Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Five Reasons I Shall Vote Labour

Here are five main reasons I shall vote Labour, in UK General Election due on 8th June.

First, the Conservative Government under Theresa May is, contrary to its claim, neither strong nor stable. If it was so, we did not need an election at all. The Government had a majority, secured in an election only two years ago. Implicit in Ms May's claim of 'Strong and Stable' is indeed an admission of lack of strength and stability. And, if anyone thought a Conservative Victory in the elections will make Ms May strong, one must remember that it would also encourage the Brexit lobby of the Conservative Party, thereby making the Government more weak and wobbly.

Second, this has been a government of U-Turns. Even in the short stint that Ms May had as Prime Minister, she proved herself too fond of making U-Turns. The most spectacular of all U-Turns was, of course, breaking the Fixed Term Parliament law, something that the previous government - in which Ms May was a Senior Member - passed with the pledge to stop opportunistic electioneering. Ms May indeed promised many times to follow this, until of course she saw her opportunity! After that, there was the wobble about raising National Insurance by breaking a manifesto promise, which had to be U-Turned. And, then, there was the whole fiasco of 'Dementia Tax', and Ms May's very public obfuscation and U-Turns. Far from strong and stable, Ms May's government has really Opportunistic and Clueless.

Third, there is the issue of Brexit. The key question Conservatives are posing to the country whether one should trust Ms May or Mr Corbyn to negotiate the Brexit. For the reasons mentioned above, it is hard to trust Ms May with anything: Her politics is one of sloganeering with little substance. Mr Corbyn, on the other hand, proved to be one of those rare breed of politicians with authenticity, unafraid to stick to his principles - as in his stand against the war on terror - and yet democratic enough to allow pluralist politics, as evidenced in Labour manifesto. I was, in the past, disappointed with his stance on Brexit, but for the same reason, I shall trust Mr Corbyn - an Eurosceptic Internationalist - to lead Brexit negotiations, over Ms May, with her reed-in-the-wind politics alongside a Little Englander world view.

Fourth, there is the question of British economy. Britain faces huge issues going forward - perhaps one of the considerations why Ms May wanted an election now - and the Conservative manifesto offers no new ideas. For all the sneer about the Labour plans to nationalise railways, on the other hand, one knows that is a good policy: The kind of long term investment that public infrastructure needs in this country would not happen otherwise. In the reverse of the public image of Mr Corbyn as a head-in-the-cloud socialist, he is the one who has a plan; as for Ms May, she is all soundbites and no ideas.

Finally, there is the question of public services. The Conservative rule over the last seven years has brought National Health Services on its knees, and seriously affected the Schools and Universities in Britain. Another full term for Conservatives would be an unmitigated disaster. The best idea Conservatives have about Health Services are apparently 'competition', a formula that has failed and is an euphemism for introduction of American style Private Health Care in this country (notwithstanding the fact that US has one of the most inefficient - both in terms of cost and outcome - health services in the developed world). For schools, their best idea is to expand selective Grammar Schools, expanding the segregation based on the failed formula of aptitude testing. For universities, their plans are to try to return to an imagined Golden Age of Oxbridge, which is completely at odds with the reality of modern mass Higher Education. In all counts, Labour is committed to Public Services. They have a much better plan to handle the 'Precariat', those who live precariously on the borderline of proletarian existence with zero-hour contracts, no assets and pensions, which is going to be the biggest challenge for Britain moving forward.

Now, I am not a Labour member, and not even a dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter. In previous elections, I have variously voted Lib Dems and Greens. I have been disappointed by Labour squabbles, and particularly the attempts by the professional politicians in Labour ranks - of which the Labour candidate in my area is one - to shift away from the commitment to Public Services. I was indeed opposed to the war in Iraq (hence, voted for Lib Dems in the past) and in Cameron's misadventures in Libya and Syria (and of some Labour leaders voting for those). I have been disappointed about Mr Corbyn not being vocal about European integration, but have now come to see his stance as a principled one against European technocracy, precisely what we need. 

Hence, regardless of Labour's chances to win the election, I have decided to vote Labour. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Colonial University: Three Debates About Indian Education

Charles Wood, 1st Viscount Halifax
That the Board of Control of East India Company, the parliamentary body supervising the affairs of the East India Company from London, sent a famous dispatch - dubbed the 'Magna Charta of Indian Education' later on - in 1854 to Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India, which proposed the establishment of three Presidency universities in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, is well-known. That Lord Dalhousie largely ignored the despatch does not matter, as its recommendations were implemented later by Lord Canning, Dalhousie's successor, after the Great Sepoy mutiny, and the universities were duly founded. The origin story, at least for British convenience, is better linked with the dispatch than the mutiny, and so it is told. 

The Hindu Nationalists in India see this as a realisation of Macaulay's dream, of creating natives who are Englishmen at heart, who they call 'Macaulay's Children' and blame for subverting the Hindu India and for creating a colonial hotchpotch. For the Liberal Nationalists too, this is a creation moment: The Indian universities became, over time, the fountainhead of an Indian modernity, which will supply the modern national ideas leading to the Independence of India. The inconvenient facts, like that the Colonial Universities very much contributed to a Hindu resurgence and most graduates of these universities loyally served the British Empire, are usually left out of the narrative. Because of this transmuted narrative, Colonial university, lived on Indian imagination after the independence, either in the form of attempts to create an intellectual elite, or in the deep suspicion of foreign education.

Despite the contentions about its impact, the back story of the 1854 Dispatch remains insufficiently interrogated. The apparent straight line from Macaulay's famous minutes of 1835 to the Dispatch may largely be a red herring. The Dispatch was, in more ways than one, a different beast, and it went well beyond Macaulay's ideas of Anglicization (in fact, it recommended the opposite - use of vernacular in Primary and Secondary schools). Opposed to latter's idealistic and evangelical overtones, the Dispatch was pragmatic: It was not revolutionary, but rather a compendium of earlier ideas, shaped by the confidence of the Victorian empire but also by practical considerations about India. It took ideas from other practically minded endeavours, like the proposed plan for the University of Calcutta drawn up in 1845, and English Education Minutes of 1853. The dispatch marked the conclusion of three debates about Indian education that dominated the conversation between British Parliament and the East India Company for three quarters of a century preceding it.

