Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Training in India: Time to Shift Gears

I often get asked about training business in India. This is a summary advice that I shall give, based on my experiences so far, on where the opportunity is.

I think too many corporate training businesses in India try to ape the western companies. Often, they are offshoots or aligned to some Western publishers or training providers. The problem is - this alters their agenda. Rather than being driven by the markets and its needs, these businesses become tied to targets set by their Western partners. I have been in situations myself, and also asked around other entrepreneurs, why they follow these targets so unthinkingly. Two reasons are normally given. First, these Western partnerships are viewed as crucial to competitive existence. Second, it is assumed that Western companies have a better business model for corporate training that India needs, and hence, it is not about servicing the market but about introducing a 'high-quality' product or an idea.

The problem with this approach is that this is completely misdirected. For all the talk, most of these Western publishers or training companies have little to offer the Indian market. This isn't about their intellectual shortcoming, but their attitude towards this market: They are keen to recycle their existing products in this 'underdeveloped' market rather than taking the effort to develop new solutions.

This is where it goes wrong - India isn't an underdeveloped market any more. Agreed, most Indian training providers are not thinking enough, but Indian companies have not waited for the training providers to come up with solutions. Most of them made significant internal arrangements, in some cases set up extensive corporate universities, where their employees go through extensive preparation programmes before they start actual work. Training providers, so far, have taken a dim view of the client's capability of training their own staff: But this is a Western conception which does not apply to India at all.

In my view, such 'Corporate Universities' will grow in India rather than getting outsourced. The employers who use them are increasingly finding them handy to instill some sort of culture among employees, which help them develop a common identity and stay in the job longer. A training business will do well aligning themselves to this employer-led training paradigm than trying to compete with it. Undoubtedly, specialist training companies have much to offer in terms of innovation and skills, as long as they are not only about recycling some dated Western concepts and ideas. Successful training companies will operate with a sort of 'humility' which will help them partner with employers successfully and play a complimentary role to the corporate universities.

There is, of course, another area to play for budding training entrepreneurs. The inner cities in India are already supplying most of the people in junior and middle ranks in the companies, but the education provision in these cities remain limited. They are under the radar of professional companies, and most large companies prefer to leave them to franchisees and below par operators. However, these are not underdeveloped markets. Satellite TV and mobile phones have completed the integration and the inner city youth is currently driving the Indian corporate growth. I am certain that budding entrepreneurs in India will soon move in to bridge the gap by setting up high quality education and training facilities in these cities.

One has to realize that despite the perception driven by chaotic, crumbling high streets, the inner cities are bustling with energy and hunger of good quality education and training. So far, not many has got the model right, because of their sales orientations and limitations of imagination: These markets need new and innovative thinking. The solution may lie in an outlier model, may be one of social entrepreneurship, rather than the conventional corporate model, which invariably passes on the control to assorted financier types. But, if anything is to change India, it will be this 'Train The Inner City' movement than the swanky offices in big city suburbs.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Today's Inspiration: Salman Khan

Also, Bill Gates talks about Khan Academy here.

Waiting for the Renaissance Man

Suddenly, our lives have become difficult. Bad news is everywhere: Terrorist threats, global warming and great recession spoilt our party. As the Cold War ended, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and made a new start, but this relief is all but gone now. Worse, we only have ourselves to blame. It now seems that we are incapable of living in peace.

The bad news isn't everything though. We have made significant progress since the end of Cold War. Remember, we did not have any of this - the Facebook/MySpace crowd, read-write web or iPhones - then. Whatever is the bad news, we have made tremendous progress and opened enormous possibilities. Just that the media is so intent on bad news that such optimism sounds out of place.

I am an optimist, but I think bad news is for real. I am as concerned about global warming as anyone else and do not deny the human responsibility towards it, but I refuse to see it as the end of the world and haven't yet started building my arc (or headed out for the cave). Terrorism seriously threatens our way of life, and all freedom, which is central to modern life, but I see that as a problem of disenfranchisement rather than a part of human species which turned irreversibly bad (as the race-based view of terrorism dictate). The current recession is going to be deep and long-drawn, and impact our generation of people deeply, but the later generations will come out of it, learn the lessons and build a better future. In summary, I think a balanced, concerned view of the world is crucial, rather than unthinking optimism, but we haven't reached the edge of ending yet.

Such concerned optimism leads me to write this blog, lament the lack of sensitivity and respect among fellow citizens, denounce xenophobia and narrowness, and enthuse on new ideas and possibilities. Both aspects of our world seem equally true. It appears possible to change the animal instincts of men to something more noble, and the reverse equally true. Human history, from this daily reading, seems an unending battle between the idealist optimist and the pessimist realist, and between the optimistic realist and the pessimist ideologue at a parallel.

So, being sane and being human dictate keeping the faith and seek to change the fate of the humankind, one person at a time. This is a task our education system, increasingly narrow and focused on dispensation of marketable degrees rather than usable knowledge, singularly fails to do. If an increasingly frenetic world left the task of creating the modern citizen on its education system, it has proved too far short: It has bowed down in front of the Goddess of Wealth (who seems to be a City Girl in the current incarnation) and given up its original function. If we wanted our education system to keep alight the spirit of critical consciousness, which sows the seeds of all progress, our universities and colleges have replaced such lofty goals with the pursuit of conformity, a recipe for the bozo world. Indeed, the education system doesn't, can't, exist in isolation, but it has to perform as the fountain of our collective conscious, not the sewerage of our collective sin.

