Monday, June 30, 2014

Conversations: 1

Half year gone - should I repeat the cliche that time's flying - and I am on the threshold of a new thing. A new 100 days plan will be handy, and I intend to set this in motion from tomorrow. Let things change and fast.

So, here is the last six months: Our plan to get the business off the ground with a strategy that we decided upon late last year has failed. Focusing on one territory and a couple of partners was a risky plan - I did foresee this bit but didn't win the argument - and rather predictably, when this under-delivered, we were out of time. I spent a great amount of time as an Adjunct Tutor, feeling claustrophobic and waiting for a miracle, but kept my already overdrawn bank account on a life-support. And, towards the end of a rather tentative, but boring, six months, things started coming together in the form of interesting ideas and interesting projects. I am just on time to make a fresh start.

It is not that I have not achieved much in the last six months. I always planned to achieve the Chartered Marketer status with Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) but managed to do my CPDs only very unevenly for several years. The last two years were different: I did focus on this and finally got to the stage when I can get to the top membership grade. I don't intend to get back to a formal marketing career anymore (though serendipitous that my journey has been, who could tell) but it is still a conclusion of a long-standing commitment. 

I have also discovered a new interest, which I shall now focus upon: Ethics. I have been studying this, on and off, through a few MOOCs. I did Michael Sandel's course on Justice first, and then Peter Singer's course on Practical Ethics. These two courses together led to my reading various books, including Professor Sandel's and Professor Singer's books accompanying the courses. Now, I am planning to do a short project of making a reading list and reading them over the next 100 days. 

This project started off well as I completed an eminently readable 'Created from Animals', James Rachels' presentation of what I have come to understand as 'Darwinian Ethics'. Indeed, this is a revelation as I had a different conception of what Darwinian Ethics may mean, the dog-eat-dog conception of the world. Rachels' book presents the development of Darwinian thought and clearly points out its paradigm shifting nature, such as the questions it raises about human dignity and the place of humans in the world. I could not have chosen a better starting point in my endeavor to read moral philosophy.

I also decided to live my life differently, and writing these short, daily notes, under the heading 'Conversations', is one of the things I intend to do. The idea is to capture what I did the last day, the conversations or thoughts I had, and anything I would have done towards moving forward with my life. This may sound incredibly pretentious, but my objectives are modest: I am expecting this period, the next 100 days or so, to be incredibly important in my life, and an honest, reflective account may help me in similar inflection points that I may indeed have to face at different times in the future. I could have written a diary, but I am so used to writing it this way, here on this blog. Besides, when I conceived this blog, this was supposed to be my scrapbook of ideas. That moment has come.

In the next few days, my plan centers around three things: First, to practice a new way of living, which includes writing these short notes publicly, presenting a transparent account of what I am thinking and doing. Second, to decide on what I do next. One thing I know (and have written about): I want to give up teaching. I am certain that teaching within a traditional environment gives me nothing, except the money I need, and I am confident that I can do better things to earn money than teaching. I have therefore started several conversations for projects that may replace my teaching duties: Some of these will require me to spend more time in Asia, just as I want to do. I want to finalise on one of these opportunities as soon as I can, and get working on it. Third, I want to clear a significant backlog of work that I have accumulated over the last couple of months, and bring my current commitments, particularly that of teaching, to a close. This will mean some frantic work in the next two weeks, but this is what I intend to do, starting today. 

I am looking forward to this journey-within-a-journey and hopefully, this will be a good story to tell.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Why I Want To Stop Teaching

I am in the midst of a change: After teaching in a public institution for two years, I am looking to give up teaching and get back to other kind of work. Indeed, teaching was primarily to cover me during the bootstrap years so that I can pay my bills. However, there was more to it: I chose to take up teaching responsibilities, dating back to 2010, in order to learn the practice of teaching, concurrently with my Masters in Education. This was part of my commitment to get into education and a demonstration of my deeply held belief that education is an art by itself and to get into it, one must understand the domain.

That may seem obvious, but it is not. Because education touches almost everyone, everyone has a view about it, which is good. However, what's problematic is that everyone seems to think that they have a definitive view what education should be. So, the technologist thinks that education is all about neat technology, the business person thinks that it is about capacity utilisation, the publisher thinks it is about the content, and the employer takes the view that this is about the employability skills, whatever they are. To me, it seemed like the story of those blind men who went to see the elephant: Some thought it was like a tube, some thought it was like a tower, some thought it was like a mountain and some thought it was no bigger than a mouse. I wanted to know what it really is.

Indeed, I don't claim that I know, just with my teaching experience of last five years. But this adds on to the various things that I have done before or since: Written courses, set up projects, planned and executed marketing campaigns, built industry partnerships, ran recruitment companies, implemented ed-tech projects. Each, valuable in itself, appeared to me one aspect of educational engagement: I wanted to have a view of the whole.

I do feel that teaching experience had made me wiser. To be sure, I have taught different kind of learners, which included highly educated entrepreneurs, senior managers of large businesses, school leavers as well as matured learners, and many international students, from about 20 countries by my last count. I have been through different kinds of exposure, ranging from soul-destroying to enlightening, as any teacher will know. I have taught different subjects, international marketing initially, but lately subjects such as innovation and knowledge management. I have had my 'run in' with quality assurance departments and with managers, and debates about views of education, again perhaps a common theme in many teachers' experience. In summary, I enjoyed the experience, it was financially rewarding at a time when I needed the money, and it gave me insights that are invaluable as I wanted to build educational institutions eventually. But, now, I wanted to stop teaching.

This is because I now want to commit myself to the next thing: That of creating the educational models fit for a jobless world. The more I taught in a traditional environment, the more I became aware that the practices, the content and the engagement work with a presumption of traditional jobs and careers. In fact, my greatest difficulties with the students, and sometimes with the institutions, were to bring this point to the fore, that a new approach is needed, in education as well as in lives, to succeed in this new environment. Too many educators, particularly those hardwired to Ofsted kind, think that the world will go on as usual. Some of my learners, though not all, believe that this is only about a certificate in the end, and that will ensure everything. Working inside the classroom and alongside other educators enhanced my sense of urgency in committing myself to the agenda of change in education.

Too many educators seem to think that talking about the jobless future is a neo-liberal conspiracy. The underlying view is that the employers are automating and cutting jobs because they are in an inhuman pursuit of profit. None of these angry educators are indeed not going to do anything about it other than writing very complicated academic papers for self-consumption, and only very occasionally take political action in the form of a walk-out, though this is more likely to happen when their own pay and perks are threatened rather than for the sake of the jobless.  

The point, of course, is not to resent the world but changing it. I have come to see the 'second Machine age' as a reality rather than a conspiracy, and I believe that educators should be involved in designing an educational response, rather than sulking about it. After pursuing my teaching ambitions for a while, I have come to the realisation that such response will perhaps come from outside the public institutions rather than from them. 

Indeed, I have spent my time in For-Profits and know their inherent limitations, their short-term perspectives, in advancing an educational response to a changing economy. In my view, these institutions may be good at filling the skills gaps when it is obvious, but not so good at a time of structural change such as now. Therefore, I am not looking to transition into some kind of work with a For-Profit institution, but rather looking into alternatives which allow me to commit to the cause of educational change completely.

There was a time when I wanted to get into the classroom. I would remember that this is how I approached a For-Profit college in London several years ago, and eventually ended up joining the Senior Management team there, doing many things including teaching. And, even after my plans to morph that college into the base to execute my plans for a global college failed, I continued down more or less the same path exploring the opportunity within the traditional format. But, finally, I have reached that inflection point, with a mixture of desperation and courage, to make the commitment that whatever I do from now on will be towards building an educational model fit for the changing economy and society (impacted by hyper-globalisation plus intelligent machines). This is the reason I must stop teaching.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Culture in the Classroom: 1

How much should one pay heed to cultural issues when planning to deliver education globally?

