Friday, April 27, 2012

Global E-School: What That Means

All my efforts over last few months have been directed towards setting up a global e-school. This is a term I picked up from one of the blogs on E-School, as in Enterprise School, as opposed to Business School, is a place to learn the art of the enterprise, as opposed to the formulaic thinking that B-Schools usually represent. In short, it will be more art than science, greater focus on people than process, and emphasis on possibilities rather than the mechanics of accounting.

If all this sounds wonderfully vague, it is meant to be. There isn't a formula that one can quickly follow in defining an E-School, because there isn't a precedence. What I talk about may sound more akin to a liberal arts college than a Business School. I see sessions on history, psychology and creative writing to be an integral part of what we may end up doing in the school. After all, the goal of the school will be to help shape entrepreneurial mindsets: It must start with a leap into unknown.

Two things I know about the school we are going to create are that it is going to be global and that it will fuse together creativity, enterprise and technology.

On being global, I have a particular point of view. I see public higher education being predominantly local, because it is usually the national or local governments who pay for it. On the other hand, being an independent college, run by the fee receipts, means serving a global clientele of students and employers. In the end, being global is slightly more than the touristy ideas of globe-trotting: It is, if I may try a definition, the capability of viewing national cultures, whichever culture one seems to have been put inside, both from inside and outside. In other words, having a sense of perspective even when someone is embedded into a community. This will, hopefully, liberate the students from the 'my way or highway' mentality most higher education endow them with. 

Fusing together creativity, enterprise and technology is an idea I have talked about for most of the last two years. In this context, creativity is more than being able to paint, obviously: It is more about thinking creatively, trying uncommon solutions to known problems. This is also about adopting the 'change the world' mindset, instead of 'make money' mindset. Enterprise is about doing it: I have always loved Joel Barker's rhetoric: "Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision merely passes the time. Vision with Action can change the world." I want to embed it in the ethos of the school. And, finally, technology is the white knight in this idea, something that will help make things happen. Good technology training, which will sit at the core of this idea, will enable the dreamers to do something useful, something creates social value and creates wealth. 

In a sense, I see technology to be the 'content' of what we teach and enterprise to be the 'context', to be pursued by creative individuals living in and dreaming about a globalised world. Some friends on the left may see these ideas as irredeemably neo-liberal, but in essence, this is also as revolutionary as it gets. It is not about spreading any fixed notions of commodity fetishism around the world, but about imagining new possibilities of a better world and trying to shape it. My complaints about most B-Schools is that primarily they imbibe their students with a consumption framework: A sense of identity on the basis of what they are going to have, not what they are going to do. This may sound like going back in time, but the idea of the E-School is to bring back action, rather than ownership and consumption, firmly back in the agenda.

Coming down to the practicalities of the project, I am indeed at a very interesting point. I am trying to use a platform which is very different, and trying to leverage its core assets, established presence, partnerships and people, to mould into this new shape. This invariably meant dealing with legacy though: Changing the mindset, processes and outlook have taken me this long even to get to the starting point. Inevitably, there were times when I surely wanted to quit: Times when the legacy seemed irredeemable, and the whole new project impractical. My loyalties, however, throughout the time, was to the idea, which did help me to plough on. However, now, it seems that we, me and some key colleagues, have won the first round: Some fundamental changes have began. Once the school comes about, therefore, it will have an instant legitimacy: It would itself be a result of the same entrepreneurial pursuit that it would intend to train its students about.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Meaning of Le Pen

Francois Hollande may just win the French presidency on 6th May, and break the habit of the Centre-Left of losing elections. In fact, one could argue that the Centre-Left parties, across the developed world, can offer an useful alternative perspective to pandering of bankers that the Right wing Neo-liberal incumbents seem to limit their imagination to. Their promises always seem to be what Gandhi described as, in an altogether different context, 'a postdated cheque on a failed bank': Often, this metaphor seems literal. Views of Centre-Left, men like Mr Hollande, do indeed sound very different, and therefore, promising.

However, I am waking up not just to the news of Mr Hollande's first round victory, but also the rather expected but still disappointing surge of the Far Right, in the figure of Marine Le Pen, in the French election. She indeed managed to come third, with 18% or so of votes, a greater proportion of votes than her father ever won. Indeed, she couldn't make it to the run-off as her father did; but her surge will surely push the rather desperate Nicolas Sarkozy into a love affair with the chauvinists and bigots. If this wins him the Presidency, that will effectively mark the end of French ideals, though France, admittedly, have always harboured deep disaffection for its migrants.

It is a time when Anders Breivik is giving his justifications for mass murder in a Norwegian court, and the British Home Secretary, Theresa May, is trying desperately to hide her gross incompetence by demonising the migrants. The lack of courage in European politics to face up the fact that the post-war economic model has failed and will need changing is obvious, and now threatening the fabric of ideas which makes Europe relevant to the rest of the World. A Le Pen presidency of France, which will become plausible if Sarkozy can win this time around by stealing her rhetoric, could indeed be the end of Europe: However, the ending could come much sooner.

Europe is relevant to the rest of the world as a land of ideas. As the newly industrialised countries stumble into development, and the wide rift between the landless rural poor and city tycoons threaten the society as a whole, it is a combination of American showbiz and European ideas, such as universal health care and education, secularism etc, keep the show going. Europe may not be an economic idyll anymore, but it is the still the continent of ideas people around the world looks at.

