Saturday, March 24, 2012

India 2020: Education, Education, Education

The Economist says it succinctly - India is losing its magic. Trapped by a petty political class who has no imagination or integrity, the country's progress is stuttering, and may come to an abrupt halt or even reverse, as in the form of a full-blown economic crisis, in the next few years. There is no leadership at sight: A leader that never arrived, as I wrote about in an earlier post. The big problem indeed is that at this time in its history, India simply can't sleep: Declining peacefully into geriatrics is not an option for a country where millions of young people are just looking to move from their villages to the cities and aspiring for a better life than their parents. End of hope will mean as a deep and bloody social upheaval, and even the break-up of the country. We are staring at the face of a disaster.

At the risk of oversimplifying the problem, I feel that today's problems stem from the same causation which has helped to keep India democratic. I am indeed alluding to Devesh Kapur's  thesis that Indian elite, being the intelligentsia and not locked to land, found it easier to migrate after the Independence, which saw a serious erosion of their power. They did not stay and resist democracy, as Pakistan's land-based elite indeed did. However, seen another way, this was the flight of knowledge and ability, which meant the Indian Higher Education system, post-independence, needed to replace this professional class quickly and effectively. However, India created a two-speed higher education system after Independence: An elite technical education infrastructure for the best and the brightest, whose graduates followed their predecessors and migrated abroad, while the general education system was left to rot, critically dependent on political whims and fancies, and open to direct political interference by various state governments and powerful politicians. If India is facing a severe lack of leadership at every level, its failure to educate and produce a new professional class and replace the elites who fled is where the blame will primarily land.

In a way, one can see this as a deliberate process - dis-enabling of the masses by the small number of people who grabbed hold of the power, various political dynasties in Delhi and other state capitals, and attained a cosy arrangement of various kinds with the small land-based elite, the industrial and minerals mafia at various industrial centres, and created an underclass of politicians solely trained on the mechanics of power. What we witness today is a break-up of this arrangement, where these various elements, after a few decades of serving the ruling classes, have now become powerful enough to claim their pound of flesh: The Indian politics, for last two decades, therefore, have been dominated by the recalibration of these relationships, and has now reached a decisive breaking point.

While it looks bleak from outside - a view The Economist article may seem to represent - it is possibly the view of the self-exiled Indian elite: A view from inside India may not be as pessimistic simply because the churn in India, creation of new opportunities for people moving one step up in life (a better life than their parents) may not have stopped. And, short of a great economic crisis, this happy story may continue to unfold, creating little joys and individual successes - though India as a whole, drifting without leadership, may miss its great global opportunity and become an also-ran country like Indonesia (and not an era-defining one like China). The problem, however, is that a great economic crisis is very much a possibility at this time, as Indian economy, in its current top-heavy form, is quite dependent on its stock market and the stability of its currency. Losing hope on India's prospects may lead to a flight of capital, which may in turn decimate the currency, and with it, the cost advantage of India's various global outsourcing firms, stalling the great middle class dream they have helped to create.

My argument is that the only way for India, and its ruling class, to escape the trap it has laid for itself is now to commit to the creation of an opportunity society. Though it may seem Utopian, there are examples in history where the ruling classes stepped back from the cliff edge with foresight and courage: India is at one such cliff edge moment. With the consensus of power-sharers breaking down, it may be possible that someone will now throw open the gate. The Congress Party, the main dynastic platform of Indian ruling class, have tried and failed to overcome its dependence on regional power-brokers and turn its focus on the villages to electoral success. However, it is not the content of the strategy - the focus on the rural poor - but how it was put in the context - at the expense of urban middle class aspirations - that may account for this failure. The public policy is not just about allocating resources, but to create a continuous stream of interventions so that the resource allocation at one end translate into prosperity for all, and by generating advancement, pay for itself in the long run. The narrow policy interventions, as in the belief in trickle-down effect in earlier generations and the trade-off between urban and rural job and opportunity creation as evidenced in recent policy, are both destined to have only limited policy impact. And, in a country like India, where the professional class is limited and its approach to polity is dominated by apathy and indifference, policies aimed at alleviating rural poverty without necessarily creating the infrastructure for job or opportunity creation, namely education and enterprise support, is destined to fail with a bang.

So, here is a slogan for the leaders in next Indian election due in 2014: education, Education, Education. Indeed, this may look like a direct copy from Tony Blair, but nonetheless, that's what the country needs and wants to hear. It is not just the middle class, but also the rural poor, who may have been given work and food, but was told to shy away from aspirations, who would want to hear the message. India's moving forward must come at the back of an education revolution, whose time has now decidedly come.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ideas For A Global College

If I am working for one thing, it is to create a truly global college, which prepares the students to take advantage of the global opportunities that are in front of us. I am conscious that there are many generalisations in that goal: The globalisation that we see is at best semi-globalisation, and the world is still a very divided space; the opportunities are still very skewed, and biased in favour of a few; and the model, education for profit, may have its own inherent biases that may change how and what the students can be prepared for. 

