Wednesday, August 29, 2012

London Metropolitan University: UKBA's Moment of Truth

One would have considered the events surrounding the suspension of London Metropolitan University as a farce, if its tragic consequences were not so obvious. To recount the events, the University was visited by UKBA in March, subsequent to which its Tier 4 License, which allows the university to recruit students from outside the EU, was temporarily suspended on the 20th of July. The university was reportedly audited again in the first weeks of August, and then a report appeared in Sunday Times on the 26th August, quoting a leak and reporting that the license has now permanently been revoked. In a bizarre twist, then, on the 29th August, BBC reported that UKBA is yet to make a decision, while the university reported that they are inundated with hundreds of calls from worried students and their parents. Coming right in the middle of recruitment season, this is going to have a significant financial impact: The university says that it would potentially create a funding gap of over £10 million.

This, as I have commented in an earlier post, will have enormous impact on the perception of British Higher Education abroad. London Metropolitan, unbeknown to the people in the Government, carries a greater weight than its rankings may suggest: It has a high name recognition abroad. Besides, if a publicly funded university is barred from taking international students, and worse, if its legitimate students are suddenly disenfranchised and told to go home, which student and parent abroad will trust any of the lesser known British universities (Coventry, Derby, Staffordshire, West of England, Lincoln, all fine universities in their own domain, as examples)?

However, this post, like my earlier posts on the subject, is not about LondonMet. It is about UKBA. The flip-flop over this decision was both symptomatic of its dysfunction (they issue this statement on Wednesday, after the news broke on Sunday - are they kidding?) or a recognition of the mess that they have got into. [UKBA published the notification and then removed the story, but now LondonMet has confirmed this on their website]

Is it too optimistic now to think that this will prompt a review of the whole system? May be it is, to expect common sense from a government beholden to PR men and the beauty of their own rhetoric; however, this is a real moment of truth, in the education sector at least. The UKBA, chasing a political soft target and in the impractical quest to fulfil a loose promise made during electioneering, forgot what the role of the agency in a modern economy should be. Its actions are driven by a 'Fortress Britain' mentality, with a vaguely conjured up armada of immigrants floating somewhere in the Channel. However, if Britain has to progress and prosper, it needs to be the nation's talent management agency: proactive and welcoming to people who contribute to the knowledge and prosperity of the nation, yet protecting the system from abuse. This needs smarter implementation, greater human intelligence and better coordination with industries, civil society and the universities, the curators of knowledge and skills in the modern society. In reality, indeed, this is far from what the agency is doing.

One would think this unbelievable fiasco about LondonMet, where the Vice Chancellor gets to learn about the news from a Sunday Newspaper and one public agency blames another public body to be a 'threat to immigration control' all too publicly, will bring back some sense into this debate. UKBA has created a set of laughably impractical rules and set themselves up as an education regulator without the knowledge, the resources or the will to be one: All that happened to the unfortunate London Metropolitan students is an all too predictable breakdown of the system, at the first reality check, so to say. That way, despite the bizarreness of the circumstances, it was only natural that UKBA seemed confused and lost : They have, in probability, started realising the implications of the system they have themselves created.

Universities are straw men in Britain, linked to privilege and elitism, and somehow not seen as those cathedrals of aspiration as it is seen in most other countries. It is neither loved nor loathed; in the public psyche, barring some odd student protests, they are banned to indifference. The fact that this debate is going to affect the image of all British universities is unlikely to create a stir, therefore. However, it is possibly time to wake up from the country slumber and start seeing the world as it is: A place shaped by knowledge, ideas and talent, competitive but built on interconnections. Nostalgic as he might have been, Danny Boyle needed all the talent and technological excellence of modern Britain to showcase its past to the world: However, we should not drink the past splendour too heavily, pass the Danny Boyle test and know our place in the modern world.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

London Metropolitan University: Lessons For Everyone

The Home Office has revoked the Tier 4 License of London Metropolitan University and branded it 'a threat to immigration control', Sunday Times reports.

Here is an university always in the news. It got its entire board of governors sacked only a couple of years back. However, it was popular and highly visible. It was fined in successive years for over-recruitment. It was criticised for not changing, and then for trying to change too much, as a new Vice Chancellor and his team tried to turn the university around. No wonder some of the commentators are now labelling it a 'controversial' university.

Thus far, it is simple: A faltering university fell foul of the regulators. Going by the report, it allowed students whose visas expired to attend classes. It did not report students who got visa and failed to show up to enrol. It did not properly assess the students' English. So on and so forth, a list of all-too predictable sins have already been laid out.

Clearly, the university got it wrong. These are serious omissions in the day and age of a punitive immigration regime. Beyond procedural concerns, there is always a legitimate concern that such negligence can quickly turn into a national security issue. 

These issues have already been highlighted in the media and would be discussed (hopefully, unless the very British 'never embarrass' rule intervenes) in the coming days. The university has to look closely into the management of students, and have to tighten some parts of its administration. But, there are other, less obvious issues arising from this saga, which I intend to highlight here.