I know the gross generalisation implicit in this and know of the bad behaviour of the Europeans across the world. However, we generalise as we must: In the sphere of ideas, genocides and coups, as macabre as they may be, are matters of detail, an exception not the rule. We shall know France for its high republican ideals rather than its activities during the Algerian War or its intention to use Nuclear Weaponry in Dien Bien Phu. However, as evidenced today, these details always make a comeback and corrupt the high ideal rhetoric: This is a great risk for the rest of the world, which is already devoid of most high ideals anyway.

However, I must sign off by being an optimist: By hoping that despite the current state of seize, France will still win. The France we know of, the land of High Ideals, the France of revolution and of revolutionary intent, of equality, of creativity and imagination. This particular day, it seems that this France is kneeling down, unable to overcome the fear of unknown - a sad spectacle for a country which has represented the new and the bold in our world. France, in a sense, is the fountainhead of the image of the modern world; Le Pen's advent is a betrayal of everything that means.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Learning To Be Good in Something

If I have an wish granted, I would want to go back to Kolkata and live there. Indeed, it is easy for me to do so: I have family, friends, home and everything else there. The only thing that stands between thinking about it and doing it is one obsession that made me travel in the first place. It is about being very good - the best one can be - in something.

I have grown an obsession with being exceptional. This is because I had the most unremarkable childhood, happy, bland and completely devoid of surprises. I was always a good student, but never the best. I never put in the effort and was always distracted enough not to come at the top of the class in the exams, but always just behind. I was happy that way: I would often spend the last few hours before an exam thinking or doing something unrelated as I was confident that I would pass anyway. I studied a subject in college which I did not love, which meant I studied everything else than the subject I was expected to study, and ended up with a workable, but unremarkable, outcome. It is only at work I really discovered that the pride of being good - great - in one's own area or profession.

Those who know me would know about my many interests. I read various books - still - as my interests keep shifting. I love history, literature and poetry, but also books on psychology, politics and economics, which I spent most time on these days. I am trying to reignite my childhood obsession on Astronomy, not because I liked sciences but because this seemed to be area where science met the unknown, and a latter-day hobby of photography, which I invested great amount of time and energy on, but somewhat abandoned it soon after my mother's death. I do like to write - as evidenced in the output on this blog - and see myself retiring into a writing career when I had enough of everything else. But, despite this range and rather confusing mix of things that I do and want to do, I spend most of my days striving to be best in an area I have chosen for myself, and have given up most of the lesser pleasures, going to movies, sleeping in the afternoon etc., in search of it.

This isn't a new thing. My first few years of working life were spent in traveling around, setting up the outposts of two great Indian Computer Training franchises. Every new centre was a win, launching them perfectly and with better results were things my life revolved on. While I always fell short of the award of excellence the company handed out at annual functions - I was always deemed to be too adventurous and somewhat 'too intelligent' - I got other recognitions: A very senior exec telling me that I am possibly the best they have in education marketing, and the boss, who always stood between me and the coveted awards, confessing that I was the most intelligent employee she worked with, while reminding me that intelligence was a double-edged sword.

I resented it then, but soon afterwards, realised her point: One, she meant I lacked focus; but also it was about my questioning the assumptions and being disobedient in a non-subversive way, something most managers in India hated anyway. This somewhat gave me my obsession: Being the best in what I do, and to continually up the benchmark as I went along. I also learnt the value of humour - with some effort - because this seemed the perfect foil for my questioning the assumptions and my deliberate, daily subversion, the quest for a better way of doing things. Soon, I felt I outgrew my role in Calcutta, the regional outpost of the company I was working for, and also the international positions the company could offer me thereafter. This was my trigger to come to England to work, though I saw myself only as an 'escalator migrant', because what I truly wanted to do was to go to America.

In that sense, I am still on the escalator. However, my obsession morphed from being an individual excelling in education marketing to help create an excellent education institution, global in its delivery and global in its deliverable, as one colleague puts it succinctly, which will meet the needs and aspirations of a global generation of students. I am still firmly in love with America - most books I read these days are histories of American colleges and stories of American entrepreneurs - but I have grown out of my dreams of living a placid suburban life in, perhaps, California. I see myself on the road for rest of my life, at least till the retirement into a writing career at which point I go back to Calcutta, and a mission to spread the spirit of creative thinking, enterprise and innovativeness all over the world through the little company we are building now.

This new goal incorporates all the elements of the old one - achieving professional excellence, developing and maintaining a certain kind of personality and style of discourse, gaining expert knowledge about higher education industry and international exposure - and expands it by including factors missed out in search of individual excellence and success, such as knowing people, and working with others to create a shared vision. I believe this is where I came up short in the first twenty years of my working life: My focus on being good was focused on myself. This is possibly why, despite being the smartest guy around the table, my bosses were never sure of me, and I missed out on Awards of Excellence which I so coveted. It is only now, after all the wisdom of a traveler, I learn these things, that individual excellence may not matter unless I can build something great. So my goal of becoming the world's finest education marketeer, which was indeed my goal at a point of time in my life, is transforming into the goal of creating the world's most student-responsive higher education company.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

India 2020: Being A 'Developed' Country

India's leaders, at least some of them, proclaim that the country will attain the 'developed' country status soon, may be by 2020. This is indicative of the confidence in continued growth of India. At the same time, this may be slightly worrying if being 'developed' is perceived to be the end of the process of 'development'. Such misgivings aside, the goal of being developed may be ambitious and even noble, as this will mean the end of poverty and manifold improvement in the lifestyle and possibilities for millions of people, bringing about the next wave of profound change in the world after the rise of China earlier this century.

