Monday, March 30, 2015

Indian Higher Education - The Origins Story

The Director in charge of a new university in India told me that he wanted to institute a Gurukul system, where students and teachers would live in the same campus and every student will be attached to a personal mentor. For him, this was going back to the origins - the ancient Indian tradition of instruction by a Guru - which should help regain the lost heritage that was India.

This is not exceptional. There is a search for this lost tradition all over India. There are lengthy discussions, and well-meaning initiatives, about value education, schools that espouse traditional values, a return to Hindi and Sanskrit in the curriculum, and more bizarrely, invocation of mythical technological achievements and fictitious glories. India, confounded by the forces of globalisation and pressed to find its identity beyond the consumer ethic, is intently looking rearward for a model of Higher Education.

What this reaction is against is the modern Higher Education system that India has had for the last two hundred years. Ancient Indian Education, for all its glory, did not make the transition to the modern times. It was more or less reinvented by the Colonists of the British Raj, and that happened in two phases. It is important to revisit this origins story, even if only in broad generalisations, to understand the trajectory today, both of rejection and the desire to revive, and to speculate on the future.

India did have great universities, which would have featured at the top of global rankings if it existed then, much before the great European universities came into being. Indian philosophy, which grew alongside its religion (like medieval Europe, but unlike Greece) prospered in these universities, as did science, medicine and technology. It attracted students and scholars from all over Asia, and it did send out its share of scholars and students to other lands. It was richly supported by Indian kings, who protected them as well. So, state, religion and scholarship went hand in hand, and it ensured excellence, as we will call it today.

Once these Hindu and Budhdhist kingdoms withered though, the universities, like other institutions of the state, were exposed to the full wrath of the invading Islamic armies. They destroyed these ancient universities, looting and burning and killing many students and scholars. They were wiping out a culture to institute a new one, which is not unlike any invading army ever since, and the universities were integral to the culture they wanted to get rid of.

In its place, the new Emperors and Kings established theocratic institutions, schools of music and art, but philosophy and science may have had a relative decline. Even more entwined with the state, now fully dependent on the state handouts, scholarship in India somewhat confined itself to somewhat utilitarian ends of religion, law and trade. Many Indian commentators, particularly those leading the charge of revivalism today, see this as a thousand year decline, a period when India lost its technological and scientific lead, and its philosophy got subsumed to theocracy. In fact, one Islamic empire would crumble to another - to the Mughals - as India did not have the knowledge of gunpowder, which the invading Central Asians learnt from China.

This is a time of great reform movements, indeed, but these ideas, both of Hindu and Islamic heritage, will come from outside the institutions, rather than from inside. The students and scholars would still be coming to India, marvelling at its great wealth and culture. India would be exposed to globalisation through them, to external ideas and cultures, and absorb much of it - but this was not the time for great Indian universities or world-leading scholarship any more. There would be great courts assembled by enlightened emperors, beautiful poetry and architecture (so the ideas of decline are perhaps overstated) - but the whole civilisation was settled in a resource-rich comfortable existence, led by highly powerful, militarised and centralised kingdoms and empires. 

Given the technological and social backwardness, though, it was unsurprising that these empires would be overcome by Europeans. The European ascendancy in India were supported by superior technology, no doubt, but also supported by local groups disenfranchised by the dominant empires. In many ways, Hindus worked with Europeans against the dominant Muslim Kings and their courts, and Sikhs joined the European armies in great numbers. And, the English, among all the Europeans, understood the dynamic better than others, and sought to make it work for them - eventually, with great success.

One may say the English landed with an empire without really planning for it. They fought battles for trading rights (and for rights not to pay arbitrary taxes) and with support of local groups, landed up with large chunks of territories, often heavily populated and economically rich, without having the wherewithal to administer them. The first impulses of modern Higher Education in India came from this need to administer begotten territories, and the first generation of education funding by the East India Company (a join stock company incorporated in London, which had English Aristocrats and Middle Classes for shareholders and officers) were all directed at setting up institutions for training of officers in local customs and languages. This was not about training of the natives, this was not about philosophy, science or culture - this was about training English officers to govern Indian territories which the company landed up with.

This changed qualitatively after a quantitative change in the Companys domain, bigger territories, and as more complex administrative tasks, pilferage by greedy officials and bigger wars, including those with European rivals, gradually ate away its profits. There were signs that the locals were becoming restive, as the unchecked profiteering of the company were wearing down the social structures and disenfranchising the very elite which installed it in power. The British crown eventually stepped in to govern India, and one of the key changes this brought in was a doctrine for educating the natives - in the British way! 

In reverse of the earlier policy of learning and preserving Indian languages and culture, the new policy was about training Indian natives on Western science, culture and ways of life. The whole system of education was utilitarian - the point was to get a government job in the end - and it focused not on social harmony but on division - of creating a ruling elite who would work for the empire. This system would eventually become very successful, and the British empire would extend its lifespan by a century - and this system would refuse to die even after the Independence. There would be other Indian  universities, prompted by social/cultural (Benares Hindu University, Annamalai University), nationalist (Jadavpur University) or Romantic (Viswabharati) notions, but the dominant utilitarian theme of Indian Higher Education would persist. It would be about jobs and money from the very start.

And, it still is. Today, even after almost 70 years of independence, Indian Higher Education continued in the tradition. One reason for this is India has been a stable society, free of any shocks or any equivalent of cultural revolution. Nehru, in envisioning the Modern India, created great technology institutions, but not great universities or mass Higher Education systems. Indeed, there was some notable achievements in science (in computing, space exploration etc) and a great many Indians have made significant contributions to all aspects of human progress while abroad, but Indian Higher Education has manifestly failed to make such achievements broadbased. Indian universities lagged all others in scholarship and new thinking, and at best, remained narrowly utilitarian. 

This is the model which is being questioned now, as India faces globalisation and confused by it. Its sense of identity is deeply disturbed - and its universities provide no answer to such confusion. Its cost-driven opportunistic model of global commerce are being challenged in the face of a new wave of global convergence (when production returns home) and its democracy is challenged by its own structural failings. The answer that many, including my correspondents, are providing that everything was alright in the past, but the origins story of Indian Higher Education may point to a narrative of progression hand in hand with the powers of the day. Following that morale may mean looking for answers in the future rather than in the past.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Reclaiming My Interests

I am in between two trips, which, different as they are, perhaps represent my moment in life rather accurately.

I came back from New York, after a work trip. During this, I got to see some sights, including the General Assembly of the United Nations (courtesy an old friend) and the Global Headquarters of IBM, including the CEOs offices etc. In many ways, they were similar - a representation of global ambitions, political and commercial - and representative of a long history of progress. Particularly notable was the Herman Hollerith Room across the corridor from the IBM Board Room, named after a pioneer in computing and the founder of one of the companies that later became IBM, which is used for sitting the guests visiting the top Global executives of IBM (including serving as Prayer Room for visitors from Saudi Arabia when needed). This room featured a tabulating machine that was used in one of the first US census, just like the other various artifacts of technological history that adorn this building. The whole thing, but particularly the IBM HQ stood for a sort of industrial global ambition that I serve in my work, advancing the cause with my skills and experience during my waking moments.

The next week, when I travel again, is going to be different. I shall again be walking around, this time in Prague and Vienna. This is a holiday trip built around Easter, but no less intensive. I go to Prague, Vienna and then Salzburg, and do a train trip across the Bavarian Alps to Zurich and then London. This is a sort of a pilgrimage trip to the houses of Kafka and Freud, which features on my itinerary prominently, and the customary afternoons in Viennese cafes and opera. There are museums and places too, following the usual tourist routes, but for me, it is those dead men who are the most important. The point of this trip is to stand at the doorways of Cafe Central in Vienna as if to catch the moment when a young Freud or Schnitzler would have walked in there, or to enjoy Czech cuisine at Cafe Louvre (again, courtesy a friend) where Einstein or Kafka would have dined. This bit is my time with ideas, indulging in my obsession to live at a time of hope and imagination, of being surrounded by enlightenment. This is, in short, representation of a life I want to live.