First, London Metropolitan University is unusually well-known outside Britain's borders. Its reputation exceeds its ranking, I suspect, primarily because of its name. An average student abroad, and this day and age, average student is the one who is fuelling the global growth of student mobility, would know about London Metropolitan but may consider University of Surrey, a highly respected research university, an unknown quantity. The point is that the suspension of London Metropolitan may have far reaching impact on its peers, as far as the perception of overseas students are concerned.

Which brings us to the next point, which is that it is important how this process is actually carried out. Initial media reports suggested that since the license is revoked, the 2800 overseas students at the university will have to find a new institution or have to leave the country within 60 days. One would hope that this is not correct, because this will have enormous negative impact and shake the students' confidence in the UK universities altogether. Here are a set of students who enrolled in a well-known public university, paid their fees and attended their classes: Throwing them out of the university into an uncertain future for no fault of their own is not just unfair, it will be an indictment of the whole UK Higher Education system and its regulators. 

Third, I did predict, in an earlier post, that once UKBA catches up with an university, it will find it difficult to untangle itself, because the UKBA requirements are impractical in the first place. Most UK universities will fall foul of one or more of the provisions, and it is impossible to follow all its provisions without changing the established practices in the universities (which is near impossible, as the universities mostly follow the tongue-in-cheek rule set by Cambridge classicist F M Cornford, 'Nothing should ever be done for the first time') or increasing the cost significantly. It is impossible to see how the universities will, for example, increase the teaching hours to 15 hours a week, which is required by UKBA for international students, from its current 6 to 9 hours, without changing the lifestyles of local undergraduate students and tutors. The assessment of a student's English language ability will remain problematic, as will the implementation of the punitive regime of student monitoring and control as expected of sponsors by UKBA. It was convenient that all UK universities were granted Highly Trusted Status by default and UKBA was hands off as far as these institutions are concerned, but once the box is opened, as it is now, it will be hard to close it back again.

Also, the UK universities collectively taken their above-the-board status too seriously and tried to profit from it. They have actively lobbied to cut the private college students out of part time working, to create an opportunity for themselves to take on those students on their own sponsorship and profit from this opportunity. With myopia typical of career bureaucrats, they have now created a system by which students remain in private colleges but study under their sponsorship, a cozy but unsustainable system which is spreading fast and is likely to come under scrutiny soon. Again, once that box is opened, it would be hard for the universities concerned to hide anywhere (London Metropolitan was one of them, sponsoring students in a private institution in London regarding which the Quality Assurance Agency has raised concerns recently, and this is also part of the university's problem). 

In summary, the saga indicates the fragility of the current Higher Education/ Immigration system and that a rethink, a characteristic U-turn as this government is so used to, is needed. One could indeed follow the Australian example of Knight Review (as a commentator on one of my earlier post did point out), which looked at the declining student numbers, recognized that the global student market is a competitive space and laid out clear recommendations reconciling the requirements of international student community, private and public education providers and the public concerns about immigration. The government's desperate politicking has seriously harmed UK's perception as a welcoming place for global talent, and is now threatening its reputation for Higher Education and its Higher Education institutions. Though it is hard to see how Theresa May, the Home Secretary and a Tory with a hardline view on immigration, and Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, a somewhat lost Liberal, can work together (as it happened in case of Knight Review), but one would hope that this fiasco would prompt some action.

Monday, August 27, 2012

All Change Please: International Student Mobility Today

The first ten years of this millennium saw globalisation of Higher Education at an unprecedented scale. The number of students opting to study abroad grew exponentially, mostly coming from the newly industrialised countries like India and China (they were the two big elephants in the room) to the popular destinations like United States, UK and Australia. This made good business - all the recipient countries led out red carpet and competed with each other, often fiercely, for market share. Higher Education exports, which roughly translates into how much money the sector brings to the economy from abroad, became the fifth or sixth largest (depending on what you count) in the UK: It attained a similar prominence in national policy making in other countries as well. While America, reeling under the impact of 9/11, global wars and the wave of social conservatism, remained a somewhat reluctant participant, it continued to draw maximum number of students because of its highly respected universities and exciting economic opportunities thereafter. The attractiveness of the sector drew new players too: A number of universities in Continental Europe started offering courses in English; Japan, with its great universities, and now China, which built (or rebuilt) new world class universities from scratch, were vying for a share of the market too.

However, this is a global industry which brings its customers in, rather than the other ones which go seeking the customers. The quick growth was bound to cause troubles, and that happened in Australia in 2008, and since then, in the UK. Australians tightened their visa rules, ostensibly to do away with abuse, but ended up driving away the students who now considered the country to be unwelcoming and unsafe. UK, which pounced upon the opportunity created by Australian reticence to admit foreign students and attracted a huge number itself, suddenly found it under siege from a souring public opinion on immigration accentuated further by the onset of recession. The Conservative Party, which won power through a coalition in 2010, made this one of their main planks in election: From the  point they came to power, UK Higher Education's International attractiveness was all but doomed.