First and the most obvious of these debates was indeed the one between the Orientalists and the Anglicists. Macaulay's ideas of anglicizing Indian Education - something that he took from his reading of Tudor suppression of the Irish language and forced installation of English instead - is only the most famous of a long line of arguments running since Warren Hastings. Hastings, who encouraged education in Indian languages, and helped set up the Sanskrit College in Benares ('Athens of India') and Aliah Madrasah in Calcutta, had a political goal: To govern India in a way to which Indians 'acquiesce best'. In that sense, the opposite side of Macaulay's position was not just the Orientalists like William Jones and Horace Wilson, who were leading the studies of Indian languages and Indian archaeology, but more so the practically minded Conservatives, who wanted to preserve the Indian society as much as possible. For this latter group, the idea of forced change of social institutions in another country might soon come back to haunt their own, as James Cumming, a leading voice of preservation of Indian social order, thought of the Liberal ideas of reforming India: "Tom Paine is writing Indian Constitution".

At the core of the debate about the language of Indian education, then, there was a political debate about how to govern India. And, significant too is that there were three sides of this debate, rather than just two: This was English versus Sanskrit and Persian versus the Modern Indian Languages, such as Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, Gujrati and Marathi. Framing the debate in Orientalist-vs-Anglicist terms miss this very important nuance.

Charles Wood's dispatch, which would have been partly drafted by John Stuart Mill, takes the pragmatic position on this debate: It might have taken Macaulay's ideas of an English educated elite, but it accepted the opposing position that no country could be educated in a language other than its own, too. It recommends a school system based on vernacular - neither in English nor in Sanskrit and Persian - and envisions Universities as vehicles for promoting Advanced scientific and western knowledge (more about this later). Indeed, the universities were to promote learning in Sanskrit and Persian too, but with Government and Courts using English (rather than Persian, as was the case previously), the interest in these ancient learned languages declined.

The Second debate was about Christianising India. This was very much Macaulay's central purpose, and it was so for the English evangelicals ever since the administration of Warren Hastings. Their's was a strong voice in the Indian education debate, starting with Charles Grant who had tirelessly campaigned for encouragement of missionaries and their schools in India. This was a central point of the debates in 1790s, in the amendments proposed by William Wilberforce in the East India Company's charter, as well as in 1812, when the Charter came up for renewal again. Arrayed against this position were again the more practical colonialists, including Warren Hastings, who thought India was best governed if its communities remained divided. The prospect of an India united by Christianity was what defeated the Wilberforce amendments, and this remained a strong leitmotif in the conversations about Indian education.

By 1854, though, there was a significant change in the thinking about education. Unlike in 1812, the responsibility of education has passed from the Church to the State, and the secular idea of education, as in English Education Minutes of 1853m remains at the heart of Wood's Dispatch. But it was also so that the argument that India was best governed in a divided state had by then become conventional wisdom.

The Third Debate - or perhaps we should treat this as the first and foremost - was about the effect of Education on India's national feelings. As early as 1784, East India Company officials argued that educating Indians might have a similar effect as in America, as they blamed the American universities for the loss of the colony. This was indeed the Conservative position. Arrayed against it were various Liberal positions, ranging from ideas about rule of law to an acceptance that Indians were far too numerous to be permanently kept under British rule, and Indian independence when it came, as it would invariably come, should still keep the Indians connected to Britain through education and language.

Wood's Dispatch embraced the Liberal position, but its central idea was also aimed to address the Conservative fears. It is important to remember here that the foundation of the universities were not the beginning of Higher Learning in English in India - there were already a number of colleges set up by private Indian initiative and philanthropic contributions, mainly by rich Indians - but rather to impose a structure on this growth of Higher Education. The purpose of the new universities were not to encourage studies of Liberal Arts or free thinking, but rather to discourage such idle pursuits and groups like Young Bengal from arising. The key proposition in this is to co-opt the Indians into the colonial bureaucracy, and make Professional Education (primarily Law) as the centrepiece of the Indian University project. This was some sort of a colonial genius - making an educated class of Hindus (they were Hindus mostly) a beneficiary of the Colonial enterprise - which would serve the empire well for the next 90 years or so.

In conclusion, then, the Colonial University, as envisioned in Wood's Dispatch, was a practical, pragmatic institution aimed at bureaucratisation of Indian education. It is this, rather than the presumed sins of Anglicization or Christianising, that became its most enduring, and damaging, legacy. Besides, contrary to the Liberal Nationalist narrative, the Colonial University never aimed to reform and unite Indians, but rather to enshrine old divisions of caste and religion and create new ones between the university educated and others. After Independence, Indians sought to move beyond the colonial legacy, but the ghosts of the Colonial University remained alive and well.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Inescapable Locality of Innovation

Two things trigger this thought. First, the conversation I have been recently engaged into, and particularly the question, why is Indian IT Industry is not more innovative. And, second, this is about the Not-For-Profit projects which I dabble with, which concern themselves with the task of creating innovation ecosystems in India and Africa.

My point is - despite all the fuss about Innovation - developing countries are doing quite poorly in innovation. Overall, the world is living in a bubble that Fredrik Erixon and Björn Wiegel will call an Innovation Illusion. There is a lot of talk and lots of people claiming that they have made a truly new thing - and media fawning over this and that - but apart from 'digitization' of some of the tasks, we are moving forward little. And, this is particularly acute in the developing world, which is doing some 'Copy and Catch-up' innovation (Tyler Cowen's term) but failing to solve their most basic problems. In more ways than one, Peter Drucker's observation that the last true innovation was the ATM Machine has a ring of truth around it.

I think what we miss in the innovation conversation is that all innovations are essentially local. Local problems spur the innovative spirit, local usage perfect the application and local market build the traction. Somehow, we visualise innovation as a neat event where some genius inventor unleash the next great product on the world: It is about great technology, brilliant men (usually men), breakthrough ideas and universal truth. Whatever the truth of this picture, it misses a lot. The big part it misses is usage - that all innovation goes through a cycle of acceptance, modification and often endless series of re-innovation - and this crucial detail often generate talk about 'changing the world' without changing the neighbourhood first.

The importance of local in innovation is not merely benign, but crucial for success or failure of the innovation efforts. In the context of dependent economic structures that globalisation built, it is often more rewarding for organisations in the developing world - both in terms of availability of capital and in terms of projected revenues - to try to innovate for global, essentially American and European, markets. However, without a local demand, what they call innovation is based on insufficient 'native understanding' of what they are doing, consigning them to the role of 'execution partners' for overseas clients who may have to feel their way to the solution themselves (or find a local consultancy company to do this work). This is essentially the challenge of the Indian IT: The lack of local market for innovation.

