Monday, May 28, 2012

The Question of Return

Someone remarked about my recurring conversations about returning to India some day: I saw it as an unremarkable everyday conversation of any migrant's life. Identities are indeed transient, but home isn't. I may adopt a certain lifestyle and work in a certain way, but having spent the first thirty years of my life uninterrupted in one city, it would not be easy to make some other place my home. This is what it really is: As long as I live elsewhere, I see this as a life out of a suitcase. I am not tired yet, and I see my identity as a traveller, but I am not resting till I finally return home.

It is usually a recurrent conversation every morning, when I shall meet other expats on my regular compartment on the 833 to London Bridge and talk about nuances of going back to India: Our realities may be different, but the desires are similar. There is nothing new to talk about - the conversations follow a similar arc, the tremendous opportunity, the stifling corruption, the lack of freedom to live as you wish, and finally the very personal desires to be loyal sons and daughters to our ageing parents. There are things we don't mention, though: We know that in our adapted country, we must live in our place, a specific role, being a cog in the economic wheel, to be useful. It is a deal we do not mind; in fact, we have chosen it ourselves. However, there are moments during the train journeys when we wish to be human, when sentiments such as being ourselves matter more than what we can do or have.

It is easier to talk about the opportunity in India. Despite the difficulties of life - one can not take anything for granted - there are people and there is demand. On both counts, Western economies look quite dead now. I am setting up an education company which is dependent on demand from Asia. My friends are in IT, full of ideas how things could be done more efficiently in companies they have seen or worked for previously. All of us would like to believe that India is a rising power and be the place to be in ten years time. We eagerly quote every newspaper report, every facebook mention that support this assertion. In summary, we want to believe in the tremendous possibilities that a return will present to all of us.

Among the believers, challenges shouldn't matter, but we all know that while we talk about return endlessly, we don't end up doing it. Moreover, we complain about the life in India every time we go there. We talk about the corruption and the fact that one can't depend on day to day institutions, police, medics, schools, of middle class life. We all enjoy the fruits of capitalism but seem to resent the jungle variety that modern India seems to represent. We wonder how much freedom and opportunity India really presents to an individual entrepreneur, as it earns its name as a tycoon economy. We find it handy that the current Indian government is corrupt and inefficient: It only allows us to linger the discussion and find justification for our fears.

However, in the end, it is neither the opportunities nor the challenges that matter. Hand on heart, we know that we have become aliens, used to a different mode of life. It is not India that we have escaped, but all the trappings of our social position. It is ironic that we have traded the monotony of being what we were born to be for the limited economic usefulness in our adapted country. Our expectation of return isn't pure, but we expect a somewhat red carpet homecoming, where we are handed out plum jobs and fantastic salaries because we happened to live abroad. This is the classic puzzle that stand at the heart of our problem: India is exciting because of its demand, and this demand, typically, comes from inner India, the towns such as Ambala and Anand, and the villages surrounding them. We believe that our unique experiences in Zurich, New York and London give us a special gift to be able to make the best out of these opportunities, better than people who lived all their lives in those towns. There is some truth in this, but we also know this is arrogant, particularly as we expect to be paid three times as much as the man from Anand or Ambala. This, more than any other reason, come in the way of return.

But there is an easier way. We are migrants, that variety of footloose people who can make a living out of nothing. We came with no expectations and we have settled and succeeded in different countries; if we failed, we decamped and moved on to a place where things worked for us. This is a gift, the ability to start afresh, to work hard and to make the best of limited opportunities presented to us. When the conversation stops, and we return to our lonely, warring selves, we know returning to India will be exactly as we have done before: Going and settling in a new place. It would require exactly the same amount of effort, may be more. It will mean starting from scratch. It would mean the same hard work and knowing the ways of life, yet again. It would mean winning a space to live, inch by inch, minute by minute. It will mean taking all the unpleasantness, as India is an inward-looking civilisation with a deep suspicion of people who left once, but making it work again. Our greatest advantage will not be that we are Indians, but that we are migrants, conversant with the terms such as settling and making do.

Returning, then, is actually embarking on a new journey. The idea becomes easier, in a way, then. As migrants, we fear the past, but we make new beginnings, almost habitually, every day.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


I am coming to an end of one distinct phase in my life and starting another.