Into the next decade, the trends have started playing out. Australian Government, somewhat in recognition of the adverse effects of their restrictions on student immigration, has relaxed the rules somewhat, to make studying in Australia more attractive. This has resulted in some growth in numbers, but it is somewhat clear that the country has now lost its preeminent position and is unlikely to regain its attractiveness. The impact on UK Higher Education is likely to be more severe, as the visa restrictions were far more tighter, more abrupt and implemented in a rather deliberate way to shake the confidence of International students. The revocation of license from a public university is unlikely to do any good: After the liquidation of many private colleges, these universities were considered safe by international students, and without this minimal assurance (that they would be able to complete their studies), they are likely to abandon UK altogether.

Indeed, there is a large expansion in the number of students going to Canada and Singapore as an alternative to UK and Australia, but these numbers are not large enough to offset the decline in the latter, much less to account for the growth in global middle class and student aspirations. This year would also show growth in numbers coming to many European countries, notably Germany, which, despite the natural barrier of its language proficiency, continues to be attractive to international applicants because it treats them equally with local students.

Also, in this vacuum, the South-to-South mobility will be interesting to watch. There are already reports that Indian students, who would have previously come to UK to study Accounting, are now going to Malaysia in large numbers. There is also increasing demand from countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh for Higher Education in India. The hitherto anemic Education Campuses in the Gulf Region is getting a new lease of life, as is the operations in Mauritius. Many US, UK and Australian universities have set up overseas campuses in China, Malaysia and other countries (not in India though, given the confused state of policy there), and may benefit from this trend. In fact, just as some commentators are pondering whether the MOOCs (Mass Online Open Courses) will spell the death of Overseas Campuses, the latter may get a new lease of life from the politics of migration and new trends in student mobility.

Indeed, this means new opportunities, for Educators, Policy Makers and Entrepreneurs. When markets change, arbitrages appear: The arbitrages in student mobility is up for grabs for new innovations in education, and even for some smaller countries (Mauritius and UAE come to mind) to create hubs for global education. Losers have been decided: We shall wait to see the winners emerge.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Case for Reinvention of India

India is an ancient land but a modern nation: The battle to define what it stands for is about to begin.

It is common in the history of nations, such battles. Despite the lore, nations are neither perennial nor indispensable, it is only a rather modern construct to define the state with cultural traits and organise the society around it. India as a modern nation, which emerged sixty-five years ago out of a retreating British empire, was based on certain ideas grounded in the belief systems at the time of its creation: of a redeeming optimism at the end of great wars and at the beginning of the end of political imperialism, of the triumph for modern science and technology in beating back our Malthusian destiny and expanding our physical capabilities, and of the faith in human freedom. These lofty visions that defined India, and the nations born thereafter, had one crucial drawback: They were aspirational, and ignored the muddy realities of concocted nations emerging out of centuries of subservience. 

Most new nations born around the time in Asia and Africa were weak states, which fell apart in a few years time: India did well to keep the state together, on the back of the tried-and-tested colonial administration machine, which the new Indian government decided to maintain uninterrupted. However, as a result, the Indian government remained as far apart from its people as the Raj was. The gap was hardly bridged by charismatic leaders and even the television, which transformed the country around Cricket and Bollywood movies. In fact, if anything, the new India of the small screen started to diverge more and more from the India outside, and the alienation of the polity was complete from the society.

What happened, therefore, in the last thirty years or so, is anathema to modern nation building: The emergence of sub-ethnic identities of regions, Tamils, Telegus, Punjabis, Bengalis and Gujaratis, so on and so forth, with distinct culture and polity, to fill the vacuum left by the distant state machine.  The culture indeed has integrated, but around something that is alien and unrecognisable, and therefore, distant from identity: All India may sing around Night Ki Naughty Kahani and create various regional renditions of Kolaveri Di, but it is unlikely that any Indian will see these deeply unifying cultural apparatuses as INDIAN in any shape or form. In short, the culture may have emerged, but done so not as a high culture defining a transcendent nationhood, but rather in the popular form quite distinct from the national project (indeed, many in Bangladesh and Pakistan will sing around the same songs as well). It did not help that the political culture at the Centre failed to redefine itself with any more than a personality cult, leaving leaders with lineage ruling the roost: The modern national project faded into insignificance with the disappearance of the idea of India behind the regional facade, popular consumerist culture and leaders' personality cults.

