Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Story in Person: Reflections and Interests

I feel most elated when I am most depressed. My default mode is optimism, indeed. Without it, I can't keep indulging on the big hairy projects that I always keep doing. But optimism does not necessarily preclude feeling dejected, as there are invariably times when things look tough. The point, I have now come to believe, is not to expect anything to be an easy sail, and worked out an operating method: I don't sit at home and don't worry because things are going alright, but equally, I don't sit at home and worry when they don't. In summary, my optimism isn't about seeing a rosy picture of the world, but believing that I can work my way out of any trouble.

One would suspect, correctly, that I am writing about all this because setting up a new business has been demanding. I had persistently spoken about setting up a network of learning centres, which uses technology to link together teachers, learners and employers. If I attempt to determine since when I am at it, it would possibly go back to 1999: I was then at, a business I co-founded to deliver technology training, and played with similar ideas. This had to hibernate for a decade as I went back to NIIT after relinquishing my interests in Netpro, and then emigrated, only to return to it in full force in 2008, when I regained strategic oversight of international education markets again. Despite all the various things I have done in my career, those who know me would ascertain that I have never really moved on - I can cite a paper I wrote for my managers at NIIT years before I started Netpro and argued that they look at such options (which was applauded but then ignored) - and always kept moving to this direction. But, indeed, I had to go through these cycles of despair and reinvention, and in my mind, they are the best way to move things forward.

I have never been closer to what I wanted to do than now, when the ideas are all coming together and things have started to happen. Despite the deep personal sacrifices invariably involved in setting up a new enterprise, it is a time of deep satisfaction, as I see the elements, technology, content, learners, partners, come together one by one. Despite the occasional and inevitable disappointments, it gives me the life I always dreamt of, that of creating something meaningful. It comes with occasional moments of elation, when things work; of despair, when my efforts are neglected; of anger, when people focus on their narrow agenda and ignore my evangelic zeal; of shame, when I come up short by my own expectations; and of meaning, when I see that this was what my life was for. This is the perfect creative joyride that I could have ever hoped for.

As I write this post, this is my own reaffirmation that I need a renewal. The sheer preoccupations of life, of balancing commitments, made me lose my momentum somewhat. I was struggling to get back to my normal rhythm of life ever since I came back from China: Making up for work after almost two months on the road, handling deadlines of various kinds which all seem to converge on 31st July, of balancing various ideas, projects and relationships at the same time, made me lose control and my sense of purpose in day to day living perhaps. Suddenly, I was living a life as it came, not trying to define the agenda and not trying to shape my days, which are sure signs, for me, that I was not in control. It is that point when I am worrying a little too much, and not doing enough to mitigate the worries. 

Hence, this moment - of reclaiming my optimism and through that, my life! It's cliched, as I keep talking about it, but I really do it all the time. I would love to think of myself as a king of new beginnings; right now, my world seemed to have just began. This is exactly my mood: I shall now make checklists, start all over again, write off all the lost time and disappointments, and try to turn today, tomorrow, days from now on, meaningful. I shall define agendas and timelines, and as I am prone to do, make a 100 day plan, which can come handy, both to me personally, but also for the business and my professional activities. And, soon, I shall write this blog again to report progress.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Why does Indian Higher Education need Foreign Investment?

In India, the Higher Ed talk is about big numbers: The policy makers talk of millions of graduates and hundreds of universities. The never-ending debate about Foreign Investment in Higher Education is centred around the issue of capacity creation and the assumption that it can't be done with capital available in India.

However, Indian Higher Education is going through a quiet crisis, and this must be taken into perspective and in reframing the debate. Suddenly, capacity does not seem to be a problem: Over the last five years, every day on average, 10 new institutions seem to have been created and 5000 new students have been offered a Higher Ed place, reckons Pawan Agarwal. However, despite this expansion, the system is still facing a crisis, one of confidence. In fact, despite all the excited projections about student numbers, seats are going empty. If there is a lack of appetite for education investment in India at the time, it is not because of the lack of money but because of the perceived lack of demand. At the face of it, the demand argument for inviting foreign investment seems to be misplaced.