Indeed, my life now, mid-life, is really in the middle. It is not just about a time of lost freshness, in Henry James words, but rather of a profound desire to make a break and start anew. This is not a crisis - indeed, there are those who think I want to run away from my life, not true - but rather a sense of empowered destiny that guide me. I do not want to run away from my life, but rather create one, as I have always sought to do in the past. This is mid-life but with an eye to the future. Despite being farsighted by now, I take this in a good spirit rather than any sense of loss. I am ready to start again, but not by running away.

This is why Kafka and Freud matter to me. I live in two worlds, but not uncomfortably in either. I take the stance of an observer, of trying to absorb any ideas that may come out of either - absorbing, not judging - and indulge myself in creating new experiences and possibilities, that may open doors for more new experiences. While I am at no break point of life, every point of life for me represent a break. Rather than living a life which will be worth living many a times, just as Nietzsche would have wanted, my quest is to live a series of unique moments, defying the occurrence not just of the past but also of other men's ideas too. All my ideas are directed towards creation of that uniqueness, of escaping the repetitiveness of past or of conformity. 

This is the moment to reclaim my interest. This is the time to pursue those things that fascinate me - creative lives, enlightened circles, ideas that can change the world - and gradually unshackle my life from the structures of mediocrity that I bought into, perhaps too easily. 



Thursday, March 26, 2015

Education-to-Employment - Can There Be A Global Solution?

Could there possibly be a Global Solution for the Education-to-Employment problem?

The question can be answered at two levels. First is to see the contrast between the national and the global. A solution shaped around the local labour markets, sensitive to cultural nuances and regulatory quirks, can be contrasted with the ideas of some kind of universal solution, something that works everywhere.

This latter view of the world is, in many ways, increasingly common and incredibly arrogant. This is the view from the top, in which the world is just a poor version of the West, all waiting for some kind of redemption. This proselytising view has two incompatible assumptions at its heart. First, it works on the basis that the Western education models are broken, because they do not deliver the desired outcome, namely, employment (or more broadly, occupation) at the right level. Next, it makes a further assumption that some kind of universal model, based on what has been done in the West, could solve the problem for the rest of the world. This apparent anomaly is explained away either with the worldview that the developing countries are just on the path that the Western economies have traversed before and that Private Sector innovation can fix the problems inherent in the education models in the West. However, developing countries are following a different path than how the developed countries got there (for more on this, see my earlier post Futureducation - Preparing For The Wrong Future) and the private sector has not been any good at innovation in education (with the possible exception of education marketing) than the public universities, at least so far.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the attempts at a global solution mostly fail. It is too easy to overlook the differences, both the structural differences of the labour markets as well as of the culture systems, while engaging with global companies and global investors. There is no one size fits all in international markets - and definitely not in education, where the nation state is alive and well. Contrary to the assumptions made in the conference rooms in the West, the Chinese are not unhappy with their one-party state (which may indeed be more meritocratic than the political institutions in the West) and the Indians can perfectly reconcile a technology job and an arranged marriage (which may require adjustments, but is not that the essence of relationships, they would ask). And, indeed, the labour markets are set to diverge, rather than converge, as we shift away from export-led growth to economic growth driven by domestic consumption. And, finally, but fatally for those who believe in apocalyptic globalisation (a term coined by Pankaj Ghemawat of IESE), languages are not dead yet. Even if English is spoken in different countries, it is different English in different countries (which is an insurmountable problem for machine translation) - and local languages, as we deal more and more with inner markets, are more, and not less important.

However, there is another way of looking at the Education-to-Employment problem. Almost every student can be made to improve, made enabled for a better life and more equipped professionally, if one could have a personalised education. The great folly of modern education may actually be the quest of industrial scale, though there were not many alternatives given the requirements of industrial development and the quest for social justice. But the personal nature of education, the current experience may underline, was an unacceptable trade-off. This may be at the heart of the Education-to-Employment problem, that education has moved too far away from the interests and lives of students.

Now, there is no way that one could provide a personalised education to the millions of people seeking it, even if there were enough educators available. The only hope of doing so, and thus narrowing the E2E gap rests on technological applications, which may indeed personalise the experience of education more than any other means. The problem is indeed that the technology talk goes hand in hand with the discussions of global scale - primarily because technology-led education needs capital and capital loves the ideas of secular globalisation - and the whole proposition becomes self-cannibalising. In Education, the challenge so far has been the black-and-white view of technology most people in the field adapted, and that technologies of personal engagement and attention have not been sufficiently distinguished from technologies of scale.

Indeed, this is where one could see how an universal solution can emerge. As with many other things at this day and age, the key is not in closed proprietary education offerings in isolation of cultural and personal issues, but development of an open framework backed by technologies, and pedagogy, of personal engagement and development. This point of openness can not be overemphasised, given the diversity. However, while we talk about open frameworks, institutions and investors are chasing proprietary content, credentials and glitzy communication to win the game. Needless to say, they are likely to falter at the twin reefs of cultural distance and the very personal nature of education.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

UK Higher Education - Election Time!

With elections seven weeks away, the UK Higher Ed community is presumably anxious. Last election marked a decisive turning point for the UK Higher Ed sector - the Cameron Government pursued twin strategies of an inadequately thought through funding reform and a plainly disastrous clampdown on student immigration - which would have long term consequences for the sector as a whole. With the UK political debate becoming more vicious and backward-looking, the UK universities, many of whom are among the best among the world, can be understandably worried. In the last five years, Higher Education has become more global, except in the UK. Now that the major parties are all united in an UKIP-inspired fear of Europe, this may turn out to be proverbial nail - and start the eventual long term decline.

One could reasonably expect some lengthier, weightier reviews of the impact of David Camerons five years in office on the UK Higher Education sector coming out in the next few weeks. However, some headline observations are inescapable.

First, through its funding review, the Government has created a system, which works for no one. It has indebted the students more and discouraged them from going into Higher Education, accentuating the class divide even further. It has left a big hole in public funding, and when the accounting illusions go away, UK would have spent more money running the new system than it would have under the old. Everyone wants to change the system as it is now, including the government, and it would indeed change. The government almost officially hopes that the number of people entering Higher Education would go down, a demographic projection which takes no account of rising aspirations and increasingly common incidences of part time and distance learning. The funding changes have created winners and losers among the UK universities, leaving some of the departments, particularly in Humanities, in clear danger of closing.

Hand in hand with this, the Governments unthinking approach to curb student immigration has successfully persuaded the brighter students to look elsewhere, while creating a greater incentive for unscrupulous operators and bogus students. In the five years, increasingly vicious and sophisticated systems of fraud, sometimes involving larger organisations such as testing companies and banks, have been reported. While the students coming to the UK from China did not decline in absolute terms, a factoid much trumpeted by the Ministers concerned, everyone knew about the relative decline - and indeed, massive reversals in numbers coming from countries such as India (and broader South Asia), which, due to cultural affinity and demographics, was a more potent source of students and influence for the UK Higher Education. In fact, if one was to look, a shift away from the UK, both towards institution building at home and to alternate education destinations such as Malaysia, should be considered the overall legacy of Cameron Government, who wanted to run a Global Financial Centre without globalisation.

Third, and it must be mentioned, the UK governments twin changes destroyed the chances of British Private Education companies. At a time when investments in innovative, globally minded, private education companies are the next big thing on the other side of the Atlantic (despite the troubles of big For-Profit colleges), cutting off the UK Private Higher Education sector from its international markets was a big mistake. The effect is visible - American companies are starting to spread across the Commonwealth, a traditional market for British companies - and the next wave, which does not involve student migration, but technology-facilitated spread of education in various countries, would not be dominated by British private players or start-ups.