So, I shall campaign for the education system to be restored in its original place, a role of creator of consciousness and not a maintainer of conformity. I shall suggest broadness of education, rather than the narrowness of skills, should define the agenda, even in our age. Men, above all, wants to have the freedom to be themselves: That indeed is a more dire necessity for anyone than owning a mortgaged leasehold house. I, the optimist, will believe that everyone starts with a pure and open mind, a sense of curiosity, respect and engagement, till the tabloids and Murdoch-oids offer a convenient goggles, taint the world and build the hedges of fear and exclusion.

Ultimately, the world is in balance, and which way it goes depends on the second coming of the renaissance man: An open, curious and tolerant individual, who must withstand the toils of the journey to find and assimilate knowledge and rekindle the human spirit. Who may balance compassion with enterprise, see themselves as persons in the society than as towers of self-serving intelligence, and who will believe that changing the lives and minds of the fellow citizens is a nobler goal than any one can find.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Five Revolutions To A New India

The world seems to be discovering India. At least, the cityboys are. The talk is that India is that 'emerging' nation now, which will put China behind. My taxi driver says so, one may assert. Besides, the Indian growth rate, compared to the anemic European and North American ones, looks stellar.

There are two reasons about this excitement regarding India. The first is Demography. After all, China is ageing, and India is full of young people. Lots of commentators, Nandan Nilkeni among them, talks glowingly about the 'demographic dividend'. The idea is that with so many young hands to work, this is indeed India's moment to lose. The second factor, though a bit cliched, is democracy. Indian democracy is a crowded, chaotic circus, but it is still the country's most crucial asset against the social discord that is bound to happen when a country changes course so dramatically. While the Chinese migrant labour may have to suffer in silence, only to rebel with force and finality (as they did in Ming times, forcing the emperor to commit suicide), their Indian counterparts will surely show up with Rajpath, in their force and in their colours, and on Prime Time TV. It isn't the most efficient spectacle, but it is still a viable way to let out the steam and resolve the disputes.

But, India has not achieved much so far. Those growth rates are not a reason to celebrate, because we started from such dire poverty. In fact, growth rates are a wrong measure for progress for a country like India, where the measure should be against what it could be or should be, not what it was. Much of the India story so far was about unshackling itself from colonial mindset, which gave us a paternalist state and an education system that divides. However, this is just the start and the full fare of freedom hasn't even begun.

So, what is this full fare of freedom, which will allow us to achieve dramatic rates of growth and prosperity (without capping our ambition by what China regularly achieves, a 10% growth of GDP)? I have five ideas to offer.

First, we need a revolution in governance. In the newly independent India 60 years back, the leaders justifiably worried about the centrifugal forces threatening the union. Many of those issues have now been settled. Language isn't a dead issue, but we have learnt to live with multi-lingualism. The rise of Dalits have been the strongest bond of India's national unity, as here emerged a group of people with a strong identity independent of religion and language, a pure modern political identity tied to our nation. So, one can be reasonably assured that even without an intrusive Delhi-based government, the country will retain its unity. And, therefore, it is time for a sweeping devolution, returning the power to the state governments, and beyond, to local governments at every level. The biggest problem in India today is that the government is too far from people. Resolving this will open up complete new possibilities and release the energies of people yet again.

Second, we need a revolution in education. Our paternalist government, modelled after the colonial state, could only imagine a colonial, top-down education system. But as the demographic pressure builds up, it is increasingly clear that the education system is failing us. Instead of riding the waves of demographic possibilities like the mid twentieth century United States, our failing schools and colleges may lead us to squander our advantage, and let the power of people turn on us, in the self-destructive manner as it did in Soviet Russia in the dying years of Communism. We need a complete revolution in the classroom, shaking the structure thoroughly and throwing away the deadwood, unshackling the entrepreneurial energy and letting the successful companies in India set up their own schools and colleges to build a new generation of workers who will work for them. We must make it easy, and not more difficult, for entrepreneurs to invest in Education, facilitate social enterprises, use efficiency enhancing technology and build new centres of educational research.

Third, we need an enterprise revolution. We have been babus so far. The whole idea of progress rested on giant enterprises and people finding their cubicle graves for eternity. That has to change, if this new, energised generation has to realize its promise. The governments should step back and let go, which they invariably will when governance returns to people and the aspirations, too remote to be understood so far, felt first hand in the corridors of power. The government's role should transform from a regulator of the enterprise to a facilitator. In this, we must look to China, whose success stories and stellar growth rates are more due to the enterprise revolution than it is given credit for. One can argue that the average Chinese tend to be more enterprising than average Indian, but that's all nonsense. India has been stifled by a generation of city-workers, the Babus, who wanted to subsist on a monthly pay cheque and lost bearings if they were expected to take the responsibility of their own. Today, a new generation of young people are streaming into the cities from the villages, just as in England two hundred years back, and whether or not we are ready for an Industrial revolution, time for an Enterprise revolution has come.