It is worthwhile, therefore, to interrogate the idea of India as a developed country and how this could be attained. It is also important to remember that growth of the countries is a fragile affair: Alan Beattie, in his fascinating False Economy, goes on to show how Argentina slipped from its promise shown early in the Twentieth century and went on to become a backward country compared to United States, which was in a comparable state at the time but went on to become the dominant superpower only in few years' time. There is a tendency, among Indian leaders and other thinkers to assume that India is automatically destined to achieve the developed country status, indeed a preeminent position in the world. This enthusiasm, stoked up periodically by one Emerging Fund or the other in search of investors, and a subtle fatalism drawn from various works of history such as Angus Madison's work on the World Economy, overlooks the realities such as the faltering Indian government at the current time and the very existential dangers reckless regional politicians are posing to the country.

Being 'developed', in India, is equated with shiny buildings and airports, but much of it is to do with creation of jobs and opportunities and lifting half the country out of poverty. For all the noise, this is yet to happen. But time is running out to make the big leap. Ruchir Sharma, in his otherwise indifferent Breakout Nations, worries that while China has more billionaires than India, India seems to have more people with 10 Billion than China: It seems that there is an opportunity problem right at the top in India. But this is besides the point: The key point the book makes is that emerging nations are not all emerging at the same pace, some are not emerging at all, and we may be collectively approaching that point in history where winners and losers are determined, just like Argentina and United States in the last century, or England and Spain two hundred years before that.

In a sense, that interesting billionaire conundrum tells something about India. Developed nations became 'developed' by providing opportunities to its people, not by creating Tycoon economies like Mexico, a path Philippines seems to be following in all earnestness. India's development, though large and more diverse compared to either of those countries, is happening right on the fault line of Tycoon trap. The important thing to remember here is that tycoons usually hinder, not help, the development of the country as a whole, as underdevelopment then becomes central to their growing wealth and influence. Indians who take the Ambani brothers making into the Forbes Rich List as the country joining the big league may actually be bitterly disappointed in the end.

There is also a cultural issue at stake here. A particularly Euro-centric view, that of Max Weber's, has dominated development thinking for the last fifty years or so. Max Weber put the cultural influences of Protestantism, 'rational and active', in contrast with the other dominant world religions - Islam (Active but Irrational), Confucianism (Rational but Inactive), and Hinduism (Irrational and Inactive) - to explain why certain countries in Western Europe (and their American cousins) got ahead of the game. The tenets of Hinduism deeply influences India's business culture, despite the claims on the contrary*. Being 'developed', if this is to happen quickly, it will mean dealing with these hidden demons. This can indeed be tricky: Our tendency to see Indira Gandhi, once popular Prime Minister, in her grand-daughter, Priyanka Vadra, for example, springs perhaps from our deep belief in reincarnation, and this encourages dynastic politics and seats for life and posterity, undermining the meritocracy and competition for ideas that a democratic political system could deliver.

Finally, in its quest to become 'developed', India is pursuing a winner-takes-all model, but without shedding any of its baggage. The underlying assumption seems to be that if this has worked for America, this will work for India. However, the two countries are vastly different: Indians are born to their stations and remain so, while America developed its own jungle capitalism amid an army of migrants, who were self-selected to participate in the scramble. For Indians, they are only very unwilling participants, mostly slaughtered in the churning. Human tragedies aside, this may lead to alienation and non-participation by the majority in India's quest for development.

The point perhaps is that one can't impose development, but can only do the right things - create a secure sphere of opportunity, provide good education and infrastructure and encourage enterprise and innovativeness. So far, despite the rhetoric and claims that India is shaking off its centuries old, millennium old by one account (See Sanjeev Sanyal's The Indian Renaissance), the imposition of dreams of 'being developed' and attendant inconveniences isn't pushing the country forward. If anything, these may be creating barriers in India's quest for better life.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

India 2020: The Skills Problem

One big business in India today is skills development. It is a modern miracle, so much so that a common refrain in education investor conferences these days is the talk of making money out of India's skill development drive, the ultimate bottom-of-the-pyramid magic for stymied training and publishing companies in the West. For private investors, this is where the money is. I have become aware of this painful reality when almost all my conversations about setting up an higher education institution in India invariably turns into discussions on the 'skills opportunity' and the money to be made there.

To start with, I have spent half my working life in the skills development in India and this is why the current frenzy surprises me. I have worked with Aptech first, and then a number of years in NIIT, and between them the two companies grew from nothing to more than 3000 outlets and million learners during the years I worked with them. It was mid-nineties and the work was fun: I almost felt a missionary zeal going into smaller towns and setting up franchised centres. The models and techniques we used were incredibly sophisticated, and the franchises sold like fire. There were those aha! moments all too often, when we would strike gold with one or the other remote centre, which will get fully booked on the day of the launch. The companies made money and we had real satisfaction, of 'changing lives', as Aptech proudly said.