Would there be some urgent rethinking after the elections? It can indeed get worse with the realignment of coalitions, and indeed, UK can leave Europe in the end. The Labour Party, even if it wins power, has abandoned its traditional left of the centre worldview, and have become too dominated by posh politicians under the sway of opinion polls. The only hope of sanity - and I say this because fear and denial are not sane responses to globalisation - rests with parties on the fringe, like SNP or the Greens, and even a depleted Liberal Democrats, which should eventually get rid of its one-of-them leader and find an identity for itself. Indeed, SNP will be driven by the interests of Scotland, but a stronger Higher Education sector and a more sensible immigration policy, both of which Scotland may need, independent or not, might work out well for rest of the UK. Indeed, this is too much to hope for - and we shall indeed get muddle, incoherent policies etc, as we have endured so far. But without a clear commitment to build a strong, internationally acclaimed Higher Education sector, Britains dwindling stock internationally is in real danger of disappearance.



Friday, March 20, 2015

New Ideas in Higher Education

Someone told me, new ideas in Higher Education do not work. He has a point - even Gerald Grant and David Riesman conclude along the same lines in their The Perpetual Dream: Reform and Experiment in the American College - and paradoxically, the worse the crisis of educational exclusion or irrelevance in a country, the more difficult it is to introduce new ideas. The reason perhaps is that though in theory Higher Education is an enabler of social mobility, in practise, in many places, it is only a system of perpetuating social privilege. And, hence, even those who seek to climb the social ladder approach Higher Education with a conforming attitude, trying to disrupt everything else but not change the way to the gate of disruption. The lack of venturesome consumption, as Amar Bhide will put it, makes new enterprise and innovation extremely difficult in education.

It does not indeed mean that businesses do not make money in Higher Education. They do, and lots of it. But, paradoxically for business theorists, the conventional ones make more money than the disruptive one. Higher Education remains a land-grab business, where money and influence still trump ideas and technologies, at least at the outset. Someone investing in education in India tells me that while his investments in ed-tech became a baggage, he made his money from a face-to-face coaching business he invested in. Not new ideas, but financial muscle, won him the game.

But, then, it is a generalisation that new ideas do not make money in Higher Education. My favourite example is certification business. This is one area where private For-Profit businesses (and business units of large companies) have been extremely successful. Not many educationalists study certification businesses because they do not consider them to be part of Higher Education, and not many business theorists look at certification as it is too specific an industry for them to generalise the practises. One may, however, draw lessons from the certification businesses because they did not focus on disrupting the Higher Education sector, which is tough, and instead focused on creating a new, mass segment for themselves, delivering the same outcomes - higher order abilities and social mobility - that Higher Education promises to do.

Now, one may think that certification businesses are difficult to create, and that these are past their prime. Both of these impressions may be wrong. It is not just IBM and Ciscos of the world that create certifications. A number of smaller companies created successful certification programmes and executed them well. They needed to create the right partnership with employers, and focus on specific and emergent skill areas, but most of them have done reasonably well once they have done so. And, indeed, the certification game is not over yet. Its newest avatar may be the Micro-degrees and Nano-degrees that we are talking about, as well as all the coding boot camps that are becoming such a rage. 
In this, there are great lessons how to create new offerings in a sector, which seems laden with conservative customers. Part of it is already tried-and-tested design research. Do not ask the customer whether they would like a new idea in education, because they would not, but observe what they are doing education for - and find an easier way to deliver the same outcome. Millions of students who go to university today go there for job, career, social mobility, and one could find a better way of doing this through a certification-type programme. Part of it also to understand the regulatory hurdles - education systems are anti-innovation because it is often closely and ineptly regulated - and to bypass them completely. Many disruptive Higher Ed businesses stumble (including one I created in the past) because they spend too much time and energy focused on conforming to the regulatory game, only to find out that once they are into that game, their students want them to play the game as it is played, with ranking, research and all that. It is actually the other way around - understanding niche sectors, mapping the consumers and coming up with offerings that deliver!

These ideas are not new, but many people miss it because they focus too closely on the dynamics of the education sector and get consumed in the talk. However, there are interesting new ventures to watch if one could afford to look into the periphery (one maxim of innovation is that it always happens in the periphery). For example, the Micro-degrees and Coding boot camps are already collaborating with established universities, keeping two sides of the bargain. It is easy, all universities in the world have some kind of system to recognise prior learning and create a credit structure for the same. With this combination, one could create a structure of certification plus a job plus lifelong learning leading to top-up with an university degree, which may present significant advantages for students over their peers who would rather follow the convention. Strangely, the investors would not usually back these ideas - and back ones trying to play the degree game instead - because they have the same limited perspective about how Higher Education should be changed and miss the lessons from certification industry altogether.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

About Democratic Education

Democracy is not just a political arrangement. It is a huge mistake to think about democracy purely in terms of political process, because then we miss the requirement of embedding this socially. Fareed Zakaria made the point that the failure of exported democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq was because it did not precede with constitutionalism and rule of law, as it did in the mature democracies in the West. But, I shall argue, that constitutionalism and rule of law did not come from nowhere. It was a result of long struggles or violent revolutions, and sometimes, it came from concessions made in the fear of impending revolution. And, indeed, the dynamic that produced the revolutionary stirrings, and the liberal instincts for constitutionalism, were firmly embedded in the social dynamics of education and economic participation.

Now, as we look to make democracy as a deliberate rather than an emergent phenomena, we must look beyond the mere mechanics to these aspects of social dynamic. The various attempts at exporting constitutionalism, following the thinking of Mr Zakaria and others, have manifestly failed to take roots in the absence of the social context. And, indeed, while we looked away and busied ourselves with political engineering, the social context of democracy weakened - not just in the Middle East and Central Asia, where our hearts and minds were focused, but also in the American Heartland and Western Europe, and in poster democracies such as India and South Africa. And, one could point to the two factors - an overtly technocratic education and economic exclusion - as what would have gone wrong across these countries.

Despite such failures, we continue to look for solutions in the wrong places. The current conversation about democracy has moved over from constitutionalism to economic development, but its proponents have failed to understand the difference between development and inclusion, and indeed, between jobs, which they think this is about, and participation. Often, the coincidence that the Western countries got rich at the same time as they became democratic is interpreted wrongly as a causal relationship - they became democratic because they got rich (see my argument about why India is democratic here) - and not the other way round, they became rich as their political and economic participation complimented each other. The point is, of course, the mere growth of GDP does not guarantee democracy, as we see from examples ranging from Saudi Arabia to China. And, jobs - as a statistical figure - do not mean economic participation, as many of the jobs could just be about mere existence of a fairly fragile kind. So, the twin thrust of policy - to enhance GDP and to create jobs - which China, for one, did pretty well so far, is misdirected as far as development of democracy is concerned. 

Indeed, there are some who would argue that democracy in itself can not be the goal. This may sound problematic, but the view from Wall Street and from the Forbidden City may be in agreement here. Dambisa Moyo would indeed argue that democracy and freedom are wrong aspirations when people don't have enough to eat, and China provides a much better model for African countries, for example, than England. This technocratic view is in ascendancy right now, and it sounds sweet not just to China, but to American Bankers pedalling globalisation and assorted politicians in Delhi and London as well. This view takes not just historical context, but its social significance out of democracy too - and development becomes a mere technocratic thing, to be delivered by a select, preferably expat, elite, and to be consumed by all. This is indeed not a vision informed by aspirations of participation or inclusion, but consumption and that all-pervasive thing, jobs.