However, it must be said, my approach is informed by my background, and therefore, despite these apparently insurmountable challenges, I remain optimistic. I come from a suburb near Calcutta, a metropolitan city in India, but growing up in the suburb, it seemed a million miles away. I had not been out and about on my own in the big city, which was only few miles away from where I lived, till I was almost 18. Indeed, I had a fairly protected childhood, growing up in a relatively affluent environment, and was sent to a school nearby, which delivered its instructions in vernacular. I was expected to join the family business after I completed my education, of which not a lot was expected. Everything in my life, what I should do, where I should live, who I would marry, seemed predetermined at this time. However, none of that really happened. Indeed, one thing led to another, and I went on to live a very different life from what it seemed a done deal even when I was 18. However, if there is a common theme in all the events that transformed my life, that was the positive force of globalisation - my training in IT with a for-profit school, my work in business, my travelling and finally, the international expansion of businesses I work for. Despite the challenges, therefore, globalisation is a very real force for me, a positive thing; despite the scepticism, the Internet has transformed my life; and for all the right wing rhetoric in Europe and beyond, my views are shaped by travel and international business.

At the same time, I am aware that we are only at the semi-global age. Our education, in most cases, divides rather than integrates. Technologies of integration still remain on the margin, and the open commons of Internet is now increasingly divided in the walled gardens of Facebook and the like. The politician's rhetoric about the threat of the other - a cynical attempt to demonise the unknown rather than embrace it - attempts to steal the soul of globalisation, the movement of people and diffusion of culture. The education we offer, technocratic and often uncritical, is parochial and embedded within its cultural context. My life experience, of being an active participant and a product of globalisation, makes me see the enormous human potential - and because we are not yet there, the wastage of it - of globalisation. This, to me, presents the big opportunity.

The truly global opportunity, in my mind, can be unleashed by exploration of three positive forces: Creativity, Enterprise and Technology Savvy. In that order: As we have to imagine a global world first, one that is global in ideas and relationships, not just in narrow technical sense. Human globalisation is still unattained, and in fact, in the last two decades of globalisation of technology and capital, we have gone back on human globalisation. It will require a creative feat to imagine the possibilities, open our minds and embark upon an education to be a global individual (the pun is intended). Enterprise will be required to construct the global system then, within the businesses our students work for or the communities they live in, and the tools of this trade, the enabler of this globalisation, will be technology, our modern methods of transport, communication, information analysis and service. 

These three factors, forces, therefore, will be embedded in the college that I wish to build. On a practical level, the college will offer courses in Business, Education, Information Technology and Law & Governance, the four areas the battle for global humanisation is being fought. In keeping with the ethos, the college will have a global campus, a combination of a brick-and-mortar one here in London, extension facilities in Istanbul, Mumbai, Krakow, Dubai, Manila, Shanghai, Port Louis and Sao Paulo, partnerships with similar minded institutions in the United States, and an online campus underpinning this all. The students will be able to travel between campuses, indeed will be encouraged to do so: The credits for studies they have done will be portable - they can go to another campus and pick things up from where they left off in another.

This is indeed ambitious, but not a pipe-dream anymore. There are significant challenges - finance, people, regulatory approvals, issues such as language of delivery, consistency of instruction, variation in learning cultures and expectations - but, looking closer, all of these barriers are being lowered by the same force that this is purported to serve, globalisation. Indeed, in some areas, at least in terms of middle class ambitions, the world is becoming flat, though indeed in other spheres, such as political rhetoric, it is becoming more divided. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Guest Post: "What a Snob": Is Santorum Right about Higher Education?

Rick Santorum's now infamous comment in which he called Obama a snob for wanting everyone to go to college was widely criticized and ridiculed. Santorum, obviously, chose some extreme words to voice the discontents of his culturally conservative supporters—those who are likely without a college degree and are struggling to make ends meet. This is blatant pandering at its cheapest, but as someone who attended a private, top twenty university, I wonder if Santorum, in his own simple-minded way, may be onto something that makes at least a smidgeon of sense.

A recent New York Times article cut through the rhetoric to point to an indisputable truth using facts and statistics—if you are already from an affluent family, you will do well in college; if you aren't from an affluent family, you are much less likely to enroll, and even if you do, you are much less likely to graduate. The reasons for this are various, and much of it has to do with the astronomically rising cost of college tuition. Now most universities do make concessions for admitted students who come from lower-income families. Many offer impressive financial aid packages to families who cannot afford the cost. According to the NYT article, however, grants are becoming fewer and far between, while loans, which can sink students, low-income ones especially, knee-deep in a lifetime of debt, have become substantially more popular.

Going beyond the statistics, there's another problem I see with institutions of higher education, selective colleges especially, that directly causes this reproduction ad inifinitum of an insulated, privileged class that may have a degree but has little understanding or concern for the world around them. And that's the student culture that many of these institutions, whether knowingly or not, breed. In my experience at a supposedly "top" school, learning was reduced to an obsessive focus on only making the grade, and not necessarily absorbing new concepts or ideas. Some of the most intelligent people I've ever met in my life talked only about their future careers in investment banking or whatever industry would make them the most amount of money as soon as they graduated.