Usually, the commentators are quite dismissive about the causes of this crisis in Indian Higher Education, lumping these together into a 'quality problem'. The theory goes that since the newly created privately owned institutions offered poor quality education, students decided to shun them. However, this simplistic theory begins to unravel the moment one goes beyond decrying the state of affairs and start exploring what the nebulous 'quality problem' may be. At its heart, it is not so much a 'quality problem', which is about whether Higher Education is delivering what it promised to deliver, and more about how quality is defined: In its very Indian construct, educational quality is meant to be a magic formula which should make students employable without enhancing student engagement or making curriculum or teaching relevant. The whole discussion about Higher Education capacity in education, both from the policy makers perspective and from the educators, is about supply of cheap labour with pieces of paper. The problem, however, is that the Indian companies are already so pressed for labour, they would hire a capable person anyway whether or not they got a degree from one of these sweatshop colleges: So, the degree makes a little difference.

Seen thus, India's higher education just does not suffer from a demand or delivery problem, but a proposition problem. The prestige end of the education, older public sector or publicly supported colleges nd universities, are doing fine: Some would demand a perfect score in intermediate examinations as the basic eligibility for application. Seen from their vantage point, there is no demand problem. Besides, they are now enjoying the attention from the big Indian employers, who, rather fed up with mediocre technical colleges, are now recruiting English Lit students from good colleges.

At one level, demography is indeed destiny and pressure of population will keep feeding the demand for Higher Education. But, inherent in this statement is an irony: India's young population does not want an education their parents wanted. The hidden message of demography is not just the number, but the fact that India's Higher Education is still a largely urban affair, and India's urban youngsters are far more aware, agile and ambitious than they are given credit for. The Higher Education offering laid out before them is typically unambitious and poorly designed: These are utterly disconnected from the ambitions of people born at a time of plenty and shrouded in rhetoric that comes from their parents' times.

So, it is not about money that foreign involvement in Indian education will bring: It is about the imagination and creative proposition that will come with it. The contrast with China is interesting here: China's government is pursuing a deliberate shift from 'Made in China' to 'Designed in China' and therefore pushing the educational institutions to innovate. In India's case, as always, it is the Government which is the problem, the overzealous but corrupt and inefficient regulation being the stumbling block, and it is the students themselves who are voting with their feet and pointing to the direction they wish it to go. So far, the Government and the investors in education has read the signals wrongly and invoked the catch-all 'quality' excuse, but one would hope that the foreign participation in India's education will both shake the regulatory structure and reshape the Higher Education proposition.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Views from the Ground: Comparing Indian and Chinese Higher Ed

China is a vastly different country than India: If anyone has any doubts, she should try a train ride. In India, it would be, at best, a sleeper coach travelling at 70 miles an hour, with a 1960s feel about it; In China, it would be a bullet train travelling at 200 miles an hour, with a slightly futuristic ambiance. But the difference is more than that meets the eye: It is not just about efficiency, speed and technology, but also in what's behind all this, the deliberate hand of the government embedded everywhere. One train ride and one would know the essential aspect of comparing China and India: As Tarun Khanna put it in slightly different words, China works because of the Government and India, in spite of it.

So it is even when we visited the 'private' Higher Education institutions in China, which we did during our visit last month. We visited three cities, Shanghai, Hefei and Hangzhou, and spoke, as is becoming the pattern of our visits, to employers, educators and some students. We saw private universities and vocational training companies, and designed models for delivery of our courses in China. The principal difference that we saw from what we saw in India is in the enabling role of the Government, at least in enabling the enterprises: The universities we visited received significant funding from the government even though they are private institutions, and even the vocational training company was closely supported. In India, on the contrary, the private education providers (perhaps with reason) were viewed with suspicion. The Chinese institutions looked matured and well-endowed, the Indian ones chaotic and struggling.

We may be dealing with a small sample here and what we have may not be like for like comparison at all. There is no clear way to compare a 20 year old institution with wet under the ears private universities that we met in India. And, surely I drew comfort by thinking that Indian institutions will possibly look the same way once we have allowed them time to mature. But, one problem with such view is that we are competing in the real time, Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs, statesmen and students. While it is not a zero-sum game (Chinese prosperity does not signify Indian doom), there are global jobs, patents and contracts up for grabs, and it surely looks zero-sum at the level of the individual.