The point, indeed, is that there is no such thing as development without participation. An economy, or a society if we concede its existence, can not be driven to a course optimal for everyone without the participation of everyone. If we let politicians decide for ourselves, they run it to their own pleasure and profit. We let bankers do it for us, they are the ones who run away with money. And, whatever system we settle for other than democratic participation will eventually - and now that history has indeed accelerated, this may happen in short order - produce a system that would lead to social breakdown. And, Mrs Thatcher may have believed that there is no such thing as society, but we, and our economies, survive only because of it.

This, then, brings the discussion to the point of education, which needs to enable, and create conditions for, democratic participation. Without it, the economic participation and decision making that we need to maintain social stability may quickly degenerate into anarchy. And, yet, we are indeed moving away from a model of education to create citizens - and merely directing our students to be consumers and job-seekers, who give up their own economic well-being to powers-that-be (not the invisible hand of the market, but the very visible interests of global bankers) and political participation to a class of people who seek arbitrage in such disconnection. This is indeed the problem of democratic education - how to restore the social, economic and political participation of the students and reverse the narrow notions of democracy to be best left to some operatives and restore the issues of freedom and responsibility to the centre-stage. 

And, indeed, as with democracy itself, we have a problem of self-interested rhetoric obscuring real issues. There is a school of thought, and Fareed Zakaria has now joined in, that a particular kind of education, liberal education, is key to such democratic participation. The point is that the proponents of Liberal Education are indeed to blame primarily for its marginal status now, because this was designed to be an education in privilege (culture) for the privileged and by the privileged (cloaked in a specialist language and obscure concepts divorced from concerns of ordinary life). The argument for a democratic education, as I am making here, is not the argument for liberal education in a particular form. In fact, such elitism is as anti-democratic as any other, and such either-or logic reconfirms the myth that democracy needs special education rather than being the bedrock of any education, and indeed, that democracy needs a special elite to spearhead it.

In fact, this division, that there is one education for those who think, and another for those who have to carry out the orders, classified under the label of vocationalism, is what constrains democracy and keep the gates closed on participation. That democracy is for every one to participate, some of whom may have to get a professional education and a business career to survive, should be accepted and actively pursued. As democracies today are very different from democracies in the early twentieth century, when most of our education philosophies were conceived, our education needs to be very different today - non-sectarian, open and inclusive. The point is, of course, while we keep moaning about the crisis of democracy, we do not do enough to promote educational participation (as we do not do enough for economic participation) and instead, contend ourselves in the false comfort of excellence, which, in and by itself, means nothing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Gandhi and Indian Democracy

That India opted to be democratic, and remained so, goes to the credit of Pandit Nehru, India's first Prime Minister. Nehru was a democratic man, in rhetoric and in practise, and despite his enormous popularity and stature inside and outside the country, he successfully avoided the entrapment of 'Big Man' syndrome, which afflicted so many of his contemporary leaders of new nations. It was a great exercise of imagination, and logistics (Ramchandra Guha talks about this in his masterly India After Gandhi) to get an enormous, diverse, largely poor and mostly illiterate country on the democratic path. It defied most theories about democracy that political scientists propound - that democracy is mostly a rich country thing - and became the crowing glory for India, and indeed a very convenient excuse for all its failings.

At a time when Indian democracy, along with democracies all around the world, is facing existential dangers from the forces of globalisation and the aftershocks of Great Recession, it is worth looking at India one more time and perhaps go beyond Nehru's commitment, which was indeed whole-hearted and unwavering, and try to understand why democracy became a given, almost a part of the Indian political environment. And, here, I shall argue, we can not ignore Gandhi's influence.

The contribution of Gandhi in the Indian political process, if we can distill it to a single thing, is to open the gates of political participation to those who were previously excluded. The peasants, the poor, the untouchables, the labourers, those who could not read or write and who were too busy and too grateful to be just surviving, were all brought in to the Indian National Movement by Gandhi. He mobilised Indian villages against the cities. Before him, the Indian politics were dominated by the English speaking Middle Classes, conducting their business in a gentlemanly manner but primarily restricting it to the matters of their own concerns, positions and privileges. Gandhi was disruptive, and many resented his influence and blamed him for lawlessness. But, he, undeterred, repeatedly took up causes of poor people, the rights to make salt from sea-water being one, and the rights of labourers and landless peasants, often against the same privileged people and landowning classes who dominated the Indian politics up to that point (one must also remember that the support for Pakistan as a separate country came initially from large Muslim landowners, who feared the socialistic tendencies of the Congress leadership).

And, indeed, he built the Indian National Movement around a non-violent ethos, where mass participation, rather than political strategies of the elite, was the defining factor. It was indeed messy, slow and even indeterminate, but, true to his commitment to right means rather than the right end, Gandhi propagated a value system very different from similar Independence Struggles (or struggles of emancipation) that we would see elsewhere in the world. 

This, the mass participation, along with non-violence and the commitment to means, defined the political culture of modern India. Indeed, this is a gross generalisation and I accept that these ideals were only imperfectly followed on. But, this defined a structure where not the elite, but a considerably larger mass of people defined the political process. In fact, as Devesh Kapur argues, Indian Professional Elite, fearful that they would lose their privilege, often voted with their feet after the Independence (which, as an interesting contrast, Pakistani Landed Elite could not do, and had ended up obstructing the democratic process in that country ever since).

In summary, what I am arguing is that there are no surprises that India is poor and democratic. India is democratic because it is poor, and because its political heritage is built around the inclusion of the poor. This is not a country which was led into independence by a small group of brilliant men or revolutionaries (in fact, such elite leadership may be one of the key problems in the communist doctrine) - but rather by an idea that united a broad base of people, and which its elite actually mostly resisted. To see India's democracy as a gift from Nehru, notwithstanding his vision, is casting this unique feat into our usual narrative, an act of dangerous omission. This is the narrative we must now revisit, when we are intent on creating a model of Development driven by the elite, and reappraise the idea of Mahatma against the top-down models such as China's which we have now come to admire.




The Concept of Democratic Merit

Lani Guinier has written an important book, which is also a pleasure to read, and this is about the concept of Democratic Merit. Part polemic, against the mindless system of SAT-driven education system in the United States, part Education Treatise and partly high minded discourse on how democratic mindsets work, it should be read not just in the US but in other countries and contexts, because education is all too often seen as a technical thing focused on preparing Doctors and Engineers, and divorced from its social role altogether.

The argument in Professor Guinier's book hinges upon a definition of merit given by the Nobel-Laureate Economist, Professor Amartya Sen. In Professor Sen's view, merit is an incentive system for the actions the society values. The merit system as defined by SAT (and other tests), an individualistic, context-blind ability and intelligence, this book argues, is out of step with the requirement of a democratic society. Ms Guinier expands her argument to include a number of examples from institutions cultivating merit according to democratic values, and going beyond the individualistic, competitive ethos. These institutions value diversity, mutual respect and cooperation, and operates without the winner-takes-all approach of the American, and by extension, many other Higher Education systems globally.

Despite all those merits, this is a flawed book. One may start with the title - it sets an expectation which is quite contrary to what it delivers. The point of this book is to redefine the idea of merit in democratic context, indeed a worthy goal and even an urgent one - given the trouble democracy is having globally - but not to undermine the concept of meritocracy itself and argue in favour of some dated system of privilege. The other issue is that the book perhaps tries to do too much at the same time, pointing to how SAT system is technically flawed and how a person of privilege can easily play the system, which detracts from the central theme of what should our concept of merit be in the first place. 

Having said this, the point that the current conception of meritocracy has become just an excuse of perpetuating social privileges - and consequent inequality - is indeed a fair point. Robert Putnam, among others, is pointing to debilitating effects of such a social arrangement, and one needs to be sensitive about the same. However, this part of the argument relates to a very American problem, at least presently. Being a reader living outside the United States, the main takeaway for me is the key conception of democratic merit, and various ways of fostering this within the Education environment, which has global applicability.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

On A Naked Fakir in the Parliament Square

The unveiling of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the Parliament Square in London is a moment of triumph for the British Asian community. The statue of the man, who, like no other, represented an unique resistance to British commercial imperialism, being put at the very heart of such institution indicates the prominence and influence of the British Asians in the public life of the UK. The representatives of the community turned up in large numbers, along with a number of students from Hindu faith schools in London. It was a great moment of asserting a community identity and of celebrating integration in the life of their adopted country.