This question has assumed renewed significance as global education is now a reality. Technology has made it possible, financial liberalisation made it desirable. Now, even the last barriers, which were there for mostly political and cultural reasons, are also coming down. Even a country like Bangladesh, which is forever at war with Western influence at home, has now allowed overseas universities to set up shop (see story).

With a broad global consensus slowly emerging about a regulatory easing of Higher Education, the global online providers never had it better. The technology of delivery has reached a tipping point, the access to computing, through cheap tablets and smartphones, have reached even the remotest parts of the world, and the groundswell of middle class aspirations have far outstripped the traditional modes of supply. 

Indeed, there are big hurdles to cross. China not only tightly controls its education, but also its Internet. India badly regulates its education, which means complete prohibition of foreign awards as well as widespread availability of the bad ones. Other countries like Pakistan and Indonesia remain frontier territory: Nigeria's Boko Haram makes it their cause to fight foreign education.

But at least the cities are accessible. The logic of global businesses in education these days are predicated on modernised cities, unified in consumption habits. And, indeed, with most of world's population getting into cities, this is a defensible ambition. That the city folks everywhere want, and need, the same education.

My point, however, is that there is one more barrier to cross: That of culture. The national cultures are well and alive, and indeed kicking: The more homogeneous consumptions become, cultures and behaviours go the other way. It is fashionable to be Filipino, Indonesian, Bengali and Nigerian again. Besides, the new immigrants to the cities want an economic opportunity but do not want to abandon their religious, cultural and filial roots. An education must take this into account.

This poses big problem in the quest for scale. That everyone will be able to take and benefit from the same educational offering is a naive assumption to make. Culture ensures that if one has a problem, they won't post it on a forum. They won't even leave the course. They would just write the exams and pass, but then continue unchanged. As if the whole business of education was like a Western dress, to be worn for a limited time for a limited purpose. 

Which should be all fine if this is just about handing out degrees, or merely teaching a skill. But those business models have limited shelf life. The western degrees have a legacy, but a weak one: They sell not because of their inherent strengths, but in the absence of competition. It is only a matter of time when a disruptive innovation will come from the emerging markets, particularly those markets with lots of domestic demand. Skills teaching is also prone to disruption, given that skills are socially constructed and must be right for the local markets.

The appropriate goal for global education then is to modify behaviour, creating a band of global professionals, which no national system can effectively service. At this plain, however, somewhat paradoxically, the business of education is culturally laden, because one can't change behaviour without engaging the whole person. 

The question for online educators is this then: How to engage the whole person? My experiences at the chalk face told me a different story than one would see from the strategists' vantage point: The act of education is as much in listening as in speaking, and the limitations of pure online offerings are often in the listening to the learner. MOOCs may result in superior public conversations but it will hardly change the world: The culture in the classroom will trump the march towards global homogeneity of thought and values. This is the next great challenge for the global education. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

UK Student Visa Fraud: Next Round

The Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, made a statement in the parliament yesterday regarding the government's response to the widespread visa fraud uncovered by BBC Panorama earlier this year. (See post) The measures are rather extraordinary in scope, though those who have seen the BBC Panorama programme would agree that the brazenness of the scam was mind-boggling.

If anyone thought that the issue of student visas are now settled, after thousands of private colleges, bogus and legitimate, have been shut down, they have been proved wrong. Several universities, including London Metropolitan University, have been scarred by the experience (see story here). The aim of the government was to close down every college except the Highly Trusted ones (a category of sponsors defined by the new immigration rules) by 2012, but this has obviously failed. The fact that this issue keeps coming back indicate that a serious rethinking, rather than rhetoric, is needed. 

The developments announced by the Minister yesterday include:

- Glyndwr University, a Welsh university, which was doing brisk business in London with a prominent private institution, London School of Business and Finance (LSBF), has been stripped of its Highly Trusted Status. This will mean that the university will no longer be able to sponsor any international students.

- Two other universities, University of Bedfordshire and University of West London (formerly known as Thames Valley University), have been barred from sponsoring new international students. This is one step away from suspending their licenses altogether, and while these universities retain their highly trusted status, the number of Confirmation of Acceptance of Studies (CAS) they can issue has been reduced to zero. Indeed, this also means none of their current international students can extend their visa if needed, though there could be an emergency solution found, if needed.

- London School of Business and Finance (LSBF), along with its Birmingham-based sister company, Finance Business Training (FBT), have also been suspended. LSBF deserves special mention as this maintained a very high profile among the private institutions, with Prince Michael of Kent as its Royal Patron and campuses all over the world. LSBF also maintained a very high profile marketing presence, backed by a huge advertising expense internationally. 

- 55 other private institutions, listed below, were also suspended. Some of these may have been colluding in the visa fraud, but others may be purely collateral damage, got caught out having accepted students with fake certificates.

- Most importantly, the Princeton-based Education Testing Service (ETS) is at the center of this scam. The Minister reported that the National Crime Agency could identify at least 29,000 fraudulent results and 19,000 questionable results of ETS tests, though they haven't been able to look at all the ETS centers yet. The ETS license as a Secure Test Provider has been cancelled and the government has started a criminal investigation against the organisation.

However, despite the sweeping nature of these measures, it may still be cosmetic - and this seems to be the problem in Government's handling of each new crisis. If one has to fix the scandals in the education sector, which is having a damaging effect on all of UK Higher Education, one needs joined up thinking. And, this is still missing in this case.

Many examples could be given, most notably how the belligerence of government action failed to bring universities on its side. The unfortunate fall-outs such as these, where public universities are getting caught out sponsoring fraudulent students, could have been and should have been avoided if the organisations could work together. 

One clear example of regulatory failure is perhaps that it took so long to put the practices of LSBF/ FBT under scanner.  Despite their high advertising spend, they had long-standing issues with quality, which affected every university partner they have worked with. Its initial partners were University of East London, which terminated the partnership in 2011 (See document here). Then the institution moved over to University of Wales, which ended in a huge fiasco in 2012 (See the QAA concerns report). Despite all this, another British university, London Metropolitan University, decided to work with the institution, even allowing them to issue visa sponsorships on their behalf, which, predictably, ended badly, costing the university £2 million (See here). Yet, Glyndwr University quickly took its place, allowing the organisation to recruit students on its behalf, only to end up being scrutinised by UK Border Agency (see story here), which is perhaps one of the reasons for the university's current woes. In the meantime, the Canadian branch of LSBF have had a 'Restraining Order' (See here). However, despite this, till about February this year, British Public universities and the various agencies, including QAA, made no public effort to reign in the practices of the organisation. It is only in February this year, when all the universities associated with LSBF decided to cut off the relationship (see here), there was a sense that some action is being taken.

This is the first time there was any indication from a government agency that LSBF's practices were less than kosher, which many people have long suspected (due to the trail of events as mentioned above) but there was nothing in any public documents, presumably for fear of lawsuits, that said as much. This is a gross regulatory failure to protect students, who would have signed up for LSBF. The government has now suspended the college, because they found more than 200 students with questionable English certificates, an action that will affect not just the erring students but those who enrolled in good faith in the intervening time when the regulators were sitting still.

The other problem in this regard is that while the government has finally taken action on LSBF's practices with regard to international students, they have missed the point that the organisation has moved on. It is not the international students that is their main business any more; rather, perhaps sensing the problem, the organisation has now morphed itself, buying into several other private institutions and effectively trading with different names. The most successful of these sister entities focus on UK and EU students who do not need a visa, but has entitlement for student loans. Since the student loans have come in, some private colleges have used the facility to attract students who has no intent to study is being enrolled in the course, because they can draw their maintenance allowance and they never have to pay back the income-contingent loan because they are never going to work. While the government deals with the visa related issues, they may fail to see that the market, and various operators, have moved on - and a new scandal is brewing around the corner.