Fourth, we need a Language revolution. All 'revolutions' are controversial, but surely this is going to be the mother of all the revolutions in India. From day one, right in the constituent assembly, we could not decide on a language, reaching a compromise solution to use English for a number of years before moving wholesale to Hindi. But that consensus is largely forgotten today, if it was ever accepted: Today, we are moving towards a broken society with an unified urban culture based on English and its variants, and various local cultures with local languages. The gap is widening, and an Indian English Language, which incorporates some mixed words and usually a formal tone, is firmly in place. The development of India's future, all this we are talking about, is being dreamt and spoken of, in this language. However, this leaves a large section of our population disenfranchised, and in fact, this is the precise segment of the population providing us with the demographic bounce. This, therefore, is not an out-of-place suggestion: We need to develop an Indian language. Just as Malaysia and Indonesia have done, or a parallel could be drawn with the simplified Mandarin developed after the Cultural Revolution, which helped spread literacy and unified the country around a single language platform. This 'Indian' language can be based on any language, even English, as long as this is stripped down of rhetoric and a common minimum basis, like 'Globish', could be agreed.

Finally, India needs a revolution of self-image. For a long time, we have defined ourselves by our past: What we used to be. That is useful, but now a break must be made. India is as much a historical entity as much an imagined future, and the balance must tilt towards what we could be. This means all the other four revolutions, but more. We have lived with insecurities deep down in our culture, a sense of lost glory haunted us all the time. This defined how India and Indians appeared to the outsiders, a touch arrogant, often defensive, and mostly withdrawn. As if we wanted others to recognize us for what we are, before we engage with them, and was hurt when we were largely ignored. This defined all our external relationships, particularly in our neighbourhood. We treated Bangladesh and Nepal and Sri Lanka as our little brothers, and in turn and justifiably, our big brotherly attitude was deplored. We need to move forward and think afresh now, and understand that in the affairs of nations, only some differences matter: Our self-appointed guardianship of our region is resented and should be abandoned. And, we also have to understand that this is good for us: A self-image based on what we would be. Gandhi already said - be the change you want to see in the world - and he was speaking about our self-image: It is time we start building a respectful, ethical world around us, one relationship at a time.

I am an optimist. I see a future of progress. I do not see India dominating that future, because national domination are passe. I see a future shared among all nations of the world, one based on respect, ethics and mutual cooperation. I dream of an India participating in building that future: I wish for the revolutions which will make this happen.

Monday, August 23, 2010

New Opportunities for Private Education in Britain

In the next few years, the private education industry in Britain will undergo a fundamental change.

Private Education is already one of the most dynamic industry sectors worldwide. Something like the transportation industry in the 1990s, this is a sector stretched for capacity, with serious quality problems and increasingly noisy demand from its constituents, students in this case, that it gets its act together.

In America, things have already moved forward quite a bit. We have already seen the emergence of some of the world's largest private education companies there, along with the accompanying innovation, dynamism and career opportunities. Britain has lagged behind, despite its stronger vocational and practical education tradition. No doubt, some of the K12 companies have done well. However, the publicly funded model of Higher Education has constrained the emergence of serious private players in this sector.

All that is changing now. Last month, the government allowed BPP Education, a private education company with 14 UK branch offices and more than 30,000 students, to have an University College status. BPP followed the University of Buckingham to become the first non-government entity to have this status, though this second act took a good thirty years to follow. This is, of course, a small step for BPP: They already have degree granting powers for more than three years. What the latest step will do is allow them a greater access to public funds. A small step, but a significant one.

It is more significant for the other private players in the segment. The government clearly is desperate for a solution to provide higher education options for its young people, more and more of whom want to go to the university because of a bad job market. Between 150,000 to 250,000 of students who passed A levels this year will not find an university place: Many more will have to do with their second or third choice courses. The universities are so desperate that they are now offering places in their overseas campuses, in the ones in Dubai and China, to the aspiring students. Dave Willetts, the Universities minister, recently said that he would want more British students to go abroad: He did not mean it to happen for lack of places.

So far, the Private Education industry in Britain survived on students coming from overseas, but that model is changing dramatically. The overseas student numbers will shrink: It will be a long time before, if ever, we can offer more than 350,000 visas to overseas students in a year. This is good in a way. The private education industry in Britain operated with and encouraged certain inefficiencies. Most players did not care much about intellectual property and cared little about processes. In a shrinking marketplace, and as the rules of the game changes, these are becoming increasingly important.

The model is changing in favour of education provision for domestic students and exporting education know how and curriculum. All this requires a much higher level of efficiency, production and development of intellectual property and a value-added business model. Only a few of the players in the private education sector are ready for this yet, but one can see the changes coming rapidly.

So, overall, the sector is in for a round of creative destruction, while rewarding the innovative and efficient ones in a big way. This is also an interesting opportunity for overseas colleges to open campuses in Britain. Not just the ones like the University of Chicago, which has a Business School campus in London, but for Privately owned companies like India's Amity University, which has opened a campus in London last year and running it successfully (this has also raised their profile considerably in their home market). We shall see efforts like Amity more often in the future, and this will push the private players in Britain even harder.

As always, more competition is good. We can reasonably hope to see the emergence of some global players from Britain soon.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Coming Up For Air: Ideas of A New Career

It is one of those moments: I am tired of my rusty old self and want to make a fresh start.

