Sunday, December 30, 2012

Taking Stock: 2012

New Year is nothing but another morning, but it is the opportunity to start anew that we really cherish. The Year-end, in contrast, is quite under-rated - the crowds on New Years Eve seem to want to let it go as soon as they can - but this allows the time to pause and reflect, a luxuriant activity unaffordable for most of the year. But, without this pause, there is no new start in the New Year, no opportunity to do anything new, no breaking free - since we won't discover what kept us back. 

So, this is to 2012: The year that is on its way to history. At this point, this year is like any other: Fading rather than exiting, not with a bang but a whimper. But, may be, this will have a special place, as events in 2012 may change things in many places, which may have broader impact. When recounting the year, one may talk about less about celebrities who appeared and disappeared, or politicians who made it (Obama, Hollande, Xi Jinping, Mohd Morsi) and those who didn't (most spectacularly, Bo Xilai) or simply disappeared (Sarkozy, Romney): Rather, it would be more about children killed in Newtown, Cincinnati, which may change America forever, or an unnamed student gang-raped and tortured (eventually killed) in a bus in Delhi which brought out the pent-up anger among ordinary Indians which may finally change India's polity. 

Apart from those moments of shame, when the society we built seemed to be falling apart, the year may be remembered as one of living dangerously: The Euro-zone stood on the brink for most of the year, and financial Armageddon was always in sight. As we end the year, America stands on the brink, with its politicians freezing into inaction and inviting upon themselves, and the world, another financial disaster. And, indeed, the world may change for worse in 2013: The Americans may not be able to extract themselves out of the mess in the next 48 hours, and even thereafter, because, in a connected world, the result of falling off a fiscal cliff may be to able to never recover again. Europeans are not out of the woods yet: In a strange replay of what ails America, European politicians like Angela Markel and David Cameron will continue to play to their domestic audiences and endanger the broader union, allowing demagogues like Silvio Berlusconi to return from the dead (just as, in another generation, admittedly in a different context, politicians playing to domestic priorities allowed Mussolini and Hitler to emerge).

Indeed, we are now quite used to economic bad news, having lived with it, 24-by-7, for almost five years now. But, the bright spots are also vanishing. The great hope in 2008, after the Western Economies came to a screeching halt, was that the emerging economies, and its millions of new consumers, will drive the growth engine. However, that hope has mostly been dashed: BRICs is broken, as the latest Foreign Affairs cover declared. And, indeed, the big news of 2012 was about China's growth slowing, and the incompetence of India's government, and its total incoherence of its politics, was forever in the front pages. Even the Brazilians, the bright spot in governance, earned their reversals, showing off the weakening grasp of the government on crime and even economic management. The biggest news coming from Russia was about Putin's re-election, his intransigence on issues such as Syria and the travails of a Pop group which offended the Church, and South Africa, the new-found 'S' in BRICS, made news with its various miner unrests, brutal police shooting and finally, electing one of its richest men, a key supporter of the police action, as Number 2 in the Cabinet, further alienating the society.

More bleakly, the march of freedom, if there was one, embodied in Arab Spring, morphed into tension and unreason in 2012. The Egyptians elected a government which seemed to have a hidden design. The Syrians continued to bombard their own citizens. Israelis, with their ability to manipulate American public opinion, further bombarded Gaza and killed their annual quota of innocent people and children, all with impunity and swagger that will embolden tyrants worldwide. Iranians, perhaps following the example, continued developing their nuclear capability, preparing for a war which will surely come one day. The breaking down of Pakistan seemed to have thawed, but only in comparison to the breakdown elsewhere. And, if Sri Lanka's boots of brutality against its own people needed to be filled this year, the new entrants, the Burmese, stepped in, flaring up another campaign of mass murder, which will, with time, become another Islamic cause to contend with. 

This grim account above is not to deny that there were indeed bright spots, news of scientific progress, new breakthroughs in medicine, in understanding the nature of the universe, in space science. There were exciting new businesses that created products that solve old problems. And, most important of all, human creativity ebbed and flowed all along, and resulted in great literature, music, art and Cinema. We should not be oblivious to the irreversible ability of human beings to rejoice, to create and to make a difference. But, these bright spots, the progress, are fragile, and must be nurtured and protected. We entered into a new territory in 2012, when we got used to living with a recession, and seemed intent on turning this into a long term depression by political action (or inaction). At the same time, our societies came to a breaking point: Shameful human activities trumped progress, hypocritical politicians stood exposed, the world seemed dangerously intolerant and on the brink. The snake oil of continued prosperity lost, inevitably as it should, its magic: Suddenly, promises of middle class life seemed further than ever.

Signing off, then, the crowd may be right in wishing 2012 to go. However, they should also be fearful in what they invite in the form of 2013. We should indeed look forward to the New Year, as we have to. But, simply believing that human ingenuity will see us through crisis automatically may not be good enough. It may be time to do something about the world around us. 