This challenge is also central to the projects that aim to build innovation ecosystems - universities, incubators etc - because they essentially aim at the supply side of the innovation process with an assumption that the demand side will take care of itself. I shall claim that these two attitudes - our fetish with innovation and the assumption that the demand side will take care of itself - are at the core of our failure to innovate: This is why so many urgent problems remain unresolved in developing countries, so many born-global start-ups fail to take off, and why we talk so much about so little when innovation is concerned. The essential failure to create what Amar Bhidé calls 'venturesome economy' limits how we innovate.
Now, one final point: It is not easy to create 'venturesome economies'. This is not just a function of education: This is a social attitude that is created by the confluence of many factors, including economic affluence. Americans, living in one of the richest and most dynamic economies in the world, can afford to be 'venturesome' in a way poor Indians can not. However, here the governments can play a role, by being deliberately entrepreneurial (as in Mariana Mazzucato's idea of 'Entrepreneurial State') and creating demand for innovation in local markets. Indeed, the state interventions are often inefficient and bureaucratic, and the structure of state programmes often aim for predictability and does not suit innovative approaches. It is for no reason we associate the state interventions with crony capitalism than innovation. However, as Ms Mazzucato has illustrated, State can indeed be innovative and spawn great innovations (the Internet was one example), and it is the revolution in governance upon which the spotlight should fall first.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Indian IT Industry in 'Crisis': Learning from China

I wrote a post yesterday on the 'crisis' of the Indian IT industry. My essential point in this was that while the Indian media sees a sudden crisis in the Indian IT sector and summarily blaming it on Trump, the problems were simmering for a long time and blaming it on Trump Administration's current or intended policies would be mistaken. And, besides, while a number of observers - Rajat Gupta, formerly of McKinsey fame (and Galleon infamy), being the latest - blame the leadership of Indian IT companies for lack of vision and inaction, I thought this was unfair, it was hard to change business models for mammoth publicly listed companies: In fact, this is exactly what these companies are trying to do, triggering all the crisis talk.

However, all this don't point to a solution, which some reading the post pointed out. To this, I do not think there is any silver bullet. Many, Rajat Gupta included, have spoken about educational change, but that is neither short term nor can happen on its own. The two hundred year old culture of Indian middle classes of educating themselves for a job is unlikely to vanish away short of a complete catastrophe. Some talks of start-up ecosystems, but in India, the start-ups are limited to the privileged and the celebrity, and while many Indians on the other end of the spectrum have always been entrepreneurs, the street-level entrepreneurship in India is seen as a sign of failure, not of ambition and grit. And, the culture of innovation - that some people think is missing - does not happen on its own, without a 'venturesome economy', where the consumers are not risk-taking and everything remains so top-down.

Instead of pretending to find an easy solution though, it may be more profitable for us to draw some lessons from China. Indeed, this is bound to raise eyebrows - what does Indian Software industry have to learn from China - but I think our impressions that India is global IT leader may be mistaken. For this, my debt of gratitude should go to Roopen Roy, whose blog post a few years ago contrasted the trajectories of IT industries in the two countries very effectively (see here). Before I proceed to my views, and elaborate why I think the comparison has value in the present context, it is worth disabusing ourselves from the notion of India's IT leadership by looking at some of the figures quoted by Mr Roy: Indian IT industry is projected to be worth $225 billion by 2020 (by Nasscom, an industry body) compared to the estimated size of China's software industry, $868 billion in 2016. About 20% of Indian IT revenues are from the domestic market, whereas approximately 50% of China's is. And, whereas the biggest names in Indian IT are TCS, Wipro, Infosys, Cognizant (despite its US roots) etc., all IT services companies, the biggest in China are Alibaba, an e-commerce company, Tencent, a product company taking on Facebook, and Baidu, a search engine company.

So, here is the paradoxes: The Chinese IT industry is perhaps 5 times the size of India's, but we hear about it less because they are more focused on domestic market, and play less of the global outsourcing game (of which India has a 50+% market share). However, the Chinese IT companies are successfully playing the 'product' game, and even leading the technology race (for example, the development of 5G standards). One could point to the restricted market access in China for Western companies, both in terms of active legislation and the Chinese language being a barrier, and indeed, echoing the standard western complaints, point to the Chinese model of 'copy-and-catchup'. But that hardly holds water as the Chinese companies are now competing successfully with Western ones in the product game, and filing for patents as fast the American companies do. 

My point is that the narrative of industrial development we have come to believe in, the free market thesis driven by individual enterprise, needs revising. The idea, borrowed from British Industrial Revolution (or from the standard narrative of British Industrial Revolution), is that the Government should get out of the way and let an industry develop, and the global competition, a demand side factor, will ensure innovation and competitiveness, rather than any supply side factor. But what is happening in Indian IT perhaps shows the limitations of this idea in three related ways.

First, that the Indian IT industry developed as an offshoot of globalisation - opening of Indian markets, availability of submarine cables and commercial availability of bandwidth etc - and established a dependent relationship with global markets from day one. One may make the assumption that a company, successful in providing basic services, would climb up the value chain, the experience of Indian IT shows that the reality works the opposite way. In fact, if there were a few Indian IT companies focusing on newer technologies in the 90s, they were superseded by the work other companies were doing in Y2K work. The latter could carry on doing application maintenance whereas many of the former lost their shirts in the Dotcom burst. Instead of climbing the value chain, Indian IT industry remained a victim of its success.

Second, one may easily overlook this, but the roots of the Indian IT Industry were very much in the 'import substitution' culture of the 70s and 80s (many Indian IT companies, HCL and Wipro among them, started off when IBM was made to leave India in 1977). Its growth was sustained by computerisation of government services and financial services (mainly government owned those days). However, since the 90s, the Government embraced the model of limiting the state involvement and generally desisted from big and transformational IT projects (which has made a comeback recently, in the form of Aadhar cards and various e-Governance projects. So, the government stopped playing the role of 'the entrepreneurial state', as the economist Mariana Mazzucato would call it. This is in line with the Thatcher-Reagan era consensus, but completely at odds with the reality of what the American government had done (funding research, developing military technologies which were later commercialised, and being the first customer of the IT). China followed the model of US government of the 60s and 70s, whereas Indian government allowed the Indian IT industry to develop itself following the logic of global markets.