So, no mid-life crisis for me. That would be against the principles I grew up with: Never mind the difficulties, keep working and things will happen to you. Sort of thing my grandfather, who built a successful business from the scratch, would have approved. He went by some sort of Asian value - 'the man who rises up before dawn 360 days a year, never fails to make his family rich' - but this may as well pass by the name of 'protestant work ethic'. But, whatever it is, it serves me well. Despite the inescapable ups and downs, recessions and all that, it helps to keep my head down and keep moving.

This is what I am doing right now. I had to write off my last few years of work, relationships and all that, and make a fresh start. But that was okay: I could condition myself to think that my life is starting afresh and I must be humble enough to absorb the difficulties and keep my mind unwavering and focused on a goal. As my grandfather would say, the God never fails to grant an honest wish: So He did, even for an atheist like me. I was granted a fresh start.

But, because this is my second coming, I am cautious in choosing what I do. I chose Education as an obvious thing - this is where I am most passionate and something I understand instinctively. This is also a good time to be in education - as the industry moves out of public sector in almost all countries across the world and thus, creates more possibilities of innovation and employment. Besides, education is becoming from intensely local to increasingly international. This is not just about international campuses, which is yet to catch on: The aspirations and the knowledge are increasingly global and hence, the academia is scrambling to make the adjustments.

In the process, indeed, I am discovering the golden rules for career change in the new economy. Like, one must have a confirmed discipline. Disciplines consist of, as I understand it, a process of enquiry and a language, both of which must be mastered by a practitioner. So, while I have spent many years in education in different forms, and already working in an educational institution, I am making a formal effort to learn the discipline. That's the reason for my ongoing efforts with the UCL, which needs great sacrifice from my side but already proving worth it.

Besides the discipline, there are a few other things a career changer must be open to. Mobility is one: One can even call it flexibility. This is geographical mobility, as well as flexibility in terms of starting low. I am doing almost everything that I can lay my hands on, any work. I have started teaching a Post-graduate class, which, surprisingly, I am thoroughly enjoying. This has of course added a few extra hours to my workday, but this is about my readiness to learn and be able to do anything that is thrown at me. This is something I may or may not do in future: But I consider what I am doing now is an apprenticeship, and the extra work as a privilege to learn different things.

On the same point, however, it is not just doing the extra work that helps. I am trying to engage with every bit of work with a critical and conscious mind, which allows me to reflect and learn, even if it is only about how not to do something. I keep most of my learning deeply private, but as an open person, I also feel pledge-bound to give an honest opinion to people if I am asked. Sometimes, it indeed feels a bit silly, giving opinions when silence would have been a better option. In a way, however, this is also a style experiment - I have been a silent observer for far too long - and it has gone well for me thus far.

I am conscious that whatever I learn I want to apply it globally in the end, may be in three to five years time. So, I am making an extra effort to keep my mind open and global, though my frequent trips abroad has ceased, giving me some time to stay home and get healthy. I realize that this health thing is a bigger deal than I have considered it to be in the past: Being unfit robs years away from me which I must have to make a difference. So, the big thing in my agenda is to stay healthy and fit, and do as much as I can (working from London Bridge station to office isn't enough) to maintain a healthy life. I know sooner or later, those international trips will resume. I want to be fit to take on the extra stress by then.

So, that's where I am: An interesting cross-road in my career, a pause, almost a traffic light. As always, this allows me to learn a few things, make a few decisions and know a few people (fellow motorists). This blog, as my scrapbook of ideas, would always tell the story. I am hoping that when I reach somewhere down the road in this journey, all this will make a pleasurable reading.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Disrupting Class: Technology & Timeframes in Education

Earlier, I was reading Ricardo and wondering whether technology will remove the 'rent' associated with well-known place-based colleges and expand the access to accommodate the teeming masses that are knocking on the door. I did not think I was arguing against good education: I was arguing against the elitism in education, which in turn allows the formation of education ghettos in sub par community colleges and training institutes.

My thoughts have moved forward, in line with my reading about Alfred Marshall's life and work, and I have started wondering about another impact that technology may have on education, by altering the time frames we are used with. Yes, I typically thought education is 'long run', and advised so to the wannabe education entrepreneurs. However, my usage of the terms, 'short run' and 'long run', was more in line with popular use, than the meanings ascribed to them by the economist who first used them; Marshall, indeed.

Marshall's short run and long run concepts were not just a short time and a long time, but had proper economic meaning ascribed to it. He thought of short run in terms of the time frame required to vary the 'variable factors' of production, like hiring more labour. His 'long run' was the time one requires to vary the 'fixed factors', like land and machinery. He indeed thought this varies from industry to industry.

Consider education for a moment in this light. Short run in education is the time we require to expand (or shrink) variable factors, like the number of lecturers and administrators. The long run is the time we require to vary the 'plant and machinery', not just rooms and air-conditioners, but also curriculum and material and everything else that requires more time and preparation.

Now, thinking from this angle, I can see two problems with my earlier thinking. First, it is wrong to think that there is no short run in education. Short run is a technical term employed by economists, and not to be confused with the 'royal road' in Aristotle's dictum. There is always a short run in every industry, even if short run means a few years in some of them. Second, the time frames for short run and long run in every industry is shrinking because of technology. Since long run isn't a fixed time as one would like to think, but a technically defined time horizon, it is indeed variable.

