Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Can Capitalism End?

There are people who would proclaim 'End of Capitalism' as each new crisis breaks, only to be proved wrong. Just as Marx did in his time, they see this end coming in every war or revolution, and indeed, in big and small financial crisis - from great depressions to currency crisis to stock market crashes. They see germination of an alternative from the triumph of socialist agenda in Vietnam or Venezuela, or a general apocalypse in climate change or a Russian face-off. In short, they seem to expect a definitive, episodic end of capitalism.

But nothing yet has come of it. 'Capitalism', the beast these thinkers aspired of killing, has only come back stronger, proving its resilience through defying the odds. Stock markets that went down went up eventually, financial crisis dissolved into stability, revolutionary regimes decayed into business as usual and the apocalypse failed to arrive. Ironically, as it defied misplaced expectations of its demise, it seemed Capitalism can not end.

However, it is perhaps worthwhile asking whether a system like Capitalism can indeed have a definitive end. And, if it is its detractors created such an expectation, they have also allowed 'capitalism' to be defined in most diffused of ways - in terms of market exchanges, private property and pursuit of self-advancement. Such common concepts and desires, ingrained in our language stretching all through known history, make capitalism appear perennial and its end, an idea without precedence. And, both in capitalism defined in terms of some of the commonest markers of everyday life and the revolutionary expectation of a dramatic end lies the impossibility of such an end.

And, yet, there are reasons to believe that our economic systems need changing. It is strange that such admissions are most pronounced within what we would call the 'capitalist' literature, talks of business gurus and strategy firms. Disruption, Revolution and Paradigm Shift are in common use, and investors and entrepreneurs fully embrace those ideas. They talk about obsolescence of industrial age ideas and look for new ones. Read closely and you will know that there is an admission that Capitalism isn't working, only because, as some of the proponents of the new view believes, what we have is not the 'real capitalism'. The advocates of 'real capitalism' mourn the complicated politics of regulation and welfare, all the democratic rhetoric that goes with it, as it reigns in the 'animal spirits', a free-for-all world where nothing except the rights to maximise returns on privately owned capital would be sacred. This is indeed inherently unsustainable, as one starts stripping away the laws made over last hundreds of years, it automatically strips away the legitimacy of any property rights that exist - going back to the 'state of nature' comes with acknowledging land and other property actually belongs to no one!

But this question of 'real capitalism', rather than indicating the strength of the system, signal what the 'end of capitalism' debate misses. First, that Capitalism as we know it is a cultural rather than an economic system. Second, the cultural systems fade, rather than being thrown out like a political regime, overnight. And, third and finally, cultural systems fade when its foundations, built around relationships, economic and social, become unstable.

This 'fading of', rather than 'ending', should let us see what is in trouble. To start with, democracy is in serious trouble, both because the advocates of 'real capitalism' believes that it is coming in the way of profits and responsible for the fall in the rates of profit (which is spreading worldwide), and the middle class supporters of democracy believes that it is not delivering growth and leaning too much on to new claimants rising from poverty. One could see Capitalism as an economic system and democracy as a political system, but they are one and the same in the cultural schema of Capitalism. The key difference between feudalism and capitalism is the question of agency: We must vote ourselves into being exploited! Treating democracy as merely a political system - to be abandoned when it becomes cumbersome - undermines the cultural system of capitalism. 

Then, the foundations of Capitalist production - consumption through credit creation on the demand side and participation through labour on the supply side - are also becoming shaky. These are two sides of the same phenomenon: The rise of the machines! The quest for higher rates of profit are driving automation, and exclusion of labour, which, in turn, not only limiting the ability to consume and play a part, through pledging of future labour, in credit creation, but also limiting the number of people participating in production. This undermines the all-encompassing culture of capitalism, through economic exclusion of a lot of people.

The political and the economic exclusions reinforce one another. Indeed, a fashionable idea today is to provide everyone a basic income. Outlandish as it may sound - this may be as far from 'real capitalism' one could get - this provides an interesting insight how cultural systems fade away, and therefore, worth exploring. The Universal Basic Income provides everyone an income, and resolve the existential crisis of consumption and credit creation on the demand side. However, while it is supposed to be designed for preservation of the current system, it is easy to see how it undermines the cultural system of Capitalism. The debate - who will pay for an Universal Basic Income - has one clear answer: The machines!  There are many ways of paying for this, but one could be done with the least amount of disruption. All countries allow a more lenient treatment of the income from capital, dividends, than the income of labour, wage, as it is assumed that capital investment creates jobs. However, they don't - not anymore - as more and more capital is invested into automation and replacing workers in search of greater profits. So, the most commonsense way to do this is to tax dividends as one taxes the wages - no exemptions - and one can find a way to fund an universal basic income. Of course, in reality, the Governments are set to do just the opposite: The conversation is to LOWER corporate taxes and LOWER welfare, despite all the evidence of technological unemployment. This is indeed what the 'real capitalism' advocates want, but this is also precisely the kind of thing that exclude a lot of people, and weaken the cultural consensus of Capitalism.

Remember how feudalism ended? One could say it did not end at all - as feudal relationships still persist - but it did not end through the storming of Bastille or the Winter Palace. Rather, it just fell out of favour, became an inconvenient way of ruling and managing the state and conducting the conversations. The most feudal of the great powers, the Habsburg Austria, literally committed suicide in search of 'real' vainglory. And, such will be the end of time for Capitalism, as its most ardent preachers and true believers unleash its 'real' form stripped of the cultural trappings, and discover the illusion of its being.

Is EdTech Bust?