Almost fifteen years later, the whole business of skills development seems to have been recast. The government is paying the bills and an assortment of international players are indeed after the money. The big focus is on rural youth - rightly so - as India has to create opportunities for its young people or will face an existential trouble. However, the novelty of the model this tie around is that the government is paying the bill: As expected, this comes with its attendant problems.

First, the providers need to excel in managing the government rather than being good with its learners. This is the problem even a matured system like United Kingdom faces: In India, this comes with the additional dimensions of cronyism and corruption. 

Second, because there is no market mechanism at play, it is quite easy for skills training providers to end up training for obsolete skills. In the IT training wave, despite the cost of always remaining cutting edge, players like NIIT and Aptech could not rest: The students were demanding results and competition, several rounds of its, were breathing down its neck. In contrast, in the new skills development, students are not customers but beneficiaries, hence they would demand less, at best dropping out rather than demanding their money back. The competitive field also be protected because of the inherent biases of the government procurement systems.

Third, no efforts to create professions have followed the talk about the skills development. India needs skilled plumbers and electricians, but till the time these are not recognised as professions and regulated, there is no premium to be had by learning these professions. And, hence, while that may be the goal of skills development money, it ends up getting spent on computer training, just like the old days, just less efficiently. 

Finally, the government has completely chosen to ignore its own skills development infrastructure, the existing state funded and state supported colleges, in distributing these funds. A deep rooted bias, signifying a two tier education system, is possibly at play here. Tied together with India's ingrained caste system, where one does physical work only when they are born low, it seems that the privileged has the Higher Education and the others have this alternate system handed down by the government. There is no measure of equivalence between the two, and no direct pathways. So, a skilled electrician can never use his skills to the complete a degree in electrical engineering, as would be possible in several other countries.

India needs a vocational training system desperately, but the one it has got now is poorly designed. It is disconnected from the usual schools/ colleges system, and by design, it is about allowing a few privileged providers make money rather than a market based system that allows competition and innovation. The money is being spent without any attempt to create the professions, and therefore, the learners may not want to invest their time into learning a trade. What one sees in this is an ingrained bias against the trade skills and the naivety of middle class policy making, which seems to distort all developmental efforts in India. 

Finally, one would like to see a more unified system of trades and professions, where one has to attain some kind of certification before they can enter the skilled trades of plumbing, electrical work, construction, as well as the modern trades like translation, web design, music technology, digital arts, etc. The whole system should be developed alongside the Higher Education system, with equivalence and pathways clearly designed, and local colleges and high schools co-opted into the business. The system should be based on clearly defined standards - of outcome and of expectations about service levels - and be tied to the standards set by autonomous professional bodies, which will be forced to respond to market requirements. In summary, a rethinking is needed about how India solves its skills problem: Indeed, the current system seems to fall well short of solving any of the issues.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Start-up: Global Network, Local Presence

In constructing a model for global education, the biggest challenge to negotiate is one that of local context. From the high ideal of global skills, it may not be visible that same words may mean different things for different people, and there is no universal agreement on how businesses should run and societies should function. This is where our business model of delivering British Education programmes worldwide comes up for a reality check. This is where we are having to think beyond the technology: In fact, technology plays only a minor part in the plans we are putting together.

The consideration of context introduces a layer of complexity beyond just the online provision of teaching in our plans. We wouldn't be counting on the lazy assumption that if we put a set of good tutors and smart technologies, everything will fall in place. One of the things about Independent Education is that the success of students is everything: It is they who pay the bill, and it would be wrong to define their success in the narrow term of handing out degrees. Our education mission is broader - that to equip every student we teach with skills to thrive in the global economy - and while this may mean a set of common standards for our graduates, we must attempt to go the extra mile and reach out to them in their own cultural context. This is indeed the primary value proposition for our 'education in search of students' model.

We are trying to achieve this through partnership with local institutions in countries where the students will be. The idea is to integrate local mentoring at all stages, with all the courses. And, again, this can not be a hands off process. It is expected that local mentors in different countries will operate differently, will have different approach and expectations. The extra burden that we will have to carry initially is to establish a set of operating standards, which have to balance our goals of creating a global education network allowing students from one location to another without trouble, and respect for a tutor's own practise, and the cultural assumptions that they themselves carry.

I may be guilty of making it too complex: Challenging as it is, it is not impossible. The key is to create a platform of dialogue and trust, and an overarching respect for the educator's practise and acceptance of myriad ways that people teach and learn. It sounds difficult as we are used to formula and an unique set of perfect possibilities, though in reality, in most cases, everything is a bit of negotiation and a story of progress through various imperfect states. We are not trying to create a perfect educational institution; we are only trying to create one which continues to learn and adapt, with respect to various cultures and possibilities and with a non-negotiable commitment to students' success.

I treat this as a great opportunity, for us as an organisation and for me individually, to be involved in a worldwide dialogue with educators. We don't see ourselves as a Value Chain business, where we inject value - in this case, education - into our students. We see ourselves as a User Network business, where the sum is greater than its parts, and the learning occurs from the constant interactions between the local and the global, the mentors in the neighbourhood and the tutors online, with local presence and global ambitions.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Cult of the Customer: Living In An Age of Exit

We are all consumers now. That's the mantra of the market: You are what you consume! And, we consume everything. The new keyword of our age is 'Taxpayers' money': It is not just the newspapers, but even the politicians, whose primary task is to squander it, use the term. The greatest public service we can all do is to buy stuff - as we are told by various pundits on TV shows - and not buying will mean recession and job losses. Our identities are shaped by brands we wear, indeed we shape our identities around the brands we wear - that's how the things are. 