Indeed, this case is an example of what may be wrong with the system: There is no joined up strategic thinking and only reactions to day to day crisis. There is no doubt that there is a problem in UK Higher Education, and this is not just about the government's "unreasonable" attempt to limit the student numbers. The problem of visa fraud affects everyone, including most of the universities, which are trying to provide a decent education, and the students who are in the country legitimately but have to suffer from a problem of perception. It is affecting the legitimacy of all British institutions, except a few very well known ones, and generally undermining the trust in and within the education system. The government's approach to the problem of streamlining British Higher Education has been piecemeal, and it has failed to act in a timely manner. Scandals forced some knee-jerk actions, starting with the mass suspension of UK private colleges by the then Labour government in 2009/10, but rarely evolved into a systematic solution. And, this is perhaps due to a political culture of point scoring rather than sustainable action, which will involve dialogue with the universities and a level-headed review of the whole student-visa system. The only worse thing than no regulations is a broken regulatory system, which we have now. If the British Higher Ed has to maintain its credibility, there is an urgent need to have an honest conversion and some sustainable action.

List of the 57 Suspended Colleges (Courtsey: The Pie News)

1. Alpha College
2. Alpha Meridian College
3. APS Computer Solutions TA Pitman Training Centre
4. Birmingham Institute of Education Training and Technology
5. Blake Hall College
6. Bloomsbury International UK
7. Bradford College of Management
8. Bradford Metropolitan College
9. Bristol College of Accountancy
10. Britain College
11. Central College London
12. Central College of Studies
13. Central Cranbrook College
14. Citizen 2000 Education Institute
15. City of London Academy
16. College of Advanced Studies
17. College of East London
18. College of Excellence
19. Cranford College
20. Essex College
21. Eynsford College
22. FBT (Finance Business Training)
23. Forbes Graduate School
24. Hammersmith Management College
25. Helios International College
26. IIM Bedford
27. Interlink College of Technology & Business Studies
28. Katherine & Kings College of London
29. Kinnaird College
30. LIT LON Ltd
31. London Academy of Management and Business
32. London College of Business Management and Computing Studies
33. London College of Finance and Accounting
34. London Corporate College
35. London Educators Ltd
36. London Premier College
37. London Regal College
38. London School of Advanced Studies
39. London School of Marketing t/a LS Business School
40. London School of Technology
41. London St Andrews College
42. LSBF (London School of Business and Finance)
43. Manchester College of Management Sciences
44. Manchester International College (International Learning Centre)
45. Manchester Trinity
46. Midlands Academy of Business and Technology
47. North West College Reading
48. Queensbury College
49. Shakespeare College
50. South London College
51. Stanfords College UK Ltd
52. Studio Cambridge
53. Superior College London
54. UK Business Academy
55. UK Vocational Training College t/a UK CAT
56. West George College
57. West London Business College

India Post Election: Reflections on A FICCI Event

Yesterday evening, I was at the Royal Academy of Engineers to attend an event arranged by UK India Business Council, around an Indian Business delegation from Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FICCI). Chaired by Rt Honourable Patricia Hewitt, the former Secretary of State for Health and current UKIBC Chair, this was an interesting conversation between British Asian businesses and the representatives of Indian businesses.

The theme of the evening was focused on what the election victory of Narendra Modi led BJP means to business, and everyone was quite upbeat. The conversations focused on decisiveness, on things happening, and the fact that this is the first one party government in India after 25 years (Rajiv Gandhi's government, which had a massive majority, lasted till 1989). Rather than actual policy changes, the message given out was that the things that were stalled will now happen.

In audience were Srichand and Gopichand Hinduja, who confirmed that they have seen immediate impact on project clearances after the new government has come to power. This was about infrastructure projects that were awaiting clearance for three years and have now been cleared within a few days. There were other such points made about transparency, including quick environmental clearance, web-based project workflow and the government's intent to make India business friendly.

Naina Lal Kidwai of HSBC, who was in the panel, spoke about new initiatives of RBI in proposing new banking licenses, including creating special purpose banks, which will be exempt from the priority sector lending requirements (requirements of lending to agriculture and rural industries, which all banks in India have to, and which often becomes non-performing).

Another point made by Ms Kidwai was interesting to note. She spoke about the states taking the lead in legislative innovation - the talking point was Rajasthan proposing radical reform of the labour laws, which is a big issue for Indian businesses - with a benign centre facilitating the same. This was a observation worth noting, and one factor about Indian policy-making which often gets obscured. It was also interesting in a way because she made an important mistake: she said Mr Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister to have served previously as a Chief Minister of a State. It was an astounding oversight from a person of Ms Kidwai's intellect and erudition, because Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, V P Singh and H D Deve Gowda were all Chief Ministers of their respective states before they became Prime Minister. Indeed, one could argue that Mr Modi had a significant stint, which none of the others have had, but there are only a few State Chief Ministers in Indian History who have enjoyed an unbroken stint like Mr Modi (but there are others, including his party colleague, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, and indeed the Bengali Talisman, Jyoti Basu).

Regardless of this, Ms Kidwai's observation was important, because one remains unsure whether Mr Modi's victory will mean the Union government in Delhi trying to claw back more powers than it already has. In fact, one of India's problems is that the government is too distant from its people, and its States, which often is very powerful (a point was made that while one talks about business friendliness of the Indian government, it is the state governments that make all the decisions) but has limited resources to do anything. If Ms Kidwai is right, and India moves to a more devolved financial structure and decision making, that would be great: But, at the same time, this is at odds with the strong central government Mr Modi is promising to deliver.

One could also sense from the conversation that the Indian businesses are yet to overcome their protectionist mindset. Despite being urged by Dominic Jeremy, the new Head of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), about Britain's interests in doing business with India, it was clear that Indian businesses are far more open to investment liberalisation than trade liberalisation. In fact, the FICCI President, Sidharth Birla, said as much - that many FTAs are hurting Indian businesses, particularly those with ASEAN countries, and they would be reviewed soon. There is a clear rationale for protecting domestic industry, and China (and Japan before it) has demonstrated how to do this: However, India may find it exceedingly difficult to attract investment that it needs and yet keep the trade protections going.

There was an interesting aside made by the former Chief Election Commissioner of India, S Y Qureshi, who was in attendance. Addressing the questions about corruption, that invariably came up, he made the point about reforms about political funding. One could argue that without stringent campaign funding norms, no democracy is safe, as its institutions can be bought, and despite all the celebrations about Indian democracy (there is much to celebrate, no doubt), the facts that the spending norms are never followed and the campaigns cost more than US presidential elections this time around paint a chilling picture.

In summary, the mood was unfailingly upbeat. The most interesting question of the evening was posed by Najmal Hasan of University of Greenwich Business School: His question to the FICCI representatives were what do they think wouldn't happen, despite all the optimism. Mr Birla spoke about the expansion of the tax base, and the FICCI Secretary General, Dr Didar Singh, added many other things, including infrastructure and multi-brand retail. The new government has a burden of expectation, and if things don't change rapidly, the euphoria may be over as soon as it started. This question induced a well-earned pause in the rhetoric, and perhaps, such reflection serves everyone well.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Academic Freedom in India: The FYUP Case

As I wrote about a tipping point may be coming to Indian Education (see here), when a rollback of regulation may open up the space for experimentation and innovation, and allow the Indian institutions to take advantage of the domestic demand, something was playing out in Delhi indicating just the opposite was happening. A friend and correspondent was quick to point out that my optimistic musings may be off the mark, particularly on a day when an ugly example of political interference on academic decisions was playing out.