Third, the government also allowed the Higher Education to grow through private initiatives, following the logic of the markets. This meant an enormous expansion of the Higher Ed system, but all in a dependent relationship with the IT industry, which was the employer of choice and whose patronage built or destroyed institutional reputation. The Higher Education was allowed to develop as a factory for IT Talent. There was none of the deliberate policy-making befitting an entrepreneurial state guiding the development of the sector, but rather, apart from social conservatism, the policy was guided by the free-market model of a series of market-based dependencies. Just the opposite in China, where private education was allowed, but the management of these institutions were minutely controlled (often, it is hard to distinguish public and private institutions in China). The Indian companies which copied Western business models - local E-commerce companies, payment service providers, Uber knockoffs - built cheap and cheerful models, but all within the context of global open market model, content to dominate local markets and hopeful, more often than not, an exit through acquisition of a bigger global rival. 

In conclusion, I believe that the pride India displays about its successful IT industry is somewhat misplaced both in degree and its content. We are looking at the wrong parameters when we celebrate the dominance of India in the global outsourcing market: Benchmarking against China, and indeed, against South Korea or Taiwan, would have a sobering effect. Further, that the Indian IT industry developed as a product of globalisation, and free of Government policy (mostly), is not a great thing: The limits of the model is now well exposed. The bad news is that this may adequately out the myth inherent in the free-market thesis of development. The good news is that the current, activist Indian government can perhaps step in now to transform the IT Industry. This may indeed seem like wishful thinking, but given the consensus that urban job creation in India needs some emergency measures, this may indeed be a good place to start.   

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Surprising 'Crisis' of Indian IT

Indian IT is in a crisis, or so the newsmen claim. 

A string of layoffs, some at very senior level, and the new and proposed visa measures in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore have contributed to a sense of seize. 

But, while this headline story has its merits, but the sense of crisis and the connections with US Visa changes are certainly overblown. The problem with this crisis-mongering is that this diverts attention from the structural challenges that the sector faces.

The Indian IT has had mixed fortunes for some years, and the salaries, at the entry and mid level, were stagnant for some time now. 

There are a number of reasons for this. 

First is the 'productisation' of IT - this whole phenomena captured in the expression 'there is an app for that!' - that challenged the custom development model that the big Indian IT companies are usually accustomed with. The trend, which started in the Consumer sector, is rapidly spreading to enterprise, and the custom development market is increasingly being eaten away by purpose-built products, or plug-and-play environments.

Second, with a transition to cloud and newer technologies, the business of application maintenance - which is perhaps an ever bigger chunk of IT Services business - contracted. When an application moves to Cloud, it needs less people to maintain it: These people need to have different skills too. And, with Cloud, comes a different set of security concerns and data ownership issues, creating a trend towards near-shoring.

Third, there is the impact of automation too, and this is not just about Robots and intelligent machines. Machine-readable forms and automated routines for everyday tasks eat away more jobs than the more glamourous aspects of automation. There were an army of people in the Indian IT sector doing routine maintenance work - backing up and restoring data, managing user privileges, attending to breakdown situations - and a number of these tasks are now being done through relatively simple computer programmes.

Fourth, the costs of operating in India has been rising. This is primarily as the cost of living was rising fast in the key cities, driven by high real estate prices and consumer price inflation. Though India is far from being a middle income country, the IT companies were caught in an equivalent of a middle-income trap, as they failed to move out of certain key cities, and drove up the costs in those areas. The availability and quality of manpower has also become an issue - partly the IT industry was a victim of its own success - and this has contributed to rising costs.

These factors were in play for a long time. I would recall Vivek Wadhwa writing about the unsustainability of Indian IT Business Models in around 2011, where he lamented that the senior managers, though acutely aware of these challenges, were failing to drive change in their companies.

The Trump Administration's rhetoric about curbs on H1B visas, and layoff announcements by top Indian IT companies, have resulted in a perfect storm of news. The hyperactive Indian media found its demons all too easily: Indian IT bosses for their collective lack of foresight, and the Trump Administration for making it difficult for the Indian IT sector. 

However, it is perhaps unfair to say that the Indian IT companies were sleepwalking. Many of them were reducing headcount (remember the fuss about TCS layoffs a couple of years ago), freezing recruitment or moving to other, lower cost, locations, like the Philippines. There was also a range of measures to expand the recruitment pool, with extensive pre-recruitment training and deeper engagement with select colleges to get students ready early, aimed at combatting the cost-disease.

Besides, while it is easy for outside observers to notice and point out the business model challenges, it is not easy for executives running large, publicly-listed companies to change tack easily. 

Besides, one must also recognise that the shifts in the global market not only a visa issue, but part of a wider shift in the process of globalisation. This challenges not just the business models of Indian IT companies - using relatively low-paid Indian engineers to implement business IT applications for customers worldwide - but essentially the role India sought to play, and positioned itself for, in the globalised world. 

In summary, it is exceedingly difficult for the Indian IT companies to shift away from their proposition of building and maintaining IT applications at a low cost and start building products without a profound change in overall context. The sector does not have access to the educational infrastructure, local demand or start-up ecosystem that can help build a different kind of business models. The teeming millions in Indian Engineering colleges are trained, in best cases, to follow instructions, not to innovate and think for themselves; the culture of the Indian workplaces favour being the Manager - with better pay - than accumulation of technical expertise by working in an area over many years; start-ups are frowned upon by middle class families with background in Government employment, which most Indian middle class families have, but even a lowly maintenance job in a publicly listed company gets more attention socially. There are relatively little enthusiasm about art and design - those areas are 'feminised' in India and kept at arms length from Engineering and Business - and the relatively disengaged world of the Indian middle classes rule out imagining new solutions to social problems. These, and other, ideas, approaches and engagements have to change before Indian IT sector can suddenly start becoming great technology companies. The IT companies, for all their size and resources, are at the mercy of their return-seeking shareholders: Initiatives that will bring difficult-to-measure rewards are not usually welcome in the stock markets.

Also, the Trump Administration is not the first administration that talked about tightening H1B and other visas: This was in conversation ever since George W Bush's time, and any other president would have talked about reviewing the long outdated (like $65,000 salary threshold for a skilled worker) norms. Besides, many other countries are already revising the norms for the kind of visas Indian IT companies use - Australia and Singapore have already done it, and UK is going to make significant changes after the June elections - and Trump administration would only be doing catchup. Trump's encouragement to weak dollar should be a bigger issue for Indian IT than his rhetoric around the visas, which should be treated as a part of the business environment.