In my experiences with the universities, in India and in the UK, I think these points are often missed out. The academic world seems to move with its own invariable timescales, which is oblivious of technology and everything else around them. There needs to be exam boards where the members of the faculty must meet physically, and hence it needs to be on an appointed day when all members need to be geographically present, regardless of the increasingly global nature of academic work and prevalence of conference technologies at every level of modern day work and life. Meeting of such kind on Skype or Webex will surely be sacrilege. I have picked a particular example, but such rigid time frame thinking prevails at every level of university work.

I was recently confronted by a pretty recently formulated rule that a student can not be granted a post-graduate degree within one year of their registration with the university: While one can argue that the student is supposed to do an one year long course, time tabled, to earn a post-graduate degree, one can clearly see that this rule is a still-born when this is being applied to a completely online programme.

It surely helps to read Marshall and understand his concepts of economic time. One should remember Marshall was a gradualist, deeply influenced by Darwin and who started his famed Principles of Economics with the Latin quote 'Natura non facit saltum', 'nature makes no sudden leaps'. But keeping in mind the Darwinian principles, whereas a thousand years makes not much of a difference (which would surely suit some of the university professors), a short lifetime of a single mutant may determine the future of a species. In education, whereas the concept of short and long runs may vary in time from the popular perception, it still remains a dynamic concept and may just be reaching the tipping point of the mutant species.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Disrupting Class: Why Technology Must Transform Education

I have taken the title here from Clayton Christensen, whose useful book on how technology creates disruptive innovation in Education I have read and written about before. But, at this time, I am reading David Ricardo, and my ideas are focused on how modern technology is set to disrupt the education model as we know now.

But, first of all, Christensen, who predicts that technology will change the business model of education. Education, as he sees it, is currently a value chain model, where value is added to set inputs at different stages of the process, and a value-added output is delivered. He predicts that this would transform into an User Network model, somewhat like the telecom business models, where users participate in a network and value is created as every extra connection is added. In an earlier post, I mused on these ideas, which indeed seemed plausible.

But the point of this post is not the business model per se, but the economics of education. More precisely, I think we need to look at 'Education Rent', which is currently hindering social mobility in societies all over the world.

The concept is straightforward, and follows from Ricardo: As the demand for education grows [which happens with the growth of population], good education becomes scarce. As demand expands, not so good education becomes available. The difference in productivity between the good and not so good [as measured in school leaving salary, among other things] gives rise to a rent, which good education can charge. This is why college education, particularly good college education, is becoming so expensive: The rent is rising on them.

The other part of the argument is that, indeed, this will hurt the producers. The producers are not just the consumers of knowledge [like the industrialists] who must pay more for their workers to offset the cost of education, or have to do with inferior workers; the producers include the knowledge workers themselves, who are actively engaged in producing knowledge, but a greater share of their earning must go into acquiring education and paying rent [they can be compared with Ricardo's tenant farmers].

As we know, technology reduced the rent on land by creating possibilities of having decent harvest on not-so-premium land, and it was only because of this, we seemed to have escaped a Malthusian implosion. This is what technology should be able to do in education. In a way, technology should undermine the elitism in education and allow knowledge sharing on a wider scale and undermine the rent that good schools want to extract.

Now, I know many people would feel inherently uncomfortable with the concept. Good education, in their mind, is best left inaccessible to masses. Quality, to them, is equal to restricted access. But, rent, in our time as it was in Ricardo's, can't be good: It is a premium one pays for lack of supply vis-a-vis demand, and it essentially subtracts value rather than adding. Quality isn't about restricted access: That is a lazy man's perception of quality. Quality should be all about expanding access to match demand to maintain the productive capacity of an economy, which should be geared towards raising the standard of life of all of its citizens.

This is exactly where the discomfort with educational technology is. The providers of education have a problem with technology exactly the same way British farmers wanted protection on grain imports after the Napoleonic wars: They want to preserve the rent. The rationale they extend can be nuanced and well thought out, but it can't hide the fact that the key demand is for an unreasonable rent: If we give in to these demands, we will continue to deny good education to most of our citizens and end up having a broken society.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Overseas Students in the UK: Reflections on the Agency System

I have decided to focus my research on the Overseas Student experience, particularly in the UK. I have strong reasons: I have access to a lot of overseas students, and the fact that I feel a natural affinity, though, truth be told, I have never been an 'overseas' student myself.

I still have an year before I start writing the thesis, so I decided to use this time to collect data and reflect. This blog, being my scrapbook of ideas and the platform to continue the conversation with all those who share my interests, will obviously be the place where I post these ideas and observations.

I shall start with a random one. The use of agencies by British colleges and universities have always been controversial, though the practice has only expanded in the recent years to American colleges. The idea is simple and common sense - that a commission is paid to an agent for recruiting students on behalf of British universities and colleges. The commission varies from 10% to 35%, not a bad sum considering that the students pay anywhere between £4000 to £15000 for these courses [there are more expensive courses, but the better universities don't usually employ agents]. The commission is usually paid after the student has paid the university/ college, so the financial risk to the recruiting university is minimum. It works for the student, as they can find a local representative of the college, who often help them sort out a number of other issues apart from academic advice. It surely works for an agent - they not only earn money through commission, but from English tuition, visa assistance, travel and accommodation arrangements etc.