Anti-intellectualism in America has had a long history, as evidenced by Richard Hofstatder's breathtaking classic work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. While this pervasive cultural attitude toward intellectual pursuits is one that will be difficult to overcome, I do believe that the resentment that Santorum tapped into by calling college-educated people "snobs" has less to do with criticizing scholarship as it has to do with criticizing this entrenched attitude in which the university system becomes a manufacturer of a privileged class that cares only for money and power.

Universities can stop their path to becoming essentially snob factories once they make a concerted effort to recruit hard-working, intelligent students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and make the cost affordable, instead of merely paying lip service to "diversity." More than just this, universities must also focus on diversity of thought, and a return to what a university education once stood for—a place where students came together with professors to learn how to think for themselves.


By-line:

This guest post is contributed by Angelita Williams, who writes on the topics of online courses. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: angelita.williams7 @gmail.com.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Students As Consumers

We have lately discovered that the students want to be consumers. In Britain, where the Government is trying to put the students at the heart of the system by raising, in some cases three-fold, the fees they pay for higher education, the pitch is rather acute. Everyone concerned, including the universities, seem to believe that by this strange play of fate, where the students have to assume the costs of their own education, they will suddenly become consumers; ironically, this means they will turn rather passive - as the consumers do - and disengaged, and expecting the education services to be delivered to them. The manifestation of this belief is plastered everywhere, from what the government counts as the most important aspects of education (contact time, graduate employment rate etc), to what the bureaucrats mandate as the measures of quality of education (adequate and accurate information, communicating what is to be delivered and ensuring the delivery of what is expected), and to what the institutions themselves believe are important, like student experience, which is rather nebulously defined to include whatever goes on in the campus, including the food in student cafeteria.

This idea is so widespread that it is difficult to challenge it. In fact, I rather uncritically accepted it at first, and wanted to do a research on how this will change the practises of university teaching. However, the question that stopped me was students have become consumers as opposed to what: I did not have a clear answer. An easy way to theorise was after Zygmunt Bauman, who wrote about society of consumers as opposed to the society of producers, the idea of instant gratification against deferment of enjoyment. However, while the idea may ring true in the context of wider society, the whole concept of studentship - going to college rather than doing something more enjoyable - may be all about deferment of enjoyment. While some theoreticians of Higher Education may see the tyranny of 'learning objectives' as proof that the education has become a commodity, students have done nothing to initiate the transformation. Seen this way, they are at the receiving end and are being repositioned as consumers, and as I would claim, the idea of studentship is being changed by the institutions that define them.

The students want the degree and a good job in the end. May be. But that does not make them consumers. That makes them, well, students. The students of all ages would have done that: Just that the people who went to the university before the age of mass Higher Education did not need a job in the same way or form today's students do. They went on to run their family businesses or to farther its political prospects : Their families, which paid for the education in most cases, want the candidate to be appropriately educated. If that did not make them consumers, today's students can not be denigrated as consumers by the same token.

It is rather the transformation at the institutional end which is significant. While the students may follow a similar life - may be they party less at this time of austerity and worry more in this era of joblessness - a consumer identity is being imposed upon them. They are supposed to receive, not demand. They would be given the information, and if a job waits for them in the end, they should consider themselves lucky. The education is all about experience - they are being told - than about transformation: So brace yourself for a ride as if you are in a theme park. Rather like womanhood which has been repositioned to be synonymous with the shape of the body, studentship is defined not by its inherent possibilities but by its limits.

Everyone indeed should be happy with this: Repositioning students as consumers is one thing the incumbent state could do to ensure social sterilisation at the time when prisons are full and there are no jobs in the military. Today's bureaucratic universities, endowed with good money and good sense by those who run the state, would much rather be the reproductive organ for workers and service providers for the students as consumers, rather than becoming the hotbeds of personal transformation and other dangerous businesses. The students, just as the working classes have been sold a dream of home ownership and spend their lives toiling to pay for it, are expected to fall in line, not least because of the debt they must assume for the privilege of the servitude.

However, the redeeming thing is that they remain - yes - students. They still study and discover. The student work becomes a form of knowledge, as Basil Bernstein discovered with such clarity. As Theodore Zeldin would remark - they changed the subject of the conversation the rulers wanted them to have. They participate through a conscious subversion, just by being themselves, keeping their dreams alive, just by the simple acts of reading, talking, writing or in some cases, by dropping out. They remain in control, as students in other ages also did, they shape their own experiences. From close quarters, one action at a time, they make the hegemonic discussion about student consumerism meaningless.

A Note on Independent Colleges in Britain

In a sense, the independent higher education sector in Britain is incapable of thinking. Having spent some time in the sector, talking to and pleading with various entrepreneurs, I have come to the sad conclusion that this very entrepreneurial sector may be too opportunistic. I have no issues with opportunism, and understand that this is a necessary trait for entrepreneurs: But, there are times, and we are at such a juncture right now, when strategic thinking and that 'vision' thing is somewhat needed. Plain opportunism, at times like this, creates a sort of thought paralysis.