This is a triumph without a corresponding defeat though, fittingly for the man being celebrated. This is not one identity getting better of another - which is the usual zero-sum meaning we associate with the word 'triumph' - but the realisation of a much subtler message Gandhi embodied in his work. Vijay Merchant, the ex-Indian Cricketer who dropped out of the Indian Test Cricket Team in 1932 in protest against the treatment of Indian Nationalist leaders including Gandhi, told a story about Gandhi, which might be appropriate for the occasion. Mr Merchant described the moment when he had the opportunity to meet Gandhi in person first time and presented him with an autograph book, belonging to his sister. Gandhi took the autograph book and chose to sign on the page containing the autographs of all the members of the 1933 MCC Cricket Team (captained by Douglas Jardine) - and he appended his name at the bottom of the list, signing as "17. M K Gandhi". [A slightly different version of this story appears in Judson K Cornelius' Political Humour, which put Laxmi Merchant, Vijays sister, as the main protagonist] The message was indeed unequivocal - Gandhi saw no quarrels with the English Cricket Team, and by extension, the common people of England! Indeed, for a long period of time, he also served as a loyal member of the empire, serving as a Nurse in the Boer War and recruiting Indian servicemen for the Allies in the First World War. He, as a man who believed in the goodness of English people and the British sense of fairness and justice (not unlike many of the Founders of America, including Benjamin Franklin), does indeed have a rightful place in the Parliament Square in London.

However, an observer may also note the omnipresent irony, again quite fittingly for a man who was a master of sarcasm. It would not be amiss that the statue presents Gandhi in his trademark loincloth, which he adopted after dismissing his gentlemanly attire, and which earned him the epithet from a dismissive Churchill - "A Naked Fakir!" The presence of David Cameron, the Conservative British Prime Minister so keen on resurrecting some of Britains past glories, also highlight the irony - Churchill, the last Conservative Prime Minister during Gandhi's lifetime famously demanded to know "Why Gandhi is not dead yet?" when he was told about dying millions during the Bengal famine. The statue was unveiled by Shri Arun Jaitley, the current Indian Finance Minister, who built his political career as a leader of the student wing of Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu supremacist organisation which plotted for and carried out the assassination of Gandhi. To heighten the irony, the presence of a left-wing economist, Lord Meghnad Desai, and a famous Indian actor who made his name as a drunken violent young Indian, Amitabh Bachchan, should also be noted.

The timing of the unveiling of the statue also represents many a contradiction that marked Gandhi's life and career. He abstained from sex in his later life as he blamed himself for indulging in his lust for his wife during the moment his father, who he was supposed to be attending, died unattended. He spent 15th August 1947 without celebration and in fasting, in a decrepit house in Calcutta, as he saw India's  independence, which came with partition, as defeat, not a victory. The unveiling of his statue, fittingly, comes as India intends to embark on an undefined quest of 'Development', visualised as an unrestrained opportunity to evict the farmers from their lands to create roads, bridges and factories, in a direct opposition of whatever Gandhi stood for. 

To conclude, Gandhi's statue in the Parliament Square sums up his legacy in more ways than one. And, we may as well return to the theme of patricide, a powerful obsession throughout Gandhis own life, to understand what Gandhi means to Indians. The Swiss Philosopher, Bernard Imhasly, observed the deification of Gandhi - in his statues and numerous Mahatma Gandhi Roads that mark the Indian urban landscape - but the desertation of his message in modern India. Somewhat like a modern day Moses, who, in Freud's incisive portrayal, was killed by the Jews, the same people he helped liberate, Gandhi stands as a symbol, as our feeble minds crave for one and can not go beyond a statue to grasp the complex, higher order principles he really stood for. In that sense, the statue of Gandhi is both an illusion and a hope : An illusion, as this visible celebration undermines the abstractness of his vision which we proved ourselves incapable of carrying; And a hope, because it is a reminder of our patricide, a guilt that we may collectively carry, and a redemption that we may eventually seek.


1. Vijay Merchant In Memorium - Published 1988 by Marcus Cuoto, Bombay.
2. Moses the Man and Monotheistic Religion (1938) - Sigmund Freud
3. Why I Assassinated Gandhi (2015) - Nathuram Godse, Surya Bharati Prakashan, New Delhi
4. Gandhi and Churchill (2009) - Arthur Harman, Arrow
5. Churchill's Secret War (2011) - Madhusree Mukherjee, Basic Books.
6. The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (2015) - Makarand R Paranjape, Random House India.

Photo & Story - The Hindu (see full story here)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

On Leadership : Trust and Difference

Having worked in International Setting most of career, and having lived in four different countries and engaging in business in at least half a dozen others, one of most attractive conversation topic for me is - what makes an organisation effective globally?

In my work, I come across educational institutions which want to recruit students from all over the world, or businesses which want to trade, and indeed do, globally. I hear conference speeches and business presentations proclaiming global ambitions. I meet people dreaming of scale, globally. Yet, at the same time, I see the track record of global engagement to be one full of failures and disappointments, over-expectations and under-achievements. 

I believe the essential problem of constructing a really global organisation comes from the essential tension between trust versus difference. Any organisation wants to impose an uniform culture - and indeed, doing so is essential. Only by promoting an uniform culture can an organisation bring down the transaction costs between its various layers and functions, and become effective. However, it is important to see how this framework of culture is built. It is usually rooted in the trust between the founding members of the organisation, and this trust is built usually upon sameness. It is indeed extremely difficult to do it any other way.

However, on the other hand, handling global issues - markets, students, whatever it may be - need diversity of thinking and approaches. Drawing up Scott Page's now-famous observations, diverse teams often do better than teams made of similar members, because of their heterogeneous approaches. In case of a global business, such heterogeneity becomes crucial. 

So, my essential point is that one can not build a global organisation without being global inside first. But this poses a huge challenge to the requirements of cultural conformity that underlie the trust between the founding members. It may matter less to a large organisation, which has evolved over a long period of time and depends on a multi-layered decision making structure that combine a highly evolved framework of trust, an established culture and a structure that can manage the trade-offs that are necessary to take advantage of diversity. But for the start-ups and other smaller businesses, who are keen on being global, this trust-vs-difference tension is an almost insurmountable issue. One of the reasons I believe we are seeing the making of an enormous tech bubble (see here) because I see the investments backing the new global start-ups are insufficiently sensitive to the global culture issue. From a bankers vantage point - money indeed has no colour and flows much easily across the border than High Street businesses - such globalism may seem normal, but most start-ups stumble at it.

Finally, the trust-vs-difference trade-off is indeed one for leadership of an organisation to address. In fact, a crucial leadership task in today's world is to foster trust across difference. Yet too many leaders want to be culture-blind, and put their faith on technical rationality as embodied in financial models. And, this creates the difference between rhetoric and practise - and makes most businesses fall short of the global mindset they desperately need to succeed.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Employer Engagement In Higher Education

It is one of the things everyone wants to do and no one knows how. In theory, it works perfectly - employers need skilled people and educators can benefit from the insights and experience employers can bring to table - but, in practice, the time horizons of employers and educators are really very different. In the forever changing and intensely competitive world of business, there is little visibility of what comes next, a year from now, and there is little slack to devote to such long term considerations, at least at the operational level. Education, by definition, is a forward-looking enterprise, and any educator claiming to have a magic potion to skill people in a few weeks can safely be assumed to be a charlatan. And, therefore, despite the best of intentions, serious and substantiative Employer Engagement in Higher Education has remained one of those desirable, but unrealised, projects.