EdTech was one of the fancy terms that took hold in the last decade. It succeeded 'e-Learning', which started the journey around the time of 'e-Commerce', but failed to get a second life in the Web 2.0 world. The reason for e-Learning's failure and e-Commerce's resilience is perhaps instructive: Despite the bold claims, there were no Amazon or eBay of e-Learning.

EdTech gave a new lease of life to the idea of technology-delivered learning. EdTech stuck, and terms like mLearning did not go anywhere, partly because of its scope - it embraced everything - and partly because of fashion, and its more successful cousin, FinTech. However, the question now is whether EdTech would be able to succeed like FinTech, whose impact is genuinely visible (as is e-Commerce's), or would it have the same fate as e-Learning, an unmourned passing away?

Technology Industry and its investors are adept at making up terms and cooking up market sizes. The reason they make up terms because they have taken the marketer's advice - when you can not be first in a category, create a new category - to heart. The race to become first and novel drive them often to invent the most nuanced of the differences, and then claim it to be the world-changing differentiators. But, in most cases, even that is difficult - and there, they fall back on purely marketing invention of terms: A new name means a new me, right?

However, a name is not enough by itself, and here, the Market Size comes in. Once one has invented a new term, then they make up a market size. It is not meant to be a wilful deception - the market size calculations are based on reasoned assumptions about the future, and these 'reasons' are usually assumptions in themselves - but these are usually meaningless unless one is ready to accept all the assumptions that come with a claim of 'market size'. Except the savviest and those playing against the markets, investors and entrepreneurs love to accept market size data as published - dismissing all the questioning as 'too academic' - and hardly anyone ever looks beyond the headline figures and into the assumptions. 

It is not to say that the market size predictions do not vary. A simple Google search right at this moment tells me that the Global EdTech market size will be $93.76 Billion by one estimate, and $252 billion by another estimate. Of course, the difference comes from what means by EdTech (what does it include - technology, data, content, services etc) and what assumptions one is making about growth globally (student numbers, expansion of self-learning, institutional growth, government spending etc). But there is a lot still goes unsaid - like why one assumes what one is assuming. And, in this, remains the problem - as investors herd into one fashionable thing after the other, till the next thing comes along.

To understand EdTech therefore, it is better to start with its cousin, FinTech, The global growth of FinTech has a lot to do with the global movement of money, particularly payments, and at the same time, all the clever inventions around the regulatory systems of different nations. Besides, FinTech is aimed at markets of privately owned institutions, which are competing with one another, and also have a big scope of turning non-consumers into consumers, the so-called financial inclusion opportunities. And, finally, FinTech's growth is also driven by a change across the sector, both in response to the shock of the 2008 Financial Crisis and because of the changes in habits driven by technologies, like e-Commerce and mobile communication.

It is a good starting point because this shows the key challenges of EdTech. First, Education travels less well than money across the border.Second, instead of a crisis, Education worldwide is going through an expansion, usually backed by strong demand, and this is a disincentive for change. Third, the customers of EdTech are usually tradition-bound schools and colleges which are usually locally defined and competitive only in a narrow sense of the term. Fourth, the educational inclusion agenda is yet to have a funding model attached to it and global education remains perennially underfunded. The commercial gains of Financial Inclusion are direct, as people turn into consumers for the organised sector; such gains for educational inclusion is at best indirect, and could even be disruptive for established players. And, finally, the habit-forming technologies in Education are usually not counted as EdTech - think Skype, Google and YouTube - and they do undermine, rather than bolster, the companies trying to create business models specifically for EdTech.

The last point, which may seem obvious, should also illustrate the problem of labelling. It also presents a parallel to the narrative of e-Learning, which failed to get anywhere even when digital media exploded and mobiles took over the world. The problem of e-Learning, and now the problem of EdTech, is that this assumes, somewhat, that Education, its process and format, would remain the same, and would only get augmented by technology. This may be a definitional point - this is why one may not label Google or Skype as EdTech - but this is why e-Learning failed to match to match the success of e-Commerce, and conversations in EdTech lacks the world-changing aspirations of building an alternative currency, or letting people without bank accounts to save a part of their earning, or making car ownership redundant.

This is why most EdTech is just a clever tool or a nicer content. The trouble is - the rhetoric of other sectors have been borrowed, and often, one meets people with one tool that claims to solve all problems. Like market size projections such a pitch is simple, and utterly misguided. And, like all those new labels and market size projections, this ensures a bubble, the creation and invariable bust of unreasonable expectations.

So, yes, EdTech is bust. The investors are already cautious, and the next global economic wobble will make EdTech companies tank completely. One can be certain that a new label, and more market size projections, are in the works. It is time to get into the new boat, as the flood is coming.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Indian Imagination

Is it important to have an independent Indian imagination?

The question may be too obvious and too jarring at the same time. Too obvious, because the imagination of the Indian Republic was derived from the colonial imagination of India, and the new Republic did not just inherit the colonial laws, polity, ceremonies and buildings, but also its language, geography, ideas and conceptions of itself. But too jarring at the same time, because it is obvious that independence is good and dependence is bad, and the question is attempting to open a debate that is already settled in most people's minds.

But independence of imagination is not like independence as a nation state, decoupling the bureaucracies and changing the personnel. It is also different from shifting the power structure, replacing one elite by another. An independent imagination may involve a reinvention of knowledge, questioning what is valuable and how should one look at the world. This is disruptive, but also, in a way, implausible for a secular nation state. Because if one has to re-imagine, one has to find a basis, acceptable to people of the community, that such knowledge can be based on. And, since the identification of the nation-state itself is based on the colonial imagination - closely following its cartographic and political delineations (and in case of India, its partitions and imposed divisions) - there is really no basis to construct an Indian imagination, without that of the colonial knowledge.