One must therefore return to the essential difference, the role of the government. For the sake of this discussion, let us accept that there is no alternative to private Higher Education, not at least in India and China, where the demographic pressures make a purely public solution unworkable. With this as the starting point, it surely seems the Chinese government's approach of supporting and enabling the private institutions, rather than the Indian government's policy of controlling and constraining them, has a better chance of producing the results that these countries need. And, this is not about the level playing field becoming levelled over a period of time: Seen in the context of competitive landscape, wasted lives and opportunities, one needs to address this NOW.

Which model of government involvement is better is a discussion for another day. It may also be that Indian private businesses grow up leaner and more efficient because they have no government support (and, in fact, government hindrance) whereas the Chinese companies are allowed some slack. But, in education, working with Government and Regulators may be an essential requirement for efficiency and good quality. In India, it is not unusual to have conversations focused on how to get around regulations: While mindless regulations in Indian education sector often makes such evasions a necessity, seeking such opportunities all the time drive the focus away from quality and process orientation, central to delivering meaningful education.

Going beyond the differences though, we also found a lot of similarities between China and India (just as you find in trains, where trains and stations are orderly in China, but commuters aren't), particularly in terms of pedagogy and teaching practises. The issues we heard are quite similar, like the lack of trained teachers, which is true even in matured institutions. We have noted, coming from a different paradigm, similarities in how students and educators approach knowledge, a given and something handed down, and how the teaching, at least in some of the places we were visiting, were limited by the 'power distance' between the teacher and the student, and often by the difference in social position of the two (this may have been acute in the private institutions with non-elite students).

I think this is where there is a big similarity, despite the different starting points that the two education systems have: An urgent requirement of redefinition, to meet the shifting needs of the economy (moving up the value chain and creating a consumption-led economy). The details of the challenge may be slightly different in India than China, but the requirement of change is clear at all levels. There is an uncanny similarity in what the President of a Chinese university we were visiting and the academic team of a proposed private university being set up in West Bengal, India: Our curriculum is very narrow and we need to widen the perspective. One surely knows that the two countries have to travel two different paths to find the answer, but, at the outset, the answer may look remarkably similar: Creating Self-responsible learners, encouraging a creative approach to life and work, a dynamic view of knowledge and skills and exploiting the huge possibilities and dealing with challenges posed by rapidly evolving learning technologies and learning content.

India 2020: The Search for A Strong Leader

The times are confusing, uncertain. Despite all the advances in technology and sophistry in business, from the vantage point of a common man, it seems we are less in charge. All the solidity and continuity middle class life was associated with, is gone. In fact, one can feel that there is no point in being middle class anymore: Either you are climbing up, or you are falling behind. 

At this time, we must find someone to save us, or in absence of hope, someone to blame. Therefore, with the rather bleak prospect of middle class life, we blame our leaders: In the exposed brutality of modern day existence, we feel exposed. We want to be led, told what to do: Therefore, we turn the discussion about ourselves into a discussion about leadership. We hide our weaknesses into a convenient search for a strong leader.

But, who really is a strong leader? We have an impression of a man on horseback, with a faint suggestion of the charge of the light brigade. We want someone decisive, but do we care enough about the direction such decisiveness will take us? Besides, there is another twisted irony at the heart of our desire: We want this strong leader suspends everyone else's ability to obstruct 'progress' and everyone else's rights of opinion, except our own, of course. That way, the desire for a strong leader is an inversion of our own desire to dominate, to drive and to dictate, a celebration of tinpot dictators that we all are.

Benjamin Franklin warned us that 'those who are willing to give up a little liberty for a little safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety'. The middle classes have now lost the plot and indeed, forgotten that democracy is a gift, earned after centuries of struggle. The cacophony about a strong leader is fuelled by our desire to trade off freedom for consumption, a collective abandonment of our dignity for selfish pursuit of pleasure. It is easy to wish for military rule for a day to sort out all the democracy's confusions, but the tragedy is that military rulers hardly ever go away after the designated day is over.