In summary, then, this is a New Year like no other: We shouldn't just simply cheer. This pause to reflect should become a call to action, for each of us. This year, let this be a new start one person at a time.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Indian Education, Foreign Investment and The Search for Change

Finally, the debate everyone wanted to have, has kicked off: Deloitte, a consultancy, has started this round with a new report, India's Higher Education Sector: Opportunities Unlimited, Growth Aplenty, recently, and called for increased foreign investment in the sector. This reflects a shift of emphasis from 2010, when Grant Thornton, another consultancy, was talking about opportunities in Indian Education (Education in India: Securing the Demographic Dividend) and highlighted vocational training, backed by increased government spending on skills training, as the growth sector. Grant Thornton report was then predicting a 25% CAGR in the vocational training sector, reaching US $3.6 billion in 2012, which is most likely to be surpassed. Given the high school drop out rates in India, vocational training surely deserves the attention and can potentially

Discernibly, the government's focus is shifting, perhaps as the urban middle classes, squeezed by inflation, goaded by 24x7 news and frustrated with lack of employment and enterprise opportunities, are revolting, fragmenting India's politics but most importantly taking the streets more often than they used to. To avoid an Indian Spring, if only it is not too late, it is important for Government Ministers to get serious about urban capacity, urban problems and urban aspirations. The poverty needs to be eradicated, Indian agriculture must improve and we must build the infrastructure to help India's numerous villages, but it is no longer a choice between urban or the rural development: Despite vast improvements in literacy and rural income under its watch, this trade-off thinking has been the greatest folly of the current government, one, admittedly, it is desperately trying to correct now. Higher Education, the catalyst of middle class life, must therefore figure high on the government's agenda.

However, it is not just a quantitative change, more colleges and universities, backed by foreign investors, that will solve India's problems. In fact, one could argue that India needs less colleges, not more. The average size of India's colleges is just 500 students, and counting out a few large, mostly state-sponsored institutions, there are numerous, relatively new, education institutions with a few hundred students each. Indeed, such low numbers seriously hamper the ability of these institutions to invest in infrastructure or academic capabilities. Funnily, one reason why the institutions remain small is because India's regulatory agencies dictate how many 'seats' a college can have. There is very little discussion whether this regulatory framework is fit for purpose, which, clearly, it isn't: one clear indication is that one regulatory body, All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), attempts to publish a list of institutions which it 'does not approve', a list that is longer than the list of approved colleges, contains some of India's more commercially successful colleges. Some of its approved colleges have now 'applied for' de-listing, privately citing the sheer impossibility of attaining economic viability within the regulatory framework.

Slowly but surely, India may be reaching an inflection point: Demography is destiny, and India's young is showing up on the street, impatient with the failure of its political class to move the country forward. There may be a broader debate about the idea of India to be resolved between Hindu nationalists and the idea-of-India camp, but the urgent issue on the table is the opportunity, to lead a productive life and to have access to middle class lifestyle, for the millions of Indians in their twenties and thirties. The grand debates are not irrelevant, and indeed they would shape the nature and the viability of Indian prosperity, but India is at a stage where all traditional polity, all parties, must change of mindset,  align with the street aspiration and must deliver.

This change of mindset will not automatically accompany investment, private or public. The rising nature of Indian middle classes is completely missed by its policymakers, in government, business or outside: The private investment in education so far have ranged from money laundering, profiteering or simply recycling political patronage. The moment for the 'Private' solution, wherein the state steps back and let the market decide, may have passed: In fact, it may be downright dangerous for the state to step back now and depend on investment, foreign or otherwise, to create educational capacity. This is because investment is usually blind, and for all the claims of smartness, private investors tend to be enormously naive and capable of oiling the greasy palm. The foreign investment is likely to create more institutions at the already crowded top end of the spectrum, and create more opportunities for the socially endowed who already have all the options in the world. The key challenges of middle India, which is both a metaphorical and geographical concept, are likely to be passed over by the private investors.

Indeed, the government does not necessarily have to step back with private or foreign investment, but this has been the orthodoxy so far, and indeed, such thinking underpins the reports from consultancies: However, for India, the government must try to reform itself and the way it thinks about Higher Education, but should remain firmly involved. For a start, there could be nationwide initiative on Higher Education: This could range from, at one extreme, a constitutional amendment to put the responsibility on the Union list rather than Joint list (a political impossibility, but this may facilitate coherent decision making) to a technocratic solution of creating a National Commission on Higher Education with executive powers, which may have Central, State and Industry participation, which should work autonomously, be free from political influence (something that may require a constitutional amendment in any case). The National Commission solution is more feasible, if there is political will, which is the problem in India but one would hope that the spectre of a Bastille moment will spur some political activity soon. The organizations such as AICTE should be disbanded and its functions should be integrated into the national, unified body, which may handle accreditation, quality assurance and funding function all within itself. And, indeed, creation of such a body should be accompanied by the government committing a significant allocation of its budgeted expenditure on Higher Education (2% anyone?). [There is a discussion that Indian companies must allocate 2% of their revenue or profits, the debate between the two is still on, to Corporate Social Responsibility fund, which is a form of stealth tax the government wants to impose]