All this is now reaching a crisis point. The Indian government in Delhi, that potent force that shaped the country for several centuries, the successor of the mighty Mughals and the British Raj, now seems impotent to govern. The virulent Hindu nationalism, anathema to the nation-building project, presents itself as an alternative, its power resting on the assumptions of suspension of democracy and fantastic reconstruction of the Indian constitution. The Indian demography, peaking at this right moment, presents the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (or threat) of having a young nation needing direction: India should be mindful that in the Seventies, Soviet leadership failed to absorb its demographic peak by providing growth and nationhood, and perished as a result. The Indian businesses, largely content to remain politically balanced as long as they make money (The Economist lamented that 'never in history, so few with so much have spoken so little about what affects so many'), are increasingly taking their investments abroad, distraught with lack of progress at home and perhaps fearful of an implosion that may inevitably follow. And, the missing link that could make all this work, Indian education system, is failing to emerge from long neglect, confused demagoguery, lack of policy and leadership, to serve either the nation, or the industry, or even the students. 

In summary, things are falling apart, and the Centre, the India created in August 1947, is no longer holding. The idea needs reinvention, not just with the economic growth story which was used to justify the project for last twenty years but now stumbling, but with a new polity and cultural identity that goes with it. In short, it is time to send the regional demagogues to the dustbin of history and build a new Indian national movement perhaps, first as a cultural event and then into politics. It is time to update Lagaan, the movie that launched the shining India almost a decade ago, and to bring it into the age of transparent corruption and stumbling growth. It is also time to see India not just in isolation but in the context of its world: A dynamic world where the lines between friends and enemies are blurred, where Asia is emerging as world's playground as well as the new frontier, and where, old loyalties matter little and relationships have to be built anew. In totality, we need a new narrative: What India stands for? It is time to write the Discovery of India all over again.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Personal Note: On Finding Meaning At Work

I need a meta-theory to explain whatever happened in my professional life, as I reach another decision point, where, yet again, I have to do some explaining for what happened so far. When I narrate the story of my career, which is a sequence of several mini-careers, it appears like a dance than a journey, the usual metaphor most people would be comfortable with. I moved vertically, did things which seemed like going back on time, took risks commonly deemed unacceptable, and mostly lived on the brink. I may have achieved too little, reached the right place often too early, and preached, to those who cared, a view too antiquated. Someone, who was my Line Manager for several years, told me that I was the most intelligent person she ever worked with, but I should be mindful that intelligence is a double-edged sword: The wisdom of her words is beginning to dawn on me only now.

There is one easy explanation of my relationship with work: That I sought meaning. I was motivated by the story of the third bricklayer, who was building the cathedral, rather than his colleagues, who were content just to lay the bricks or to build a wall. I wanted visibility of what my work does, its purpose. This sure helped: I loved what I did, work meshed seamlessly with my day to day life, work gave me pleasure. In whatever I did, I wanted to have impact: I was working not to pay a mortgage, or to pay my bills, nor even to retire, but for the pleasure of work itself, for what does or at least meant to do. My seemingly quixotic views about integrity went perfectly with this out-of-date search for meaning at work, but often at odds with the imperatives of a normal, linear career.

I have never lacked ambition though. I had an interesting conversation with a young colleague during the course of a performance review recently, when she told me that she wanted to be the best at her job. It was a casual utterance, and she was wholly unprepared as I was enthused by that statement, and wanted to clarify what she wanted to be the best in. I took this to be a completely natural ambition, given that she was so capable: However, she apparently decided, at this point of conversation, that I might be mocking her and changed the statement to say that she wanted to 'do her best'. I knew that she was trying to be safe, because in most organizations, the ambition to be the best, in anything, within whatever domain, would be considered dangerously ambitious, or impractical, or both. However, personally, I have always followed the aspiration of being the best, in my case in designing education offerings to change lives of large numbers of people, and made no secrets about it. All the things I have done so far in my career, and all the things I want to do, are strung together in the search of this one objective.

Sometimes, puzzlingly, I am told that I lack focus. I concede that I really don't know how much money I want to make, if I want to buy a house, where I want to settle down. However, I know that I want to build an education organization, which works with people who would usually be left out by the elite higher education institutions - people expected to be workers, excluded from the driving seat of life, people expected not to think but live in abject submission to the demands of mortgages, bills and reproduction - and enables them to think for themselves and creates opportunities for themselves and others. It is a wholly utopian view of what education should do: This is about breaking the dichotomy of Higher and Lower Education (one designed for thinkers and other, for the workers) and taking thinking grassroots, and in turn, making work meaningful. My search for meaning at work is based on the quest to make work meaningful for all.

Admittedly, this is not an easy goal. This is, actually, dangerously revolutionary. The public education system is always designed with the objective of maintaining public order, just like the police, so that it reproduces a certain number of thinkers and a certain number of workers and carefully preserve the boundaries of definition and meaning for all comers. The For-Profit, the business of education, despite its challenger status, is actually an extension of the same model: It is about obscuring the meaning at work but producing functional specialists with a narrower focus. I have taken on studies on For-Profit Education for several years now, in order to see from close quarters its mechanics of subverting the status quo, which I approve of, and its creation of a new model, which is deeply dichotomous, and which condemns its students to a slave life of consumption imperatives, which is the one I wish to change. 