Except, indeed, in religion. The view, fashionable now even among the English educated, that only Hindu religion can unify India is based on the dissatisfaction of the Indian imagination as a derivative of the colonial form, and the absence of any other alternatives. This can be deemed as a failure to evolve an Indian imagination in the seventy years since the Colonial administrators left, and indeed it was. But the key was perhaps the lack of resolution of the question above - was it important to construct a new Indian 'knowledge'?

The answer to that, for the leaders of Independent India, was negative. Their mission was to create an independent modern country, based on a vision of modernity very European in nature. For them, it was both an act of construction, creation of a new civic republican imagination, and abandonment, of the tradition, ignorance and superstition, and of an eclectic combination of the local and the modern. This combination, for them, was the basis of new Indian knowledge - an unique blend of freedom without hatred, independence without disconnection and modernity with perpetual identity. And at the core of this enterprise was the rejection of the ridiculous - those mythologies of ancient aeroplanes and rituals of cow urine - which were at odd with this modern vision.

But this has now come a full-circle. If English language seemed to be the only common thread holding India together - how else would South and North Indians converse - at the time of Independence, today Indians have run out of options other than the Hindu religion, though this excludes more people than it encompasses. The rituals are back - the foul smell of cow urine may even feel tolerable for it brings the missing connection with the village - and even a new imagination is being built around the sacred geography of Hinduism, along those rivers, pilgrimage tales and mythical battlegrounds. All this represents a new independence, an architecture of imagination free from contamination, a going-back in time without the corruption of history.

This may seem like freedom. However, going back to the question at the start of this conversation, it is important to think what we give up to have these new concepts. For one, we give up republican and secular liberty, in the quest of return to older certainties and identities. The ideal of social mobility, however European it may be in origin, may have meant better life for many, and the re-invocation of the past may bring back not just the belongings of the old times, but also its bondage. The hard truth - that one can not really go back in time and the nostalgic sweetness of the past can not be recreated - is not fully recognised in the quest for this independent imagination.

It seems end of the time for the secular, liberal imagination of India, which has been superseded by this quest of 'true' identity. It is fair to recognise that the original vision has imploded, irreversibly perhaps, into the politics of vote bank of self-serving politicians. However, under the slogan of 'true Indianness' hides a new temptation, not of historical memory but of amnesia, and not emancipation but exclusion.

Independence from the past is not possible, and therefore, should not be the point of imagination and action. Rather, it is a reasoned engagement with the past, to meet the aspirations of the present generations, that allows us to construct a future of progress and prosperity.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

To Be or Not To Be EU: The Left's Confusion on Leaving

The UK Supreme Court's ruling that the Houses of Parliament must have its say in UK's invoking Article 50 caused trouble, yet again, for Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Leader, just as our Prime Minister, seems to love the 'Have Your Cake and Eat It Too' options, and now, he is keen to let go of a chance to have a proper debate about the wisdom of Brexit.

Mr Corbyn was a reluctant remainer, just as Mrs May was, in the summer's referendum. For all those who supported his elevation as the Labour Leader, including myself, Mr Corbyn was supposed to represent a new kind of politics: One of conscience, as against the reed in the wind policies of career politicians. However, his stances on Brexit, in summer and now, have been totally devoid of courage and conscience, and now, in its latest form, has become totally cowardly. 

To be fair to Mr Corbyn, he is one of those old Socialists whose antipathy to EU comes from its basic nature as a Capitalist institution. For him, EU is not an internationalist project, but a machine to recycle German capital and manufacturing. He is sensitive, more than others, to the inherent exploitation of Southern and Eastern European nations, which are turning those countries increasingly authoritarian and destroying their industrial capacities. And, this is what, perhaps, makes him lukewarm in his support.

However, Mr Corbyn has perhaps forgotten that the economic nature of the EU was not on the referendum, and getting out of EU would not make Britain a more equal or fairer country. It is, in fact, likely to do the opposite. The battle of British Tories against the EU are based on their intent to control the British public as they please: Their battles are against environmental protection, against Human Rights legislation, against Free Movement of People. All those leftist qualms about the workers' rights and movement of capital were not even on the agenda.

The reason why Parliament gets a say in triggering Article 50 is not merely procedural. It is because the men and women in the Parliament are supposed to lead the country, showing better judgement than one could do in a referendum, with limited information and personal constraints and concerns. This is the reason we leave big decisions to them. the idiotic and entirely political reasons behind a referendum should not bind them to follow its mandate, and the Supreme Court's decision to offer them a debate should be welcomed. This is an opportunity to ask questions about all those NHS funding promises etc., and it is stupefying that Mr Corbyn is intent on letting the Tory government get away with murder, just because he really does not have a stance.

One could argue that the Labour stance is muted because the doomsday projections that the Remainers made did not come to pass. But, Britain has not left the EU yet. Remember that Cameron antic of invoking Article 50 morning after the election: That has not come to pass yet. The British economy, if it has shown resilience, has done so in the context of a general economic recovery, which now stands threatened with Trump's hardheaded policies in the US. Some of the effects of Brexit are delayed because people are still hoping that the politicians will pull back from the precipice. 

If MPs vote along the lines their constituents have voted, the Government's bill may still pass. But putting a whip and forcing the MPs vote against their conscience, and against the wishes of their constituents, is a sign of cluelessness. This comes, I suspect, from twin jeopardies of an outdated world-view and accommodation of politics as usual. However, this vote, for and against Article 50, should be one opportunity for the MPs to stand up and have their say, and not doing so would be to allow the fanatical wing of the Tory Party to destroy the British economy and society and pass the blame on at a convenient moment. 