Private and Foreign investment, once such a commitment is made and an overarching framework is established, may be greatly beneficial, but not without an unified strategy and at the cost of a retreating public commitment. However, one must commend the consultancies for creating a ripple: It is time, hopefully, to have a meaningful conversation about how India must move forward. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Coming Transformation of India

I feel optimistic about India just when others are feeling despondent, growth seems to be stalling and the media, with the daily diet of horror stories, is proclaiming the end of the world everyday. The Commonwealth Games fiasco, the corruption scandals, the crimes against women, the lethargy in decision making, have all painted a picture of drift and confusion, lack of leadership and a deep crisis in governance; but the fact that all these seem to be a crisis, that people are marching on the streets, the state seems perilously fragile, should be a symptom of a much more forceful, positive, change that would remake India.

India's chief problem has so far been that the state is so dangerously distant from the affairs of the street. This distance is about disconnection, of an unaccountable existence, of its functionaries and officials. This is inherited, in many ways, from the British colonial administration, whose mechanisms Independent India took over and kept intact. Primarily, this means two things: One, the Independent Indian State inherited the vast power without accountability befitting a colonial administration (and enshrined the same in its, British style, constitution); and, two, it assumed a very similar role as a patron - just as the Colonial Administration did - by forming coalitions with a handful of powerful people and attempting to run the country through a network of agents, and thereby, creating layers after layers of power, privilege and influence, each underlying layer surrendering to the interests of those above, and mechanics of the government suitably obscured from the view of all except the ones at the very top. 

Nehru was bold to insist on universal suffrage at the very beginning of Independent India, but not bold enough to consider Gandhi's proposal to disband the Congress Party and build India on grassroots organisation upwards: He instead imposed the patron state, with an automatically incumbent party (more like ANC in South Africa today), with a democratic mandate to soothe his, and his fellow travellers', liberal conscience. However, democratic election does not automatically mean an accountable state: Democratic election is merely a means of selecting the functionaries, one route among many possible ones. The moment the elections are over, the residual accountability needs to be built and sustained through other functioning, independent institutions. In other countries undergoing similar democratic experiments, accountability usually came from judicial activism, media scrutiny or the challenge from the civil society. In the history of post-Independence India, we have seen some of each variety of activism (though they were rarely coordinated, except before and after Emergency), but none of these really sustained, or persisted, to hold the governing interests to account. There were indeed many reasons: Because the Indian state maintained itself through dominant languages and a civil service instituted at the colonial times, which selected its members and operated on the basis of social capital, its institutions were mostly interlocked and incapable of challenging one another. There is a high society, and all kinds of power belonged there. No one really wanted to upset the apple cart as all of the important people were in it together.

The patron state paradigm creates a sense of entitlement among those who help to run it. Any conversation in Delhi, where the powerful is most concentrated, would usually include name-dropping of big government functionaries [the Mumbaikars usually merely recount serendipitous, and often fictitious, viewings of matinee idols]. With time, this leads to the powerful taking their status for granted - why else would I be expected to know that an Assistant Deputy Secretary in the Department of Aviation Modernisation (I made that up) is an important person when I meet his/her fourth cousin by chance (again, I made this up) on a Delhi-bound train - and eventually forget that every public role needs to have a public purpose. The term, 'taxpayers' money', does not have a popular Hindi equivalent yet: Instead, the term in use in Hindi literally translates into 'royal entitlement'. This entitled class, tightly guarded, which occasionally accommodated those populists who could work the democratic elections to their favour but only as long as they remain in their place, took the rent they earn, just for being members of the club, for granted : The corruptions in India, which persist across party lines, are merely a symptom of this structure of privilege.

However, the reason to be optimistic about India is that all this is history: The country seems to be poised to reach another turning point which is no less pivotal than its moment of Independence. This optimism is rooted in a simple hope - that demography is destiny - and the observation that suddenly, there are far too frequent marches on the street, public anger and activism, and more ubiquitous formation of 'crowds' (One has to remember that this isn't normal: Most Indian cities, designed by the British, do not even have public squares, meeting places where such movements can start from). Unsophisticated, spontaneous and leaderless, this isn't a revolution: But, then, as recent events elsewhere may have illustrated, revolutions are not what we construct them to be, post fact. They tend to be far less organised, far more ad hoc - leadership in revolution is situational more often than not, and the leaders emerge from the movement itself. I shall therefore not moan about the disorganized nature of India's public activism, in its headless form, but rather see the roots of an Indian spring and the beginning of the end of its 'convenience democracy'.

There are many who see the watershed moment will arrive in 2015. That coincides with India's General Election, one that should mark the end of another generation of Indian politicians and the beginning of the first true post-independence generation. John Elliot sees this as the monumental battle for the idea of India, with battle lines clearly drawn. However, this is also the time India's demographic peak arrives, its college going population soars, and people born after the economic liberalisation starts entering the working population. In this brave new world, the grand schemes such as idea of India may be less relevant than it is today, but others, such as decline of authority (as Indians move to the cities and traditional family formations start breaking down irreversibly), growth of regional mobility and preponderance of modern consumption may seriously challenge the patron state, and try to turn over its entitlement network. This may sound like chaos, but every nation must reinvent itself periodically, and a similar moment is upon India: It is a historic opportunity, but failing to do so will be like living inside a combustion engine.