The time horizon issue is real, but it is not the only reason why Employer engagement is so hard. There are other, more avoidable, reasons why this engagement does not happen. These are things which educators can control, rather than complaining about the short-termism of the Employers. In fact, if and when educators address these issues and change their approach, one could reasonably expect the employers to see a framework they can really engage into. 

First, one needs to start with intent. Most educators pursue employers not really to engage with them or to understand their requirements, but to dangle their job prospects in front of applicants to get greater enrollment. This is partially because the educators are often tied to a framework defined by the regulators, and they can only do cosmetic changes to really address what the employers want. Instead, all they demand from the employers is their blessing - for marketing purposes. Given that only a handful of employers are being chased by all educators around the world, it is perhaps all too easy for the employers to see through this - and indeed, the ones which engage with educators are burnt by their experience when the dated curricula do not, as expected, produce the results for them. 

Second, as alluded to in the previous point, the educators often lack flexibility to really respond to employers requirements. They are often talking about only cosmetic changes, sitting atop a large pile of courses and assessments to keep the regulators happy. The insincerity of Employer Engagement is further magnified by the inflexibility of educational design. Most educators do not have the courage to defy the existing structures and create frameworks which educators can participate into. Indeed, employers themselves are often taking up the space, offering nano-degrees and micro-degrees etc. But, the educators still remain wedded to the prestige game, only allowing the employers a hands-off engagement. 

Third, because of the nature of the engagement, cosmetic and pursued for marketing purposes, educators often engage with the wrong kind of employers, who may not have a skills problem. From the marketing point of view, the employers one needs are the big brands, those which can attract the students to enroll. However, the bigger the brand, they have lesser problems in attracting better talent at a cheaper cost, given that the traditional Higher Ed system is churning out more graduates than ever. They are the ones least likely to participate in an experiment, as their business models are well set. In fact, experiments can be harmful to them, or so they think, if they engage with educators who do not come from the prestige end of the market - effectively making them part of the same approach that keeps educators away from employers in the first place. Indeed, there are other employers, sectors which are underserved, brands that are less known, less glamourous jobs (think outside banking and technology), but no one wants to engage with them. 

Finally, to top up the wrong approach combined with wrong employers, the educators also have the problem of wrong language. While the employers employ, the diffusion of modern linguistic philosophy across all disciplines allow educators a presumptive monopoly over meaning. When one talks about critical thinking, it is presumed that there is a certain way of defining it - the educators way - and all other ways of thinking about these terms are considered to be pedestrian. Lost in this engagement about what things really mean (employers often marvel how much time is spent by academics dissecting meaning of the words they thought were commonplace) is that meaning is constructed socially - and indeed, employers have a say. 

So, while there is indeed a mismatch of time horizons between educators and employers, the bigger problems come from insincerity in engagement, inflexibility in approach, incompatibility of requirements and incomprehension of the language in use. An effective strategy of employer engagement should address all these four issues - indeed, open the educational blackbox and embrace the employers with sincerity and seriousness - and this may address one of the biggest issues in modern Higher Education.




Thursday, March 12, 2015

Conversations 28 - My Next Life

If last half-year of travelling changed anything for me, it is that my desire for an immediate return to India has somewhat dimmed. The personal reasons remain as valid as ever, but the prospect of engaging into Indian Higher Education is perhaps too daunting. While my work has primarily been about innovation in education, no talk of innovation  is welcome in Indian Higher Education. It is a sector focused essentially on carrying forward the colonial division of society, so rooted in the past, corrupted by political interference and black money, and regulated ineptly. There are indeed exceptions, world-class institutions such as the IITs and IIScs, committed research establishments, and genuinely philanthropic entities doing good, but my focus - Mass Higher Education - is afflicted by practises that one would not want to get involved in.

This indeed means rethinking my plans for the next few years, and perhaps reviving one of the plans I almost abandoned in my quest to find a way to return to India. This is about completing my Doctoral studies, which I did seriously engage into at one stage, only to let it slip down on my priorities as I embarked on an entrepreneurial life. This may indeed mean committing another three to five years of my life, but this is only an unfinished agenda that I was carrying throughout. Besides, this allows me to engage into various international work, including that in India. Indeed, engaging with India with a longer term perspective is what I want to do, but close encounters in the last few months have dissuaded me from packing my bags just yet.

Given this, I am returning to my previous work on For-Profit Higher Education. The focus of my graduate work was indeed to study For-Profit Higher Ed, primarily in the United States but also globally, and specifically to understand the Corporate Governance models of these entities and corresponding regulatory aspects. My view is that For-Profits have played a distinctive and useful role in Mass Higher Education, and if we are to look at a more equitable future with more people having access to better education, For-Profit forms may be an indispensable part of the Higher Education sector that we must build. Yet, For-Profits have significant limitations too, and it has proved itself to be prone to catastrophic failure. Successful For-Profit entities have crumbled due to over-reach, poor delivery or even good old fraud, as if, and this is my contention, the governance structure of these entities are essentially flawed.

This is one thing which is attracting a lot of discussion now, not for For-Profit Higher Education, but regarding Corporate Governance in general. The Oxford academic Colin Mayer called for a re-assessment of Corporate Governance models (and associated tax codes) for those businesses engaged in what used to be called a Public Service. As we rely more and more on For-Profits in Higher Education, both from the policy-makers perspective as well as with greater investment going into For-Profit education, this question is as relevant as ever - can For-Profits deliver Higher Education successfully and sustainably, and create both private value and social good?

I wish to do this research with an international perspective, because institutional structures and regulatory philosophies are very different in different countries. And, indeed, my work, while it may focus on the issue of Corporate Governance, may indeed encompass an examination of educational issues. Does the For-Profit form impose a business-like hierarchy and thus undermine the collegiality that remained central to the culture of a Higher Education institution? Does the focus on outcomes, central to good business practices, destroy the gift culture that sustain good education? How does one make For-Profits focus on long term value, rather than short term profitability? Who should come first, students or share-holders, and how to address the trade-offs that must invariably arise?

Indeed, this work is international and fits into my existing work and all my engagements with all the various educational initiatives in different countries. It draws upon my various experiences, as an entrepreneur, as a marketer and as a teacher, and mesh together various subject areas I am interested in - business, economics, ethics and education. This indeed means I shall remain in Britain at least for a while, two more years as I envisage it, and allow me to think about my priorities and my engagements with a little more long term perspective. But, as it happens, I am feeling greatly relieved and, the best thing, focused - because I know now where I shall be and can arrange my life accordingly.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Career Design, Not Career Planning

Please, give up Career Planning. 

This whole idea of planning, setting goals, defining activities and timelines, moving towards it step by step, is so dated. It used to be useful when one knew where to go. All those advices about beginning with the end in mind, fine on paper, but do not work any more when things change so much, so fast.

The talk of Career Planning, however well-meaning, is always misdirected, and possibly harmful. Indeed, one can plan near term - for that next job, or to get a skill - but this assumption that you can plan your next twenty years, a whole career, is itself based on the flawed assumption that one can predict the world well in advance. This is the mistake most well-intentioned parents make when they push their children down the career paths they themselves took, or in some cases, those they wished they had taken. Such reliance on planning closes down the opportunities of exploration, of chance opportunities, of continuous learning, and often leads to dead ends.

I am not suggesting one should not think about career and do nothing about it, and just let things happen. I am only suggesting that career is such a multi-dimensional, fast changing, in-the-future thing that planning is not that useful. It is much more rewarding to think about something like Career Design, which does not depend on parameters and formulas of the past, but, as all designers do, depend on observed behaviour. It is about making the effort to know what exactly various careers mean, what people do in those roles, how they have got there - and not just take their word for it! This is developing an observant behaviour towards others, networking widely and gaining knowledge about the world of work and all the things that come with it. It is not an half-an-hour exercise with a career counsellor, but something more persistent and something more multi-dimensional.