In fact, by talking up the crisis and blaming Trump, the Indian media is looking at the wrong problems. The big Indian IT companies are no longer 'Indian' - they have global footprint and Infosys' plan to offer 10,000 American workers is a sign of what they are going to do - and Mr Modi can do little to solve the bigger problem (though he is being urged to influence Theresa May and Donald Trump on visa issues). There are complex issues on the table - of a new kind of education, of regional re-balancing, of developing a larger ecosystem of smaller cities (as opposed to pushing a few metropolises to unsustainable size) - and the easy globalisation that benefited India for last 20 years is over. The conversation that we need to have now should be about how to change course, not of a company or of a sector, but for the country as a whole.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Writing The History of Colonial University

I am finally onto a project I always wanted to do: Write a history of the Colonial Universities.

Indeed, I start with a very modest work - an essay on the establishment of metropolitan universities (Calcutta, Madras and Bombay first, and then Allahabad and Punjab Universities) in India - which I intend to finish over the next few months. But I hope to make this a prelude to the bigger project, because I see the Colonial University as a distinct form of institution, whose purpose was to educate for the economic purposes of imperialism, and even if the empire is long gone and dead, this institutional form and modes of thinking lives on.  

That way, I shall claim, this is not just a freak exercise in academic pretencion for me, but an essential part of my overall work. 

While I work on it, I already find it fascinating to study the rhetoric and ideas around the establishment of the Indian universities. The conventional narrative runs along the lines of Orientalist-Anglicist controversy, with the historical figure of Lord Macaulay appearing in the background (though perhaps more important figures, like Charles Trevelyan and William Bentinck, are rather forgotten). The idea of the Indian Universities are seen - by today's Hindu nationalists in particular - as one of those great Anglicist impositions that perverted the course of Indian history, creating 'Macaulay's Children', Indians who were 'native in colour but Englishmen at heart'. It is, however, a mistaken narrative, because it was Indians, particularly Hindu Indians, who were intent on English Education and an Indian style university. The new universities became a springboard of Hindu supremacy in India, creating a new generation of elite who spoke English rather than Persian, and who would occupy the Civil Service roles soon thereafter. It is they, along with their Anglo-Indian compatriots, who would help make the British conquest of India complete, so much so that, in another 90 years, in the Constituent Assembly of Independent India, English would be retained as an official language, reluctantly, as it was the only common language that multi-lingual Indian elite use to communicate between themselves.

But there are two other narratives which I find equally misleading.

The first was the narrative of Progress and Enlightenment, favoured by the British historians then and now. The shortcomings of this narrative is clear: The universities in India were part of the oppressive imperial structure rather than institutions of freedom and liberation. They were designed, from the very start, to be different from the American Colonial Universities, which were started by the settler initiatives (backed by the Crown) and which were blamed for whatever happened in the American colonies thereafter. In fact, East India Company successfully argued against establishment of universities in India, proposed by William Wilberforce in the 1790s at the juncture of renewal of its charter, citing the debacle in the United States. The Colonial Universities in India were not in any way similar to the 'Colonial Colleges' such as Harvard, William and Mary or Yale (named after the East India Company clerk who made his fortune in Madras). The Colonial Universities in India were designed to be tools of economic exploitation of India, to turn it into a huge 'back-office' of the imperial enterprise.

The other is the liberal Indian narrative of the universities as the bedrock for Indian nationalism. This rather popular narrative does three things at once: First, it denies, wrongly, the existence of an Indian 'national consciousness' before the British conquest and education. Second, as a corollary, it reduces the Indian 'Struggle for Independence' in a single narrative dominated by Indian National Congress run by its college educated leaders, and airbrushes out the other important struggles, peasant revolutions, Sepoy mutiny, and workers' agitations from the picture. Third, as a result, it presents the idea of India as a derivative of European style idea of nation, denying the historical reality of the popular conception of 'Bharath'.

This narrative is wrong because the eventual dissatisfaction of the college-trained Indian elite with the discrimination at the workplace was not the fountainhead of Indian national consciousness. India was not, as some British historians would like to claim, an entity conceived in Imperial terms. India  was an ancient geographical, cultural and political entity, and both outsiders - early British merchants, for example - and people in India, knew it as such. Mughal empire was very much an entity, and it would be wrong to read the demise of India in the political fragmentation after Aurangzeb. There were several competing parties, and the British was one of those parties, and they sealed their dominance only in the mid-Nineteenth century. The colonial university as the fountainhead of nationalism denies this pre-existent reality, and inadvertently promote the idea of India as a British political construct (as indeed the modern India, reflecting the imperial boundaries, have become).

As I mentioned, this also bundles all other 'conflicts' - peasant revolts, Sepoy Mutinies, workers's struggles - in a subordinate role to the national struggle, as the National Consciousness seemed to belong exclusively to a group of college educated people. This is largely anomalous, as most of these college graduates devoted themselves, as they were expected to, in the colonial service, and, on the other hand, when Mutineers were being tied to the cannons and blasted away, they were not dying for 'special interest' but for their battles against the British (in many cases, for loyalty to the Mughal Emperor). This is not to undermine what the educated leaders of a later generation did in India, but while the Colonial universities may have played a role in creating a new 'imagined community', but that was not the only game in town.

I am also aspiring to tell the tale from a global perspective, as I see the Colonial University to be an instrument of globalisation, which created an ephemeral 'modernity' and various attempts at reconciliation with the ideas and practises of the Indian society. The economic structures of 'dependence', the political quest for an 'Indian people' and a very Indian love of 'science' - not of the scientific, questioning worldview, but the superficial labelling of anything as 'science' to claim higher ground and stop questioning - are all rooted in how the colonial universities were conceptualised and run. And, therefore, my attempts are to tell the story of the colonial universities in India as an expression of India's relationship with the world at large.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Thinking Beyond The Nation State

Three building blocks of the world order we are accustomed to are Global Financial System, Nation States and Democracy. 

This is what we have built over the last 150 years. The Global Financial System, in its earlier forms such as the Gold Standard, came about in late Nineteenth century. Nation States emerged around the same time, first in Europe and then they were everywhere as European empires disappeared after the Second World War. And, Democracy became the rallying cry, and standard of political systems, since the end of Cold War.

In the post-war world, when the global financial institutions were designed in Bretton Woods, a few key policy-makers knew that the Global Financial System and Nation States may not be perfectly compatible. They, Lord Keynes among them, decided on a system of priorities - they put the Nation States first - and built an 'inter-national' economic system.

This worked for some time, but the system was being dismantled, ever since the day America lost its surplus and Nixon abandoned the Gold Standard, but increasingly and openly so after the end of Cold War, and opening up of previously 'closed' economies, India, China, Russia and South Africa, to global capital flows.