Indeed, this hope is fragile and its outcomes unknown. But it is only so because the talking classes are so disconnected. The development talk, that many Chief Ministers and Politicians are trying to own, is a symptom that what sold yesterday, identity politics, may not sell tomorrow. The language of anger, such as shooting the criminals after summary judgement, is immature and ill-advised, but showing that instead of media controlling the streets, the street talk is taking over the media. There are grave dangers to civil society from a flaring of nationalism, which is the wave Mr Modi wants to ride, but India seems to be moving away from militant nationalism rather than towards it: It is not about growing tolerance, but a direct result of ubiquitous consumer identity and dizzying growth of regional mobility. The urbanization is bringing freedom, of all kinds, political, intellectual, financial and sexual, and allowing new ideas of individual to pre-empt the grand debate about the idea of India.

However, this is the time of breaking of the entitlements: Usually, this means flourishing of extraordinary creativity and new possibilities once the life after chaos commences. This is what we will be looking for, I am looking for: This would usher India's moment, finally.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What Makes A Global Manager?

I am writing a course on International Management and that allows me to research and reflect on who a global manager is (and, indeed, how to prepare one). I think many people embark on global assignments with little preparation, which happened to me in the past, and only learn as they go along. Reflecting on my own experience, I think companies can get a lot more out of their staff if they prepare them ahead for such assignments: The problem indeed remains that this is still a fuzzy field and it is hard to agree what one needs to prepare on.

The most usual preparation is indeed to talk to someone who had a similar posting before. So, if you are being posted to China, you talk to an old China hand, soaking up as much as you can. This is useful, but if this is the only thing you do, which often is the case, such preparation can be counter-productive. Usually, this means that the presumptions of that mentor gets passed on to you, and unless you are lucky to have a mentor who learnt and reflected well, which is a rarity in the action-focused world of business, that's a very bad place to be. 

The other thing to do is to read about the country, which, again, is very useful, but not sufficient on its own. This is because more you read that a particular nation is like something, for example, Indians have a different conception of time, it seems to stand out as a national idiosyncrasy. It is in fact useful to explore culture in general, and know that even one's own conception of time may appear peculiar to others, and that different people have different conceptions of time - and that Indian concepts of time (and space, and everything else) is one of those.

In a way, the best preparation for a global assignment is to learn see oneself with an outside-in perspective, and this is the most difficult bit. Whatever we do - talk to other people who had been in the 'post' before, or read about the country - it only reaffirms our inside-out view. If an Indian ever written a book about an expatriate manager living in his country - I am not aware of any such book but just using it as an example - that would, from the vantage point of the expat's own culture, seem chauvinistic, and it won't be widely available, at least not in the expat's own country and language.

I am aware of this problem as I have lived an expat manager's life: I have been posted in different countries and had my best years professionally during the time. However, I started with exceptionally bad advice, and have seen other colleagues suffer as they took that advice literally and behaved accordingly. Indeed, people who imparted that advice were smart, experienced and successful, but they let their own world view affect their advice. I also know how difficult it is to get to know a country without learning to read materials in its own language. I was lucky that my first outstation posting was in Bangladesh and I spoke the language: So I could read Bengali books and know about the country as it sees itself (and loved it). This is always difficult when an expat is trying to understand the country through his own language, as most people who would write in his language either share his own presumptions and experiences, or trying to write 'for them'.

I think it is important for all the global managers to remember that they are not just an ambassador for their own country or culture, which is an exceptionally challenging responsibility by itself, but are also lucky to belong to that very small group of people who are connecting the world. This is an exciting, very special, opportunity, and often you get this once in a lifetime. However, it is exceptionally hard: Going to live in another country and working there is nothing like being out there as a tourist or a conference delegate. Particularly in countries where relationships are everything - most of Asia, Latin America, Middle East and Southern Europe may fall into this bracket - holding a mirror to oneself and preparing for such assignments is extremely important. I am aware that this does not happen ever so often. This is exactly what is making me burn midnight oil and come up with something that may prepare these global ambassadors better.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Making Global Education

This is a bad time for globalism. The recession has renewed the fear of the others, and various politicians, from Japan to Italy to United States, are inventing foreign bogeymen to obscure their own failures. Companies, while desperate for ideas and for growth, are receding to respective homelands for safety: The only international bit they would still like to do is to keep their cashes stashed in tax havens. In fact, by doing so, they have given global business more bad press - Starbucks dodging taxes, Wal-Mart paying bribes and various banks, almost all of them, defrauding customers and governments alike.