People always get a government they deserve, because whatever we may think, governments emerge from among us. It is built of our own strengths and weaknesses, our abilities and desires. When we tolerate, they become less accountable. When we give up our rights, they become dictatorial. When we lose the will, autocrats take over our states and our lives. When we search for a strong leader, we, by implication, seek to weaken ourselves.

So, finally, then, this is my take on India's various troubles: India does not need a strong leader, just a more involved citizenry. It is time to grow up and take the responsibility of the republic: To vote sensibly, to hold our governments to account, to set standards and not compromise every time for a little personal gain. We have been lucky to have been born in a democratic and republican state; it will be a great folly of our generation if we end up losing it just because we traded it off for easy Credit and more time in shopping malls.

Friday, June 07, 2013

What's the Indian Higher Education Growth Story?

There is a lot of excitement about the expansion of Higher Education in India. A telling and oft-quoted statistic is that over the last five years, every day on average 5000 additional students were offered a place in a college and 10 new institutions have opened doors. Besides this, there are big macroeconomic trends, demography, urbanization and rising income, that point to big expansion of Higher Education.

However, that's not what is happening. In fact, the opposite is true: Colleges are now closing in India. The whole sector seems to be feeling besieged: The public sector because of the lack of cash, the private sector because of the lack of students. Engineering seats, once a scarce commodity and objects of desire, are going vacant. Once mighty institutions, Osmania University in Hyderabad, Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu, Bengal Engineeering and Science University (formerly Bengal Engineering College) in West Bengal are shadows of their former self, mired in scandals, failing finance and infrastructure, and governance.

One may say that this is only about the bottom end of the education spectrum, and the elite institutions are doing well. After all, IIM Ahmedabad climbed 30 odd spots last year in the Economist Intelligence Units global Business School rankings. IIT Kharagpur appeared on the Times Higher Education University rankings, first time an Indian university broke into the Global Top 200; two other IITs also made it to the Global 400 ranking. Lady Sriram College in Delhi could afford to demand a perfect score, 100% across all subjects, in intermediate examinations, as the criteria for application.But then, the newly setup IITs are struggling to find people to teach in them. (See this story) A similar story is playing out with Indian Institute of Management, which has also been extended and now, the newer institutes, those in Kozikode, Indore and Raipur, are set to affect the overall perception of the whole IIM brand.

However, the policy-makers seem completely oblivious of any trouble. And, even otherwise sensible commentators talk rather indifferently about the need to enhance quality as well as quantity. Various people interested in opening up education as a new business sector projects that India needs 1500 odd universities and 40 million higher Education students, up from the current 660 universities and around 20 million students.They believe the current disaffection is due to quality problems, and it will go away as the hand of the market plays out.

I shall argue that this is where we need to be more careful. Education is not a simple consumer good, where inefficient producers are simply driven out of market. In a certain sense, bad education is 'radio-active' and has fall-outs spanning many generations. The lack of students in newly set-up colleges may signal a certain disaffection, and it may take generations to repair the damage. And, those who see educational quality problem as a passing phase, I suspect they wouldn't be comfortable driving over bridges built by badly trained engineers and submitting themselves to the poorly educated dentists.

So, this is my problem with Indian education's growth story: The macro-level perspective of education, counted in Gross Enrollment Ratios and Graduate Numbers, hides as much it says: The excitement obscures the personal stories of badly educated, of those with degrees but no capability, of those with ego but no hope, of those wasted years and desolateness.And, this isn't a quality problem, which is going to go away: Rather, it may lead us into mediocrity, decline and intolerance, a reversal of economic growth and deep-rooted social problems.

However, this is not just confined to Indian education's growth story, but about what's happening in India in general. Despite all the development, we can't escape the fatalism: We take it for granted that India will develop and become a preeminent country. Anyone who disagrees - and I am aware of my fate for a long time coming - is treated as a collaborator of malign foreign powers or a traitor. However, I shall argue that even this idea of 'manifest destiny' is foreign, and indeed, we have taken it too far. We have forgotten that India will not become a great country unless Indians make it one. We have outsourced our responsibilities to God and the Market, and solely confined ourselves to making money.