If the Labour Party maintains the whip, this would possibly be the biggest political blunder made in recent times. The politics of the moment are not about the Working Class and the rest, but between openness and closedness, globalisation and anti-globalisation. And, while one may think globalisation hurts the working classes, the alternative - indulging in fratricidal conflicts with working classes of other countries - is just as much against the Socialist ethic that Jeremy Corbyn pretends to hold. He should perhaps reflect on the political compulsions that is turning him from a socialist internationalist to a little islander in a few short months, and pull back from the precipice. 


Friday, January 27, 2017

Higher Education in The 'Post-Truth' World

'Post-Truth' was the international word for the year 2016 for the OED. And, 2017 is firmly entrenching the idea, with 'alternative facts' being the modus operandi of the new Trump administration. The point is, as Britain's Michael Gove put it in one iconic TV debate, the world may have lost faith in Expertise.

I recently heard one Vice-Chancellor of a great UK university reflect on this. He was wondering what should the academic profession do, when no one cares for facts or expertise any more. Surely, the search for truth and primacy of expertise is at the heart of modern Higher Education. Does this new turn make Higher Education irrelevant altogether?

The case he was making is for a new engagement with the world. This is the prevalent view in much of the academia. The case for 'academic diplomacy' is being made. Some scientists in the United States are signing up to be in politics, so that their voice is heard. The thrust of the argument is to end the 'ivory tower' existence of the academia and take a more communicative role in public affairs.

However, one should question whether the 'ivory tower' actually exists at all. Is it correct to say that the experts did not engage in public affairs? Or, is it the opposite - that they were an integral part of the modern state, and if anything changed, it is that they have lost credibility because of their engagement, rather than for being disengaged? The case for expertise might already have been made, and lost.

One could see the problem in the word itself, 'Post-Truth'. It assumes existence of an incontrovertible truth, of a 'fact'. And, the tone of this expression is complaining - that the world has lost its bearing and lost sight of this 'truth'. But is that what really happened?

The way of recent politics, the fanaticism, the trumph of style over substance, the tendency to state first and explore later, is a real assault on our ideas of integrity, decency and responsibility. But, was 'truth' part of our lives, whose passing we should mourn? For example, for every research that one could cite in favour of eating eggs, there is another pouring evidence against eating eggs. Larry Lessig does a great job of looking at research, sector by sector, for not what they are saying, but for the connection between what they are saying with who they were funded by. 'Post-Truth' may be how the academicians would love to describe today's attitude as, but, from the other side, it may as well be the age 'after illusion'.

One could claim that we are replacing benignly bad illusions with malignant ones. However, there is a bigger problem about this idea of 'truth' itself. Inherent in the 'Post-Truth' claim is the existence of an objective truth, which experts have earned a right to. However, as we have discovered even in the natural sciences, any knowledge is almost always provisional. Anything we know is defined by the current boundaries of knowledge, and it is therefore subjective, and based on what the individuals at this point knew or did not know. And, often-times, this limit of knowledge is not just epochal, but spatial - imagine all the Darwinian debates being conducted without knowledge of the work of the unknown Czech monk, Gregor Mendel - and linguistic and cultural too. Stated another way, this claim to 'Truth' is based on an attitude informed by science, that truth exists independently in an impersonal sphere.

I shall claim that 'Post-Truth' is a symptom of the malaise of Higher Education and the academia, rather than the world going mad. It arises not because of disengagement, but an arrogant engagement, and its solution does not lie in 'academic diplomacy' but in a different form of engagement. And, inside the 'Post-Truth', there is a 'technological world-view' that sees the world of men and resources being guided by a higher purpose defined by experts, lacking the humility that makes such an engagement plausible. And, finally, the solution lies in reappraising the role of the humanities - as the idea of humanities isn't defined by 'truth' but by engagement by its very nature - which would bring into the public sphere the key ideas we are missing - those of integrity, decency and responsibility.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Unfounder

(Image Courtsey: The Economist)

As we wait for the Trump Presidency, the transformation of the American Corporatist State into a Corporation, with a billionaire-filled Cabinet. It is one of those fairy-tale moments of capitalism, of singularity of corporate interests with the most powerful institution in the world, the United States of America. 

This is a BIG moment! But the hopes and fears that surround it, the language we are speaking, are widely off the mark. Here are some examples:

1. This is the moment of Fascism, liberal politicians and newspapers are saying. Perhaps not. Fascists were pretenders - but Donald Trump and his administration pretends nothing. Their intentions are quite plain, their methods are predictable. This is more of a Corporate Takeover than a Fascist regime, and what we get should make Fascists look benign.

2. This is madness, brought upon us by a crazy 2016! That Hillary Clinton failed to beat Donald Trump is not an aberration: We should have known the nineties are well and truly over! The Liberal pretenders who took over the democratic left and unleashed globalisation on unsuspecting world, they have been decisively shown the door. The Democrats should have learnt from the pathetic struggles of Tony Blair in Britain to claim some influence somewhere, when his sight has become unbearable for most of the new voters. Clinton political machine, and its money, was perhaps too much to resist, but that did not stand a chance in this election.

3. This would pass. Trump is likely to be a transformative president, the way Reagan was, which, from where I stand politically, is not a good thing. This is that moment when the veneer of Liberalism would be dropped, and an unpretending buccaneering United States would appear in the world stage, unresisted and unchallengeable. At the end, whenever, that is - Trump would leave a different world system than the one he inherited.

4. That people can stop it. Of course, they can not. This is the most powerful combine in the world - money and muscle - arrayed to destroy the Liberal Democratic state. Those who benefitted from the earlier version is calling some proverbial men on the street to go and die for their sake, but if politics of recent years is any indication, that is not going to happen. We are going to go straight from Trump to a new era of millinnial politics, which will be very different from people dancing to Blair-Clinton charm offensive.