To be fair, most of the colleges in the sector are owned and run by owner-operators. Professional management is quite rare, and the businesses are quite small compared to their impact. This is the key reason why the capacity to think big and bold is rare, and strategy mostly means tinkering around the edges rather than any meaningful approach to the future. However, at this juncture, strategy is no longer one more thing to think of - as most college leaders treat it to be - but quite the key to continued survival of the sector. 

This is primarily because of the visa rule changes, which has made Britain a less attractive destination, and the burden of these changes has fallen disproportionately on the independent colleges. Students studying in these colleges can not work, can not bring their dependents, can not have an internship, can only do certain types of courses, must have an almost endless flow of money available to them at all time and finally will have no rights to settle, or even stay for while after their studies, in Britain. The policy-makers fundamentally altered the landscape to reallocate a space to Independent colleges they were so far unaccustomed with, that of the service of rich and the famous, may be assisted by oil wealth: This was the territory of elite British universities so far, and will indeed remain so. The traditional territory for Independent colleges - the middle class middle ability international students who can't afford to get into British universities initially but were pulled no less by the aspiration - was wiped off by these changes. The enrolment figures, thereafter, have dropped by at least 60% in almost all colleges, and while various improvised arrangements are being made by different institutions, students remain highly sceptical and no discernible lift-off has happened anywhere so far.

The response in the independent sector has primarily been two-pronged. First, there is a scramble for what the UK Border Agency calls 'Highly Trusted Sponsor' status, a sort of arrangement where the college demonstrates the robustness and sustainability of their processes, and the UK Border Agency, once satisfied, grants them a little relaxation on what they can or can not do. This still does not earn its students work rights or any comparable privileges as in a public institution, but it lets them continue to recruit students internationally. However, since every college has to be Highly Trusted Sponsor to continue, this much coveted status has now become like having electricity: You need to have it, but if you have it, it does not create a competitive advantage. 

The other response was to pursue the 'Home' students. There is an assumption that there are lots of British students who are not finding an university to go to, and independent colleges can service this excess demand. This is a valid strategy, as the independent sector often works as demand-absorbent in other countries. However, in Britain, the excess demand is lower than one would imagine, and even the demographic bulge that is creating it now will level off in 2015. Indeed, the independent colleges can service emergent areas of demand, or specialised fields, but their efforts to recruit the usual business studies students have so far gone nowhere. This problem was further accentuated by the fact that most independent colleges were heavily focused, at least so far, on postgraduate programmes, which are popular among international students: This did not translate at all into 'home' student market. 

At this time, sobriety is returning to the sector as the effects of the visa changes start settling in. Many colleges are closing shop, unfortunately leaving their students disenfranchised, but at the same time, there is a growing consensus in favour of self-regulation and creation of safeguards for the students, and a reinvention of the products and ways of doing business. In the new climate, innovation is the key. While many independent colleges I know of are prepared to sit out this year with the hope that normalcy will return in 2013, they can not afford to sit still. The idea of a college is changing: Interrogating what an independent college stands for and providing a clear answer may be the way to start for independent colleges. They have to innovate their way out of trouble and reinvent the business altogether.    


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Marching To The Past: Idle Reflections In Recessionary Times

Dreaming can be helpful: It keeps one awake.

Particularly when life gets too dark, the possibilities dim, the opportunities obscure, the only thing left for us is a Halogen dream, which lights up everything, just like a sole lighting stand in the middle of barren fields.

Jobless numbers go up and down. Greeks never really rescue themselves. People always kill people in Afghanistan. The Iranians don't tweet anymore. India loses way in corruption. Japan is still radioactive. Americans confused, busy to burn books. The leaders seem to be using up all their vocabulary, the politicians running low on charm. But life still goes on.

Dreaming is the only time one can think time moves linearly, ahead. That is swiftly dispelled by morning newspapers, which seem to recycle headlines from their archives. If Fashion comes back every twenty years, the news reappears every fifty days perhaps. We still make same mistakes. We still moan the same way. We still get slaughtered, swindled, sinned against. But we still go home and dream, and think we progressed.

If this sounds too dark, it isn't meant to be. Blood circulates, and that keeps life going. Money goes around, and makes the world go around in turn. Moving forward starts with moving. But sideways one can move, even backwards: To the past. But who decides what's moving backwards? In life's museum, past is in front of us, as in our thoughts, newspapers and in education. That's not regressive: In fact, the whole notion of progress may only be a mirror image of the past beyond newspapers' memory.

Indeed, you could argue the meaning of anything is meaningless, as they are meant to be. For example, one can say the meaning of life is achieved only in death, because that's when we are truly missed. The end signifies the being, but at that point, we are no longer there. So, writing this - which gives me enormous pleasure - is as meaningful as anything, even if these are just meaningless symbols stacked against each other. Except that, in the sequence, I did embed a purpose - to celebrate the missing of meaning.