This is surely going against the tide, in a society where super-specialization is seen as the path to knowledge and the meaning and purpose of work is completely obscured behind the job descriptions, performance reviews and other managerial rhetoric. It is the same in education, where learning outcomes trump wisdom, and assessment scores is treated as knowledge. The hope is in realizing that all of this is now falling apart. Education isn't educating anymore: It is either producing people completely disconnected with their social roles, or people who retreats behind the walls of specialization and denies all responsibility outside their own consumer commitments. The work of experts are falling apart, as the complexity levels have reached monstrous proportions and spun the world out of control for all. The failure and alienation at work is now coming back as meta-theories of chaos and complexity, and suddenly, after centuries of human progress, we are not in charge any more. Those in control has lost control: There were never a better time to construct an alternative and restore humanity at the working end of the education spectrum. I see this as an opportunity, something that I worked for, knowingly or unconsciously, for last twenty years.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Higher and Lower Education

The Promise of College Education

Being middle class means, among other things, aspiring to go to college and having a white collar job of some description in the end. While millions in Asia, Africa and Latin America follow this dream, in the West, there is a different reality: Middle class jobs are disappearing. They are mostly moving down the ladder, reduced to irrelevance by the rise of clever machines. The solid certainty, the ethic of working for a retirement, alongside a clear vision of what life would be like thirty years on, are all fragments of nostalgia. Regardless of aspirations, middle class lives and jobs are disappearing all over the world.

If middle class life is to change, the educational ideals must do so too. This is a debate whether the College-for-Jobs myth should be propagated any further and whether time has come to reshape the modern higher education all over again.

The Hangover of The Fifties

We have come a long way from the Fifties, the age of optimism and rebuilding after the war, when Higher Education was deemed to be the ticket to good life. Politicians in all countries wanted to provide more and more Higher Education, and told their folks to go to college.

But, we still say similar things: One of President Obama's professed, and hitherto unmet, goals is to make America number one in the world in terms of college graduates in the workforce. China is in a race to make their universities world-class. Britain, where the Government has just cut almost all funding to universities, the college-for-jobs rhetoric as strong as ever: In fact, that is the founding principle why students are expected to pay for their own education (despite the protestations of the academicians). India's Education Minister talks about the need of another thousand universities in the country. Call it a hangover of the fifties, but we deeply believe that taking a person through college can change his/her life.

There is some carefully crafted logic behind such a belief. It is also undeniable that work has become more complex, more intellectually challenging in most cases. And, there is an unmistakable graduate premium - people with college degrees tend to earn more on an average - which justifies more and more people trying to go to college every year.

However, Graduate Premium is only an average statistical figure: For most people, college is a net negative, a debt figure that sets them back in life. I know the feeling of coming out of college and not knowing what one can be useful for first hand. Colleges mostly fail the students. Regardless of what the politicians say, Higher Education Institutions often model themselves after the class ideals of a bygone era than the needs of a professional society. The rituals of college life, the pretensions of being ancient, the ideals of quality as defined in the leisurely pursuit of pure knowledge, and the underlying conception of an ideal student profile - middle class kids with social and cultural capital with an ambition to follow his dad's trail - all at odds with the claims of preparing someone for the modern day jobs, with all attendant uncertainty, complexity and possibilities. However, I shall argue, Higher Education as it is, can not simply break with the past and think anew.

In Britain, persuaded by the lure of mass Higher Education, the politicians converted most polytechnics to Higher Education Institutions in the nineties and thereafter, expanding the capacity rightly. For the more established universities, this was not the abolition of polytechnics, but the abolition of what it meant to be an university. However, the opposite happened in the end: ex-Polytechnics easily adapted to the ideas of the leisurely pursuit of knowledge, and all the other pomp and practices of the ancient universities and soon sneered at their private sector colleagues, whom they saw as buccaneers from the world of vocational training. Indeed, these Mass Higher Education institutions themselves have a problem: In China, the university you went to matter more than the classification of the degree. Ditto in the UK, or USA, or any other country for that matter. 

The Lower Education

Further down the prestige chain, there is an extensive system of vocational training for people who do not go to college. This alternative stream is to be about things practical, jobs to do with hand. However, the vocational training system in most countries is designed, surely by a few well educated decision makers, to keep thinking and questioning out of it. This is a sort of 'lower' education, for the shop-floor of the industrial society, practical but made for exclusion from the driving seat of life.

It does not matter that fixing High Voltage Electric supply may need similar skills and even greater courage than flying unmanned aerial vehicles to bomb Afghan villages, and nursing the sick may demand a much greater skill than designing a derivative. Not the complexity or the social requirement seems to be define our hierarchy of education. It is neither the well-worn argument about thinking: In the jobs of nursing and electrical mending, as opposed to flying UAVs or running hedge funds, life and death is the irreversible life and death as we know it, not just a PR inconvenience.