This is about Delhi University (DU) wanting to introduce the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) instead of the usual three years. There was nothing in the University Statutes that disallows the university from doing it, and the university laid out the explanations for changing the system. Initially, the regulators, University Grants Commission (UGC) was backing the decision, so much so that the university admissions started as usual.

This was an unpopular decision among some of the students, who wanted a quick and easy graduation, rather than sticking around for one extra year. But this does not affect the current students, obviously, and the new students do have a choice of not opting for the four year degree and going elsewhere for their studies. This is a difficult decision, but as long as this was clear from the regulatory standpoint, there was nothing wrong about it.

However, the student unions won't let that happen. ABVP, the student union affiliated to the new government, obviously saw this as a chance to make their mark, and called for an agitation against the introduction of the new system. The new HRD Minister was quick to indicate her preferences, and the UGC, with an astonishing Volte Face, instructed the university to scrap the FYUP, right in the middle of the admissions season. (Read the Daily Mail story here)

This is indeed a clear demonstration of the regulatory mess that Indian Education is in. The institutional autonomy is minimal, and such political interference, often made through politically affiliated student unions, is common. One would indeed see Indian academics to talk about the lack of 'academic freedom' in China, and imply that the democratic structure of India allows much greater freedom, but in reality, educational institutions are often subservient to the party in power and all appointments are tightly vetted. It is worse than China in many ways because democracy allows different parties to come to power and this means inconsistency in policy, as this case clearly indicates.

As for my hope that the Modi Government's promise of 'minimum governance, maximum governance' will extend to education, this may be a good 'reality check', as my correspondent wanted to provide. Indeed, there is nothing said so far, which indicates that the government would take the same approach to education. On the contrary, we have got the indications of intrusive policy, the introduction of Hindu texts in the curricula and Hindi as a compulsory language. It may be that the promise of 'minimum governance' only applies to large businesses, just as I feared in the run up to the election. 

Indeed, as for the other parties, they have hardly come out any better from the controversy. The anti-corruption party, AAP, issued a statement that they welcome blocking of the FYUP and tried to score a political point (see here) instead of having the decency of remaining silent or indeed try to stand up for institutional autonomy. 

So, yes, in the end, I was too optimistic and my correspondent was right to highlight that India is not there yet.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Waiting for A Tipping Point in Indian Education

I am deeply interested in the developments in the Indian Higher Education system, simply because this is the world's greatest opportunity and greatest challenge in Higher Ed today. It is not simply the number of students, which is massive, but also the sheer complexity of it, linguistic, political and economic, is equally fascinating. The comment I used to make in jest - that India is education's El Dorado, because everyone wants to go there and no one knows how - had indeed more than just a grain of truth.

This has now become a full time occupation for me to study and talk about Indian education. I cherish the opportunities of talking to people who are already working in Indian Education, and usually end up pontificating about the billion dollar opportunity they have in front of them. Some, if not most, of these conversations are usually frustrating. They prove another of my lighthearted observations: That demand corrupts, and huge demand corrupts hugely. Despite the fascinating opportunity and complexity in the Indian Higher Ed, most of the players are usually satisfied to play 'low ball': Their offerings are low quality and they are obsessed with making the short term money than going for the big opportunity. None of the Indian players seems to be wanting to take the opportunity of the huge domestic market and come to the global stage to compete with the likes of Laureate; they are quite content to live with lower ambitions just as their counterparts in IT are quite happy to their position in the global value chain.

However, to be fair to Indian providers, one of the biggest issues they had to deal with is crippling regulation. It is not just that the Indian regulators are intrusive; they are also incompetent, inconsistent and corrupt. The fact that Indian education industry is afflicted with low quality providers is indeed primarily due to its regulators. However, there is hope that this is going to change.

The new government in Delhi promises 'minimum government' and this may imply change in the way education is regulated. Indeed, a free-for-all system isn't desirable, given where the Indian Higher Ed is today. But surely the government's advisors will make the case for a more streamlined and efficient regulator to encourage private investment. Indian IT industry may not be ready to produce a Google or a Facebook, but riding on the domestic demand, Indian education may produce the equivalent of one. And, if that company could master India, they would garner the strengths of being one of the world's best.

Indeed, there are lots of discussions in India about creating 'world class' universities, but that won't create the world-beating formula that could potentially emerge within the Indian Higher Ed. The discussion about world class education is not about any innovation - it is about a mad attempt to copy the American University, as if Harvard could be built within a generation.

In fact, the conversation about creating a Harvard-like Liberal Arts University in India is symptomatic that the Indian education entrepreneurs still have to come of age. They are still pursuing a model where they have no strengths and indeed many handicaps, and which does not leverage the biggest strength they are sitting on - abundant demand! The Indian education paradigm, which Phil Altbach calls 'Tiny at the Top', has proven to have failed, but yet, it refuses to die. No one seems to be ready for Googlesque ambition for the Indian education market.

This is perhaps because India is the ultimate disruption territory for Higher Ed. The margin-driven Western thinking (which centers around the vacuous claim of educational quality) can not just handle India: Its rough-and-ready students who can't pay much isn't interesting enough even for Laureate. This is the classic non-use territory, and one knows clearly that if someone can break the circle of doom of low price and low quality, something wonderful could happen. And, if the regulators are put on a leash, something of that nature may now just happen.

I see this disruption coming from a smart combination of learning technology, distributed campuses, employer interfaces and innovative curriculum, which is offered without the vanity prices of the Western institutions. All the elements are already present in India, but the services mindset, the obsession with somehow getting some teacher to teach some students without thinking through the 'graduate attributes', the values, or even the proposition, dominates all. So, instead of seeing the building blocks of a world-beating enterprise, visiting an Indian school is like visiting a museum of Jugaad, a display of the inadequate and the irrelevant.

Indeed, I see this as an opportunity and I know that this is going to happen. This is just too inviting an opportunity for the requisite ideas, capital and people not to come together. Education gets crowded out by other opportunities in India, the returning migrants usually do shopping malls, restaurants or IT companies, rather than touching educational enterprises, fearing the complexity. But the reduction of the complications, a general optimism about India's economy and a friendly state government may quickly facilitate a tipping point.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Being Indian

I have chosen to live outside India for more than a decade. This was my attempt to become Indian.

I did not leave India because I felt constrained. Rather, I was comfortable. And, it is that comfort that I wanted to overcome. My persistent requests for transfers abroad, even to remote locations in Asia and Africa, were often met with puzzlement by my bosses, who could never figure out why I would want to go away, leaving what seemed to be a promising and safe career. 

Eventually I went away, but I never really left. Most of my conversations always centred around India. All that I learnt along my way added to my perspectives and changed me. I lived in Bangladesh first, which made me cross the first boundary, that of religious stereotypes that afflicted so many conversations when I lived inside the cocoon in India. Travelling in South-East Asia opened up my mind to the value of working by hand, and challenged the deep-seated caste-based presumptions that I grew up with. And, eventually, living in Europe not just taught me about its culture and philosophy, which I greatly enjoyed, but also its limitations, its rather irrational claim to be rational, and allowed me to have a realistic perspective about the Indian deference to all things European.

The idea that one becomes Indian when someone travels is not mine. This idea of India as a deeply cosmopolitan entity comes from Rabindranath Tagore, and it was him who urged the Indians to travel and experience the world to understand India. My journeys were a quest for such experience.

The debate has always been whether knowing India is the best way to know the world, or knowing the world is the best way to know India. There are so many things in India I don't know. In my life in an Indian city, or cities, most of India, rural, local, often pre-modern, was completely absent. But the question perhaps is whether one goes to search for that Inside India first, and then discover the world through those lenses; or does one break the cocoon of the comfortable middle class existence first, by interacting with the world, and then take that experience back to find the inside India? True to Tagore's prescription, I sought to do the latter.