The nineties made us believe that it worked. Despite all the wrenching crisis in Russia, East Asia and South America, that was somewhat a time of optimism. But as that era ended, with the crash of dotcoms and crumbling of twin tower, the tensions between the three building blocks of the world order is apparent.  Princeton's Dani Rodrik said that Global Financial System, Nation States and Democracies could not coexist: One could have two of the three, any two, but not all three. 

From what we have seen in 2016, and the various 'populist turns' in different countries before that, this seems prescient. In the Western nations, there is a popular rebellion against the Global Financial System, which impoverished a section of the population in these countries and they are now voting against it. The British voters unexpectedly sprung a Brexit on its policy-makers, and the American voters chose a tweet-wheeling President Trump, and while the French suddenly looks like a bastion of globalisation (how ironic), its Populist Marine Le Pen is only another incompetent Presidency away from grabbing power. 

On the other side of the world, the choice of two is different. The staunchly democratic India chose the Chinese model of a 'strong leader' so that global investments can flow in: A strong nation attractive to global investment is what they wanted. Philippines, won over to democracy in the 80s, also made a similar choice: A strongman leader at the expense of 'democratic inefficiences'. China remained committed to its combination of Global Financial System plus Nation State, inspiring many African and Asian nations who would rather have development over democracy. And, Russia, of course, has abandoned the democratic rhetoric some time ago and made its choice too.

This means the World System is decisively broken. There is no consensus on global financial system and how it works - and voters in major countries, Britain and America among them, are in revolt against its working. If this is a great moment for democracy, the party is spoilt by the moving away from democracy in equally significant countries such as India or South Africa, or for that matter, Russia, the great prize that democracy's apologists claim at the end of Cold War. However, importantly, there is a clear consensus in favour of the third element of the global system - the Nation State!

Theoretically, a third possible combination - of Global Financial System and Democracy - exists, but there are no takers for this. In theory, European Union is supposed to be the great post-national experiment, but it became, in practise, all about transnational finance marginalising democratic processes. The EU's immense policy-making powers and financial muscle were insufficiently balanced by its democratic accountability and the latter was reduced to tokenism. After the current travails of EU, which exposed how unloved the idea really is, nation state seemed to have triumphed with a sort of unquestionable finality.

However, at this very hour of its ascent, the idea of nation state has grown hollow, drawing legitimacy from the demagoguery, becoming an instrument of corporate interests. Global Finance lost its appeal as it impoverished too many people. Democracy became unappealing as it became too imperiously distant and run by 'professional' politicians who served not their electorate but their party-political interests, being his or her master's voice and puppets of special interest. And, the handiwork of the soulless globality and gutless democracy was to divert all attention from deprivation and inequality and a quest for identity, from which the current obsession with nation state has arisen. And, it is Nationhood now that these special interests have converged on. And, this consensus on Nation State is therefore just another swindle, this time one of exploitation of the vast public resources and of privatisation of the basic services in Health and Education, which will lose its appeal sooner or later.

But even if the Nation State becomes a tool of Global Finance right now, they are inexplicably opposed - the modern states are conceived as viable autonomous monetary unions, and the global flows of capital effectively undermines both the viability and autonomy - and the coexistence of the two is bound to lead to conflict. Without the democratic legitimacy, this conflict is expected to morph either into revolution and chaos, or authoritarian takeovers, and possibly both together (as in Egypt). However, there are other forces too undermining the Nation State: The twin forces of 'geriartrification' and migration undermine the idea of nation state as a political and social community; global networks and connections create an environment of contagious ideas that often challenge the notion of nation state as a conceptually useful category.

So, in conclusion, it is the best and worst of the time for nation states. It is its hour of glory, but its foundations are inexplicably hollow. At this moment when it pervades all aspects of our being, the nation state is being reduced to an apparatus of surveillance and submission. The idea that swept away the Ancient Regimes now looks ancient, out of place and oppressive. As limelight is shone on it, it appears ugly and inadequate, ushering a new opportunity to think beyond it - a new idea of radical global democracy!


Friday, May 12, 2017

Waiting for Technological Unemployment

Technological unemployment was a long time coming. When Keynes used the term, he was not speculating about the future: He saw machine replacing humans in his own time. And, before him too, other acute observers saw this, and called it by other names, like 'Industrial Revolution'. And, yet, it may not have been anything like what we see now - automation of an unprecedented scale encroaching upon what we thought was to remain the most human of functions, like writing, teaching or sentencing a felon. 

Yet, it is not the scale but the idea which we should attend to. As it is, technological unemployment is being presented as 'common sense', an inevitability of progression of technologies and its tendency to replace human work. It is a secular force, we believe, that comes about by itself, in a self-directed manner.  We believe that Microsoft Word was a piece of our destiny - it was bound to appear as the Typing Pools became too busy - and as they say, rest is history.

However, technologies are directed and prioritised upon, a thing we know when we enter into a conversation about things that save lives. We know there is never enough money to develop a cure for Ebola, because the disease kills poor Africans, and yet we can easily find money to make space travel safe and comfortable enough for tourism: Technologies are directed by human priorities and human incentives. 

And, while we are quite happy with this theory and built a sophisticated and successful discipline solely focused on studying incentives - that's what economists do, by the way - we are never comfortable fully elaborating what the incentives really are in developing Robot Waiters and Automated Cars. Do they save lives? Do they make the environment better? Do they make dining experience more pleasurable or riding more social? Or safer? Not really. These do little but increase the rate of profit, which is a fine enough incentive, but they don't arise autonomously from the technologies themselves or consensually from the society at large. So, technological unemployment is not an automatic phenomena, it is being willed upon.

What's more is that The conversation about the inevitability of technological progress obscures not just its motive, but its method too. The capital flowing into the creation of Labour saving technologies stems from, more substantially than not, the low-tax regimes that the middle classes love to vote for. The governments thus installed, beholden to special interests because elections are expensive affairs, lower taxes because 'investments create jobs', and frees up surpluses to be invested in labour-saving technologies. The other side of the same process is indeed the defunding of public services, that eliminate the public domain research and any possible competition to proprietary technologies, and at the same time, create 'markets' for basic services so that the rest of the people have no option but to be indebted forever to keep the demand going. 

So, in a way, what we call technological progress isn't about going forward, but about going back to the ages before the democratic revolutions, where a few lorded over the many. And, yet such claims are blithely made: When Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, calls the Labour Agenda to renationalise Railways and reinvest in National Health Service a plan to take Britain to 1970s, she is plainly unaware that her own obsession with coming out of European Union can also be interpreted similarly; and considering that one of her key election pledges is to make fox-hunting legal again, she is yearning to go back to a more distant past. Like Turkeys voting for Christmas, middle classes everywhere vote for technological progress, blissfully ignorant of the consequence when more investment in made in making a machine learn than Children study.