Call it the caste system of education, it is ingrained in the discussion about Higher Education. Thorstein Veblen sneered at vocational education a century ago, fearing that business schools will corrupt great universities: The universities today, despite their high-pitched claims to be employer-friendly, do not see it to be their responsibility to prepare the students for a job. Instead, the prestige of the universities, as codified in various university rankings, comes from the selectivity of their admission processes and their research output measured by citations earned, that of, in other words, the social and cultural standing of their teachers and students.

On the other hand, the vocational training trade, the space occupied by community colleges (in America and their equivalent elsewhere), private training schools and schools run by trade bodies, is expected to be non-selective, and given incentives to reach out to NEETs (Not in Education, Employment and Training, a British term, but its equivalent exists in different countries), people who have signed out of the education and social system. This embeds a know-your-place system of education, a Higher and Lower system deeply entrenched, a message carefully designed and disseminated for the preservation of the social system as it is.

The Myth of Meritocracy 

Considering these, one would see that the Higher Education isn't about social mobility at all, but its opposite, the preservation of social order through the myth of meritocracy. It is about claiming college as the great engine of human civilization, while guarding the gates carefully about social and cultural capital requirements for entering college, and sending the excluded to the machine of vocational training, where their spirits can be crushed and no questions must be asked, and a life of trade, toil, discipline and obedience must be accepted. This is a system to make the middle class privileges to look like God-given rights, something ingrained in a few people, in their genes perhaps.

Seen this way, universities are the defensive mechanism of the middle classes to preserve their privileges from the new incumbents from the villages and outer reaches of the developing world. Indeed, these privileges are modeled after the aristocrats who preceded the Middle Classes, they have to be; this is indeed why being ancient seems to be equated with reputation (though we don't seem to think ancient is stale in many other knowledge industries) and the outmoded rituals and practices must be maintained with great care.

This is why Higher Education and its value system, a carry-over from the Victorian reform spirit in England and Lincoln era in America, will be up for a disruptive change. This is not about For-Profits ruling the world: They don't have a chance, as long as their ideas are to copy the university recipe and try to play by the same formula. But, like it happened in other industries, a new innovative player, a Google or Facebook equivalent will now emerge to change this stratified system of higher education on its head and bridge, without apologies, the gap between education and trade. As Stefan Collini argues, the universities were always vocational, first teaching the preachers classics, then teaching the statesmen history and philosophy: From time to time, that message is lost in the pomp and pretension and the desire to preserve a broken system. However, we may have now reached the tipping point and the disruption must now begin.  





Monday, August 20, 2012

Education Business: The Need for Patient Capital

In my quest to get a technology-led global education network off the ground, I have now made several iterations of the business plan, made several presentations and attended scores of meetings, some with some success. Indeed, the ideas that I started with changed somewhat: However, that hurts no one as they have only become better, more road worthy, if anything. After several months of doing this, I feel more wedded to the process than I ever was. But I still I have one reservation which I have to deal with before we end signing up with anyone.

It is that to build an institution of any value, one needs what the silicon valley types will call 'patient capital'. My interactions with venture capital industry have told me a very different story than what I initially signed up to. It is fair to say that the structure of the venture capital industry may have changed since the heady days of dotcom, indeed because of that; it has become more interested in traction and tried and tested concepts than ideas itself. In summary, the VCs have started behaving increasingly like banks. That does not bode well not just for what I am trying to do, but also innovation in general.

I can't complain because this is the way it is. I have interacted people just coming out of business schools, and heading to investment banking, and they accept such thinking as articles of faith. Venture Capital (private equity, more so) is about backing proven management teams with proven ideas in businesses which got traction: This indeed sounds like common sense, except the fact that this misses out on the key purpose of venture capital - to enable ventures - and makes it far more like investment banking. It is unsurprising, because most of the venture capital industry is run by ex-bankers, and rarely by entrepreneurs. This brings the practises of investment banking into the realm of smaller ventures.

Which is about 3 to 5 years pay-off, etc. Initially, I was surprised that these organisations are even interested in Education, which I have always seen as a long term play. I remember being told by one Education entrepreneur that his biggest mistake was to take his company to public capital markets and succumbing to the pressures of quarterly results and the tyranny of the analysts: At the time of our discussion, he was trying to spin off the education division of his company and trying to take it to more long term investors. However, my conversations so far indicate that there is appetite for education businesses among these investors because of two reasons, one, because it is cash generative, as mostly students pay upfront, and two, because the demand is strong and the business model is easy to understand. However, this runs counter to some of the things we definitely know about education businesses: That one needs to create the capacity first, before getting students; that it is quite hard to make money in education and needs continuous innovation and building of reputation, and that usual business models hardly apply in this sector. Often, it seems that these investors are looking at a different business than the entrepreneurs are talking about, and indeed, in these situations, what the investors think is the only thing that counts.