The advantage of doing it this way round - I now know - is that one finds out what is truly Indian. The idea of modern India has been shaped by the competition of two opposing ideas: One, that of a poor, primitive, distressed country, which is being rescued by English speaking middle classes; and two, that of a country with glorious past, which invented everything and knew everything, only to be corrupted by its interactions with the world, by those marauding Muslims and conniving English, and must now be rescued by by reviving its past. While the differences in these two views are apparent, and the competition between them is fierce, there is an essential consensus : The acceptance that India and the World are in an essentially opposing, confrontational relationship. 

Tagore's idea of India was based on the rejection of this conflict, and started with an embrace with the diverse, the unknown. In his vision, India's greatness rested in its ability to accept, to change and to assimilate, to learn and to be humane. To him, any fixed identity of India was bound to be challenged by the variety of the country's population, its multifaceted history, its natural and intellectual diversity; but India as a meeting place of civilisations, a great melting point not in the pursuit of material well-being (that would be America) but of the unity with nature, transcended all such constraints. Essentially, his idea rejected India as a nation but held up India as a way of life, as a civilisation.

Travel, as I did, strips away all the superficial rituals and symbols lately invoked to define India as a nation, and allows one to appreciate the civilisational aspects of India: Those bit that never goes away. At that essential level, I discovered three things that remained, even after I grew out of everything else:

One, the idea of being in debt: Despite living abroad among many cultures for more than a decade, the essential Indian idea that I am not the centre of the universe but rather a beneficiary of the universe, and therefore, in debt. The sense that I have a natural obligation to all around me and to the nature, never went away.

Two, the fact that the divine is inside the beings, human, non-human and even innate, an idea central to Hindu thought and ingrained in the culture I grew up with, survived all the challenges. There is an essential unity between this and the Kantian ethics of never treating humans as a means, but always an end in themselves.

Three, the idea that the human civilisation and the nature are not in a dialectical relationship, but rather a harmonious one (one would claim such ideas come easy to people from Ganges delta, where nature was so abundantly gracious), is an essentially Indian idea, though one gets to appreciate this only through the interaction with other ideas.

In these lie the civilisational conception of India: A civilisation seeking an essential harmony with the nature and unity with other human beings; one that treats life as a responsibility, and death, not as mere end of life, but the great accomplishment, life's final assimilation with and return to nature. This India is different from the one divided by caste, by religion, by language, by the symbols of its Gods and its narrow European conception of a Singular nation, but this India is real: Tagore saw it in the essential dignity of the common people (he resented the entitlement-seeking city folks) and its abundant nature.

Indeed, the Europeans claimed that such an approach may condemn us to accept our fate. However, accepting harmony with nature is not necessarily giving in to superstitions or to eliminate agency to change our lives. The harmonious relationship with nature is an ideal how one should live one's life, rather than being obsessed in the mad arrogance to change its course. Tagore praised modern science and wanted Indians to embrace its progress; however, he was equally aware of its limitations. The superficial claims that one gets to hear about in the geek fests of Silicon Valley (or its various smaller versions around the world) celebrate human agency but also conspicuously and irrationally lack humility; modern science indeed knows a lot, but it is still ignorant because it does not acknowledge what it doesn't know. This was indeed Tagore's point: That one should continue to seek, but never be unaware of one's limits of knowledge. Acknowledging this was, in his idea, an essential part of being Indian.

Without the journey, these ideas, which I read and grew up with, would not have made sense. This was, therefore, an worthwhile enterprise. All this journey of exploration, was indeed to know India, the place I started from, for the first time. It was my journey to be an Indian.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Recalibrating My Life: 1

I am at that "all change please" point of my life. Everything that I have been doing must now change. 

The plan I embarked upon to set up a Global College must now be commuted for something less ambitious : We never raised the capital we needed and without creating significant infrastructure, it is unlikely that we would be able to attract the right kind of partners globally. The current model of depending on partners who themselves lack strategic depth means that we are spending a lot of time advising and helping, but not getting reciprocal commitments in return. 

Indeed, this is not a sudden realisation. We were aware that this business can not be built without scale, and therefore, the initial plans were to build this alongside an existing institution. In that sense, this has not been an eighteen month long endeavour, but one of four years. At the first attempt, I wanted to transform a London-based Private Institution into a global delivery organisation. That plan didn't work, because eventually our ideas and that of the owner of the college diverged. We made a second attempt to build this as a start-up, but were acutely aware of the need for scale from the very beginning.

Though we bootstrapped through the period, the months of hustle was still immensely instructive. In the initial phase, we worked towards getting a minimum viable product together, getting a minimal delivery infrastructure, some content, and the necessary accreditation and certifications. Then, we made a few visits to India, China and Middle East, engaging with universities and training organisations. This is when the limitations that we were facing became apparent. While we signed MoUs and ended up giving advice to many institutions, it was clear that they wanted to wait and watch how we transcend the start-up phase. We needed one or two partners who were willing to take the risks with us.

Faced with this, we made two decisions at the end of last year. We recognised the need for scale and decided to explore the opportunities of merging with larger operations, as long as we maintain our operating independence. And, second, we decided to stop looking for new partners, and instead, give all our efforts behind one or two key ones, which, we hoped, would take the risks along with us and we might be able to reward them through a more strategic relationship. We decided to give it six months, which is about now.

The essential bottleneck of scale and commitment is not new to any start-up, but we had to learn our lessons first hand. The problem with the second element of the strategy was that the partners we worked with lacked strategic depth, and were moving from opportunity to opportunity, rather than trying to build the business strategically. This meant, essentially, that we were spending a lot of time giving out strategic advise, but payoffs for us were quite limited. We just did not have the bandwidth to pursue this mode of operation for a long time while we were living bootstrap lives ourselves.

This brings me to the point of pivot where I am: A point where the whole proposition must be revisited. The learning we have had so far links scale and ambitions to be a delivery organisation intimately, and since we don't have the capital to scale, we are better served by abandoning the ambitions to be a delivery organisation. But, as always at the pivot points like this, I see other things that we could be doing which has value: For example, we organised a moderately successful (by the yardstick of making money) education conference last year and we made some money advising people on education strategies. It is those elements that we intend to focus upon, though this means a very different kind of organisation (which does not matter, because we only have a skeletal structure at this time), one more focused on research and consultancy rather than delivery of education as we initially intended. 

And, it is not just at work I am discovering hidden value: There are lots of things I did in my life of hustle, which, perhaps unbeknown to me, has added new skills and expertise. Right now, I have kept myself afloat by doing various things - teaching part time, writing courses, writing reports - and this was an immensely enriching experience. My days of teaching gave me insights not just into the dynamics of the classroom, but also the life and challenges of an adjunct tutor, ideas about institutional excellence and institutional failures, and indeed, a first hand view of the whole industrial paradigm that impede, rather than sustain, good education. My various research and writing experiences, something that I intend to continue whatever happens next in my life, were great opportunities to take a studied view of things that were important to us. Writing courses, and I have done so many in the last few years, was the best hands-on experience in instructional design I could get, particularly as I was having to teach them at the same time.

So, as my life pivots, nothing is really wasted, just that all of it needs to take a different form and find a different context. I surely want to get out of the bootstrap mode, and start doing things that impact, rather than doing many things that really didn't matter. I pride myself being the king of new beginnings, and this is one of the moments that I need to discover the spirit. During the last four years, during my journeys, trials and tribulations, I have seen the future of global education: I have been part of the conversations that I wanted to have, but was never invited to the top table because of the smallness of the scope of what I was doing. Now, I want to reformat my life and get those conversations to fruition. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Education Technology: What To Do With TV?

Television is an embarrassment for education technologists. Whenever they proclaim that Internet will change education forever, breaking the entrenched institutional structures, most people around the table will say, "oh yes! we saw that with TV". Television was supposed to change education, and supposedly it did not. All one recalls of television in education is somewhat boring lectures at wee hours in the morning which no one watched: And, indeed, as far as the institutional structures are concerned, television did not disrupt anything.