However, this may sound pessimistic. Haven't technologies always created new opportunities, the liberal-minded journals like The Economist asks. However, carefully read, this is the same fallacy at the core: Technologies operating, developing, progressing, creating opportunities by themselves. In the breathtaking vision of The Economist, for example, people did nothing: All those poor people who stormed Bastille and inflicted the fear of God in Europe's ruling classes, all those revolutionaries and assassins who roamed the streets once and who found their mecca in the storming of the Winter Palace a century ago and changed politics forever, didn't mean a thing in this vision: It was just technologies moving forward, one inevitable step after another.

But consider the utopia that today's technology evangelists have. The World Economic Forum sums it up really well: I own nothing, have no privacy and having the best time of my life! So, in a way, the happy proletarian living in a complete surveillance state it will be. And, in this world, mass education would be unnecessary and health care is only needed for maintaining productivity: The future, as I said earlier, looks very much like the past. Going back, rather than going forward, is what we really collectively desire.

Someone warned that if this continues, people will rise before machines do. That is a really dim possibility, as this would require not just taking up arms, but, before that, forming a collective, which has been disbanded: Before technological unemployment hits us, we have been endowed with technological loneliness. The amplification of our demands have made us unique in the world, the glorification of selfishness has alienated us even from our families and mechanisation and personalisation of entertainment has ensured that we attend the circus of one, all the time. 

So, we wait not the people or the machines to rise, but for a fall. As we fast forward to the past, the underclasses may emerge, and maintaining economic participation becomes the challenge of the state. One would believe that the history will repeat itself, if not in Bastille but perhaps in Batangas this time around, but we should be weary about the repeat of history: Marx may have got a lot of things wrong, but he was right about repetition of history, as a farce.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Idea of India and Its Thinkers

Seventy years on, the Republic of India is now at one of those crossroads when its foundational ideas are being questioned. Its middle classes, in the throes of an existential crisis as the globalisation that made them reverses, have found their demon in the idea of India itself. Nations, usually, consider their origin stories with a special fondness and deep reverence, enshrining the creation ideas as the basis of all new imagination: Despite the passing of the years, the British therefore looks at the Glorious Revolution, the French to French Revolution, the Italians to Risorgimento and the Americans revere their Founding generation. But, in India, as a newly-rich, recently disappointed middle class hunt for the ghosts, they find their Republic flawed, its democracy rickety, its people disunited, and above all, the idea that unites it all misdirected.

This makes a re-examination of the idea of India worthwhile. Surely, this is much discussed, but as the optimism turns to pessimism and pride turns into embarrassment, and a commitment to change takes hold, a new priority, to debate, to understand and to rediscover, has arisen. This is especially so as the new debate opens up two seemingly contradictory and yet coexistent possibilities: That there was not one but many competing ideas of India, and yet, the Republic was founded not on ambiguity but on certainty, a vision as forceful as any: It was arrived at not hesitatingly, but optimistically; and was proclaimed with a faith in the country's future, with an aspiration of universality reminiscent of the great experiments of Paris and Philadelphia.

This synthesis was the founding generation's great work, and in this, despite their differences, Sardar Patel, BR Ambedkar, Rajendra Prasad, Pratap Singh Kairon, Frank Anthony, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Sarat Chandra Bose, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, C Rajagopalachari, Maulana Azad, Somnath Lahiri and other members of the Constituent Assembly for drafting Indian Constitution worked together. Coming at a time when violence and division was on the air, the commitment to democracy and republicanism needed imagination and accommodation. These were people with great intellect and independent vision, and they acted with responsibility and with a sense of purpose over consideration of personal profit, to accommodate diverse ideas into an unified imagination of a modern state. It is this imagination that we are concerned with here - this is what is being questioned today - and this unifying imagination of India, I shall claim, was the work of three men: Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

While names of Nehru and Gandhi are obvious, Tagore's inclusion in this list is likely to elicit surprise. However, Tagore's vision was both distinct and influential. Tagore, who remained outside the political mainstream, was often his country's ambassador to the rest of the world, imagining an engaged, global India, a vision that he sought to realise in his educational enterprises. Tagore was deeply engaged with Gandhi, influencing and getting influenced by the latter, and Nehru acknowledged his intellectual debt to Tagore openly and frequently. Thus, some of Tagore's ideas, a diverse and tolerant India, India as an Asian nation, and India with a mission of peace in the world, remained at the core of the imagination of the founding generation.

However, the ideas of the three men were very different. Tagore envisioned a kind of modern and peaceful nation, which was distinct from Gandhi's, who saw India in its villages. Tagore's cosmopolitan globality was also at odds with Gandhi's commitment to tradition and rooted practises.

And, while Nehru might have agreed with Tagore in the quest of modernity and peace, Tagore would have disagreed with Nehru's technocratic ideas. Tagore remained committedly outside Nehru and Gandhi's nationalism, considering nationalism exclusivist and anti-humanistic. And, yet, Tagore was no ascetic detached from the realities of political struggle: His voice was heard at crucial junctures of Indian and World History, and through his art, he was omnipresent to this day in the political discourse in India. 

And, despite their differences, the trio was united in one thing: Their imagination of India was something different and bigger than the other competing ideas. First, they all conceived India as a historical entity, something that existed long before the British arrived, rather than a political entity cobbled together by imperial conquests. Second, they saw India as more than an European-style nation, a relatively modern entity founded on an illusion of homogeneity of its people, but rather invoked both its tradition of tolerance and the modern imagination of a moral community to imagine a community of people united in its purpose in the world. Third, they all agreed on the unique mission of India in the world: Peace and nonviolence, tolerance and hope. Fourth, in their own different ways, they found India in its nature: Nehru in Ganges and the Himalayas, Gandhi in its villages and fields, and Tagore in its rivers, seas and mountains. And, in this, they saw timelessness: An India that always existed, and will always exist, regardless of temporary predicaments. Despite the inglorious conditions they lived in, their's was an optimism of persistence, of a great and incorruptible civilisation.