I have spent two years, exact to the day, learning about Higher Education. This is what I wanted to do: I enrolled myself in a course studying Higher Education and got myself a job in a Higher Ed college, and spent every waking moment reading and talking about it. After two years of doing this, I feel as if I have forever been here.

Eye-opening is a cliche but it does indeed happen. I can easily claim that the two years of pursuing a Higher Ed career deconstructed the industry for me. The voodoo of instruction design now looks more like Highway Code than mind-reading; the very impressive monastic rituals that mark university graduation ceremonies look more like retrospective identity building than following an unbroken tradition. 

I am starting to talk the talk, in a way. Grey hair in place, I try to be slightly eccentric-sounding; I am also discovering the value of scruffy dressing and being arrogantly humble. However, this is the time when I also start feeling comfortable. In summary, it is getting boring now.

It is, therefore, time for the next thing.

Fortunately, the elements of my next life are already there. We have been raising funds and restructuring the business we are involved in, and soon, my role will change and take me back to the familiar territory of international partnership building. I have been there before, and I consider that I do this quite well, but this time it is different: I shall have far greater say on the form and content of these partnerships than I had ever before. This is an important difference, as it makes the job more like creative crafting of possibilities rather than salesmanship. 

But this would change the way I live. There was a time when I desired for a regular life, marked, among other things, by a fixed train which I catch every morning to work. This has now happened: The 833 from East Croydon to London Bridge has become the high point of my achievement. But, being there already, it is boring now. In retrospective, the strenuous days of traveling, the endless hours in the Dubai airport lounge, are suddenly glorious, full of possibilities one more time. I am older and wiser, and that indeed is one major change. But a sense of calling is important too: I shall be doing something meaningful.

I remain an optimist and a dreamer. I believe in being able to make new beginnings, and every time, live more meaningfully than I did before. This has indeed worked for me earlier, and I am sure it would do again. Building a global higher education network isn't a feeble aspiration; indeed, it is suitably grand for me. But also the underlying possibility of seeing new countries and meeting new people excite me. Last time that happened, I was too obsessed with other trivialities around myself. I captured some of that experience on Camera and on this blog, but not much. This time, as a phase of my life ends and another starts, I am bringing out the camera and thinking about my writing: Those will be the NEXT thing. I always wanted to live for something: Chronicling my travels may be one way to find the purpose of my life.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Would Independent Colleges Disrupt The British Higher Education?

It doesn't seem so at this time, when the British Government's discriminatory treatment of private sector higher education institutions driving the sector to extinction; however, from the experience of other industries, one can see that this is precisely the time when winners, and new business models, emerge.

British Higher Ed, right now, is at a crossroad, but is leading towards a blind alley. The ever more bureaucratic state is trying to shape the higher ed agenda, and spawning a generation of ever more compliant university officials disconnected from the reality of the marketplace and with heads hidden in the sands of already bankrupt politics of grants and funding. The celebrated triple helix is being torn apart, almost by design, as the state tries to disentangle itself from the crisis of confidence, the industry continues to deal with the fall-outs of global recession, and universities try harder to please their ever more demanding, and ever more stingy, masters. What we get, in effect, a higher ed system resting on laurels of e past, but completely oblivious of the opportunities, and challenges, of the future. In short, with all eyes off the ball, this is an industry ready for disruption.

There are indeed well articulated fears of the education buccaneers, the businessmen who want to invade the placid gardens of disinterested inquiry. Some of these fears are well grounded, some of the misdeeds of the robber-baron edupreneurs well known. But in a country dealing with peeping Tom journalists and expense fudging politicians, moral judgements are hard to make and always beset with doubts such as who should judge whom. One thing is clear: If education is for employability and enterprise, it will be best left to people who understand these rather than the out of touch bureaucrats and insincere politicians. Besides, whichever history was conveniently adapted to justify the all pervasive state in higher education, it was almost always a private business; interestingly indeed, the students almost never paid for their higher ed, never in full anyway, but it was private will, enterprise and innovativeness, that built the great colleges all over the world. The state-funded universities were very much a colonial innovation, and never went much beyond producing clerks for an expanding Raj. The current form of meddling education bureaucracy is only a last century invention, and indeed, one that has already, markedly, failed. Between the bureaucrats and businessmen, the latter has better track record, and more incentive, to make education work.