Critics can say that this was bound to happen and globalisation is a sham: But when it comes to climate change, nuclear disarmament, human rights, the issues that the same critics love, they concede that there is no alternative to concerted global action. I shall contend that global connections (or disconnections) are a function of technology and due to progress in transportation and communication, distance has irretrievably died. The fear of the other that keeps globalisation at bay is a tool for inefficient, self-serving political machine, a system fit for another era, a set of people with dated values who seemed to have sleepwalked into our time. Globalism isn't rhetorical, it's real: Its our back-from-dead nationalist politicians who are really the voodoo dolls.

Indeed, differences are alive and well, and they ought to be, as human diversity works for us and allows us to do complex things. But being different does not have to make us fearful, because such fears have always caused trouble, whereas great prosperity was created when we overcame those fears. Our society works on adjustment, and we must now expand our field of vision to include those who are different from us.

As with other things, my take is that this has to start with education. The education as it is now comes in two varieties: A nationally grounded variety, which displays the politicians' handiwork at its worst, where purse strings are pulled and various national stereotypes are embedded in the students' minds; and the other, at a more advanced level, where a neo-liberal special species doctrine is preached from the business school pulpit, where a special band of marauders are prepared to live a life steamrolling differences and undermining societies, creating the demonic globalisation that the Muppet-politicians then use to whip up the fears.

However, global education isn't a new idea. In fact, educators around the world have been trying this for at least a century. They were in the fringe, as their models did not suit the government-funded version of the system, and they were labelled sages and visionaries (in effect, impractical men and women): One such example was Viswa-bharati (the world school) in Bolpur in West Bengal, which was formally started in 1923 (the school was operational since at least 1905) with the Nobel prize money of its founder, Rabindranath Tagore. The founding idea of the school was to step outside the British colonial education, which was designed to produce pen-pushers and bureaucrats in the service of the Raj, and to imbibe creativity, love of nature and globalism in its pupils. It is a tragedy that the ideals of Viswa-bharati was forgotten soon after Tagore's death, when his successors, Mahatma Gandhi and eventually Jawaharlal Nehru, integrated the project into India's national building, turning this into just another university, if slightly exotic, tasked to produce bureaucrats in the service of the new Indian state. However brilliant, Viswa-bharati's globalism was dead and buried alongside its founder.

Tagore saw the horrors of nationalism well ahead of his contemporaries, and spoke about its perverse nature as early as in 1905. He persisted even in the face of hostile public reception, particularly in China and Japan, where nationalism and national pride  were seen, in 1920s, the great force of freedom and progress (just as in India today), and his lectures proved so unpopular that some of them had to be cancelled. Tagore remained a marginal figure in India's independence movement because of his nuanced views of nationalism, he and his education project reviled by his compatriots as 'empty internationalism' and shunned (his chosen successor, the great Bengali nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, refusing to take on the responsibility); indeed, his globalism was never fashionable, not even in his dying days when the world was plunged into the horrors of nationalist slaughter of the Second World War. Tagore's efforts were modest, but heroic for a single man; and certainly, he was not alone in envisioning and creating a globalist education. Thus, the founding ideals of Viswabharati now needs revisiting, and dare I say resurrecting, as we face another long global recession, like that of the 1930s, which is inexorably sucking us into abyss, putting tinpot dictators in place and reviving the nationalist rhetoric across the globe. A global education, aimed at the creation of global students, leaders, managers, is more in need than ever before.

Indeed, one has to be mindful of the neo-liberal variety of global education, that which steamrolls differences and imposes a near-imperial view on the world, and which is precisely the reason why global education gets equated with an arrogant, disconnected mindset: We need global education, but in a reinvented form, which respects differences and celebrates, rather than attempts to reduce, human complexities and variations. Global education isn't, and shouldn't be, fitting economies into standardised models and having a touristy view of national idiosyncrasies; It is rather about knowing that a range of mental models exist in the world, and each has its own sphere of validity and legitimacy. It is about humility rather than arrogance, about discovery rather than evangelism, and, if this is forgotten, about learning rather than collecting fridge magnets. 

If someone is wondering whether I am in a time-wrap and whether talking about globalising education now, just when localism is on the rise, is a good idea, we must remember that the global recession, for which globalization is blamed, is actually a product of lack of global integration, or shall we say, lopsided global integration; and, indeed, the greatest danger that comes with this recession is to get back to our murderous nationalist habits. In summary, there was never a time when creating global education, that based on understanding and tolerance, was more important.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Future Literacy

A little survey on my favourite research cohort - students - and everyone tells me that they don't read books anymore. I am not delusional - I already expected that - but I am still sad: It is as if no one cared about the death of my old friend. But there is more than that: I am also puzzled how to teach a Postgraduate qualification without books interfering. Some younger friends tell me that this is a Generation X problem though, something like dementia, people successfully complete research degrees without reading books, which may very well be true. However, this is a personal problem: I live surrounded by books, I spend most of my money on them and my greatest regret in life is about being separated from the collection I built up over the years but had to leave behind in India when I migrated. So, I talk in books - my teaching is often walking through the ideas etched on paper, and my efforts in the classroom are mostly focused on making students discover the joy of that secret Shangri-la. In an age when reading books is uncool, my methods and I may sure look outdated.