This is everywhere. The fastest growing nation, not a 'city', is Facebook. Such notions just come to us naturally: Nations are just a community which one can join and leave at will. Most people believe that nations don't matter anymore: Budgets and other pompous exercises have lost their magic. When in college, I listened to budget speeches and then went to hear various experts speaking about it in auditoriums: Now I shall struggle to remember which day the budget will be published. The British government deliberately leaked the budget, to take away the surprise but also to undermine its seriousness: All governments may now follow the lead.

The only problem, however, with all this is the consumers exit. That's how they behave: If and when things go badly, they leave. That's what they are expected to do. They are not supposed to be angry, and voice their disaffection: They are not to turn up. This is what is happening across Europe. Most people don't turn up anymore. There is a hotly contested election in a few days in London, where Boris Johnson, the slightly eccentric unabashedly elitist incumbent Tory mayor, will take on Ken Livingstone, the slightly eccentric unabashedly left wing ex-Mayor. Their biggest problem is no one may actually turn up to vote. They are currently doing all they can, including swearing at each other live on radio, to make this more like a soap opera, and yet, this may not stir many Londoners.

Politics, and political profession, have generally become uninteresting. It seems that the politicians' power is waning. They may write the legislation, but that seem to matter little. This may be because ideologies have mostly been abandoned, everyone seems to be jostling for the political centre, which effectively makes everyone the same. Being in the political centre, indeed, means accepting politics does not really matter and doing politics is as neutral a profession like, say, accounting. And, indeed, we are mostly expected to stay away from politics, and instead, make money - to spend it.

However, in this apathy, one forgets that politics is not about making legislation: It is about voice. There is injustice in the society. There will always be, till we either achieve an absolute equity of power, which isn't possible, or accept the preeminence of the powerful as just, which is offencive to our sanitised post-enlightenment sense of justice. Politics, in a sense, is the mechanism that resolves this tension - it allows a continuous negotiation of power and principles, incumbency and aspiration. The death of politics is to be mourned, not celebrated. However, its decline is irreversible as we all turn customers, demanding our money's worth from the state rather than paying our share for it. In the end, we all exit.

On this Easter Sunday, then, there is no resurrection: The two great institutions of voice, religion and politics, have been absorbed by the consumer morality, which is based on choice and exit. Our notions of fairness are now redefined not as whether we are heard or we matter, but whether we can make a choice and we can consume. But we can already see the edges of the system: The apathy, the strange rage witnessed in London Riots or the student protests, which was without an ideology or a purpose. Their purposelessness was precisely the defining feature: It was about exit, non-participation, the idea of not caring, not having to care. It is exactly as it appears now: Absurd, fragmented, somewhat beyond consciousness. But that is the defining stance of the coming era, when we all lose our identities to the things we choose to serve.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Kolkata Revisited: The Arc of Hope

Kolkata, I would always point out, is unique among the major metropolises around the world as its population is FALLING. Even if this fall is only marginal, at this time of unparallelled urbanisation, that marginal fall in population indicates decay. Ghost cities aren't that unusual: A walk down the Piotrkowska Street in Łódź, the third largest city in Poland and one with declining population after its textile industry disappeared, is highly recommended if anyone doubted that this could happen in modern times. I know from my time in Łódź what happens when an inward-looking city meets globalisation: I imagine in my nightmare the side streets of Kolkata completely abandoned, an inescapable darkness and decline, where despair brings more despair and lead people to give up and abdicate to a self-interested, lumpen-bourgeois leadership. 

However, even Łódź is turning around. The nightmare of Piotrkowska Street ends as one steps into Piłsudskiego and the all new steel-and-glass outsourcing centre of India's Infosys makes an appearance. The hotel owner mentions proudly that there is a Dell factory in Poland, though forgets to mention that this is possibly run by Foxconn now, the Taiwanese company known for the horrific working conditions in its Chinese factories. The resulting outrage may not have reached Łódź, where people are rather grateful that the unemployment has fallen. Even in the middle of this recession, though Poland was hit badly, the unemployment in Łódź is about 8%, down from 20% that the town saw in 2006. The population may be rising again. After reducing the once-proud town on its knees, global capitalism has finally arrived and started rewarding the muted compliance.

This, in many ways, the future one sees for Kolkata. Without the pain, may be: Unlike Łódź, which had a population of less than a million at its peak in 1990, Kolkata has more than 10 million. But even if Kolkata escapes the devastation of Łódź in the wake of globalisation, the vision for Kolkata's future is somewhat defined by the appearance of similar steel-and-glass buildings of outsourcing centres, the usual bistros and ice-cream shops around them, and the streams of people, each carrying a distinctive identity card around their neck or their belt-buckle, bused into work every morning and bused back every evening. One would wonder whether this will really happen, for this vision depends on realisation of a totally compliant population, who will be grateful at Foxconn's largess, and treat this as a gift. Kolkata is still too complacent, too proud, too happy to be what they are. Anything short of the devastation of Łódź, when people are forced out of family homes and those who stayed would be reduced to scavenging, may not break Kolkata and make it contribute its blood, sweat and tears into the sucker-pool of global and national capitalism. 