Right at this moment, someone's life ends. Someone returns home jobless. A child cries. A champagne bottle is opened for someone. A girl kisses someone, may be her boyfriend. A woman kisses someone, may be her son. Someone waves goodbye. A door opens, someone comes home. I can be here, there. I think I know where I would want to be - a dream - but where I am is completely arbitrary. All meaning is only the rationalisation of idle mind, an illusion of being the master of our universe, but, at the same time, an admission of our fragility, a desperate attempt to hide the randomness of what happened. Earth-shattering events all, watershed moments, but life goes on elsewhere, undaunted, unstirred. The parade of words, letters, march on relentless, and stops only if we do - to celebrate, to love, to sob or to die. The only time we are outside this machine is when we dream.

Brain Science will tell us that it is only an illusion that we are in charge. We think we know what we are doing, but it is mostly the mechanics of our unconscious, the animal brain which we thought we surpassed and buried, which control us, make us do things. What we do thereafter is rationalize, build an illusion of reason why we did what we did. What appears to be moving forward is actually going around, what lies in future is actually the shape of our past, the real shaped by a dream. Unconscious tells our brain to reject gloominess - we insist to believe - and overcome facts. Dreaming, in the normative sense, is no longer the poets' preserve; it is the territory of the scientist today.

So, hail our age of turgid triviality, of the narrow materialism, of the imagined death of imagination. For all our claims of rationality, even the word literal is a metaphor. The world newspaper brings to our home is an imagined one, as imagined as the one I think of right now, no more real than utopia. The illusion of meaning obscures the possibilities of imagination, which shouldn't go on for longer.

Here, this moment, a dream is started. It bears no meaning. But it was meant to be.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

From Agents to Brands: Changing the Marketing for Independent Higher Education in UK

Traditionally, UK universities and colleges, alongside their counterparts from Australia and elsewhere, depended on agents, or education advisers, to recruit students in the international markets. This model works beautifully: The agent brings the local knowledge and personal touch students need while making the big, transformational decision in their lives. It also works well commercially: The institutions pay a commission, usually 10% to 20% of the first payment the student makes, to the agent, a good sum of money in many countries, and being paid after the registration is secured, is good in cash flow terms too.

However, while the benefits are obvious, the problems of this model are increasingly becoming apparent. Over-dependence on the agents usually results in the institution becoming distant, not closer, from their target markets. The agents often work for a number of institutions, and auction off applicants to the highest bidder, which may not be the most appropriate institution from the students' point of view. Being the gatekeeper - as they make the first hand judgements about a student's suitability - and the beneficiary of the admissions process, there was always a conflict of interest which many agents failed to resolve. Finally, because the agency model is so profitable, institutions, and particularly the independent colleges, used this as a sole channel for recruitment, giving away too much leverage to the agents, which led them to dictate terms in most cases.

As the UK Higher Education in general and the Independent college sector in particular reach an inflection point, time has come to interrogate the agency model and evolve better practises. The abuses are indeed too apparent: A number of agents in different countries have been found guilty of malpractices, ranging from helping students to forge documents, depositing money to the students for a short term (for an exorbitant fee) for representation purposes in their visa application, falsifying English Language test results to outright human trafficking, giving the whole practise, and the sector, a bad name. This is what brought the disproportionate attention of the UK Border Agency on the Independent College sector, and while there are some colleges still hiding their heads in the sand and expecting to return to business as usual in a few months time, there is a widespread acceptance in the sector that things have indeed changed and a new model will have to emerge.

Indeed, the solution is quite straightforward, with established templates from other industries. As the easy money flowed in through the agents, the institutions forgot to develop their distinctive brand identities and hawked the 'Made in the UK' label instead. While the markets were expanding, it did not matter: Almost everyone was doing better than earlier, and no one bothered to question the practise. But, as the gates have been effectively closed by UK Border Agency and certain parts of the business have completely disappeared, this is a moment to return to brand, and to the familiar terrain of company reputation, product differentiation, customer service etc. 

Going forward, this will possibly be a hybrid model. The benefits of local agencies are undeniable, but the institutions will now have to engage proactively in the markets they want to recruit from, rather than responding to agents walking through the door. Exclusive, value-added relationships with a new generation of agents, those who are not just recruitment shops but education organisations themselves, would possibly be the way it would pan out. However, we would surely see scholarships and bursaries, entrance examinations, education fairs and seminars, outreach efforts, alumni network building, instead of fatalistic dependence on agency network that we have seen before. 

This is part of the 'professionalization' of the sector and this was bound to happen at some point of time. It is better for UK Higher Education as a whole that this happens now, rather than later.


Defining Standards in Independent Higher Ed Sector: 1

This is the best and the worst of time for Independent colleges in the UK. Never before the sector has seen so much investor interest, given its long term potential. At the same time, it has never been subject to such harsh regulation, and a complete transformation of the marketplace in such a short span of time. Many independent colleges closed down since October 2011; some others were forced to close by UK Border Agency. Some others are still going on in the hope that their Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status with UK Border Agency will help them garner a price in the ongoing M&A activities in the sector. Once this illusion is dispelled, which it will be in a few months time, there will be even more closures.