So, I moaned: I asked why they don't read books. The most common answer was that they used to, but life's other priorities have taken over. I fully sympathise - that happened to me too, that keeps happening to me at times - and I know how hard life can be for a full-time student while they work part time and also live a full-blown social and family life. Just too many things to do to take time to read! For me, when I feel similarly submerged, I try harder: I surround myself with books, taking out my full quota from libraries, stealing few minutes out of work hours to stroll down to charity shops, and even, in my new start-up avatar, set up meetings in the cafe inside Waterstones at Trafalgar Square, so that I am still surrounded. I usually read several books at a time, often reading only a few pages at a time, often violating that strong affectionate linear attention that the act of book-reading demands: However, that is my act of love, just like stealing a kiss, so that I am reminded of love. And, then, finally, inevitably, the noise of life subsides and I am able to read a book from end to finish, sometimes through a night, which gives me the sense of fulfilment, a successful conclusion after waiting for that moment to come. It is an elaborate dance, perhaps too elaborate, but this is my way of having a sentient existence.

Therefore, I told my students that: That it is like having no time to read at all, an act, or the lack of it, that may condemn them to ignorance. Then the truth came out, slowly but inevitably, everyone in the class reflecting and confessing that it is not that they don't have the time, but book-reading has been squeezed out of their life as the Internet has taken over. They read online, which is reassuring for me as a teacher to know, but still painful as a book-reader. We launched into a discussion about relative merits of Internet reading thereafter, the discontinuous culture of Internet reading versus the patient pursuit of books, the digital versus the intensely physical, musty smell and all, experience of reading. There were clearly two sides of the debate, a muted disbelief that I am even trying to defend book-reading: It was cast to be one of those age versus youth, old versus new, debates, where the new ideas must eventually win.

But, indeed, I am not denouncing Internet: I am a old digital hand, having fallen in love with Internet before the web was born. Indeed, I did not read on the Internet then - that is precisely my point - I connected with people. For me, coming from those bulletin boards, Internet was a live experience, connected, noisy and full of people, not a solitary one to disconnect and to read. I came to blog writing almost naturally thereafter: Internet was a place to talk, to have a conversation. Then, when it was still a green screen with blinking text, Internet sat neatly with my various other habits, talking to people, writing by hand, book reading, watching Star Trek on Television etc. I am no one to tell people to digitally disconnect, as I can't. But, I felt, telling me that reading on the Internet is squeezing everything else out is like being able to speak, but not able to read, is one thing consuming the other to nothingness, an intellectual poverty rather than enlightenment.

We must labour on this point further. Socrates denounced writing, because he thought mental faculties needed to remember and argue would diminish as a consequence. This is cited as a classic (indeed, classical) example of fear of the new media, but there is a somewhat broader point (as with everything Socrates ever said or did). The new media shouldn't impoverish us, not replace our old literacy but to add to that. Take for example the great education innovator Jan Comenius, who used the great innovation of his age, printing press, to the pressing education problem of costs of teaching, and came up with textbooks, which revolutionised teaching but eventually undermined other skills, of remembering and understanding the classical literature, and resulted in Victorian classrooms. This is one example at hand where the new media replacing the old impoverish us, rather than adding on to it, something that Socrates so presciently observed.

We may be time-poor, but this is my point: Internet represents a different opportunity, that of sharing and connecting, and must be treated as such. I am greatly enthused by the experiments in social reading, where it enables reading together, but not of interactive texts, where the voice of commerce (what else to expect) can interrupt the one on one conversation between the book and its readers. I am an enthusiast of new media skills and would go as far as possible to acquire it, and writing this post on my laptop plugged on to the wi-fi at Waterstones, I celebrate it too: But, may this not be at the expense of what we already have, a great ability to transport our voices over time, as represented in the frozen form of books, the ability to read deeply and without distraction, and imagine, without being told what to think by the ubiquitous voice of the salesman who must, and always do, intrude whenever we drop our guards. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Point of Higher Education

Higher Education is in crisis, it was proclaimed. MOOCs and various other avatars, depending on who you ask, either cause the crisis or present a solution. The government is in full retreat, after making access to Higher Education central to democratic legitimacy, and indeed, various interest groups are up in arms. Central to this debate, various debates as we should see it, is the question what Higher Education is for: It is on this question, rather than any other, where the battle lines are drawn most clearly.

Like any other public policy debates, there are lots of rhetoric and lots of fudge on this: Terms such as 'Opportunity Society' has won votes and lost meaning many times over. The scarecrow of loss of competitiveness (to South Korea, mostly, these days) and the teardrops shed on 'lost soul of Higher Education' compete for influence and column-inch. But all these various shades of grey can eventually be put in two boxes - the 'Power' argument and the 'Productivity' argument.