Then, there is India. And, China, Asia, Brazil and everywhere else, the teeming millions of young people wanting to create a better life than their parents. What would a British Academic bureaucrat, far removed in the safety of a tenured job, manicured lawns and long summer holidays, understand of that aspiration? Disinterested inquiry must meet the hunger of these individuals half way, for whom such education is not just life enhancing, but the start of a decent life itself. There are a few thousand who make it to Britain, jumping through the hurdles of the UKBA put in front of them and working through the inward looking admission systems, which indeed do not recognise any other system of education to be equivalent or comparable to Britain's. However, many millions get left out, and get labelled as 'non-genuine' students, if there is such a thing, simply because they have to support themselves by working part time while they study, or because they were not fortunate enough to go to an English medium school in their own country. This is a segment, aspirational, hard-working, at the bottom of the education pyramid, that the British universities seem not to know, and not to care, about.

However, this is exactly where Independent colleges operate. Indeed, in the past, most of them succumbed to the easy charm of making money through getting these students to UK, but not offer worthwhile education. They were not just short-changing the Home Office, but shortchanging their students as well. The better life they promised vanished with the recession, and the freedom from certain meaninglessness, which the students aspired for, were undesirably traded off for an uncertain, on the edge, experience of on-again, off-again existence of handing out newspapers on the street. Their owner-operators were the slave traders of this century. But one thing they accumulated is market knowledge and deep linkages, and the independent colleges, at least the more sincere ones among them, were closer to the people it served than those VCs who spent most time navel-gazing and wining and dining with their regional bosses.

Today's chaos, therefore, presents its own opportunity: The colleges, rightly, are being held accountable for their students' achievements, and suddenly they are back in education business. This creates a new kind if pressure, to do more and to be meaningful. Fortunately, private enterprise flourishes under exactly this kind of pressure. As the old rules are being rewritten, and recession wields its merciless whip, a reformation is under way in the sector. There are new owners and new management, but continuity in market focus and student connection, though there are new business and delivery models. Independent college sector in Britain, for long an underclass, is suddenly a hotbed of innovation, in a state akin to mid-Reformation fast approaching the thresholds of enlightenment.

In the meantime, the universities are under a different regime, operating under the very British do-not-ask, do-not-tell presumption of innocence; this is exactly the kind of lenience that sets bureaucratic institutions on the slipping slope of decline. Ivory Towers are being fortified as millions are knocking on the gate of opportunity. The VCs are indulging in their dreams of global network, but one built around the 'Ottoman sphere' and the like, configurations that no longer exist outside the history books. For them, the demand for British Education worldwide is self-fulfilling evidence of their own excellence; it is not about student aspirations and changing deliverable as any market-savvy entrepreneur will clearly see.

But this aspiration is real, the market transformation is real, the opportunity is real and the independent colleges are getting ready: Their moment in the Sun may just be around the corner.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Indeed, there is no such word as Consumerization - I just made it up to describe the process of us turning consumers. One can argue that we are all consumers now, already, the process of transformation is already over before I made up the word. However, while the consumer identity is all pervasive, the process of turning into consumers isn't over yet. Just as it seems that everything that could be 'consumerized' has been 'consumerized', a new area opens up, and the process starts in all earnestness.

However, I am not trying to arrive at a value judgement, whether it is good or bad, or should we keep doing what we are doing. The point is it is happening: Numerous transformations, citizens to consumers, students to consumers, patients to consumers, pensioners to consumers, is going on around us all the time. Zygmaunt Bauman bemoans the waning of 'producer ethic', the deferment of consumption and working to produce, and the rise of 'consumer ethic', the culture of instant gratification and private gains; however, this is what capitalism is all about, its greatest symbol and proclaimed achievement being the disappearance of bread queues and maintenance of stocked shelves.

Marx thought the terminal crisis of capitalism will come from a crisis of consumption: The sucking out of surplus value will leave the workers with too little to consume with, collectively creating a demand problem which will bring down the edifice. The system of consumption became more refined since his day: The system of credit and credit scores tried to pull everyone into a system of consumption and creation of surplus in perpetuity, at least till the credit bubble burst in 2008. And, as in other modern economic crisis, capitalism didn't die but shifted. David Harvey saw capitalism's journey of flexible accumulation, shifting geographically in a predatory search for new consumers and new areas of generation and accumulation of surplus. Consumerization is a process, however, within the developed societies, where it must expand what the traditional remit of market economy is.