At this time, pretending that everything is just the same is an act of madness. While the shape of change is somewhat unclear and emergent at this moment, it is certain that things are going to change, and the sector needs to prepare for it. Some of these changes are relatively easy to anticipate, like that the sector will be dominated by companies of certain size and scale, and that the ownership structure of the sector - currently dominated by owner-operators - is going to change.This is expected to change the industry - the new Professional Managers will surely seek to establish different operating practises and scale up the businesses adequately which was not possible earlier - but it will take some time to build the students' confidence in the sector. I suspect even when the colleges meet the regulatory criteria of UK Border Agency and its other requirements, the sector will still have to work hard to earn the students' trust, both locally and globally.

Despite the trend towards consolidation, very little is being so far done towards this. The only way to gain credibility and trust is to create an effective regulatory system and fully submit to it. The regulatory system that Independent colleges submitted to so far was ineffective, and the proposed system of dual control through UK Border Agency Highly Trusted Sponsor Status, which focuses on how the colleges manage their international students, and review by Quality Assurance Agency, which involves how the colleges service the students, fail to go beyond the surface. Besides, the starting point of both these regulatory regimes is compliance to the system, mainly from an immigration control point of view, and it will leave out critical issues like the continuity and stability of the institution, relevance and currency of its curriculum and deliverable, and employability and progression of the students it taught. In a way, the requirements set by the current regulatory regime is based on a mistaken assumption that the independent sector will only ever service the international students, and is triggered by the presumption that every independent college is a 'visa college' indeed.

I am not suggesting that these requirements are meaningless - surely a college needs to recruit the right students and manage them adequately - but this kind of regulation is unlikely to generate any student confidence in the sector. In fact, once the dust settles - as it will at the end of 2012 - having an UKBA Highly Trusted Sponsor status and 'Confidence' in the limited review that QAA will carry out, will be like having access to electricity. It will be necessary, but no longer sufficient for survival. Further, these are not any excellence benchmarks anyway and will fall short of the expectations of the students, who are information savvy and demanding anyway.

This effectively means that the sector must set independent benchmarks and create a system of self-regulation, which must, given the severity of the problem, go beyond the cosmetic and offer substantial guarantees and safeguards to the students, local or international. This may mean creating some sort of guarantee for the students in case of an institutional failure, a reality in independent sector, which could be done through collaborative arrangements and collective insurance. This should also lead to the establishment of a code of practise, covering areas like how the agents are rewarded, a body to arbitrate student complaints, an ethical standard for public information and also how the academic staff is employed and rewarded. Indeed, one may go beyond and create awards and benchmarks for quality systems and performance standards, but this will surely follow.

Being at the sharp end, I feel the necessity of doing this immediately and effectively. However, the sector is fragmented and the practises are still quite immature. Besides, there are very few independent colleges who may end up on the other side of the tunnel, and hence, this may all become a question of timing. However, one thing is certain - the independent college sector must now aspire to go beyond the minimum and set standards of expectation for itself.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Day 1/100: My Adventures in the Margins of Higher Ed

Four events marked my rather remarkable day. 

First, a colleague pointed out that Professor Malcolm Gillies, the Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University, mentioned this blog in his opinion piece in Times Higher Education. I am indeed a huge fan of Professor Gillies, and see him as a transformational leader leading what used to be a troubled university to excellence. Him mentioning this blog, particularly what was a particularly impulsively written post is both exhilarating and unnerving for me.

Second, it seemed that I am winning the argument in favour of 'big strategy' at work. Independent Higher Education in Britain is at a crossroad, and there are a million reason why a private college should downsize, or shut shop. However, it is also clear to see the big opportunity beyond the horizons. One can see the clampdown on student visas can't last forever, and once the government has cleared out the majority of 'bogus' colleges, which they must do and have been quite successful at doing so far, they have to open up the field for all legitimate providers. The trick is to see through this period and emerge on the other side of the tunnel. However, just surviving and being legitimate will not do: The independent college sector must have a reason to exist. I have been doing some work defining this 'big strategy' at work. It has been a continuous see-saw, and at times, it seemed like we were all ready to hang our boots. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the UK Higher Education will look a lot less monolithic in two years time than it is today, and the space for different kinds of providers is almost certain to open up. This is the redeeming force behind the strategy I am recommending - that we take bold decisions and attempt to define the field - drawing inspiration from, among others, the work Professor Gillies is doing at London Metropolitan University.

Third, work on my dissertation, which had to endure another quite intense cross-examination with my tutor, underwent another reversal. I could see my arguments - that the student as a consumer transforms the process of education and results in alienation of students - were going nowhere. My tutor was not ready to accept that the students have become consumers, that very passive creature who is always ordered around by the invisible whip of the marketer. Instead, his perspective was that the student was the appropriator, someone actively seeking to meet his/ her own ends. Moreover, he thought that was always the case. Midway into the conversation, I could see two perspectives emerging at the same time. First, I may be buying, rather uncritically, what the newspapers say. That the students have not become consumers nor would want to be, but the policy-makers and the media, and everyone else, are trying to fit them into a mould. The easiest mould to fit them into is that of a consumer, particularly as they are expected to pay, and carry debt, for education. It is rather we want them to be consumers rather than they really wanting to become one. Besides, the institutions may have started treating them as consumers, but the student, sitting in the middle of all this, is possibly, quietly, subverting all of it, following his/her own agenda rather than the one imposed by the society on them. However, it is equally plausible that my tutor, sitting within the settings of one of the most respected universities in the UK, can't see the student consumers at all. It is his own educational experience, and people who he will come in touch with, is somewhat triggering his question whether students have changed at all. And, with these two questions, I was immediately in that swampy territory which I have now come to recognise as the breeding ground for education: A feeling that I don't know which starts the process of knowing.