And, finally, this is not the end of the world, but an end to something. This is why I loved the image the Economist made - Trump in Founders' garbs! Because, for me, Trump is the ultimate Unfounder - the undoer of institutions and ideas that we have come to live with! And this is not just the institution of the state, but also to the institution of business - as, I hope soon, it would now be revealed how dumb some of these billionnaires can be. It is not just a new world for us, a new world for them too.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Globalisation Trilemma and End of Consensus

2017 has brought out all those Nostradamus and other doomsday predictions out of closet yet again, and this is because, rather ironically, 2016 has proved most predictions wrong and doomed the experts. This was a year of losing faith in expertise, as Britain's Michael Gove claimed on television, and sure enough, we got a Twitter-wielding American President before the end of the year. But if one expert has escaped 2016 unscathed, and indeed, vindicated, this would be Dani Rodrik of Harvard's Kennedy School.

Dr Rodrik came up with 'Globalisation Trillemma' in 2012: The prediction that Democracies, Nation States and Global Markets can not coexist! One can get two out of the three, any two, but not all three. For all the shock at the events of 2016, this is one model has just been proved right.

With all the hindsight of 2016, Dr Rodrik's model now makes abundant sense. At the heart of the 'Globalisation Trilemma' is the argument that Globalisation, by its very nature, creates winners and losers. Within the democratic systems operating within National boundaries, this means globalisation does not work for everyone. This has now become political common-speak, something for political leaders to say with a grave face and little understanding: 'Globalisation is not working for everyone!' This creates popular anti-globalisation constituencies, and eventually, the politics of anti-globalisation comes in the way of expansion of global markets. Just as it did in terms of Brexit!

This also means a divergence of political ideas. Since the Cold War, this impossible combination of Globalisation, Democracy and Nation State, was seen as the ideal, something all states should be striving towards. If anything, that combination stood for the End of History in the Hegelian sense. This is the model which the Neo-Liberals wanted to unleash on the world, and been at it since the end of Cold War. In a sense, 2016 meant the end of End of History!

Once the Trilemma genie is out, the ideals have began to diverge. The countries where Middle Classes have been beneficiaries of globalisation, like India and Philippines, the conversation is to undermine democracy in favour of global markets. So it would be in China too, and the dreams of the Chinese citizens trading their Gucci bags for multi-party elections will be farther than ever.

Countries in North America and Northern Europe, on the other hand, are facing a popular revolt and, in these countries, democracy is 'trumping' globalisation. This has led to a new politics, a right-wing populism that combines the rhetoric of anti-globalisation left with the business-oriented policies of the right, leading to a low-tax low-welfare governments that promises to arm-twist and incentivise companies to step back from globalisation.

The point is, of course, this politics - both of the emerging economy variety of globalisation and nation state and the developed country version of democracy and nation state - would come under a hitherto unforeseen force, that of automation. This was always there - Microsoft Word and Digital Telephone Switching Systems killed more middle class jobs than India and China combined - and this is one thing politicians never want to talk about. The technological unemployment, though John Maynard Keynes may have been speaking about it in the 1930s, was always treated as something seen in science fiction, not in real life. And, even when computers started killing jobs, the media and the politicians were looking the other way, whipping up the bogey of foreign competition, Japan now, China thereafter.

This is what changes now, 2017 and on, when technologies, of doing accounting, testing software, driving cars, managing hotels, are no longer science fiction material, but boring real life phenomena. The politics may pick and choose its options from globalisation trilemma - it is always two of three combinations, with nation state as a given - but automation would disrupt this neat formulation. The globalisers in emerging countries would see global jobs disappear - India is set to lose about 70% of those in the next few years - whereas the Small Islanders and other Western supremacists would see no jobs returning, only a disappearance of global demand as a result of all those walls and ditches we are going to build or dig.

This puts us in a new territory, one with potential of conflict, but also with the new possibilities. The march of globalisation helped a lot of people, and its celebration muted all the other possibilities. The breakdown of the consensus should allow new ideas to emerge - for example, the givenness of nation states and the territorial forms that exist now would all be open to questioning all over again. This is one thing to fear, as these changes would be resisted, perhaps with blunt tools of the past and bluster of ideas past their sell-by dates. But this is a conversation we should now open our mind to, as globalisation as we know come to pass, and we step into a new age of social and economic imagination. 



Thursday, January 05, 2017

The 'For-Profit' Solution and Why It Won't Help UK Higher Education

The UK Government's proposed Higher Education Bill, which, among other things, makes it easy for For-Profit Universities to get degree-granting status, is expected to face steep opposition at the House of Lords (see this story). This is a long-awaited move, and many For-Profit operators, primarily from the US who are having a terrible time at home, are looking forward to this bill. UK Higher Education has a global reputation - arguably an average UK university is better regarded globally than an average US university - and being able to grant an UK degree is indeed a big prize when mass Higher Education is expanding so rapidly in Asia and Africa. Now, one could regard the House of Lords' stance as a retrograde one, and see this as a battle of entitlements - a few privileged people, retired academics among them, fighting for their corner, but this will be a mistake. The expansion of For-Profit Universities is likely to affect UK Higher Education - its effectiveness at home and its reputation abroad - negatively, and therefore, the concerns of the House of Lords is perfectly legitimate.

