 'development'. One could argue that one reason for China's progress and USSR's demise may have the former's 'Cultural Revolution' which destroyed the elite: USSR indeed had the same through Stalin's purges a few generations earlier. Now, democracy can run this process without so much blood-letting, and indeed proved to be a good system in resolving disputes. So, one way to foster development is to situate it on the basis of an effective democracy, one that greases the wheels of creative destruction by denying the powerful a chance to block progress, without wrecking everything and setting the economies back through bloody revolutions.

Indeed, the Indian version is slightly different from USSR: The idea is not about creating a command state producing by everything itself, but rather a state which stands behind its business classes and let them do whatever they wish. This state makes sure all the legislations and institutions are business-friendly - Banks lend them money easily, they can acquire any land as they like, they can hire and fire people without bothering about unions - in short, a Capitalist paradise. However, building this, which sounds a lot like Dubai rather than England, or USA, or Japan, countries that could build sustained long term development models, does not guarantee development or widespread prosperity. It only means that some rich people will have more opportunities to get rich. This will, however, not mean better education, more innovative products, better aware consumers with more rights, more new businesses, better jobs, enhanced disposable income and growth of demand, because all those things depend on things that this model will effectively stop: competitiveness, productivity growth, innovation, efficiency, enterprise. 

My argument is only democracy can ensure, bloodlessly, that the economy remains dynamic. This does not mean that India does not need institutional reforms: It sure does, and those need to happen immediately. But there is less discussion about the failings of, say, the Courts system, than the need for a different political system: Indeed, the elite in India does not want the courts to function better, more efficiently and hold them accountable. A democratically elected government which throws its weight behind the reforms of the judiciary will do more to unlock 'development' than one which merely believes building roads by awarding contracts to friendly industrialists will do so. 

So, in the end, my contention is a positive one: That democracy and development do hand in hand in India. As for China, it is a different cultural and historical model, and besides, who could say whether China wouldn't have developed faster had it been democratic. Democracy is not a mistake, and we shouldn't treat it as one.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On UK-India Education Partnerships

One of the things I get to do is to talk many UK institutions about their partnership plans in India. This is partly because of my engagements in the India Education Conclave last year, and partly because of my general interest in the area: However, this is not a commercial activity for me, and my interests are primarily educational and of maintaining links with India. 

This gives me a rather interesting position of being both an insider and an outsider to these conversations, having just enough knowledge about the negotiations but a disinterested perspective, which is quite beneficial. I have noted my frustrations with the limited perspectives that the UK institutions often take in these partnerships, making the students the losing side in these transactions. (See the earlier post) What was left unsaid, however, is that the role the Indian institutions play, which contributes equally to the failures of these partnerships. 

Understanding the dynamic of an Indian institution seeking partnership with an overseas entity is important for the UK institution trying to establish such partnership, but this is often the most overlooked aspect. The UK institutions are often so certain about their 'brand', their intellectual superiority and their desirability to Indian institutions and students, that they almost never pause and think about such issues: They are taken as self-evident. However, most Indian organisations approach UK institutions not because of any superior intellectual input, but just that they want their plaque on their wall, to project they are a forward-looking institution with overseas partnerships, rather than offer any value-add to their existing students. 

The logic Indian institutions offer to their British counterparts regarding their inability to offer UK programmes to their students is that the Indian legislation is quite restrictive in this regard. However, considering that most Indian educational institutions are owned by the rich and the powerful, this is surprising. More than three quarters of the members of the Parliament have an interest in an Educational institutions, and often they directly own them; a similar proportion of the members of the State Legislatures have this as well. So, if this access to British degrees was seen as a desirable thing, the Government would have passed legislation. The fact that the Indian government does not, can not, allow Foreign Institutions in India, is a reflection of the approach of the Indian institutions towards foreign partnerships. They want the names, but nothing else.

But why don't they innovate? The obvious reason is that they don't have to. The students are coming anyway. Indian student numbers are expanding rapidly, and education as a panacea for life goals is firmly established. So, the business of degrees is alive and well, and an institution does not need to innovate (particularly as they have very limited capacities anyway, restricted by quotas defined by intrusive regulators). This works as the market remains quite tightly regulated, out of reach for any foreign competitor, out of bounds for any disruptive innovation. The students are losers, indeed, but who cares anyway!

The British institutions, when they engage with Indian institutions, are often surprised by the decision-making process of the Indian institutions. Everything, to the UK institutions used to five year strategic plans, seems knee-jerk, ad hoc, to them. But this may be for different reasons than one would suspect. The key, and perhaps only, strategic play for an Indian institution (and perhaps true for most businesses in most emerging countries) is to manage the Government and the regulators: Almost everyone has a long term play to manage the risk associated with them. Everything else is one opportunity at a time. So, the engagement with a British institution is hardly seen as strategic, but just something on the table: This is problematic, but the British institution can also hardly complain, because that's how they approach it as well. Indeed, the end result here is that the relationship does not work - and everyone loses.