By doing this, hopefully, someone learns how one gets along in the career - and this is not about absorbing some formula, but learning continuously and changing behaviour. This can prepare the observer for all twists and turns, and also develop an approach to change and uncertainty. This indeed needs to be a guided process, all design processes are, but the emphasis should be on observation, engagement and behaviour, and not on formula, activity and deadlines.


Is There A Tech Bubble?

Mark Cuban has created an uproar by suggesting that we are in the middle of a Tech bubble, much bigger than one seen in 2000, and it may all end badly soon. Mr Cuban, who made his billions on the back of the bubbles, is someone to be listened to - and he is surely sounding apocalyptic. It is therefore worth looking at his argument closely and putting it in context.

The apocalyptic part of this warning is based on common sense. He is pointing out that todays billion dollar valuations are driven primarily by private capital, private equity and all that, as opposed to the IPO-led bubble that we had last time around. And, indeed, in a privately funded bubble, if and when it bursts, there will be no exits for too many people. In this setting, it will not be about doing a fire sale, it will be about just closing doors and going home.

This part of his argument makes sense. If the bubble pops, there is a real possibility of a quicker and nastier fall-out than what we saw in 2000. However, the central question is whether there is indeed a bubble. While Steve Case and others contested this almost immediately, it may still be worth reflecting upon.

If a bubble has to be defined in terms of symptoms - uneducated investors, outsized valuations not backed by fundamentals and fever pitch in the media - they are all present. Indeed, private valuations, backed by willing banks and loose money, are more prone to excesses than public markets. Privately funded bubbles can last longer, because everyones incentives may be aligned, but unexpected external events, say a slowdown in China and end of easy money, can start a stampede.

However, over and above just the symptoms, there is another fundamental weakness of the current tech investment philosophy. The defining characteristic of tech investment this time around is the philosophy of Software eating the World, in Marc Andresens now-classic words. More appropriately, this is about technology breaking into areas dominated by the most powerful institution ever invented - the State! The new wave of investments are going into tech companies working in Education, Transportation, Energy and Healthcare, with its primary value proposition centred around circumventing and disrupting the State as it exists today. 

This is the key assumption that the success or failure of the technology investments hinge on this. If the current regulatory environment continues to exist, the tech bubble will surely burst. The business models of the sharing economy is plainly illegal, and global universities and transportation companies are operating within grey areas. This may indeed seem logical sitting in some parts of California, New York or London, but from other vantage point, it does seem the state is pushing back. Indeed, if a History of regulations was written, one would notice that the State always pushes back after a period of relative deregulation (not least because businesses keep pushing the boundaries and ultimately overdo it). This may indeed be one such moment, where the uncertainties and dangers of the globalised world - think Putin, ISIS, Cowboy bankers and all that - are generating consensus about strong interventionist states and fortified boundaries, not deregulation, flexibility and openness. The history-blind investors are betting on a globalisation apocalypse, though they continue to watch regulatory overreach in United States, their own backyard, and only blame Obama personally for the same. 

Given that this, flawed, assumption underpins huge valuation, high and growing, there could indeed be the making of a bubble. The problem indeed is the rather insular structure of the investment community, which, given the concentration of wealth and private nature of investments, the herd mentality, which makes a bubble, is so easy to spot. With all this, Mr Cuban should be listened to, not dismissed out of hand being one of those bubble profiteers who may be merely advancing his own cause.

My Business Book Fatigue

I love reading books. My idea of a perfect day would be one spent reading a good book. And, if I must try to imagine what kind of book that would be, I can answer it in two ways.

First, I can attempt to answer this by recounting a recent experience of one such day, one of those Saturdays inbetween two long overseas trips when I was at home, and I frittered away all those precious time reading Irving Yarlom's 'When Nietzche Wept'. I hardly read any Fiction recently, and I must admit that I did not realise that I was reading a book of pure fiction till I reached the afterword of this beautifully written, almost believable, book. At the end of it, while I noticed the day has almost ended and I did not do anything that I planned to do using the rare weekend at home, still I felt good, satisfied - fulfilled!

The other way of answering this is to say what I do no want to read, which is indeed a more common experience. I hardly get perfect experience with books - some I can not finish, some I finish over a number of days, with some effort - and hence, any exceptions stand out. In my effort to figure out what I do not enjoy, and to focus my book-reading efforts only on pleasurable ones, I have discovered a curious fact - that I am repulsed by Business Books!

This is curious for two reasons. One, I have discovered the feeling of repulsion only fairly recently. I can pinpoint the moment when it became significant - someone talked about it which made me think about the feeling - and now I genuinely can have repulsion. And, two, because I used to read Business books, and often liked some of them. I would indeed be inspired by books such as The HP Way or, as far as more serious stuff goes, books like Competing On The Internet Time, or, to give a more recent example, Creativity Inc. And, I had to earn and keep my Chartered Marketer credentials by doing a Professional Qualification and then scoring the necessary CPD points every year (which I still continue to do). The circles I belong to are more business than education, and therefore, Michael Porter is a far more welcome discussion than Paulo Friere. Reading business books for me is a professional, rather than leisurely, pursuit.

But, as it stands now, I can not not only finish business books, I am having difficulty starting them. There are some on my urgent reading list. I wanted to complete the work I started on designing the Global Business Professional qualification, and there are a bunch of books, including Professor Nirmalya Kumar's Brand Breakout, that I need to read and draw materials from. My employers, a US based start-up, follow a certain system of management, which is based on Gino Wickman's Get A Grip - and I wanted to read it to understand and engage better. Also, on my list is Value Proposition Design, which I have bought, which complements Alexander Osterwalder's Business Model Generation, a method I have used in the past and still continue to talk about. However, I can not even motivate myself to attempt reading them.

To start with, I find most business books incredibly shallow. They often present a point of view, with claims of research (but this claim is so freely made that it is not believable anymore), and often do not consider any possibility of an alternative. In that sense, many of these books are like religious tracts, pretending to reveal God's truth on earth, but mostly applicable to a far corner (or a specific industry) of some English speaking country, usually America. And, with my increasingly skeptical bent, I find it difficult to accept one truth or other as pedaled by them.

The second problem I have with these books is that they expropriate words of common use and vest in it a certain specific meaning - and then claim that no other meaning is possible. Thus, talent becomes a person who could do specific work without thinking much about it (and not an ability) and values become whatever is written on the corporate wall (and independent of society and culture). One of the people I frequently interact with would often complain about the academic habit of disputing the meaning of the words. It is, however, the pretension of the Business Books of vesting indisputable meaning and turning words of common usage into jargon which I find most offputting.

I can go on, but indeed, this perhaps tells more about me than about the books, because they have not changed - sadly - and I have started thinking differently. My life is changing in three distinct ways. I am losing my faith. I am discovering my politics. And, finally, I am having an intellectual mid-life crisis. 

I have never been religious, so the first statement may surprise some who knew me. However, my stance previously was not to subscribe to public religion, but have a private faith. I grew up in a very religious home, but also in secular India, and have had a multi-religious upbringing, with friends and teachers from different communities. However, I have only really discovered Darwin and Freud very recently, and started seeing the irreversible disasters that any blind faith, such as those of ISIS, brings. I lost my private faith - irreversibly - and believe that our failure to evolve a secular ethic has been the biggest failure of modern times. This affects my Business Book reading, because those belong to a religious category too - an unquestioning, single faith one!