However, the problem is - this is a notoriously difficult practice to regulate. The agents are in different countries, often one off individuals or small businesses, and their business practices are ad hoc and opaque. Most of visa fraud that the British newspapers are concerned about comes from this agency-based recruitment practice, with agencies helping students to fabricate documents showing education or work experiences they never had. It is not uncommon for students to have 'worked' for the agents themselves, and I have known about agents who employ professional forgers who would go to extremes such as forging passports to do English examinations on behalf of the students. More ominously, it is very common to find agencies controlling both ends of the process - university or college marketing officers are often too cosy with the agents and even may be directly related to them - spawning a type of conflict of interest which will not be tolerated in any other sector.

The prevalence of this practice makes me believe that the current immigration control efforts, by cutting the number of visas and by introduction of a points based system for student visas, are misdirected. These would successfully make Britain a more difficult place to come for study for those who are applying for university studies [it already is, with the fact that foreign students pay three times the fees compared to the domestic students], but will do nothing to curb the number of students who wish to cheat the system. Besides, unless the agency system is put under review, such arbitrary immigration controls will ensure that Britain only gets the mediocre or sub par students, with the agents conniving with people at various high commissions to push through their candidates.

Given the current public consensus that something must be done to set right the student visa system, urgent attention must be focused, therefore, on the use of agency system by recruiting institutions. I would have said the system should be banned altogether, but that may be impractical. However, since the ratings system for sponsors of foreign students is already in place, the UK Border Agency can easily demand that to get the Highly Trusted Sponsor status, an institution must not recruit through agents [in other words, must be able to recruit directly]. The loss of agency system should then be compensated by fast tracking applications of students who are applying to a highly trusted sponsor, and even giving them a different yardstick, like lower maintenance funds [the amount of money students need to show in their bank account, which is a hotbed of fraudulent practices - it is often the agent who puts the money and charges the students for the same]. Besides, if a number cap has to be introduced, the government may clearly give the Highly Trusted sponsors a much higher quota.

I am conscious that the other sponsors, who are in A and B ratings, are the ones who use the agency system most and the abuses are also maximum here. The government must regulate these practices, by imposing some of the simple conflict of interest regulations which are pretty common in other areas of life. For example, the UK Border Agency must crack down on institutions employing representatives of the agents as Admission Officers. It will be a difficult thing to achieve, but at least a simple check - enforced on all sponsors of student visas - that they can not employ any person who have a direct or indirect interest in an agency business - can be achieved. It is difficult to achieve, as most people run the agencies in different countries through siblings and other relatives, but such rules exist in other sectors and a little scrutiny will surely help raise the standards of practice. A declaration by the sponsors will help the owners/ principals in these institutions to know that the practice is not desirable, and give investors and trustees another benchmark to follow.

On the payment side, the Border Agency should be able to control how much is paid to the agents and when. For example, higher rates of commission invariably means that the agent will then be able to employ a sub-agent, creating further complications. Besides, it is desirable that the agency payments are not made at once, but in stages - may be in line with the retention targets of the border agency, but if not, at least after the student turning up and joining the intended course of study, not immediately as the student pays his/her fees. The sponsors must be able to show clear agency contracts and track their payments to show to the Border Agency.

There are two practices which will still undermine effective control even if the above mentioned attempts are made. Currently, there is a system of British Council's Trusted Agents, but that helps to achieve nothing, except that it legitimizes the agency practice itself, help British Council to earn some money and give them some arbitrary powers over the trade. Time has come to recognize that such practices have failed: Otherwise, we shall not be where we are, and this is an important policy area that should not be left to a semi-public body like the British Council. British Council may go back to its originally conceived role, that of promoter of British Education, and it must shun agency practices as well.

Secondly, many colleges and universities have started opening offices and subsidiary companies in different countries, which are in turn controlled, and sometimes manned, by the agents. This means most of the commercial transactions are outside the purview of the Border Agency, or at least very difficult and expensive to track. This practice needs to be carefully reviewed, and ideally, all agency contracts must be entered into in Britain, and all payments must be made after the payments have been received in a British Bank Account.

Lord Browne's review of University Funding is due soon, and if expectations are met, this will change the way British Universities are funded and hopefully, this will help make them a more competitive, attractive destination for international students. But, the way things stand as of now, we are in the danger of over-regulating the genuine students and hyping up a collective xenophobia against the international students altogether: This will surely undermine Britain's position as a premier destination for overseas education. [See the recent article on Economist here]. A clear and purposeful review of the agency system is long overdue, and if the political rhetoric of immigration control is to be matched, the UK Border Agency can not any longer maintain its hands off attitude to the agency practice.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Education At the Time of Great Change

Over last one year, I have had the opportunity to think, read and discuss about how technology will change education. I started from the point that technology will completely transform education: Something like everything will be online in a few years from now. And, then, I met a few people who were of the opposite persuasion, that technology may change things on surface, like a smartboard in the class, but the tutor would remain central to the education experience.