But what about an alternate vision? Why does Kolkata have to be a dying city first to be able to live in the new era? Why do all of us accept that the people in Kolkata has a work-culture problem when the same people create businesses all over the world, work 24x7 in the sweatshops of Bangalore and Pune, and run the bureaucratic machinery in Delhi? A journalist tells me, rather knowingly, that the Bengali changes once his train crosses Kharagpur, the last major stop inside West Bengal on the way to Mumbai or Chennai (or Bangalore). The humour aside, this is a reverse justification of the failure to create an alternative, other than slavishly following the formula as played out in Łódź, and in other new colonies of global capitalism. The great shame of Bengal was that it was the first region to be colonised by the British: The next great shame seems to be that it is one of the last in the line to join the slave-empire of global capitalism.

That is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly when the great masters of new world, the international banks and their assorted sidekicks, are in trouble. I see Kolkata as a perennially rebel city in this time of rebel cities: One where friends will come up to me to ask whether I regret travelling abroad in search of a career, when I could have stayed home to live a happier life; or one where some people may think that giving up everything to earn the right to have a mortgage is pointless; or where the bosses will complain that people don't want to work even if they are offered money. It seems in its own lazy, confused, swampy way, the city has refused to accept the received ideals of global capitalism, and raised their own kinds of battle by refusing to participate.

With this, I reach the other end of my arc of hope - the complete opposite of the nightmare of the Łódźian decline - a vision of Kolkata as the fountainhead of a new idea of development. The city has reached an abyss - economically, but also spiritually, as the apathy of people have led to the rise of a fascist rule, and this, if anything, would destroy the apathy that in the first place has created it. Suddenly, after all the mucking about, politics is a positive force, a tool of liberation, an escape hatch from irreversible decline, for the people in Kolkata. Back in the zone of positive politics, this is where the people in Kolkata can play to their strengths. Unlike the other peer cities, being outside, it has nothing to lose. Its non-participation has now pushed it to the precipice, the inevitable turning-around point where new ideas come from.

I don't actually see a revolution, however: No long marches from Kolkata to Delhi or Washington! I see instead a break with the dependent development model - from the hat-in-hand model of begging international financial capital - and one based on developing local enterprise. There is nothing new in this, but the emerging country governments often forget this option. The reason why the erstwhile leftist government in Bengal failed to start job creation, which eventually cost them the election, is because even the communist model of development is bereft of options other than luring global capital investment. This, contrary to the mythology, does not enable the local population, does not create jobs and is all but permanent: The capital flees as people aspire more and costs rise. Local enterprise, instead, create sustainable wealth and local jobs, and most importantly, local role models and self-sustaining chain of enterprise.

I know Kolkata isn't ready now: Such enterprise revolution needs a quad - business, government, academia and civil society working together - as Ernest Wilson argues in his recent article on Strategy and Business. None of these elements are in place now. However, studies of innovative regions show one common trend: That they stood on the precipice of disaster just before the things started turning around. I cling on to this hope, only a slender one, that Kolkata's time has finally come.

After writing this, I was wondering whether my views have changed or remained same on the subject. Here are some earlier posts:

August 2008 : Singur: Where Do I Stand?

August 2008: Recounting Kolkata's Past: How we got here?

November 2009: Late Stage Industrialization: Curious Case of West Bengal

May 2010: Road Ahead for Bengal

July 2010: A Future for Kolkata

January 2012: A New Future for Kolkata

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Start-Up: Shaping Global Higher Education

All Higher Education is intensely local. Its form and agenda are defined by who pays: As long as most degree-granting institutions are funded by local and national governments, this will remain the case. For all the talk about 'global higher education', the idea is mostly to export locally constructed ideas of education, to promote national brands abroad, to import students where possible. Indeed, it is only fair to acknowledge that Higher Education is also one of the most regulated of the sectors, and most nations only want the Higher Education institutions they can control. Whatever the rhetoric, the national governments don't want global higher education: They just want global investment in local Higher Education.

But Higher Education needs to be GLOBAL. This relates to the purpose of higher education, which, I shall claim, has expanded beyond the making of citizens to, in the era of mass higher education, making workers and consumers. And, since the expectations of work have shifted, the big employers have changed (for example, in India, if one projects over next 10 years, a retail chain of some kind will possibly employ more people than the Indian Railways, currently the second biggest employer in the world after the Chinese army).

Students know this already. They want an education that will allow them to be global workers. This is why the international student mobility is growing so fast. In the emerging countries, the employers want students with exposure and knowledge of global business practises. The entrepreneurs everywhere face a global market, employ someone from a different culture or have a supplier in another country. An inwardly focused education is no longer enough.

However, as always with these things, nationally funded education systems are slow, in fact, almost incapable, to adapt to this new reality. The regulatory framework keeps education locally orientated, however inadvertently. Curriculum and courses on offer remains difficult to change. Admission requirements are drawn up as if there is one school system in the world. Transfer of credits and accreditation of prior learning remains difficult and insufficient. 