This leads to a process of defining education solely for private gain, medical treatment solely for private well-being, religious service for a membership of heaven etc. Taxpayers' money, for the first time in history, becomes taxpayers' money, rather than the state's, and the citizens are expected to turn consumers and vote on how their money is spent. The creation of consumer society is a global phenomenon, but the transformation, changing our relationships with everything else we are surrounded by, is an ongoing phenomenon in every society.

Should we be concerned? Public services meant bureaucracy and sloth, lack of 'innovation' (another consumerizing process), which we have learnt to hate. However, the current encroachment of market capitalism trivialises the nation states, not a bad thing perhaps given that nation states were responsible of so much human misery in the last two hundred years. However, one would fear the passivity of the consumers, a tendency to leave rather than voicing their outrage and fighting on. As the relationship between the state and its citizens change, we shall firmly be in the 'exit' territory. Hirschmann saw the process of converting 'exit' to 'voice' as the process of creation of loyalty; the opposite, 'voice' to 'exit' is underway now, somewhat deliberately, and this may then be the start of the process of alienation.

It is only appropriate, then, that queues at the polling centres are disappearing. Citizens are checking out of their states. The great election victories are being scored with 30% who bothered to turn up. Elsewhere, the state is slowly being dissolved not in the dreamlike international governance, but in street gangs and suburban ghettos. The transformation of desire is somewhat complete: There is nothing money can't buy anymore, but there may be no one left to desire them.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

What is the College for?

It is indeed time that we ask this question and seek an answer. After all, we live in the age of, what some observers claim, an education bubble. Who would have thought, only a couple of decades back, that more education could be seen as a bad thing? However, as the college debts soar in America, and graduate unemployment keeps rising, it seems that some people will indeed go bankrupt for their education, and there is a real fear that it may pull an economy or two down. It is therefore pertinent to ask what the college does to a person, and see if it has, as an institution, any ongoing relevance in the modern society.

But, before that, let us acknowledge that it is indeed one of those big hairy questions that no one wants to answer. College is a good thing, we have come to accept. We live in a knowledge economy, we have come to accept. More education means greater productivity, and only a moron can question this assumption. Education has become key to employability, and this should be obvious to anyone with, er, education. Good education means better salaries, or at least, used to. The college is about delivering education, which enhances 'useful' knowledge and skills, which should get a person a job: Period.

However, with the benefit of the recession, as we come to see that going to college does not automatically mean getting a job. In fact, this may mean an ultimate disillusionment. Also, suddenly, there are other avenues where one could learn things. There are a number of non-college programmes one could attend. Besides, there is online: Google, YouTube, TED etc. And, now, there is something which many pundits are dubbing as the college-killer, the likes of MIT, Yale and Stanford putting up their stuff, lecture notes, videos and now even credit-bearing courses, online with no charge at all. If this does not drive people away from college, what will?

I, however, don't think the free online stuff, or the lack of jobs, will kill the college. If anything, they will enhance its appeal. While the naysayers may see lack of jobs discouraging people from going to college, collectively, humans are an optimistic species and they link getting education to future jobs and not what will happen to them today. Besides, they actually see college enhancing their marketability in the future, particularly when there is more competition for jobs. This has happened before and this will happen again. The fact that the enrolment is down in some business schools isn't indicative of people losing faith in education: It is just indicative that the said business school, or schools, were not delivering value. 

For the free online stuff, it is extremely valuable to people who have already been to college. They are the ones who are mentally prepared to look out for such stuff. When Open University started in Britain in the early seventies, the founders hoped that this would advance social justice and become the 'university of second chance'; instead, it quickly became the university of lifelong learning, with middle class college graduates flocking to top up their knowledge with something they wanted to study, but didn't manage to. This is what is happening with Open Courseware: There are school teachers studying high finance, and Army Captains studying physics. It is addressing one of the great imbalances in modern education, that to be great, great institutions have to be extremely selective, but it is hardly making college irrelevant.