The truth is, it will be somewhat in between. Education has been slower than other industries, for example transportation, to respond to technological change. But it has still changed. The great change in education would have come about five hundred years ago with the printed book; again about hundred years back with printed photo; and around the same time, with sound recording. However, each one of these were only small steps in transforming education - from a pursuit of privileged few to a basic requirement of modern life - leading towards an ultimate tipping point of social transformation.

While transportation may have changed quite dramatically with automobile, and later with air travel, the change in education was somewhat less dramatic. A teacher still controls the classroom. Home tasks are given. Small punishments are still handed out for delinquencies. Expulsion and failure remain central to its management. But this has less to do with the 'timeless' nature of education, and more because of the nature of technological change. Dan Airley makes the point that when it comes to applying technology to further our physical capabilities, like the ability to move with great speed, we have excelled; but the same is not true about using technology to extend our cognitive capabilities. Largely, this is due to the overriding obsession about preserving the existing social balance, or power structure, and the fact that we would rather have people not know or think more in order to preserve our ways of life. That way, education is unlike transportation; we want to limit change in matters of education, not the other way round.

But despite our great desire to maintain the status quo, technologies in the cognitive domain are becoming more powerful. This is an immutable aspect of technological change: That it can seldom be boxed. While technologies develop within the context of social power relations, there inevitably comes a time when these technologies cross a Frankenstein threshold, first threatening and then inevitably altering its master, the social framework which made them. And, to be sure, this is not a completely exogenous process - technologies, unlike trees, don't just grow themselves. Human beings have the tendency of growing in baby steps, changing things even when they collectively don't want to, and the story of technological progress is almost always scripted by our playful inventiveness. In a way, the whole of human history can be seen as a playful exercise, of human freedom and triumph of individual curiosity over collective frigidity. I believe education as an activity, helped by the state of education technology, has reached such a threshold.

Indeed, Bill Gates says that in the video I posted. He believes that the pace of change will be slower in K12 than in the community college sector. There is another possibility to consider: As For-Profit education thrives, the education options will soon become limited to the subjects with greater pay-off, and specialist, niche subjects may become too expensive and only available on the virtual mode. Art History is a good place to start: Anyone?

In this model, technology-based education is not changing the sector. It is only improving it, as textbooks and standardized curriculum changed education in line with the mass participation in the industry after the industrial revolution. But we seem to be approaching a tipping point: A point where the economics of education is broken, the pace of social change brings millions knocking at the door, and the rate of technological progress alter the media consumption habits and expectations in favour of a different kind of education. Yes. the Frankenstein threshold has arrived, and if things don't change, it will be changed.

I shall end in an optimistic note. Change is good, because life is about change. Not changing is going against the rules of nature. The time for change in education has arrived.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Leadership Notes: Leadership of Free Men (and Women)

For all the talk of leadership, spare a thought for the followers. Because they make the leaders. In a way.

A leader may not be an identified individual that we would like to believe. Or that's what celebrity obsessed mass media wants us to believe. Rather, more often than not, a leader emerges - based on the context - and other people, followers, choose to follow them. Think of the first man on the dancing floor and you know what I am talking about.

So, leadership is not a position or a title, but a relationship, that one enters with others from time to time.

In a way, then, followers make the leaders. Without them, there will be no leaders. Imagine dancing alone on the floor. Writing a book that no one reads. Standing up on Speaker's Corner without onlookers. We think of people who do them as crazies, not as leaders.

So, then, why, in business, we assume leadership comes with position, or gets embedded in title? Because, indeed, business tries to fashion itself more after the hierarchical organizations such as the Military than after life. One can trace that back to Max Weber: Along with many ideas Germans taught the modern world, the bureaucratic leader proved one of the most durable.

But, as I argue, this is the key problem with leadership today. It is seen as a position, a title, not as a relationship that needs to be built and entered into. There is no point pretending leadership; leadership has nothing to do with height, skin colour or accent. These, alongwith the story that the leaders should have an MBA, are myths spun endlessly by the mass media, which needs identified individuals for its own purposes. Leadership as a relationship would not sell celebrity gossip magazines.

Now, the key problem with the idea of leader as a person is that this is the extension of the superman theory. This is based on the fable that some men are more equal than others. This is not a doctrine at ease with modernity, which assumes that everyone has a chance. This is a sort of caste system [why only blame Indians for it?] embedded in our system of politics, business and the media.

This is also why great, enduring, leadership looks so puzzling to us. Consider Mother Teresa. I was so unimpressed when I met her: She was a frail, small, aged lady, much shorter than I would have ever imagined such a 'towering' figure to be. Indeed, she took only a few seconds to completely alter my ideas of leadership: When she spoke, with humility, comfort and confidence, we had to give up our pretensions and defer to her, because she had such a 'presence'. In the usual scale of leadership, Gandhi and Martin Luther King would have looked awkward. But they led people by defining a consistent relationship: Not by the weight of their titles or 'charisma', but with odd things like truth and sacrifice, compassion and humility.

Why we remember them as leaders, while our pretentious corporate honchos fall by the wayside, is simple: Because we are essentially free men and women. At least, we wish to be free. Leaders are those who we align with, defer to, in our own free will, because they help us strive towards freedom, towards being better individuals. That's the essence of a leadership relationship. I know this is based on an essentially optimist view of mankind, but let's accept we use leadership as a positive term: Some of the mass murderers may have 'led' others, but that's not what we usually refer to when talking about leadership.