It is fascinating to see that despite all the sophistry of modelling and sensitivity testing, how deeply ignorant most of the analysts are about the fundamentals of the education business. After going through this experience, I am not one bit surprised that BPP, which was acquired by Apollo Group in 2010, was overvalued by hundreds of millions because the business model fell apart in a few weeks, and recently, Montague Capital made a mess of their acquisition of the College of Law, where they paid a premium to acquire 'degree granting power' only to understand that they have only bought the delivery company and 'degree granting power' can not be bought and must remain with the trustee board. These examples aside, it is surprising how little the 'education' investors know about, or wish to know about, the sector they are investing in. The fact that these are actually incredibly smart people make this even more pathetic: One can almost see a narcissistic arrogance of being impressed by one's own smartness and driving through the world blindly.

While such interactions leave me with no doubt about the future of investment banks and the financial service industry in general, my immediate concern is to find 'patient capital', not just in terms of how long the investors want to wait, but also what approach they wish to take to the business. I am painfully aware, having been part of such ventures before, that a business needs to be built for its own sake, and if the key investors are more interested in window dressing from day one intending to sell it off in a few years time, that is a sure recipe for failure. I have, therefore, started talking more and more to individual investors, and even with larger companies, rather than VC or Private Equity funds that would have been the natural port of call as we try to put a Buy-in proposal together.

Despite the mounting criticism of For-Profit education businesses in Britain, I believe these institutions are needed, to offer the required variety in the marketplace and to drive innovation. They are needed if just to challenge the sloth and arrogance in the publicly funded universities. However, in the For-Profit sector, the most important task of an education entrepreneur is to pick the right investors, because, without it, the venture is destined to be a poor one, failing sooner or later. In fact, choosing investment deals is an important part of the education design, I shall say, though this is likely to offend pure-minded academicians. The truth is, we lack sources of patient capital. In fact, I have started to realise that I have better chances of raising the investment with right sort of terms in Asia than in the UK, as the huge market demand and long term potential is more visible there. This makes my already exhilarating journey in search of an appropriate business model for education even more fascinating, but I can't stop worrying about a market full of education outfits backed by private equity.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Making Knowledge Count

Yesterday, for me, was a day of fascinating conversations, particularly on the state of Higher Education in India. This is with two senior executives from an Indian Higher Education institution. We talked about a number of things, including the changing mindset in India and the the regulatory regime, as well as the possibilities, and pitfalls, of collaborating with British and American institutions. For me, forever an enthusiast of global education, it was insightful, if dispiriting, discussion. Importantly, it gave me yet again a clear sense of the private higher education space in India. We agreed on most things, except one perhaps, and that is the role and importance of knowledge in Higher Education.

The Indian Educators were quite clear: Knowledge is no longer important. Commercially, they did not think it made sense, as the students don't care about knowledge: They want the degree, as easily as they can. The parents don't care what the students are learning, they said, as long as they get a job. On another level, they highlighted the importance of attitude, the commitment to work, adaptability and even spirituality, over knowledge.

The assertions certainly rings a bell, and could actually be universally true. In fact, this discussion is important to me as it opens up a new line of enquiry in my studies on For-Profit Higher Education. My thought is that the trivialisation of knowledge is possibly the most important change happening in Education, and this is the whole reason of existence of the For-Profit education as a whole. But more on this later.

Whether or not students care about knowledge, one thing is clear: Knowledge is now abundant and easily accessible. Therefore, one does not need to go to school to know anything. They can plainly fire up a browser and access most of world's knowledge, either through Google or some other database. 

Besides, there is little point in teaching 'knowledge'. In a rapidly changing world, knowledge is no longer contained in stone tablets, great books or even in the heads of wise men, but somehow, it is out there, being produced everyday, as people stretch the boundaries of what is known.

Indeed, I differ. First, I disagree that knowledge is freely accessible. In fact, it is as obscure as ever. This time around, the challenge is not the method of finding, which has been made easier by tools such as Google, but knowing what's valid, as Google reduces all knowledge to commodities, stacked in shelves next to each other, undifferentiated. In the Googlized world of knowledge, only the ranking, bestowed by a commercial organisation, Google, the organiser of world's knowledge, matters: This ranking is indeed based on citation, propriety, and as we know now, the diktats of different governments of the day. Wisdom of the crowd is a form of wisdom, but not the only one; therefore, it is more important than ever to engage with knowledge and knowing one's way around. If an education institution disengages from knowledge, they will be doing a great disservice to the students, their employers and the community in general.

Next, while the body of knowledge is dynamic, a wheel is not invented every day. One, like Newton, needs to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants to be able to see. At a more mundane level, knowledge frees students from the limits of their own experience. Doing practical things and knowing from that is all very good, with one important caveat - that you think there is only one way of doing the task that you just did. 