Usually, this leads to a discussion about socio-economic factors, the broader perspective of the rise of a new middle class, the transformation of work, all the reasons why the putative revolution by television never happened in learning. These are mostly valid reasons, but perhaps unnecessarily defensive: Television did change education and identifying these changes and drawing lessons from them are perhaps the best thing to do for today's education disruptors.

The whole discussion about television failing to change education is centered around the educational content of television - the lectures at wee hours - and based on a fixed view of education. The claim overlooks the whole phenomenon of people watching documentaries, the fabulous programmes on Discovery, National Geographic or History channel, for example, the careers of great TV educators such as Richard Attenborough, Brian Cox and others (including my favourites, Peter and Dan Snow), and the effect it had on public consciousness and public education. I recall this surprising argument made by Felipe Fernández-Armesto in Times Higher Education a couple of years ago connecting the decline of public education events with the expansion of compulsory education (See here); one could argue though that what really replaced the local culture clubs is Television and not compulsory schooling, though we can continue debating the merits of a TV education.

So, in the conversation about Television in Education, there is no cause for red faces among educators for change: How we educate ourselves has changed with television. Indeed, the reason we think, and claim, that TV hasn't delivered, is because our notions of education remained unchanged, and we refused to give credit to the middle aged man who would rather watch 'The Coast' or 'The Forzen Planet' to learn about geography rather than playing Poker. We are essentially fighting the same demons as people discount the MOOCs as a learning enabler. This is, increasingly as it appears, a problem for education, rather than being a problem for the medium involved.

Apart from being less apologetic, what should the TV executives take from this discussion about television in education? I would think the best thing they can do is to embrace this broader view of education and recognise that the availability of a new medium may change not just the way people learn but also what it means to educate oneself. The key to success for all media owners - owners of classrooms, TV channels and online platforms - remain the same: To recognise that the medium is not the whole message. So, the mindset that 'we are TV and we educate using TV' should be replaced by 'we educate and we use TV as a medium'. And, then, wonderful possibilities emerge.

I recall in this context a wonderful presentation made by Rajay Naik, the Director of External Relations at The Open University, in a conference that we organised on Indian Education. Rajay's point was that OU does so well because it accepts its role as an educator first and foremost and then employ appropriate medium to carry their message. He showed us great examples drawn from 'The Frozen Planet' and how OU created a multi-channel strategy around its brilliant TV programme to create one of Britain's most successful public education offering. I would believe changing the paradigm and embracing all mediums, the centerpiece of which may remain TV for an Television company, are key to a successful education strategy. The point is to educate, not to increase the Target Rating Points, just as it is not about 'bums on seats' or 'hits'.

Reverse Migration: Revisiting the Idea

I wrote about Reverse Migration at various times on this blog, and it is interesting to read these back posts now to see how my views have changed over time. 

First, in 2009, when Vivek Wadhwa made the case first, I was excited about India's opportunity and wrote Reverse Migration: India's Chance. My point was that the relatively unaffected Indian Economy would benefit from the phenomena of global Indian talent returning home because of the Great recession.

However, India's economy stalled thereafter. But even before that, returning Indians would stumble onto my blog post and wrote about their experiences, mostly of disappointment. I also realised that I misread how open India would be to the phenomena - I was subject to resident Indians' ire for assuming that these returners would be, should be, given a red carpet return, because they did not stick around to make India's prosperity happen. The arguments, strangely enough, were the usual arguments one made against economic migrant, and my correspondents were insistent that the returners should be treated as economic migrants and nothing more.

It is interesting for me now to re-read a subsequent post I made on the subject, Reverse Migration: Is India Ready Yet? where the mood was far more circumspect. The conversations, as well as my own intense experiences with India (I spent a considerable amount of time traveling in India on work between 2008 and 2010), made me aware of the challenges one faced as a Returner. 

My approach on the subject has very much been shaped by these conversations. Recently, when I was drafted in to be in a committee overseeing a philanthropic project to fund returning experts to Africa, I was careful to raise the point of selecting the appropriate host communities (See this, Reverse Migration: Good or Bad?) In my research, I gathered information about the different approaches to diaspora the Indians and the Chinese usually takes, and this further emphasised my thinking that returning to India was unusually hard.

The contrast between the Chinese and the Indians is particularly interesting. Kishore Mahbubani of  National University of Singapore hit the nail on the head when he said that China might be a closed society but it had an open mind, but India, despite being an open society, had a closed mind. The context of this comment was how Deng Xiao Ping made it a deliberate policy to learn from the successful overseas Chinese, whereas the Indians would rather keep their diaspora out of the way. And, I suspected that this closed mind phenomena actually makes returning to India unusually hard, because one is faced with an usual litany of 'it doesn't work here' arguments rather than engaging into any conversation if there could be a better way of doing things.

It is undeniable that I have a personal angle to this debate. I remain one of those migrants who lives with a never-ending quest of return. Most of my projects and work since 2007 were one way or the other focused on India. My conversations, on this blog and elsewhere, often centers around Indian education and economy. And, besides, living within a community of migrant Indians, this discussion surfaces all too often. And, from this perspective, I understand the limitations of the economic migrant thesis: Most people who wish to return may not be economic migrants desperate for a job, but emotional ones, returning to their families, and by doing so, they are indeed reaffirming their Indianness by making economic sacrifice for this very Indian way of life, caring for one's parents. Also, most people who make that return journey often become entrepreneurs, in the quest of changing the place around them in the model of their own experiences. In either case, India has very little to fear from these returners, I tend to think; their enthusiasm about change may be a bit unsettling, but they are, as experiences of last few years have proved, often the catalyst of positive change (India's IT industry will not happen without them).

After 2014, when India's polity changed completely and economic development, based on infrastructure and urban development, was firmly put on the agenda, it is time to revisit India's approach to reverse migration. There is a global flight of the creative class, as Richard Florida rightly argues, from inhospitable places to worldwide creative hubs; and indeed, the post-recession development patterns may not be shaped by pre-recession ones of cheap production in emerging economies for developed world consumption, but rather the development concentrated around the creative hubs of London, New York, Shenzhen and others, with the rest of the world turning into hinterland. If India's economic development has to restart, it has to attract some of the global Indian talent back into its fold (and indeed, global talent), and this will hardly happen without an opening of Indian mind. 

This is paradoxical for India's new government, which has promised economic development. However, at the same time, the ruling party has a social agenda for closed society, one that is about returning to ancient values and based on the rejection of western ideas. This is hardly the base on which creative economies could be built. The tycoon-driven economic development models that so many other developing countries have followed are usually socially unsustainable: One should see this from the experiences of Thailand, Mexico and now Brazil. A new model based on creative entrepreneurialism, in my view, remains the best prescription for India's development: Reviewing the idea of Reverse Migration may be extremely timely from that perspective.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On Kolkata

A much maligned city, Calcutta of the black hole, when several Englishmen perished locked up in a small room, on a hot summer night on the 20th June, 1756, lived in Western memories in different forms, lately in the ghastly revocations of its poverty and squalor by the likes of V S Naipaul and Gunter Grass. With the international spotlight on Mother Teresa's work, it was confirmed as a terrible place, somewhere you may want to send your charity money to but never wanted to go yourself: The Bengali diffidence in sticking with its Communist government, despite its misery, made an Indian Prime Minister call it a 'dying city'. And, indeed, it turned out that way, as the only metropolis in the world whose population has declined in the last decade.