The 'Power' argument, first: The proponents of this talk about making of a better person through Higher Education, someone who can critically analyse what's around him or her, shape the world rather than be shaped. The point of Higher Education, in this view, is to create an empowered class of individuals, who lead and shape the destiny of others. In this view, higher education is, at its core, the pursuit of freedom, which must be free by design itself. However, at the bottom of this argument, there is this assumption that the educated must be allowed to lead: The great hallo of intellectual freedom, in essence, is freedom for few thus initiated.

The 'Prosperity' argument, in contrast, is about money and productivity. Higher Education, in this view, is a tool that equip its holder the ability to produce, directly or indirectly, economic value. In a way, this is the open doors argument, the 'opportunity society' view, which allows all-comers to have a chance. This side of the argument, however, accepts the power argument implicitly, and accepts that freedom and self-consciousness isn't for everyone. The proponents of higher education for prosperity is happy to let the Power Higher Ed live on, just that they want a share of pedestal and dish out similar diplomas. 

The 'Power' side of the argument, however, resents the 'Prosperity' proponents as terrible pretenders. Despite the latter's inherent acceptance of an unequal world, indeed many prosperity proponents themselves are recipients of power higher ed themselves, the former sees this as a terrible land grab. For them, 'Higher' in Higher Ed is not just about the number of years on a education leaflet printed in some ministry, but this 'higher' is higher as in Mount Everest, shrouded in mystery, beyond the reach of the charlatans and the commoners: For them, Higher Education for Prosperity is as revolting as opening Shangri-la for honeymoon packages.

Unfortunately, despite claims on the contrary, there is no 'Freedom' school of thought in Higher Education. That argument has been usurped: Freedom in Higher Education is either freedom for few to do the high thinking, or the freedom to consume for all, leaving the high thinking to few. The politicians, mostly educated on power schools and themselves seasoned players of the power game, sold the prosperity snake oil and the guise of freedom: Freedom to consume as opposed to freedom to think, indeed.

Depending on which side won the argument, we have the two typologies of Higher Education system dominating the landscape. The prosperity argument seems to reign supreme in United States, while the power side has been entrenched in the UK; the countries which model themselves after these two globally dominant models have created systems along the lines - India a 'power' dominated system, South-East Asia and China a prosperity driven one.

Indeed, higher education debate is a many-headed hydra - so it is useful to be able to start somewhere. I have found this typology, of power and of prosperity, useful as a start point, as it helps to sort through the rhetoric and the slogans, and the various pseudo-models that are spun out from time to time.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Education to Employment: A Flawed Prescription

McKinsey published a report on 'Education to Employment: Designing A System that works' in an attempt to draw attention to an urgent issue: With 75 million young people unemployed around the world, and twice that number unemployed, this is becoming one burning issue and indisputable proof that the current system does not work. Mckinsey argues that educators and employers seem to live in parallel universe, and this causes the problem. Their solution is to bring the two together: To make more employers educators, and educators employers, which roughly translates into more vocational education. However, I shall argue, that the problem runs deeper.

First, educators and employers indeed reside in parallel universe and would always will. Educators' job is, or at least should be, to enhance the capability of the learner, so that, if employment is the goal, their earning potential could increase. However, the employer, usually a business, wants just the opposite: His profits are based on availability of cheap labour who can do the job. They want skilled machinists, but in such abundant supply that they don't have to pay more. In fact, it would be great for them if they can get a steady supply of shop-floor ready machinists every year, so that they can replace the previous years recruits, who would by now want a salary increase, with a new intake of recruits. 

Second, the employers are focused on today, as they should be. They require people who can do the job today, and do not care about whether their skills are future-proof. If the technology changes, they would want to discard most of the old hands and move on to the next crop of the graduates. On the other hand, educators, For-Profit or not, have an obligation to upskill their charges with something that works for them, regardless of who they work for, and ability to adapt as technology changes.

It is therefore a surprise that the contrasting attitudes of employers and educators come as a surprise. Besides, pinning down the youth unemployment - and its consequences, such as wasted lives and various untimely springs in the Middle East - solely on the education problem is not exactly accurate. If we haven't noticed, we have replaced any job that could be replaced by use of machines. We have made capital flow more or less freely, latest is the Government of India wanting investment in retail sector so that efficient, read jobless, supply chains could be built; but on the other end, movement of people from one country to another have been severely, and artificially, restricted. And, finally, using a flawed vocational education system, something that is usually touted as a panacea to all our jobs problems, we have built an army of people with dead skills, and used them as canon fodders of our industries of the day; as the jobs disappeared, we have left a whole generation stranded, and labelled them, at our convenience, as 'benefit scroungers', 'takers' or now, the '47 per cent'.

McKinsey's views will carry weight, and The Economist has indeed jumped into the fray with this article, pointing that the government spending in the universities and the latter's growing prominence is part of the problem. However, as with these things, the unspoken bit is what the employers do. Like every other debate in our societies, while there are two sides of the debate here - employers and the educators - we can't really examine who the employers are and what they do. It becomes really simple to say that we have a jobs problem because, apart from various structural issues cited above, the employers are not interested in employing. Most employment happens in For-profit organisations, which are run with two principles, that they must maximise profit, and less employment = more productivity = more profit.