It is hard to see why the Government wants For-Profit Universities in the UK. Other countries allowed a private Not-for-Profit or For-Profit universities to set up in order to cope up with demands of an expanding Higher Education system. However, UK's student numbers in Higher Education is likely to DECREASE, at least till 2020, and even its long term projection is one of a small increase. Its Gross Enrollment Ratio is already quite high, and graduate unemployment rate is quite low. It also has a large and mature skills training sector, which provides opportunities for young people to pursue vocational and technical career paths. It is hard to justify plans for a sudden expansion of the sector by infusion of private investment as some other countries have done.

The Government's case for For-Profit universities is based on COMPETITION. As a justification, this is not very original. The ideologues may think only For-Profit opertaors can introduce competition in an otherwise stagnant sector, but anyone with more familiarity will know that the business of running an university today is anything but. Many UK universities are on visible parts of various ranking tables, and the top ones are constantly competiting with the very best in the world. While the university sector may have problems that need solving, lack of competitiveness is not one of them.

Another reason why Governments generally like For-Profits is EFFICIENCY, the assumption that market competition drives these institutions - for themselves as well as for the Sector as a whole - to innovate for efficiency, as in lower costs and better outcomes. But, looking at For-Profit track record, this has hardly been the case. In fact, in a setting where the Government funds the students, either through grants or subsidised loans, the For-Profits usually drive up the fees. The only efficiency For-Profits can reasonably claim credits for are in marketing and sales - queuing up in McDonald's to sell to the unsuspecting servers the unsustainable dreams of an office job, for example - and their models are usually based on moving costs away from delivery and more into sales, because that is the common-sense way of maximising profits. And, one does not have to look for American examples to predict the havoc For-Profit can wreck: This government's very own experience with student loans in its initial days, as recently as 2013, led to those recruitment bureaus at supermarkets, aimed at elderly and minority students who were enrolled with the lure of 'maintenance grants' and who dropped out of the course after they bought their shoes and handbags, never bothering to pay student loans as they were 'income contingent'. 

I must own up that I did argue for diversity of the sector in previous posts, particularly for the sake of INNOVATION in terms of technology and curriculum. Because the For-Profits, when they are allowed to operate within a sector with established, state funded, institutions, try to differentiate themselves in terms of curriculum and the way it is delivered, they have, in the past, introduced newer areas of study and newer modes of learning in the sector. These are historical examples, but For-Profits often created or took the lead in Book-keeping and Management, Medical Schools, Distance Learning and Online Education and more established universities only later caught up with these. This may not be the case Government is making, but it is possible to argue that For-Profit Higher Ed would introduce newer ideas in the UK Higher Ed sector. Unlike competition by itself, innovation and new ideas about the institutional purpose and format are indeed in short supply in UK Higher Education, as is expected in a tradition-bound, process driven sector operating in a sellers' market. However, one could argue that incentives for such innovation can be created by focusing, through regulatory and raking mechanisms, on employment outcomes of the students - how quickly they got a job and what starting salaries - which is already very much the case in the UK. Besides, the innovation in curriculum and methods, historically, has happened in the protean fringe of the For-Profits through trial-and-error, rather than the failsafe and sanitised Corporate For-Profits, which only move after established segments 'that can scale'.

Finally, it is worthwhile to consider the argument from the point of view of For-Profit investors: Whatever the government's justifications may be, how does one see UK For-Profit sector as an attractive opportunity? The recent experiments in For-Profits, one from 2005 powered by easy visas and then one from 2012 fuelled by free-for-all student loans, were unsustainable. The matured markets, decreasing domestic student numbers and caps on International students have proved disastrous for For-Profit projects in general. The case in point is the College of Law, which was bought with an eye-popping £200 million by Montagu Private Equity, became a full-fledged University (they already had degree granting status at the time of the sale), but then could deliver little of the anticipated growth in the declining sector of Law education: It was sold again in 2015, for 'an undisclosed amount', which is the private-equity speak for a 'huge profit', or as in this case, a 'huge loss'. And, while the University of Law, struggling in the legal education, imagined getting into business education would solve the problem, the Pearson College, an entity within the global conglomerate, started with the idea of an innovative format of business education, and saw the panacea in Legal Education as they struggled to win away students from more established business school (despite their billion-dollar brand name). At this current turn of the markets, as economies are facing a long period of uncertainty and low growth, resulting in stagnating demand for lawyers coupled with a global decline of MBA education, it is hard to see why any investor would think setting up an UK For-Profit is a good idea, even if the Government allows an easy path to University status. 

I shall argue that at least a part of the answer to this riddle lies in INTERNATIONAL. The UK Degree granting status is attractive to For-Profit institutions primarily for an International play, though the current visa regime rules out an expansion of international student numbers in the UK in any shape or form. The growth of Asian and African economies, the perceived value of an UK Education and increasing prosperity that makes an 'education premium' affordable, are the factors which make UK university licenses attractive to For-Profit providers. And, if we follow this logic, the principal innovation that this new turn in For-Profit education may bring to UK Higher Education sector is an advent of 'dematerialised campuses', not just forms of distance and online education, but perhaps 'non-teaching' universities, which are really franchise owners of UK degrees who does not play, or only play a minor role, in the delivery of education. This is not new - in fact, UK universities have been quite good with franchising their courses - but one may see this to become the principal business of some of the new universities.