But there is another tale, which hardly gets told. Kolkata was one of the two cities in Asia in the early 1900 with more than a million people, the other being Tokyo. The capital of the British India till 1911, when King George the Vth announced the newly created city of New Delhi would replace Calcutta as the seat of the imperial government, Calcutta was cosmopolitan, rich and a place of people coming together. It was a colonial city, which it still perhaps remains at its core, with its usual game of aristocracy and power, with lots of people left on the margins; but it was also a city of nationalism, of ideas and of entrepreneurship. The merchants ran a 'coolee' trade to Africa (shipping people from the interiors of India to work in East African firms) and an opium trade to China (causing the Opium War eventually) to get rich: Soon, the riches flowered into culture - the Opium trading Tagore family bestowing the city with its most famous citizen - though these riches equally caused corruption and debauchery at the same measure. With Djakarta intended to be the Paris of the East, Kolkata could have been its Vienna: It rather developed a rather unique identity, with a fondness of Art Deco (like Shanghai, Bombay or Miami), a taste of romantic poetry, fought early battles of gender equality, harboured a blend of revolutionary nationalism and communism (which perhaps came naturally to elitist yet compassionate Bengalis) - and then crashed and burned.

One can blame politics or the social structure, which, being more elitist than anywhere else in India, did Calcutta no favours, but it was geography which should stand out in Kolkata's decline. The Independent India, as it turned inward into an import-substituting industrialisation, the great city of commerce, ideas and interaction, the gateway to China and South-East Asia, suddenly lost its value. After half of its population was yanked away to East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), it did not command the numbers in the new Indian parliament; in divided India and divided Bengal, its voice of secular nationalism was relatively less relevant. 

What came in its place is anger, on oneself; and a fallback on commodities trading. But there is no riches in commodities trading, except for the very few, as we know from all the resource economies around the world. And, there is no escape from self-destroying anger. Those who could, ran away. The politics, after the disappearance of the genteel leaders of the first generation, degenerated into directionless populism, and partisan activism. 

But the soul never died away. The city maintained the same cosmopolitan openness, deep connections to the East, its pride in Bengali culture and cuisine, and a fellow feeling towards the Bengalis across the border in Bangladesh. Its famous citizens, from the film-maker Satyajit Ray, to the Economist Amartya Sen, the poet Sunil Gangopadhyay, and many many remarkable others, maintained the spirits of Calcutta's golden age - a sense of liberal nationalism, a secular commitment, compassion, love of art and culture, respect for learning (sometimes expressed in the obsession with education and middle class jobs). The Bengali middle class, which predated the glorious rise of Indian middle class in the Western eyes, sought refinement, stuck to its modernist, change-the-world attitude, and defied the gravitational pull of overwhelming economic decline around themselves, earning the 'intellectual' label, which, unlike France, is meant to be an insult in India.

In 2001, Calcutta became Kolkata, perhaps as a necessary first step towards overcoming its colonial legacy. Another decade afterwards, its politics finally shifted to the right, and the communists were voted out after 34 years of power. The new shopping malls, along with gated communities for the middle classes, kept sprouting out all over the the city. Its eateries, glorious in their cosmopolitan cuisine, got a new lease of life with the new-rich rediscovering the joys of eating out and the returning immigrants funding the new businesses and services in the city. Though its politics continued its journey into abyss, the new populist administration that replaced the communists predominantly failed to deliver the 'development' the city-folks wanted, the city appeared to be coming back to life again. And, again, it may be geography, physical and human, that one may have to look into for an explanation.

After years of neglect and isolation, the consensus in Indian politics is now of engagement and openness. The Import-Substitution ideology was long abandoned, and finally, India  has started taking notice of the biggest change happening in the world, the economic rise of China (not to mention its military might, which makes attention to India's North-East a strategic priority), and looking at the possibilities of deeper engagements with it and South-East Asia. The roads that the new government in Delhi wants to build, the new regional politics it wants to forge, may all give back Kolkata the hinterland and the engagements that once made it a great city. 

The question indeed is - could that really happen? Aren't Bengalis a broken group, too skeptical of their own abilities, too parochial, too divided? But then these social attitudes are factors of the circumstances one is born into, a mixture of experiences and conversations: Once the circumstances change, this may change quickly. 

So, for once, let me end with optimism: Let's recount what Kolkata has got going for it. To start with, it has its own supply of drinkable water. We take this for granted, but this is the scarcest resource in most other Indian cities and in cities across the developing world. Kolkata has its river, its ample rains, its water bodies, which, if preserved and maintained, make it one of the most sustainable cities at a time when water becomes a precious commodity. 

Second, it has its education. For all the disgrace, Kolkata still has a great tradition of good universal education at primary and secondary levels. At a time when educational quality is measured in terms of the prevalence of elite schools (whose quality is usually measured by the fees it charged and amenities they boast of), Kolkata's counter-intuitive claim is of having a broad-based education system which still remains strong. This is complemented by Kolkata's abundant supply of young people, which it can further supplement if it attracts back the students from India's North-east, who faces discrimination in their favourite city of Delhi. 

Third, Kolkata's shared culture with Bangladesh is its great strength, as witnessed in the recent flowering of the Bengali 'culture industries' after the first steps were taken towards openness. The 'culture industries', always strong in Kolkata, represents its great escape from commodities, and plays to its strengths. 

Finally, Kolkata also has its rainmakers: They are everywhere, in other Indian cities, in other cities across the world. They are those who have the experience, knowledge, exposure and the money, and above all, an overwhelming love for the city and what it means. They stayed away as the City declined, but Kolkata, unlike the Indian cities, are perhaps more forgiving and ever welcoming: It has taken back so many entrepreneurs back in its fold and made them. Despite all the political mayhem, this is already happening: I saw two US-born Bengali entrepreneurs buying out 2 million square feet of commercial real estate in the City on the assumption that it has now bottomed out. This is the start. Indeed, the ecosystems still has to be built, conversations have to be started, politics have to be sorted out. But, history always happen cyclically: Decline often precedes renaissance if the spirit can be truly preserved. On that measure, Kolkata has managed to preserve Calcutta in its heart, if only by chance, if only because its people loved it so much.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

For The Creative Turn

One of the first conditions of being creative is being uncompromising: It is about not holding back thoughts, ideas and desires for the sake of breaking norms and offending people. I know this, because I often hold back: My desire always has been, if this could be said, to be noted by becoming invisible. I have spent too much time in my life trying to be a team player, mingling with those who had no desire to be different or make a difference, and trying to sound interested in ideas, though these were not really ideas but words pretending to be ideas. It has mostly been a journey of postponement, a desire to be free by remaining unfree for a while, a surrender, often, to mediocrity and indifference.

Now, at one of the big inflection points in my life, I am seeking the creative turn. 

It is not just nostalgia about a life forsaken, but a desire to reach deep inside and touch my own heart: To be me, though that expression is cliched and sound so much like the faux celebrities of Reality TV, but what really is an enterprise so long deferred and only occasionally entertained. It is about dusting my cameras yet again, and write my poetry; it is about falling in love all over again with those pointless and undisciplined things that I gave up as indiscretions of the youth. Indeed, the question flashed in my mind: Or should I retire instead? Just give up all these desires and just try to be a regular guy in the quest of a normal life, defined by the size of the car, mortgages and the usual holidays in the Sun. 

But it is like the birth defect that does not want to go away. I got waylaid by the change the world rhetoric for a while: I pretended that I am powerful enough to do so, all that stuff that people talk about when they are really delusional. But, all I wanted to do is to change myself. Change my life, that is. And, indeed, it is an extremely difficult thing to do; more difficult than changing the world, indeed, because no one wants to talk about it.

So, all this then is that unfulfilled desire - to write as I wish, say and live as I wish, to seek as I wish - that I want to go back to. This is like that me as a student, when I mixed all these pointless writing, dreaming, feeling, talking, playing, the mindless loitering, photographing, stealing time watching plays, all those things a Bengali youngster would do at the time in denial of the looming material disaster that they were hurtling towards with the decline of their city and civic life. I was directionless not for the want of directions, but for the rejection of the idea of being directed. I am still the same.