This is where independent education companies play a new role. So far, their business models were about absorbing demand, servicing constituents, particularly non-traditional learners, who are under-served by the traditional Higher Education sector. However, with the intense and irreversible globalisation, its first wave carried on the crest of the global expansion of cheap credit, and its next wave washed in by the bust and workers returning home, the independent sector can, must, define the agenda and shape the demand. A truly global system of Higher Education is possible, one that links up with various national systems of schooling, but remains intensely transparent and inherently portable, which combines travel and study, and which is free of the assumptions of national superiority and connected with the vision of global business and society.

Indeed, the framework is all there - the independent companies have to just connect the dots. The universities have been doing exchanges and competing for international students, however imperfectly, for decades, and have been laying the groundwork for such an expansion. Publishing companies, dreaming about million-strong print runs, have been trying to create global franchises for their hit textbooks. The 'atoms to bytes' transformation of learning, and YouTube, were linking up the knowledge seekers and knowledge providers seamlessly. What was lacking is the vision and the model, which a nimble start-up can indeed provide. As they say - just imagine! - and global higher education is waiting to be realised.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Start-Up: My Story So Far

In 2009, while I was working to set up a global chain of English Learning and Employability centers, I was being told - by the educators I met and the employers I tried to persuade - that I should focus on global higher education instead. My pitch was that with the additional English language and employability skills training, the millions of graduates in India and elsewhere in Asia would be able to meet the demands of the employers: However, I was being told that the education system was somewhat broken and there was a need for a more global system of education altogether. This was outside the scope of what I could do then: While I was having conversations with customers and reporting this back to my colleagues, the business of Global Higher Education was  complex, investment intensive and difficult, and could hardly be achieved without deep commitment and long term vision, which my employers lacked. My design of making English training a loss-leader and building on a model of global higher education didn't find any favours with the company, which was grappling with the effects of recession in its home market anyway. 

Disappointed, I approached an ex-colleague who I previously worked with in a large scale e-learning project. My proposal was to create a technology-enabled platform to facilitate education, which then could be delivered through the franchise network that I was helping to build in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. I knew I needed help: While I am good with idea development and building networks of partners and collaborators, I needed someone who could instill the commercial discipline, manage the money and operations and keep my more expansive instincts at check. Mike was perfect for this: During the two year stint I had with his e-learning company, he was a mentor and a friend, someone with discipline, integrity and commitment that I could look up to. I knew a project of the type I was suggesting, with global scale and complexity, would need his 'grown-up' leadership.

While Mike was interested in my idea and we met several times in the pub opposite the Wimbledon tube station, in the end, timing was not right for him. He just invested in another technology company and picked up a sizable order from a sector skills council. He wanted to focus on what he had at hand. It must have been a part of his new year resolution, as I received this, rather heart-breaking, mail from him on the 11th January 2010 which stated that he wanted to focus on his company. He said he thought the idea was good and I should still go for it, and he would be available for help and support, but 'it will need to be from a distance rather than active involvement'. 

I did almost give up at this time. However, by then, I knew Higher Education was a great opportunity, and decided while I could not get the business started, I should still be inside the industry rather than outside. I had already failed to persuade my employers, so I needed to have a fresh start. Soon after I received Mike's email, I made up my mind and left my job, though I searched and failed to find an appropriate employment in the Higher Education sector at that time. My best chance was to start as an adjunct tutor in one of the private colleges, but even that was hard to come by because I was traveling so much (at least till then) and was hardly around in London for any reasonable length of time. Therefore, I had to prepare myself to leave the job without having an alternative at hand, something I loath to do usually: At that time, I was ready to leave London and go back to India, or anywhere else in the world (I did actively consider relocating to KL on the basis of a very vague promise from someone I knew there) to get into Higher Ed. However, eventually, it worked out better than planned. After a month of persevering without an employment - my daily routine being filling out various job adverts and trying to talk to various people I knew from the past - an offer came through. This was a private institution whose owner I knew for a while, and he wanted to open a placement division in his college and wanted to hire me to run the same. I had to accept a salary cut of 30% and accept a much junior role than I had, but I did not mind as it gave me the foothold and a new start anyway.

Immediately after the start, I did approach the owner of the business with my plans for global college, but he was not interested. He had other things to deal with, then. The college was just suspended by UK Border Agency because of the suspected malpractices by its agents, and the college itself was struggling to expand infrastructure to meet the surging demand. In summary, the college was the beneficiary and later the victim of the same surge of demand for global higher education I experienced during my traveling years. With my new role, I was suddenly at the sharp end of managing the rising demand.

My job role changed soon after I joined. There were too many things to deal with at the college, which took priority over setting up a placement cell. The college needed to handle an avalanche of bad publicity on the web at the wake of its suspension. This, eventually, became my first project. I started by being open and honest and acknowledging our errors, where there was any, in public. Soon, some of the disgruntled voices on the social media space was cooperative, they started acknowledging my sincere efforts to solve the problem. Soon thereafter, I engaged with a complete refashioning of the college's identity: With the help of a gifted and insightful graphic designer, we created an identity to reflect the diversity and global identity of the college. I was still committed to the project I wanted to do, just that I had to take a roundabout way.