Finally, in the evening, I was at the RSA listening to Stefan Collini laying out what the universities are for. In his supremely articulate formulation, the universities are that final bastions of intellectual freedom where the independent scholarly enquiry could be carried out without having to meet the incessant and short term demands of practical ends. He is quick to point out the diverse nature of the university - an institution which is different from a business or the governmental organisation - and warned that attempting to mould it to the shape of either may end in the loss of vitality and purpose that the successful modern universities have come to embody. He painted an illuminating picture of a 'Faustian Pact' between the society and the university, the point being the society sets up the university for various practical purposes and grant it intellectual freedom which it must invariably require to attain these ends, but pursuit of this freedom invariably means that the university would go beyond the practical requirements. It was a fascinating end to my rather strange day of looking at Higher Education from different perspectives.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Day 0/100: Ideas of Progress

When one thinks about progress, the images that come to mind may be of moving forward on a straight road, or moving up a flight of stairs, or a level on the elevator. But, with experience, it really feels like a subtle dance sequence, which may mean only going around in the same confined space, but with a set of nuanced steps, forward and sideways, performed with purpose. It is not the distance covered but the impact created that seems to matter, and often, the movements seem less relevant to the message left behind.

It may be that I think this way because of my training in humanities rather than science, my native space being in libraries rather than laboratories. Stefan Collini makes an interesting point about how they represent different ideas of progress. In the laboratory, the past is behind us and a search for the future is all that matters. In the library, and equally in the museums, the past is in front of us and preparing the minds with the past, for an unknown and unknowable future, is all that matters.

At this time, I am inextricably caught between these various perspectives and is trying to make sense of various options available. Two years ago, I wanted to have some experience of Higher Education 'industry' as I wanted to use technology to make higher education affordable and accessible. That point of time, I had a somewhat straightforward view: I saw the walled garden of knowledge inside the Western universities, and thought access to this knowledge can change the lives of the people across the world - and thought information technology, with which I am familiar, presented the perfect solution to this problem.

Two years of being in the sharp end, as well as studying the field consciously, has altered these perspectives. First, I have come to realize that technology isn't value neutral: It wouldn't just transport education to where it is needed, but would change it irreversibly. These changes wouldn't just be superficial and manifested in design of learning as such, which would have been non-controversial. However, the implementation of technology goes deeper than this, and may make education look like an object - information rather than a process of transformation - to be consumed rather than lived through.

I am also having to question whether this transformation will be more fundamental, that of values and outcomes of education, and whether spreading Western Education to meet the demands of developing nations is actually an act of collaboration in spreading the consumer values, rather than that of freedom and inquiry. It is timely that Olugbemiro Jegede, the Founding VC of the Open University of Nigeria, is talking about ending the 'slave trade' in education. I am at a somewhat similar point of realization that possibly one can not transport an education from one society to another, and the act of doing so is an act of cultural impoverishment of the recipient society and the implication will not be to create new capacities but subjugation of one thought to another.

However, truth be told, I rather like to be in this confusion, which, seen another way, can be defined as the process of knowing. This, I shall argue, a sort of progress: I have not just learned a trade with two years of involvement and work, but decided to interrogate my starting assumptions. It now seems, with reflection, I believed too much in my own sales pitch - that learning technologies are the solution to all the learning problems there is - and have not critically engaged with the issue at hand. I am doing this now.

Time is short, though, as I reach a critical juncture in my career. The two years I allocated myself to be inside Higher Education, before I take the entrepreneurial leap, is almost over. I am therefore engaging myself in a new 100 day plan - a plan to transform my life, work, relationships, learning and health - and hope that living through this, rather than reaching some kind of epiphany, which is bound to be temporal, is the best way I can move forward.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Evaluating Opportunities in For-Profit Education

I attended a seminar, hosted by EducationInvestor, a trade journal specialising in For-Profit Education investing, yesterday. The diversity of attendees was interesting: There were people from Private Equity, education providers looking for capital injection, few potential trade buyers and even David Hughes, the Chief Executive of NIACE, the charity doing pioneering research in various areas of education and learning. 

Overall, a very interesting afternoon, which reconfirmed my views about the excitement around the For-Profit education. However, there were also some new insights to be taken away. 

I felt the investor community isn't still sure about the For-Profit Higher Education opportunity. There is huge premium being paid for degree granting institutions, and as a happy coincidence, it was announced at the event, Montague Capital closed the deal for College of Law, a Not For Profit degree granting institution, on the day. The strategy generally seemed to be to create a cluster of institutions, with one degree granting institution at the core perhaps. However, as one in the audience pointed out, since there are only very limited number of private institutions in Britain which can grant degrees, and too much money will be chasing these institutions, there is every possibility that a bubble may form and one may end up paying too much for the privilege of degree awarding power.