And, indeed, soon I deserted all that and went back to being average. In fact, it was as if I was in a competition of being unremarkable: In a race to beat the other guys in being boring. I bought all the usual trappings of mediocrity, a job that came along, marriage, the usual life, till I really knew I did not want any of that, and in some muted act of defiance, I ran away: First, I ran away from my job, then I ran away from my country, then I ran away from my run-away city, and then I ran away from my profession, and then again I ran away from myself. Finally, I found out there is nowhere to hide.

So, here, to my heart: The point of surrender, this is. No more pretensions - I can't win. I am not to be standardised, moderated into success. My life isn't going to be one of those models that I read about and believed in, but one of those that look different from different angles, at different times. May be, I am already on the next curve.

I am surely on the next curve, from today onwards. I have spent too much time just surviving now, and I must start all over again. This would be the time to re-imagine, to re-live. Indeed, there would be work to do, commitments to fulfill, roles to play and boxes to tick: But this is also the point of departure, a pledge to seek, a commitment to run away, yet again.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Skills Discussion: What Are We Missing?

Skills education is often seen as a panacea for poverty, and developing countries, in Africa and Asia, pour enormous sums of money to build skills infrastructure. There is an intuitive sense behind all this: The policy makers in these countries look up to the industrialised nations and ask what they need to get even. The need for infrastructure, physical and human, become too obvious both from the study of economic history and a casual walk down Oxford Circus. It also makes a lot of political sense: The government can build elaborate employability programmes to impress its rural population eager to join urban life, and the middle class voters, disappointed with the lack of skilled masons, plumbers and electricians, do not mind.

Indeed, all this makes sense if one believes that the world economy is moving in a straight line, but one clearly knows it isn't. Again, a reading of economic history or a casual walk down Oxford Circus makes the central idea quite clear: Things are changing and fast. The staged economic models loved so much by policy-makers, predicting things would happen in order, has got a lot messier. The same token that made us reject the socialist ideas of five-year plans should tell us that the developing countries will have to follow the same stages of the development as the industrial nations is crazy. The world is different now than then: The configurations were different, political power structures were different, technologies were different, money and capital were fundamentally different. One can't take the model from United States, Japan or Germany and replicate it in India and Kenya. 

One big difference is perhaps this fundamentally game-changing fusion of globalisation and ground-breaking automation. Globalisation 2.0, unleashed after the disappearance of Soviet Union and advent of Internet, created a temporary hierarchy of work, shipping out manufacturing and lower end jobs to the Asia and elsewhere. But next stage, Globalisation 3.0 builds on some of the throwbacks of the earlier era, including the realisation that the world is not a flat place after all, is bringing about something entirely different. If Globalisation 2.0 was built on consumers in rich countries consuming the benefits of cheap labour from around the world, the new Globalisation may stand for a diffusion of consumption - with the emerging country consumers joining the party and demanding the same levels of service - alongside the localisation of production, with smart IT, small scale fabrication and intelligent commodities. Indeed, the newly industrialised countries, a product of the previous web of globalisation and in a somewhat self-imposed cocoon of presumptive confidence, are missing out that the game has changed.

My central argument is that if the earlier wave of globalisation made it look like a global hierarchy of labour and work will come about, the next wave has undone it. The world is likely to become a collection of hierarchic regional economies, often shaped around regional political dynamic. This will not be a straightforward formulation with China having all the factories and India running all the Call Centres, but each economy shaping its demand around some common global parameters, each facing some common challenges, and each having its own winners and losers to deal with. But while nations have to play their part in enabling it, the world economy may organise itself not around nations but economic clusters, ecosystems of universities, companies and transport and communication systems. The approach to economic development may now need to take on this perspective rather than clinging to the old post-colonial structure of the metropolitan centres and the periphery.

This view has common sense evidence too. The economy of London behaves very differently from the rest of the UK, and the British government does everything to protect London and even promote it. Americans have mythlogised Silicon Valley, and now trying, though without much success, trying to replicate the model from Dallas to Detroit. Toronto has become very different from the rest of Canada; any Frenchman will tell you Paris always was different from France. The economies of Shanghai, Chongqing, Shenzhen and others are very different from rest of China and driving them forward has become the main policy priority for the Chinese government. In fact, the Indian government's big policy mistake over the last decade was to fail to develop such economic clusters and even losing its way to leverage the globally known brand of Bangalore in IT services.

Once we agree on this paradigm of economic cluster driven development, we will see that the 'ideas economy' plays a central part in developing and maintaining these clusters. Indeed, no one is debating that a good basic education, delivered through well-funded schools system, remains critical - for alleviating poverty, improving public health and creating social mobility. But the 'skills' agenda does not do any of that, other than promoting an old school closed economy paradigm where a hierarchy of privileges are maintained, and some people are condemned to skills education.

In an Open Economy, where development is driven through economic clusters, there will be a relative technological parity among the clusters - a job will be done at similar costs and within the same timeframe with comparable quality - though this may not mean absolute technology parity, given the cost and availability of labour. In this world of economic clusters, over time, markets will smooth out any cost arbitrage. [This is what we are missing in the discussion so far: The old Globalisation paradigm assumes that various nations will maintain superior or inferior productivity based on their historical economic positions. This is also behind many suicidal late ventures into Outsourcing work based on geographical cost arbitrage.]

In context of this model, education to create an 'ideas economy' is absolutely crucial. The talks of skills economy is counter-productive in this context, as the governments throwing money at ill-fated skills projects often crowd out investment in Higher and Professional Education. (See my earlier post here) The model for economic clusters need new imagination, a pointed departure from the closed economy thinking: This has not been forthcoming so far. Everyone wanted a Silicon something, without opening doors to outside ideas or talent, which indeed does not happen. However, by not making the conceptual leap, we are not just condemning millions to pointless education; we are getting into something when the game is already over.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Would Things Get Better?

Knock on the door on a busy day and I am forced to discuss whether things will get better. This time, it is preachers from Jehovah's Witnesses. 

My normal answer that things will surely get better does not end the discussion: I have to justify my statement pointing to our infinitesimal capacity to solve problems which appeared unsolvable at different points in history. Next moment, I was read from the Bible about God's promise to wipe every tear. Despite my best intentions, I disagree, as politely as possible, saying that Man may have to solve its own problems. 

Thereby, I start a debate which I knew is without outcome.

So, if man can solve its problems all by itself, why do we have wars, terrorism, corruption now that we are at the peak of our civilisation?

My answer: We thought we were at the peak of our civilisation at all times by some people, yet we always had problems. Come to think of it, there were always people telling us that we can't solve our problems and yet we did. 

But, don't you think the God has a role to play?

This forces me to think: Indeed, but it appears more to be a part of the problem than the solution. Isn't religion or religious beliefs caused most of the problems you mention? Slaughters of innocents? Suppression of free will? Corruption of lives? Stalling of scientific progress?

Then, I am told there are true and false religions. But, again, isn't that the problem? How does one know which is the true one? The nature of belief is that everything else that's not mine should be rejected. Isn't that part of the problem?

But there is an answer in the scripture, a way to know true religion! But, indeed, there are such answers in every scripture, which may be applied to show that all religions are false. So how does one really know?

We come to the point where God must be invoked (or the excuse of work on my part). And, he was: Would he not know which was the True religion? 

But why did he not solve it then: Why would we have to have this discussion hundreds of thousands of years after we have started walking on the earth, presumably under his command? 

Well, the only explanation could be that he wanted the human beings to figure it out themselves.

So, it means we must solve our own problems. We have come a full circle.

At this point, we shake hands and return to our respective work.

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