Soon after my interventions with the brand identity and social media presence of the college, I was given the task of sorting out the flagship MBA programme of the college, which was suffering from the consequences of over-recruitment. The validating university was up in arms, the quality of students enrolled in the programme was problematic, and the tutoring was erratic. The university froze all recruitment and was threatening to withdraw validation at the time. If I needed an opportunity in education management, here it was: An induction by fire where margin of error was non-existent. However, this was an opportunity too: To raise the game, to refashion the programme, to create a team from scratch and to test out my assumptions about global higher education. With the support from the owner, I managed to pull this through: The university gave its seal of approval on whatever we were doing and reinstated our status. There were many other benefits of this crisis though: It allowed me to establish a reputation in the business, but also brought a number of talented people in, allowed us to start an online support system (through Moodle - again another test of my ideas in global higher learning) and custom text books, and started a transformation of the MBA programme from an undifferentiated, commoditized degree to a programme with a purpose.

The success with the MBA programme gave me a bit more leverage with the owner of the business and I could argue in favour of more changes. At that stage, it was about getting the right people in the business and making sure that we were recruiting the right students. By this time, end of 2010, Mike was ready to commit fully into Higher Education. I introduced him to the owner and he liked him: Mike joined as the MD of the college in January 2011. This allowed me to make more changes, indeed one step at a time, in tutoring team, the work environment and the like. There were a number of people in business who were deeply entrenched in the practices of the past, and while I couldn't confront them because the owner wouldn't, they were getting crowded out and their influence on the college was waning. The UKBA's drive to limit immigration made some of these colleagues to give up on the college, whose business model that far was dependent on international students, which allowed me an wider berth to implement the changes. All of this was part of my education, which I wanted to use to create the global college I always planned for. By then, I was happy that I chose to work where I did, because it was giving me that near-death experience everyday so common in the start-ups.

However, we were confident with whatever we were doing: Mike was imposing the operating discipline that the business needed to succeed, and while that was deeply unpopular with some colleagues who, so far, had an easy ride, most people saw the sense in it. The performance levels gradually started to improve, and our recruitment, operating practices, and staff caliber improved dramatically under Mike's watch. Alongside, I pushed through some basic housekeeping with academic delivery, and soon the effects of these were acknowledged by the partner universities. In fact, one of the universities we worked with started changing their business model, mired by intermittent scandals and pressures of an impending merger, and terminated all their partner arrangements across the world; but offered us, alongside a handful of other partners, a new arrangement, a stamp of approval of sorts for what we have been doing. The students and tutors started acknowledging the 'steep improvement' that they saw, and in general, our delivery and the deliverables both got better. By the end of 2011, the college was poised for a redefinition: We had the blank canvass on which we could start building a world class institution.

This was a perfect time for me to restart the discussions about doing the Global College. I traveled to India in November 2011 mainly to have a feel of its Higher Education market, and what I saw encouraged me. The demand had only increased in the two intervening years, and the private education model, while this has put significant new investment in infrastructure, has been severely constrained by bad regulation and failed to meet the aspirations of the new global generation. India's politicians, many of whom have a vested interest in education business, did not want a change: They kept the gates closed and the sector inefficient primarily to serve their own ends. I could see possibilities, however, of setting up a college from scratch, in more business-like states of Western or Southern India. My belief that collaborative arrangements with an English (or American) college would be a winner was corroborated by all I met.

Our, and indeed Mike and I were working in tandem on this one, idea was to align the brick-and-mortar college that we worked so hard to transform with the new technology-facilitated global college. The idea is to have a high quality core in London, which offers advanced courses in technology, business, entrepreneurship and innovation, and then build global collaborative provisions in different countries offering part of this course, or pathway courses, all integrated in a form by which a student can travel and study, eventually ending up in London if they wanted to. I saw technology enabling this model of portable qualification, and wanted to build a network of expertise in teaching and learning, but also in industry collaboration and cultural facilitation, into the business model. We proposed the idea of collaboration to the owner of the college we worked with, who agreed and first made an offer to become an investor in the project, but started imposing very onerous conditions. I have tried and failed before to make a venture work without the investor fully buying into the vision, and know that it does not work. So, after a few months of wasted effort, we came to the point of realization that it was not going to work.

This meant a fresh start, and this is where we are now. Indeed, there is work to complete at the college, which we shall do now. My agenda is still to fix the recruitment network - in my mind, the recruitment through agent model is fundamentally flawed - and infrastructure, where the college can indeed do better. But once these two areas have been fixed, which would be soon, we are ready to walk away and start fresh. The last two years gave us enormous experience in International Higher Education, and allowed us to build a network of friends and colleagues which is enormously valuable. The experience, as it inevitably does, helped us develop the ideas that we started with farther. We learned the hard way - skirting the edges and facing the difficulties - which was indeed better than landing directly within an idealized environment and not having to know what the challenges are. We have faced and mastered the challenges, at enormous personal cost, but this makes us better prepared to do what we have to do to set up the global college.

I wrote down this narrative as I mark the start of a distinct new phase of my life, coincidentally but rather conveniently on the 1st of April. This narrative is actually the start of a new narrative, something full of excitement and possibilities, just the sort of stuff I allowed my life to be defined with. I am not daunted by the scale of the task - I never was, by anything - because I am ready to build partnerships, work with other people and know that only a task that is beyond my everyday abilities remain worth doing. All this indeed means a fundamental redefinition of who I am and what I do, on a day to day basis. This post marks the first step in that journey.

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