However, how much value the degree granting power will bring is not clear. Though this seems to indicate a level of freedom and flexibility at the surface, the government is not writing blank cheques to private institutions, at least, not yet. The charter to grant degrees will be reviewed every five years, so even the degree granting capability remains susceptible to changes in political climate. Also, it has to be maintained at a huge cost. It is already being argued that the For Profit universities don't do enough research to justify the labelling and this debate is likely to intensify in future. It should be clear that private universities will not do much research, because it is not part of their business model. The raison d'etre of For-Profit education is to meet the surging demand for higher education as mass higher education takes hold in every society. However, research will always be seen as central to what the university does, and will be a key factor in getting degree-granting status. However, this is at best a distraction for institutions which wants to make money by teaching; at worst, the fetish about degree awarding power can destroy value and render some of these institutions meaningless.

I also think the private equity is missing a trick on assessing the For Profit education opportunity. The For Profit Higher Education companies in the United States are very profitable, but their business models may not be replicable. Part of this is timing issue: At a time of austerity, the fact that these institutions receive a lot of public money has generated quite a bit of debate. This is coming to Britain: The favourite slogan of the detractors of private education has been that this will mean diverting the money required at the nation's public universities to private providers and allowing them to make a profit, which is unlikely to be very popular. The General Secretary of the National Union of Students (NUS) has already warned the government of an 'NHS Moment', he was referring to the angry public reaction to the plans to divert money from National Health Service (NHS) to private providers, and a scandal involving a large back-to-work training company, A4E, has dominated the national news in the last couple of weeks. The balance sheets of US For Profit Higher Ed clearly reveals that the university status isn't very profitable if the public subsidies are removed from the equation; the investors in Britain can hardly count upon receiving much public money over a sustained period of time.

And, finally, degrees are about prestige, and I am not sure private equity's time horizon or expectations are in line with what will be required to create that prestige. One is possibly talking about multitude of decades here. But, most importantly, prestige, as it is currently construed, is all about selectivity, and the mission of private colleges - that of serving the middle income middle ability non-traditional students who can't usually make it to the top universities - is at odds with the quest for selectivity. Again, this is one area where we do not have an existing model - Harvard may have prospered as a private college, but it was from a different era - and creating prestige required to make the degree award meaningful is surely outside the private equity's planning horizon.

Indeed, the alternate model of For-Profit colleges offering degrees from a public university has its downside. It is dependent on the changes in the university's political climate, as the overnight decimation of University of Wales' network of centres have shown. However, one can avoid such trouble by choosing one's partners carefully and doing what's needed to keep the partnership healthy and trusting. However, such relationships can have huge upside: A close and trusting relationship can let a private college take advantage of the university's prestige, maintain the flexibility of awards and yet avoid the attendant costs. Accepted that nation's top 30 universities may not want a relationship like this at all, but the universities at the middle tier are perfect for the opportunities private colleges are pursuing.

In this context, one can contrast two private colleges in Britain, Greenwich School of Management and London College of Accountancy, which, at one point, was pursued by the same private equity fund, Sovereign Capital, at the same time. Finally, Sovereign decided to buy GSM over LCA, primarily because GSM had more local UK students (and the student visa changes were meant to affect them less) as a proportion of their student population (while LCA had more students). LCA had a close and long standing relationship with Anglia Ruskin University, and was able to create courses, such as Bachelor's degrees which can be delivered over two years instead of three. GSM had a relationship with Plymouth University, which is higher ranked than Anglia Ruskin, and offered their degrees. The other reason for preferring GSM was that they were on the road to degree granting authority, whereas LCA was not there yet. However, at the hindsight, LCA's size and close relationship with the university has played out better: Since the LCA students are sponsored by the university, they evade the visa restrictions, quotas as well as privileges for the students, altogether. On the other hand, GSM, is rethinking whether degree granting privileges are worth the trouble, and whether anyone would want to have the Greenwich School of Management degree instead of a Plymouth degree.

Also, at the center of GSM versus LCA debate was the uniquely British notion of Home versus International student debate. Indeed, the Home students look attractive because there is no visa headache for them. However, they have the option of taking out a subsidised, income contingent, student loan. They are likely to be far more price-aware and demanding than international students. And, finally, the opportunity is far more temporal than it seems: We are currently facing a population bulge but this is likely to level out in 2015. The international student market, in contrast, is growing, and the international students are more likely to attach a premium to British Education and pay more. Indeed, from an educator's point of view, there is nothing more meaningless than the home-versus-international student talk. London Metropolitan University, possibly the most forward thinking university in Britain at this time, has recently stopped using the terms, and common sense will lead everyone in the industry to move in the same direction. Private equity needs to wake up to this changing marketplace: The premium should be paid for international partnerships and innovation, rather than home students.

Overall, it is clear to see that this is a business with huge possibilities but no entrenched player and tried-and-tested business model. My takeaway from the seminar was the excitement about the huge innovation opportunity there is: It is not the biggest, the most established or the most powerful, but the one most adaptable, nimble and innovative that will win in this industry. I left assured that we are in the right race.

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