So, essentially, leadership as theory is based on bureaucratic assumptions that leadership is a title, which is a permanent tag that an individual carries. But, I say, the Leader is a modern myth: This is a theory we use to limit freedom. Besides, this leadership is based on fear. Fear of losing something - job, nationality, group membership - do not allow us to strive to be better than what we already are. Leadership, in this sense, is stuck in the mud of status quo.

But leadership as a practice, of the real world, of the kind we don't write about but know when it happens, is a relationship that emerges, and often, it is little people, frail and awkward, who show us the power of it. Often, it is a transitory relationship, like the solitary man on dance floor, or the one who starts a Mexican wave. In a way, leadership is the act of losing the solitariness. This leadership is based on freedom. People follow, because the leader appeals to their individual urges to become free, from fear, from mediocrity and from limitations. Contrast that with the leadership in theory: People do not follow because they want to remain in a group, anonymous. Rather, they follow because they want to be themselves.

So, I rest my case: Leadership is a relationship. A leader is an individual of the moment, not a 'special' one. The act of leadership is to the journey from fear to freedom. Leader leads so that he is not alone: In fact, the act of leading helps him/ her lose his/her solitariness. People follow, not because they want to hide in anonymity, but because they want to stand out, be themselves. This is the leadership of free men (and women). This is the only kind of leadership we need.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Leadership Notes: What I Believe

Management is over. Dead. Gone. Welcome to the age of Leadership.

I don't believe in the Leader/Manager debates. It is fashionable indeed, to pour smart soundbites about the difference between the leader and the manager. Things like: Manage the process, lead the people. Or, the manager steers a team through the woods, but the leader gets atop a tree and find the way. And, most popularly, short versus the long term, tactical versus the strategic - each designed to tell us, with preciseness, at which point a manager should cross the leadership threshold.

And, then, there is this whole argument that management is nothing without leadership, and leadership needs management. Mintzberg says this, primarily. He has a point: Management without leadership will be boring, and leadership without management will be chaos. All good leaders must manage, and all good managers must be able to lead. Indeed.

But, increasingly, it is unclear what you can manage. The age of uncertainty is no longer a catchy term or a distant concept. We don't know whether we are there, and that is surely it: Only thing for certain is that certainty is dead. The whole system that we live by is shaky. The nations we crafted over last two hundred years are hanging on for dear life, but each financial crisis is progressively pushing them to the edge. The trust as embodied in paper money, or other instruments, the basis of our commercial system, is exposed to be disabused, and bail out or not, we all feel a strong urge not to trust a banker again. The traditional, solid organizations suddenly looks fluid, as they re-engineer and fire people. The business as a social organization, where sons followed their fathers and went to work, exist in period movies only. We may cling on to all the managerial lingo, but what we could have managed has taken a walk.

Such as people. Employees. Those small people who needed to defer to us to pay their bills, to keep their medical cover and to fill the mortgage. The problem is that we still get people to buy into such instruments of submission, but we are unable to provide them the answers and the security that they need. Besides, we don't even know what they can do, or should do. The only thing one knows, at whatever level, is that we need to go and figure. And, you can't push people to go and figure it out for themselves.

It is not all that bad, though. Figuring out what one needs to go can be fun. One name that goes by is creativity. Everyone needs to create now, possibilities, at least for themselves. That can be a huge force for good, a million time more productive compared to the time only a handful of people did the figuring out.

This may sound, well, Utopian. Everyone trying to figure the way out sounds like chaos. And, aren't some people smarter than others, and should it not be left to them to lead? Well, that was a myth we tried to propagate, and each new invention proved it wrong. About 500 years back, before printing, we kept knowledge under lock and key, in the backrooms of monasteries. Printing changed all that and created trouble, but we could still co-opt a few in a cosy arrangement and keep the figuring out bit under control. Now, a variety of things, Internet, but most importantly, mobile phones, and insatiable, suicidal greed, is pushing knowledge out to frontiers we did not know existed, and bringing billions of people, with all their idiosyncrasies, to party. It is scary, but it is real - everyone seems to be gatecrashing on creativity and the snobs can only go home and write treatise about how the world is going to go to dogs. It won't.

Because, there are now a million possibilities. The old way of doing things don't work anymore. The old way, as in burning up some of earth's resources, pushing some desperate souls to do some 'time' for their mortgages or health cover, and selling what we produced to some rich kid in a wasteful ride. The new way is about protecting the earth, about people doing things voluntarily and for everyone sitting around the table. That's no communist utopia; that's capitalist production mantra at around our time.

So, how you manage this? How you fire people who are not employed, time-stamp people who begged to God for an extra hour over and above 24 a day, and discipline passion? How do you set a process and time lines for work which has never been done before? You lead. In short, you define a relationship between those who volunteer to figure out and those who volunteer to follow suit on the basis of a common purpose and goodwill. The protocol you set becomes the process - the trust becomes inside out than outside in. The fear is not to be able to change the world, and the trick is to constantly evolve ourselves.

So, management is dead. Dead as a Dodo. That is an environmental message, but a practical one too. Leadership has replaced, superseded management. It is the only thing, not one of the things. So, if you don't want to lead, follow. But please don't ask for a job description.

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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

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