The 'dematerialised campus' is the new utopia sweeping For-Profit education, but this does not work. Those who hold this world-view operates with two assumptions: First, that we are at a moment of a 'globalisation apocalypse', that the world is becoming 'flat' and all markets are becoming 'similar' or moving towards the higher, Western, forms of business; and, second, they believe that they are operating in a vacuum, nothing of the cultures, practices and institutions in the growing African and Asian economies have any value, and they will be swept aside the moment their regulatory structures crumble under the weight of market reforms. The reality, however, is very different. The growing economies, as they find their feet, are increasingly looking to build their own Higher Ed capacity and even mental models. The story of international student movements, university ranking tables and global research patents and educational innovations, was not one of Anglo-American dominance, but a much greater variety coming into play, with diversity of innovation and a range of regional centres developing. The UK Higher Education, with its tradition, high standards cosmopolitan communities and reputation of integrity stand to profit from this new alignment: This needs a cultural transformation from the inside, for sure, but the ideas are already there. But a new scramble, led by For-Profits as it will invariably be if they are unrestrained and empowered, would undermine the UK Higher Ed (as some of the misadventures of its universities did earlier) both by destroying the fabric of UK's regulatory structures and by unleashing on the world a new rapacious education imperialism whose time has clearly passed.



Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Going to '17: Stranger Nowhere In The World

As one must, I look out to 2017 for a new start. The time is appropriate to think what this should look like, on the morning of the first working day of 2017.

2016 was a strange year. I spent the year grounded, in a kind of suspended animation thinking about the next big thing, but doing it. Seen more graciously, this was a long recovery, from the burn-out of my earlier attempt but also from the two years of being on the road. It was not meant to be a year of reset, but rather of going back to drawing board, rethinking the assumptions and reworking how I start again.

I did not want to be grounded for a full year surely, but as is always the case with such things, I had a lot of false starts in 2016. False starts are very much part of my life and I am rarely discouraged by them: In fact, I take those as badges of honour, as proof that I went outside my comfort zones. Those, failures and disappointments, are symptoms of me living.

But, a sober eye could also see them as symptoms of over-reach, marks of a dreamer, and perhaps of the very opposite of what I intend - the symptoms that I am dreaming more than doing. And, while I do not obsess over failures, they are perhaps a good starting point on the New Year's first working day, on a sunny and yet freezing morning here in London.

So I start looking at 2017 with the acceptance that some of my plans are perhaps too ambitious, Utopian even. And, indeed, while I still hold the view that a life's goals should be in essence unachievable, as one should always live forward, moving towards something, the plans for the years and months that we live should be more practical. And, while I spent time in 2016 working towards a world-changing project that I eventually complete, I am perhaps no further forward by dreaming the big dream. Focusing on practical steps, on the other hand, and doing bits at a time, would have actually moved me forward, as long as I did not lose sight of what I eventually want to do.

What then I really want to do? I have come to realise that my interest and strength lies in doing International Work, but I am not fully aligned with how International Work is really done. The structure of International Business work is arranged at two levels, depending on one's nationality and culture: If someone is from a developed country, and preferably white, it is seen as a matter of attitude; on the other hand, for a person like me, Indian by origin and education, it is seen as a matter of knowledge.

I write this not with resentment, but rather as a discovery. It is a mental model that has deep roots, and even if the world becomes flat, it is assumed to be flat in a certain way - top down! So, the idea of international is one of an ecosystem of enclaves, with a slightly different peculiarity in each, but all striving towards a higher, Metropolitan, culture. The structure of International Work, even in most progressive of the businesses and sectors, is arranged around this idea - the cosmopolitan Westerner being guided by the knowledgeable native! And, indeed, this serves both sides, as exoticism sells.

Now, naive as it may sound, I have only discovered this recently. As I reflect on it, I realise there are two, and only two, ways of being successful in the kind of work I aim to do. The first is to claim to be an India specialist, as many people do. It is an attractive proposition - India is a large, complex and growing country - and I can legitimately claim to 'know' it. The other, more circuitous, route is to try changing my appearance, accent and cultural references, putting on more business jargon in my language and adapting to some fashion hitherto alien to me.

The point is, of course, that these strategies run against everything I believe in. Living in England for many years, I have questioned, and indeed discarded, many of the habits, assumptions and ideas I grew up with; but I have never thought of not trying to be an Indian. I know people who have, either by trying to adopt an accent, lifestyle, TV shows and music that will make them different, or by transmuting themselves into a business automaton, wherein their everyday language has become a derivative of business lingo, obscuring not just their origins but the whole person. I am, instead, embarking on, as was my original intention, a journey of learning and seeing the world, which is, and has always been, a quest for authenticity rather than its opposite.

This also means that I am questioning the insecurity and the exclusivity that my Indian upbringing gave me. Rather than setting up the stall and to guide the world through the exotic reaches of Indian market, my whole intellectual commitment is squarely against such exoticism. This, at its grain, is a struggle against the world view that I just mentioned - that there is a unity of knowledge and ideas, The West, working among various exotic enclaves, the World - and I am indeed no guide, therefore.

So, I am looking to invent a third option: To attempt to become a 'Stranger nowhere in the world', a true cosmopolitan in an intellectual sense. And, to achieve this, I want to do something which may sound breathtakingly boring for those who travel the world and amuse themselves by discovering the intricate differences between Hotel Lobbies and by learning the tricks to get upgraded in the flights. My plan is to commit myself to learning about a country - yes, just one - deeply and thoroughly. This is indeed my own personal resistance to the idea of superficiality of usual international work, but at the same time, this is very much one of those enlightenment ideas - that by attempting to learn something from the outside, it would change me from the inside! Whichever country I choose, I want to learn its history, culture and its people, ways of doing things and of looking at the world, just as I did when I came to England (indeed, I claim to have done this once already, but there is a special significance of approaching a culture shrouded in the unfamiliarity of language).

This, then, is what I do in 2017, and indeed beyond. My work in China already gives me a good starting point, and I am very inclined to start there. But Russia fascinates me - a country which I wanted to go to and live in when I was very young - and my familiarity with Russian literature and its history is still better than my knowledge of China. Also, I am tempted by Italian, as my recent deep dive in Italian History encouraged me to do.  And, finally, my highest cultural aspiration is to learn Persian, which, with my Bengali upbringing, I came to regard as a language of beautiful poetry and literature. My task today is therefore just complex enough - to choose one between a few options, all equally interesting - and because easy things are boring, I am feeling happy already.