The jobs conundrum, therefore, needs to be recast: We indeed have a problem of wasted lives, but that can't be solved with jobs. Educators have a problem, and that is not that they don't focus on employment; it is rather the opposite, that they do. Almost oblivious that there are not enough jobs in the market, they buy into, rather uncritically, the mantra of a better job for a better life, only to leave their pupils with disillusionment and self-blame. It is a time for collective wake-up and call the bluff, as some researchers have already done (See Brown et al, The Global Auction, 2011), but that may be unpalatable for those who can really write and publish these concern-raising reports. However, as long as we continue to self-delude, we are unlikely to do anything till the members of the broken generation take it upon themselves and change things.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Breakpoint: Another Pivot

Start-up life is exciting: Disappointments and rejections come thick and fast. Just when one thinks that there is light at the end of tunnel, another endless tunnel starts. In what could be the reverse of bungee-jumping, indeed one would imagine the sky having gravity after talking to any aspiring entrepreneur, one lives the life in spurts of joy and endless despair thereafter; indeed, it is this experience that is thrilling, indeed only after all of it is over, and would be material for heroic stories for telling one's grandchildren, minus the silly bits. 

There are lots of silly bits, unavoidably perhaps. At this time, slightly sulking from the latest disappointments, I am onto this what's-going-wrong quandary, and the thinking whether the whole project is quixotic, only to realize quickly that the main problem Quixote had was of not accepting the world as it was. The mantra of what I am doing now is to be able to pivot, to change and to adapt; and my solace should come from good old Darwin - the one who adapts, survives.

We are trying to build a college from ground up with entirely start-up finance, which is too complex for a lot of people. Besides, we are right in the middle of the fault line of two investment mindsets: The education investors are somewhat horrified at our audacity to build a new college with shoe-string investment, whereas technology investors won't touch such a regulated industry with a bargepole. It seems we are too ambitious - a fault I freely acknowledge but it seems to be catching up with me - and trying to do much. 

So, this may be the time for a pivot, the word I am growing find of. It may be time for us to choose one mindset, of technology or of education, rather than trying to ride two horses together. This may mean giving up on being a 'college', at least for the moment, and focus on creating a supplement to college education. We can still do what we set out to do: Create a business education programme for post-recession world, which will talk less about steady lifelong big company careers and more about the real life, of change, disruption and innovative possibilities, that a graduate actually has to live. And, besides, we shall make it a really global proposition, allowing students to travel and study, to see global businesses from inside.

To achieve this, and yet give students something they would want, we are building partnerships with colleges, in different countries, to weave together a programme, which will sit alongside their regular programmes, on global business, which will blend travel and study, combine online and offline interaction and be based on student research, even at the undergraduate level. We would stay outside the Diploma marketplace and the regulatory rigmarole that comes with it, and rather build innovative programmes offering life-changing experiences and deep learning, which can then sit alongside various education offerings our partners already have. Where we shall add value is to bring the global and local together, at the time when globalization is hotly contested and localism is back with vengence, just in its most intolerant, chauvinistic form. This is indeed a bot of swimming against the tide, but for better, I would hope.

We use technology to do what we are proposing to do: But technology isn't the main thing here. The whole thing wouldn't happen without technology. What we are not trying to do is to sell British degrees abroad, which is the only bit the investment community often gets. What we are trying to do is to bring a global community together, on shared values and ideals of global exchange and communication, and the assumption that all businesses are now irreversibly global. We would often say that we are building a platform - allowing our audience to indulge and think that we are talking about sophisticated technology - but how we see platform as a combination of technology, people, process and relationships together, and indeed, values, sharing across the board a deep faith in globalism and of openness, collaboration and toleration.

What we do is nothing new, nor too expensive (we are funding it with our personal savings and credit cards so far) - but measured by the rejections we have so far got, from investors who want something tried and tested, I am ecstatic that we are on the path to build something really novel. I know how that statement sounds, and I am fully conscious of the risk of self-delusion, but even before we got into the rejection territory, I wrote in this blog that investors are yet to understand the mechanics of education business, particularly Higher Ed. They would usually want a factory proposition, because most models the business schools teach them are about reducing everything to a factory model. They are slightly foxed by what educators do: From this disconnect comes the really bad oxymoron such as result oriented research, balanced scorecard for education institutions and all that. In fact, I am so interested in how the investment community see higher education, and indeed, if there is a business model of higher ed which fits the private investment mindset, that I have now made this the subject of the thesis that I write for my Masters at UCL.

So, here I am - pivoting and adapting - at a rare moment in life when I am presented with an opportunity to build something. I am overwhelmed, however, by the goodwill of friends, who came over and offered investments, small sums but enough to get us going, get the model and the first courses established. There is a hard road ahead, and I am bracing myself for a long period of hard work, but this experience, if anything, is more rewarding than anything else I have ever done: This is a special moment when change, more than continuity, is smarter strategy.    

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