I think this description captures Higher Education's growth story: We have taken the growth of Higher Education as a given, confined ourselves to making money and hoped that markets will sort out the quality problem. We have created an 'anything-goes' culture, solely confined education to credentialing and allowed complete charlatans to enter the field just because we need more colleges and universities. In the Indian spirit of having to do nothing, we have tolerated a broken regulatory regime for decades; however, we have not tolerated and stamped out anyone who might have raised a dissenting voice from within the academe. In the end, we want the rhetoric of growth in education, but harbour, deep down in our hearts, the same suspicion of educated Indians that our colonial masters had. Nowhere in our discussions about education, we have talked about excellence or innovation, and just contended ourselves with meaningless statistics.

That the bad education is paying off badly is already evident, but the anger is still missing. The consultants are claiming that Higher Education was mentioned several times in the Union Budget and that is a progress, but one is astounded by the rarity of discussion about education in the Parliament, in the State Assemblies, in the Media, and in the political discussions. No one seems to care if we have built a substandard education system, and even worse Higher Education system: It just does not count as important.

In summary, the Indian Higher Education's Growth Story so far has been one of cruel indifference and callous neglect.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Search for Employability

In a previous post, I questioned the notion of employability training as it is practised now. The subsequent discussion on Linkedin on the subject was illuminating. One of the contributors, Graham Doxey, who set up Neumont University in the US previously, had this to say (I quote him in full):

"As you know Supriyo I have been addressing this very issue for over 10 years now. I am impressed with the insights that this conversation is drawing out. I have thought of responding to some very specifically, but there are now too many so I will have to consolidate my thoughts. With my co-founders at Neumont University we set out to address this problem specifically in regard to computer science education in 2002. I personally met with dozens if not hundreds of CEO's and corporate leaders to get their buy in on this new approach to CS education. We got these companies involved in the education process from the first semester with increasing involvement such that by the last 2 semesters students were working in teams inside the companies building real solutions to real problems. We got rid of the agrarian calendar based system and were in class 10 weeks and off 3 weeks all year round. Students were in class from 8-5 Monday thru Friday. 70% of the curriculum was in a Project-based learning format and 30% focused on classroom based theory.

Companies were interviewing our students at multiple points in the educational process and giving us feedback as to how they valued them well enough in advance for us to adjust to improve the outcomes.

What were some of the results from this experience?
1- Students learn most effectively by doing and then teaching what they learned to their peers
2- Students didn't need 4 years to earn 120 semester hours of credits and master the content
3- The first graduating class had an average of 3 job offers each and were 100% placed before the last day of class in 2006 at an average starting salary of $63,000.
4- 10 years later the placement rates are still in the mid 90% range.
5- IBM hired more graduates than any other employer in the first year (when we had no reputation at all). That year they hired 13 Neumont grads, 2 from Carnegie Mellon and 4 from MIT. 1 year later they did a tracer study and found that the Neumont grads were in more senior positions and customer facing positions than grads from ivy league programs.
6- A majority of Neumont grads chose to work in small or medium sized companies and were hired into positions that required 2 years of experience.

What have we learned?
1- From working with hundreds of employers there is almost complete unanimity about what skills they value most, and it hasn't really changed over the last 10 years: Teamwork, Oral and written communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills, understanding of business processes, and then technical skills.
2- Education is a learning process that involves Acquisition of knowledge, Assimilation of knowledge, and Application of knowledge. Research is a learning process that results in new knowledge. Both discovery of new knowledge and learning about and mastery of existing knowledge to solve problems for others (employers or otherwise) are important to society.
3- A great irony of our expanding knowledge/service based economies is that information and knowledge itself is less valued than during the industrial based era. Today our society expects to find information and knowledge 24/7/365 for free. Conversely, the value of assimilating that knowledge and information and then applying it to solve problems is going up. Perhaps we are more of a solutions based economy than a knowlege based one :)
4- You cannot teach softskills in a classroom. The highest priiority skills are not technical. Teamwork, communication, conflict resolution, leadership, assertiveness, etc are all things are are learned best through doing. Hands on learning is a critical element of 21st century education.
5- The historical role of universities as repositories of knowledge (in their libraries and faculties) is changing. There needs to be research universities to explore and discover new knowledge and there needs to be universities that are excellent at helping students learn to assimilate and apply knowledge to solve problems. These are two very different learning processes and functions. I believe the innovations in education we see today will impact the later and not so much the former.