Monday, January 02, 2017

International Higher Education and the BRICS: Is There An Opportunity?

BRICS, the acronym fashioned by Jim O'Neill to signify a special set of 'emerging' economies that would drive global growth, had better days. There was a time, in the immediate aftermath of the Global Credit Crisis, when these economies - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, for the uninitiated - held strong and showed promise. However, as the commodity prices and global demand slumped, the economies started fluttering; political mismanagement and corruption caught up as well. While the Russian and Brazilian economies went into recession, and South Africa teetered on the brink of Sovereign Debt crisis, China seemed to be heading to a hard landing and Indian government of the time lost the will and initiative. By 2014, people were writing obituary of the BRICS idea. Even Mr O'Neill moved on to the 'Next 11', smaller, faster growing countries, which are less diverse and politically more amenable, eventually settling down for another smart acronym - MINT - for Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey.

Call it the O'Neill curse if you like, but Mexico, Turkey and Nigeria did not have great time since the acronym came in vogue. BRICS, however, became a formal grouping of nations, with annual summits and ambitious projects, such as a BRICS Bank. Despite the difficulties, the relatively large population and size of the economies made the BRICS countries too important to ignore, for global policy-making as well as for investment decisions. Some countries did better than others:  China kept growing and proved many doomsayers wrong, and India powered ahead with its young population and expanding domestic demand. At a time when the lack of global demand seems to be the key issue for the policy-makers to focus on, the strength of the BRICS demand - current or projected - keeps the grouping relevant and provides impetus for policy coordination.

The question now is if and how this could extend to Higher Education. The case in point is the argument that the BRICS countries could benefit from the 'nationalist' turn in the Developed economies, as Bruno Morche argues in his article in the University World News. BRICS countries, along with a few other South Asian and West African countries, supply most of the students studying internationally, and this 'demand contribution' is set to go up. Of the next 100 million people reaching college by 2020, 45 million of them are likely to be in China and India, and this trend will continue for at least a decade thereafter. So, it is indeed worthwhile to explore what role BRICS could play in the next expansion of Global Higher Ed.

As is pointed out in the article above, the BRICS-to-BRICS student flow remains limited and collaboration between BRICS universities have proved rather illusory. Language difference is cited as the main reason, though a number of internationally minded universities, in all the countries but definitely in India, use English as the language of instruction and research. The point about Nationalist Turn is indeed very valid, particularly here in Britain, where the Government has actively vilified International Students, treating all of them as potentially illegal migrant and making life very difficult for anyone who may want to come and study in the UK. This has certainly impacted the number of students coming to the UK, the second most popular destination after the United States, and the number of students from India, Nigeria and Pakistan has nearly halved; however, the overall number so far held up because of a healthy growth of numbers from China, more as a consequence of enormous expansion of the number of students there. The same is likely to happen in the United States, as the Trump Administration starts its own tinkering of the immigration system. 

When the British Government systematically started dismantling the International Higher Education ecosystem in this country in its illusive quest to reign in migrant numbers in 2011 (a project that eventually reached its nadir in the Brexit vote in June 2016), I counted on this to have a positive impact on the quality and diversity of Higher Education systems of China and India, for example. The common sense logic was that once the door on migrating for education was slammed close, more aspiring students would stay local and look for better education at home. My other assumption, which I bet my career on, was that this would mean a proliferation of online and other modes of education towards a British qualification. The argument that the Nationalist Turn would mean an expansion of BRICS-to-BRICS exchange and collaboration is based on somewhat similar view of the world.

However, as I learnt over the last few years, my straightforward assumptions were certainly too simplistic. I overlooked, for example, the crucial role that the domestic regulatory structures play. Often, the BRICS countries have an intrusive regulatory structure built around punitive measures, which discourage change and innovation. Also, these economies are often starved of expertise, as the more able researchers and teachers often move abroad. The 'nationalist turn' in Britain did not impact the quality of India's Higher Ed, as I had hoped, despite its huge expansion around the same time. Its immediate impact was in the growing influence of some of the regional hubs, such as Singapore and Malaysia, but also increasingly Dubai and Mauritius, which saw a growth in International student numbers (as well as Indian students choosing Canada more than before, and Australia, which lost ground after 2008, regaining some popularity).

Coming back to the issue of flow of students among the BRICS countries, one may think that a similar pattern will hold. The nationalist turn in developed countries would perhaps make the universities in the UK and USA less cosmopolitan, but this would not be directly offset by a BRICS to BRICS flow. Rather, the impact would be more complex and diverse, with regional hubs emerging - and China indeed is already a Regional Hub and India wants to be one. 

However, at the same time, BRICS to BRICS flow may represent an opportunity at an institutional strategy level. The International Higher Education, so far, has mostly been a 'metropolitan' affair, with a few countries attracting most of the globally mobile students, but this model is facing a severe disruption right now. While BRICS may not represent a relevant category in policy terms in this context - the countries are simply too diverse - as an accepted category in Global Economic terms, it may still be possible for individual institutions to build attractive programmes and partnerships around BRICS. Despite the diversity, there is some commonality across the BRICS nations - they are big, diverse, ambitious and populous nations - and they represent a certain category in global economic and political thinking, which students can engage in, with profit. So while I do not necessarily see a tremendous opportunity of BRICS Higher Education, I believe this makes abundant sense for institutions to look at this as an emergent opportunity.

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