This brings me to my idea of why we need college. It is not to make someone fit for a specific job, because this can only be effectively done with pre-employment or on-the-job training. It is not even about imparting knowledge or skills, because that a library should be doing, online or offline. The key function of a college to make a student, a student; to create that social environment built around learning, to encourage people to read and spend the long hours in the library, to challenge the word of the newspaper and the words of Google, to learn not to succumb to the obvious and to discover that there are more than one ways a person can get things right. The construction of student identity, built around the relationship between the student-as-person and knowledge, is the essential thing that the college does. 

I have indeed seen institutions which do not get it. These colleges are all but rows of classrooms: They believe students don't want anything but skills and 'employability'. Indeed, they get it wrong. They prepare students for jobs which no longer exist, as fast changing environment always means that one trains for yesterday's jobs. They get the meaning of 'employability' wrong: It is not about fitting a particular job spec, but being able to find jobs and keeping them (the latter being the bigger of the problems). They allow little social space, engage students little outside their timetabled hours, they challenge little and do not inspire: The conversations, in their hallways, if indeed there is a hallway, are about getting degrees. Now, these institutions are indeed being made redundant, by the twin forces of recession and online. But, the colleges which help build the student identity, which are built around knowledge and enquiry, which are designed to inspire, keep attracting more people than ever.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Art of Change

I have been intimately involved in a 'project' to change an organisation - a complex one in a highly regulated space - and I speak of the mechanics of change usually referring back to this experience. While it lasts, this has been the most demanding, frustrating yet exhilarating work I have done so far: Progress as in one step forward, two steps back was all very common, and often, we seemed to have taken forever to resolve even the most straightforward issues. Indeed, by writing about it, I am not trying to claim any breakthrough success or mastery of the art of change management. On the contrary, this is more like the dispatches from the fault lines of an organisation in transition.

I learnt to hate organisational politics for no particular reason other than because people said so. In today's cynical democracies, people in politics are typically sleazy ones, those who try to be everything to everyone, with the sole objective of making themselves rich. Statesmen are all dead and buried, and politics is no longer about public service. In that spirit, organisational politics is castigated as the art of the idle - how often did I hear the claim that people should be working and not politicking - and usually politics is seen as self-serving, value-destroying, and regressive. However, political skills, of making people work towards desired ends with the power of words and ideas, are almost the only tool anyone has to make things work in this post-bureaucratic world. The power of the position, somewhat the Weberian idyll, does not work anymore in today's complex organisations. And, in persuading people to change, the political skills are of paramount importance.

This, in a way, is the secret sauce of the leadership. However, the difference between the politics which can transform people and organisations, and the evil variety that we all love to hate, is the element, and nature, of self-interest. Indeed, changing an organisation may start with self-interest of certain kind; in my case, it was the idea of a global school which I wanted to build on the platform of the transformed institution. However, this self-interest is different in nature from the usual power, perks and position variety that make people play games, which gives organisational politics a bad name of sorts. Whatever it is though, words are often the only levers a lone individual has in mending the course of a complex organisation; once combined with ideas, and enabled by a certain disinterestedness, they can perform magic in changing the game.

The other key lesson I learnt is that one can't do it alone. It is almost always about forming coalitions of interest. This, indeed, lies at the heart of the art of politics, that of finding the believers. But, in this context, it is more than that: It is not just about finding people who believe in your dreams, but also those whose dreams you can believe in. This, in essence, defines the fine line between manipulation and empowerment, the sleazy and the noble varieties of politics that often pass as management. However, at the fault line of change, particularly when the outside world is complex and survival-threatening, such common interests and shared goals are the only things which can make a difference. One of the greatest lessons I learnt in my pursuit of change is the power of these connections; what started as a forced accommodation of others' points of views turned out to be a transformational experience, of discovering a shared plain of ideas enriched with varieties of individual imaginations and possibilities. 

So, in summary, the art of change lies in the possibilities of making connections. In my mind, it is all but obvious. It is like the brain firing new connections of neurons when it has to deal with things in a new way. For me, it was often about finding those individuals on the margins of the organisation and enabling them to play, and making connections with others with ideas. For me, at least in this particular experience, change came from outside the leader's pulpit: It came, if we must use a metaphor, from conversations, connections and ultimately, from common ideas that things can be better and different.  

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"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

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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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