Today, these ideas are being contested. A certain narrowly technocratic vision of India is triumphant, and India is at odds with its own history. A myth of India, which invokes ancient glory but mirror the imperial imagination for its content, has taken over the conversation. In some ways, this marks a return to the nationalism of a nineteenth century variety, which is based on a deep historical pessimism. At the core of this idea is a narrative of a fall - India as a glorious country that fell to pieces - one that dates back a millennium, to the advent of Islam in India. The adolescent India, still unsure of its place in the world, have taken on to a legend of the fall. And, hence, for this new generation, the founding ideas appear too weak, too ambiguous or too limiting. Currently, this anger is the handmaiden of a corporatist vision of India, the political excuse for an elaborate ploy to undermine the Republic: On offer is an alternative idea of Capitalist Disneyland. This is what makes reopening the conversation about the Idea of India, and its thinkers, an urgent and important issue.

Friday, May 05, 2017

What Do Universities (Really) Do?

In India, people demand that there should be more universities. Why, they point out, India has only 600-odd universities, whereas United States as 6 times as many for one-fifth of the population? More universities, in their mind, equate with more education, and also economic success, as we live in 'knowledge economies'. So far, so straightforward!

I state this as an Indian phenomenon, but it is really a global view. Indians only demand so as the Chinese, the Malaysians and the South Koreans are stealing the march, building more and bigger universities faster. The Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the South Africans are all in it. I remember, as late as 2002, I was told in Bhutan that it did not have a college in the country as the Government was fearful that the student politics would destabilise the country; those days are long gone, colleges in Thumpu came up in due time - by 2015, the new government was floating the idea of a greenfield 'education city' and checking out in any international universities would be interested in starting a campus! This is based on a view of economic development powered by universities, which is an integral part of the narrative of growth through innovation and technology. 

I want to take a contrarian view, and question what universities really do. This is not because I belong to the same corner as Charles Murray, who believes in the creation and preservation of a 'cognitive elite' with the exclusion of everyone else. Quite the opposite: I believe everyone has intellect - as Darwin would say, human beings only differ in zeal and capacity to do hard work - and the privileged have no monopoly on ideas and insights. My objection is to the automatic assumption - more universities equal more education - which has resulted in already disastrous consequences in India. And, I argue not for the suspension of building new universities, but a more thoughtful approach to it.
One final point: I make no presumption of special insight here. The questions I have in mind are rather obvious, but there is an obvious reason why they do not get asked: People in the universities are expected, by others but also by themselves, to ask questions about social practices, and they can hardly be expected to raise doubts about the social value they create. As it is, they are embattled, and such questions are seen as yet another intrusion from the 'neoliberal state'. I only ask the question because I am an outsider, and to me, the universities look very much a part of the apparatus of the 'neo-liberal state', though an appartus which seemed to have lost its usage and is in the danger of falling into disuse. 
The recent history of the universities has been, I shall claim, parallel to that of democracy: Once a great hope of political inclusion, then a tool to deliver a good life and finally, an empty rhetoric with a track record of broken promises and faced with the gloomy prospect of populist onslaught. And, in this, there were perhaps three points of inflection: Once in the late sixties, when the Liberal State turned, and then again after 2008, when the populist revolts took hold in Obama, and now Trump, administrations in America. So, we are at a time of the second 'ruin' of the universities, which mirrors, but is different in substance from, the 'University in Ruins' Bill Readings portrayed in the 80s.
In fact, universities, expanded at great public expense since the 60s, became tools of the state policy more than ever; they served the state, justified it and in turn, were legitimised by it. Claiming monopoly on 'questioning', the universities shaped the 'public sphere' and defined what kind of questions can be, and can not be, asked. They became a sorting machine, more efficient than class, race, gender or lineage as they were more scientifically justified - a mechanism of universal stratification. Their non-bureaucratic bureaucracies took hold of all the key material abstractions and helped built the abstract materialism that they non-labelled with the 'neo-liberal' label. They crusaded to make an educational diploma the worth of a man, making inequality naturalistic through the illusions of talent and built a vast ecosystem of ranks and tests to subvert the political agency, perhaps irretrievably, and replace it with a consumer choice of identies - 'be what you want to be'!
It is this consumer promise of the university which is now broken. That illusion, which was always an illusion, that one can be what s/he wants to be, core to the proposition of an university education, is now lifting. That wealth is almost begotten by birth, luck or buccaneering, and never by an university education, is becoming obvious. And despite their sneering about wealth, it is universities themselves which made the pursuit of wealth a centrepiece of their promise (and still do): Their protestation now sound hollow and their claims of 'independent inquiry' is distinctly at odds with their reality.
This predicament of the university, as I said before, is much like democracy. Exclusion is only the other side of inclusion: It lies not just at the quest but as a concurrent reality. The universities, a thoroughly modern beast which only borrows the name and prestige of a very different medieval institution, were very much part of the democratic schema in the lofty imagination of some of its modern imaginators, but just as they stopped short of radical social change in their quest of democractic society, they let the pretensions of the medievalism and exclusionary spirit of meritocracy take over the university very easily. The student unrest in the sixties, which made not just governments but the also the academic bureaucracy uncomfortable, led the universities become consumer institution, just as democracy became a means to an end, a good life! And, once this failed to materialise, it became open season, for the privileged to push back, and root out even the last vestiges of the challenge to primacy of, well, birth, luck and buccaneering.

So, more universities in emerging countries is not a quest for greater education, but rather a quest for a new social ordering following the well-trodden path of the West. One perhaps forgets that universities can often result to less education, as the expansion of university system and formal education can often mean a decline of public and non-formal education, things like Workers' Education Association or movements such as Lyceum movement in America. From our vantage point, it may seem that these public education movements may be only filling the space left by lack of universities, and it is only natural that expansion of university education made such movements redundant. However, university is a different kind of education - regulated, restricted and rationed - and the decline of public education meant a less flexible workforce, as we have now. The hegemony of university education also means that we continue to see MOOCs, which serve the space left by public education, only a placeholder for college credit, again discouraging participation rather than encouraging inclusion.
The current loss of legitimacy of the consumer university perhaps open up a space for a new kind of institution. Call it an university if you like, but it is time to restore the multi-dimenality of education. This challenge is no different from the ones our democracy is facing today: The youth, who prefers to protest than to vote; the angry and the marginalised who impose all kinds of fringe politicians on the rest; the opportunists who channel the anger and steal the booty, are converging in a perfect storm where most people don't see how their views reflect in the state, and what the elected politicians do other than to become the placating agents of the state and justifying every unjust action in smooth words and right intonations. The new democracy, if one could be imagined, and the new university, if a relevant one can be perceived, would both have to engage with a sincerity, granularity and substance than the forms that we know now. But such a change does not happen unless the university administrators start to realise that the institution is adrift; and sadly, as they never asked themselves what they really do, they are as clueless as the politicians regarding what has really gone wrong.


Popular Posts

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

Creative Commons License