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.

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

- Theodore Roosevelt

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

- T S Eliot

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