Sorry for the long response, but I feel like what we learned might be good to share and is relevant to this conversation in that I would suggest that relevant education enhances employability and enables students to competently contribute to their communities upon completion of their course of study. I am not sure that is education = employability but perhaps education should enhance employability."

Many institutions, in my experience, talk about employer engagement, but this hardly goes beyond inviting a few people for guest lectures or an odd lunch. Some institutions set up boards including employers, and then these boards meet once in a while. The kind of close integration Neumont had achieved is quite special. Most institutions base their strategy on a large professional team of placement professionals, continuously knocking the doors and securing interviews, and then preparing students for the same. Many institution leaders feel comfortable with the latter structure, as this makes tangible marketing object: It is much easier to say that the college has a big marketing team rather than it offers good education. However, this is precisely the kind of flawed strategy I took issues with in the 'employability' business: The question of 'employability' needs more effort than just setting up a placement team.

The insights highlighted in Graham's response would therefore be counter-intuitive: Employability is not a magic potion, but surprisingly sound similar to plain good education. The employers seemed to be after the students who can think for themselves, take the responsibility and develop continually. If these are the abilities most connected to employability, the current employability training, which is mostly about how to dress up and what to say in the interviews, is doing a great disservice to the students. Besides, these are skills one can't teach within the classroom and with a limited intervention. These ideas must be embedded in to the curriculum design and helped through creation of a conducive learning environment, things that get missed out when institutions treat 'employability training' as a panacea and focus elsewhere.

Set in this context, one must start distinguishing 'employability' from 'placement': If a student is employable, given the usual health of the economy, they would be 'placed', but being 'placed' does not necessarily signify 'employability'. Employability, once we accept the notion and start living with the word, is a strategic ability in the student to anticipate, develop and demonstrate knowledge, skills and aptitude as required by the economy, and continuously move forward in a direction that is professionally rewarding and personally satisfying. 

Seen this way, there is no conflict between the 'employability' credo and the objectives of a good education as more traditional educators will perceive it: It is about being sentient citizens, who contribute to the society and the economy and takes the responsibility of one's own well-being. Even if the employer engagement of the level and scale of Neumont's cited above may not be possible for some educators, sticking to these principles should be easier. However, while these may sound like common sense and fairly traditional, many educational institutions struggle to 'empower' the students to think and act for themselves.

This is where the employability problem really comes from. During my visit to Indian colleges recently, I was amazed to see that the colleges run taught classes six days a week, seven hours a day, even for Masters programmes. The students have no time for independent study and collaboration at all. When I asked, I was told that parents expect their children to be engaged full time! Despite the fact that they were being treated like infants, when I met the students, they appeared normal - conversational, addicted to their phones and pragmatic - leading me to conclude that it is the college which disempowers, rather than helping, them. Indeed, the same colleges are keen to enhance students' employability, in fact, they regard employment record as critical to their strategy and marketing, but they take a placement centric view of the problem, and then get mired into the problem of finding employers.

The college leaders who see the lack of student employment as a problem arising out of lack of placement efforts forget that employers have no incentive to get involved unless they see an appropriate educational proposition which can prepare the kind of students they seek to recruit. The placement centric approach is also likely to push the students in a reactive mode, just opposite to what they would need to be to be employable. So the strategy is flawed from the word go, serious employers don't recruit to do personal favours or just hire students because placement teams were persistent; they hire students because they have the right abilities and can do the job.

Education, in developed as well as in the emerging economies, is approaching a break point. Several factors, cost of delivery, political agenda, student demography, industry expectations, nature of knowledge and academic work itself, are changing at the same time, creating a crisis, but also space for innovation and new thinking. Employability, a label loved by everyone involved in education, is both summative and subversive: It captures the changing priorities, but brings into focus the values and nature of education. We have the opportunity to define the new agenda of education around the banner of employability, and this means we must go beyond the indulgences of 'placement' and try harder to create a meaningful strategy.

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