I am also discovering my politics all over again. I have always had a view, but usually stayed out labels and categorisation. My socialist friends were too particular about ideological purity, and I came to believe that politics means giving up my ability to think. However, recent events have confirmed that every thinking individual must have his/her politics, even if it is a private one, to avoid sinking in the morass of unthinking consumerism. So, I did discover mine - one that resents power and seek a more democratic future, and believe that any form of categorisation, including those of the left, is an attempt to impose and perpetuate a certain form of power, which should be resisted. This is an utopian idea of individual moral engagement, and I am not looking to fit it into any category. The issue with business books is that they are also often like political parties, demanding ideological conformance and dividing the world in neat categories - I can visualise a bullet point list for everything - and indeed democratic and inclusive business is something that does not exist.

This, obviously, is my mid-life crisis . However, there is a personal angle to it. My boyhood creative ideal of Parisian Bohemianism, tied to the curious combination of my ability to believe and my difficulty with authority, which always had a repressed presence within my boringly middle class existence, had to be tested against the usual things that come up in mid-life, including where should I live. And, this more or less points to an urgent need to re-frame my identity, away from the things I did but did not really believe in to things that are more meaningful. This is also the point of a creative impulse, and reviving the ideas how I thought my life should be (and left them cold in suspended animation). The strict framing of business books, its pointless conformity and dull formulas, is particularly uninspiring just as I go through this search. 

Friday, March 06, 2015

On Distance Learning in India

Remember the good old correspondence courses, which everyone hated but everyone else still  took? Something that became the pathway to easy qualifications - but were also notorious for poor education? Usually synonymous to scams, as stories such as Graham Greene's When Greek Meets Greek (1954) depict, correspondence education, in many ways, was the precursor of today's For-Profit institutions. And, in many cases, and notwithstanding the University of London's pioneering External Programme that started in the nineteenth century, established universities only caught up with it much later. Indeed, since then, correspondence education has really evolved - the innovation led by Britain's Open University is a case in example - but it has somehow never escaped the stigma attached to it. In India, one of the world's largest market for correspondence education, it is usually, and perhaps justifiably, treated as sub par (formally) - and often the programmes are badly designed, pedaled by unscrupulous private operators who often buy university credentials through bribing.

But, then, given the demand side, it still works. There are millions of people in India on these courses, though their hopes are quickly dashed with poor engagement and many of them drop out as soon as they begin. There are public universities like Indira Gandhi National Open University, which has most number of Distance Learning students in the world. Each state has one or two universities with successful Distance Learning programmes, though the quality is often questionable. There are some stellar commercial success stories as well - like ICFAI, Manipal and Lovely Professional University - though all these institutions faltered at some stage or the other, commonly for the lack of adequate quality oversight. There are some other high value programmes, backed by technology, brands and customer service, like programmes from Symbiosis or various Indian Institute of Managements, which operate within the niche of management training.

Considering all this, it is fair to assume that the market is ready right now for a large scale, professional, For-Profit Distance Learning (or Online) offering, which has not materialised yet. Part of the reason is the corruption in the university and regulatory systems, where professional standards are dire and corruption, such as favour seeking and bribing, is most common. This is such a 'market for lemons', dominated by unscrupulous providers, that professional companies usually stay clear of this. The regulatory ambivalence also has a role to play. In the recent years, the Government has attempted to shut down some of the most successful operations, such as Manipal's, and this has created further confusion in the sector.

However, this should not take anything away from the present and clear opportunity. True, everyone gets excited about Indias young student population. But one should equally be mindful about the structural changes in the economy and existence of a vast number of early to mid-career people who need to develop skills and abilities suited for the modern economy. This market, Continuing Professional Education, does not exist in India - and hence, the opportunity! True, Indian employers, at least most of them, do not value such developmental efforts much - and provide little encouragement - but the career changer market in India is huge, and such things can indeed play well in that space.

The trick is, indeed, to stay clear of the Indian regulatory system. The moment any of these initiatives involve an accredited qualification, the business becomes miserable, drawn in the vortex of useless meddling, unending corruption and involvement with the education mafia. The alternative, getting accredited with a Foreign professional body for credibility, is a potent one, but most Indian players do not know enough to be able to do this successfully, ceding the space to foreign operators. And, foreign operators have been very bad at handling Indian market, because they often look down upon it for its supposed lack of sophistication (which is a misreading of the market, given the well-informed consumers) but also get overwhelmed by its scale (which gets mitigated by English speaking abilities). 

So, in summary, it is a great and exciting opportunity for creating a Snapdeal for education. An Indian company which understands India, but has the global aspiration, mindset and financial prowess to set new standards. It is unlikely that any foreign player will really be able to do it, because Indian markets are far too complex when the question of outreach comes in. And, indeed, someone trying to offer degrees may not be able to make it, because regulatory overheads and corruption will invariably sink them in the end. It needs a perfect combination of educational commitment, instructional sophistication, international connections and appropriate financial model - and indeed, the timing, which seems to be just right, right now.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

One Long Conversation

This blog is one long conversation, though it may appear to be fragmented in between different ideas, reflections and interests. A blog must have a purpose, I am often told, and mine is apparently without one. I have indeed understood the powerful commercial potential of the blog as I have carried on for ten years, and come across opportunities of different kinds, including advertising, paid posts, content creation for others, and all that. Every time I refused, because I wanted to maintain the pleasure of writing this (as I do now, completely unprovoked, on the day of the Holi sitting in a Mumbai hotel), I was asked this - what is the purpose of this blog then? At other times, people who are close to me, complained - justifiably, as I could perhaps give the time to them instead of writing a completely pointless piece - and indeed, if this had any purpose, if not commercial even an artistic one, it would have made more sense of this sacrifice. But I have found all purpose, other than just being able to write  freely, quite oppressive; when I tried, it made writing quite a burden and hence I abandoned it again and again.

So my rather weak argument is that it has a purpose - and that is indeed to have a long conversation with myself. It may have grown out of my peripatetic life - I wrote no blog when I lived in my family home and were always surrounded by friends and family - but that may only be one aspect of this enterprise, which has now grown to almost 1500 posts over ten years. It is not loneliness or boredom, which may just provide the time but not the inspiration, but rather the search that I am always onto, that defines the purpose of this engagement.

Looking at it this way, it all appears consistent that I didn't want to give this blog an expressed purpose. Because, if there is anything I have done myself so far, is to avoid categorisation. I have not tried to be, and therefore never became, someone who could be defined. So, I recoil at being called an India Expert (though I have taken full advantage of this time to time), a Marketing professional (though I did acquire professional credentials), a teacher (though I did teach and got paid for it), or an executive (though I did perform roles which can be labelled as such). I am not an entrepreneur too, because I haven't made the money to qualify that epithet. As I come to think of it, I may actually prefer some labels, which may have a vaguer meaning, such as an Adventurer or an Explorer, but no one will use such a thing about my middle class life without meaning it to be a joke. But, this is precisely the point of this blog, which is my private space for adventure - and continuing the search as it must be done.

Indeed, so it goes. It is one of those transitional periods that I lived through ever so often, which gives me so much to write about. The work I do is interesting, so there are those occasions of discovery of an idea, an interesting encounter, a chance insight, which all inspire and feed into this blog. But, at the same time, this is a temporal thing, a sort of pause in my life while I figure out what I really want to do, which keeps supplying the uncertainties and confusions that keep this conversation intriguing as always. However, this is at once temporary and part of a longer arc, a persistent ambition for me to create a new kind on institution, the shape of which becomes clearer in my mind as I go through these itinerant cycles of excitement, insight, disappointment and reflection. This is at once my weapon to resist falling into categories and the hope to make a category, a life worth living as I see it.

Only once I achieve this, this blog in the current form may become redundant. That would be, if such a thing is ever possible, end of my search. The important point is indeed that I believe in such a fulfilment will happen. Therefore, these conversations here are not for their own sake, as some would be tempted to think, but a journey towards fulfilment of a goal - ambitious and worth a lifetimes work. 

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How To Live

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

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

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

- T S Eliot

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