The question is, however, can these partnerships work. My advise to most institutions I deal with these days is to have a broader approach to partnerships, and look at the whole South Asia rather than just India. India is the big prize, but its strategic and long term: quicker wins, which many UK institutions now need to keep their enthusiasm in these austere times, are easier to have in the other countries, such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and for the brave, in Pakistan. Interrogating the Indian partners on their motive of partnership is a good start: If they can't go beyond talking about a large number of students on the table - it is always the same story in India but these students are savvier than expected - it is safe to assume that the partnership will not work. Neither of the parties should go into a partnership just because there are a chunk of students to recruit: That's not what good education partnerships are all about. If the conversation is about how the two institutions can create better education, then, and I shall contend, only then, the relationship may actually work. And, this is indeed why who actually fronts the partnership becomes important: The business people on both sides talking the language of opportunity have messed up so frequently that perhaps some educational perspective better serves both sides now.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Consumer University: Understanding Financialisation

My contention that the idea of the university has changed since last time we noticed and talked about such changes (in works such as Jencks and Riesman's The Academic Revolution) and undergone what amounts to an 'Institutional Corruption', which undermines the effectiveness of the institution in discharging its public duty and undermines the public trust in the institution in discharging its public duties; and that such changes are primarily due to 'financialisation' of the institution, which can roughly be understood as enabling finance (financial institutions, financial rules, financial prism) to determine the shape, the priorities and the objectives of the institution.

Financialisation as a concept is attracting an increasing amount of scholarly interest. While the concept has popular acceptance, and there is a growing unease about the roles financial institutions play in our societies and how they shape the priorities, financialisation as a concept has wider implications than just the overwhelming impact of banks and global financial institutions in all walks of life. The non-financial institutions, such as companies not in the business of finance, or households, are as much participants of the financialisation process as the banks. So, financialisation is not about banks eating the world, but rather the values, rules and priorities set by finance defining everything that we do, and our institutions do. The process of financialisation can be traced at the root of the 'taxpayers' money' thinking - when was the taxpayers' money really taxpayers' money in history - whose main purpose is really to make state functions subservient to the rules of finance; ditto for looking at issues such as public health, politics, and indeed education, where the discussions are dominated by the financial priorities of each trade rather than medicinal, political or educational priorities, respectively. 

[The following discussion at the Royal Society of Arts presents a comprehensive overview of the processes of Financialisation for those interested.]

My thesis is that the changes in the university over the last two decades are best understood in the context of financialisation. This is grand narrative about the missing grand narratives: That rules of finance, and only the rules of finance, trumps all other rules and priorities. This explains to me why, as I am told, that today's Vice Chancellors of UK universities have to be enormously savvy 'managers', just like a CEO of a large and complex organisation, and why the 'business of the university' is increasingly about its assets rather than its students and curriculum. It also explains to me why rankings, often devoid of content, matters more to an university leader more than the sense of a community, why the arguments about public education are losing ground, why debt is the favoured way of funding Higher Education than grants, why the oxymoron 'result-oriented research' has become acceptable (and universities such as Stanford have gained worldwide prominence, as discussed in this brilliant New Yorker piece, Get Rich U), why the faculty work has increasingly become about getting the research money rather than better teaching and why certain disciplines have gained ground while others have lost out. 

The 'financialisation' thesis has two clear implications. First, it runs parallel to the 'marketisation' thesis - the concern shared by many educators about the problematic implications of the market forces unleashed in education - but is all pervasive. Marketisation is one, perhaps the visible, part of financialisation, often used by educators to agitate against the changing nature of the education market, and to criticise the newly emergent forms, such as For-profits. However, interrogating financialisation may require the educator to question their own practices, and to confront the limitations of their own public commitment, and hence, usually shunned. But agitating marketisation is futile if the financialisation of the universities is to be accepted as normal, which is the stance of most public and Not-for-Profit universities.

Second, my argument is that financialisation is the reason for the aforesaid 'institutional corruption'. Remember, Lessig's formulation of institutional corruption is value neutral, it is neither right nor wrong, but somewhat detrimental to the continuation of the public role of an institution. Universities were expected to play a public role since the Enlightenment and subsequent rise of the nation states; its current prestige and legitimacy, the reason why millions of students want to go to university and an university degree is accepted as common currency for knowledge and competence, stem from this assumed public role. Financialisation, however, effectively undermines both the effectiveness of that public role and public trust in the institution. This may range from the issues of conflict of interest in research (such as the ones reported by New York Times), or the effectiveness of learning at an university when smart students from top universities still engage in destructive and ultimately self-defeating behaviour in the middle of the financial collapse. It may indeed explain a number of problems observed in the universities, such as grade inflation, increasingly easier work load, ranking obsession and plagiarism, all of which are rising rather than declining despite increasing awareness and new measures to combat these problems. 

I would, however, concentrate on one overarching effect of Financialisation, which I label as 'Consumerisation' (hence, my exploration of the 'Consumer University'), which may help explain many of these effects and why the twenty-first century university may look like a failing institution (despite its unprecedented current popularity). 

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