My point indeed was that the only task that an institution of Higher Education has to make a student, a student: That is to shape their relationship with knowledge. As for the point that the student does not want to know, it is a rather desperate stance most education institutions take today. Indeed, when I go to big department stores, I may keep my hands inside my pocket and do not want to buy anything, but they still manage to squeeze a few hundred pounds out of me. The point is about affordance: What is the institution telling them? I remember being engaged in one institution, which, being conscious of the value of space (and the business model being dependent on use of capacity), relegated their library to a dimly lit, rarely used, part of their basement. The economics aside, this is an institution signalling what is and isn't important. And, this is not about the space, but all the processes and conversations that an institution is made of. In summary, if the institution thinks knowledge isn't important, it wouldn't be.

Finally, on the question of whether the parents, who, in countries like India, are paying for the education, would value knowledge, I have two inter-related points. First, as it occurred at a different time during yesterday's discussion, knowledge is key to building institutional reputation. This is because it is the one of the key differentiators, other than selectivity, which a new institution can ill-afford. So, if you can't choose the best students, you must be seen as an institution with a purpose, that purpose being equipping the graduates with some kind of special elixir, which is most likely to be a form of knowledge. Second, if parents care about jobs, and in this case graduate jobs, they are not a function of motivation, but knowledge. Everyone claims that they are motivated and can put in hard work, and may be they can, but as an employer, I shall always choose the person who is most likely to do the same, who seems to be the smartest, who knows. So, indeed, even in the world of For-Profit business schools, knowledge remains terribly important.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Suspension of London Metropolitan University: Has UK Border Agency overrreached its mandate?

London Metropolitan University, one of the bigger and popular universities in London, had its license to recruit international students temporarily suspended on 20th July. This is a result of an audit of the university's management of its international students, reportedly carried out last March by UK Border Agency. The university has now disappeared from the UKBA's sponsors' list, despite reassurances that a follow-up audit has already been carried out, and the university would be reinstated 'next week'. The chat forums are now abuzz with students complaining, and being right in the middle of the recruitment season, this is bound to hit the university, and the international students who opted to come to it, quite hard. For UK Border Agency (UKBA), it may indeed be a case of over-reaching its mandate.

Let's be clear: The rationale behind the current, tough visa regime was to weed out 'bogus colleges'. No one denies the fact that there was widespread abuse of the British student visa system, though this was primarily because the implementation of it was so lax. For example, almost no one ever got deported, even if the students were 'reported' after disappearing from their course of study. In any case, the regulations were about validating which institutions can or can not sponsor international students. But the Border Agency has now started getting into what would be a matter of academic decision making, namely, what level of English proficiency does the student need to come to UK (and a discriminatory one at that, because EU students follow a different set of requirements), how many hours of classes a student must attend and how much holidays they may have (almost all universities will fail to meet the current requirements), how many resit attempts they have should they require it (again, a discriminatory one, as their local peers may have greater entitlement), what can be allowed as a drop out rate, etc.

Initially, though the implementation of the system was harsh, the burden fell disproportionately on private colleges, virtually wiping out the sector. The universities were mostly left alone, given that there were significant systems of accountability already in place for the public universities. However, LondonMet's case may be the first one where UKBA has finally caught up with a public university (except a previous suspension of Glasgow Caledonian, which was rather brief), and if it starts applying its norms squarely, it may prove impossible to let the university back in business because the norms were, in the first place, so impractical.

Which leads to my central point, UK Border Agency isn't an education regulator, and has no capability or power to do so. Its job is to run the immigration system appropriately, which it is making a mess of. This is because, as the usual excuses go, it is underfunded and understaffed. Surely, one can't run an efficient system when it takes six months or more to consider a visa application, during which time the applicant is free to stay in the country legally. Also, most unfavourable decisions made go through appeals, and UKBA tends to lose most of these cases because of gross incompetence. Despite the widespread publicity, it fails to manage the immigration queues at Heathrow and have reportedly lost track of more than 150,000 migrants who were supposed to leave the country but did not. As the Ministers cut resources more and more, they compensate this by trying to talk tough, and burdening the agency with more and more work, putting them in the lord and the master role that they are completely incapable of carrying out.

Take, for example, the recent decision by UKBA to interview all student visa applicants in certain territories to assess their English language capability. This decision was taken based on a report which identified that many students are still coming to UK without the prescribed level of English proficiency. However, UKBA, or the Border Posts, have almost no logistical capability to carry out this task. And, above all, this may be a complete non-starter: The UKBA's guidelines on English proficiency was based on a mistaken view of the Common European Framework, errors which have now been identified but not corrected . Further, there are studies to suggest that an international student's academic attainment may have very little correlation with their level of English proficiency before coming to UK. It is one example where UKBA, and their bosses at Home Office, has invented a task which they can't carry out, based on an ignorant view of the student profile.

In its two years, the Coalition Government has inflicted an enormous damage on the UK Higher Education system, which will be hard to reverse in the years to come. Apart from the new funding regime, which was half-hearted, scantly thought through and badly implemented, the Coalition Government failed to present any coherent ideas about the future of UK Higher Education other than making fantastic statements such as the British Universities should go abroad and set up campuses and British students should start doing so too. They have created a half-draconian half-comical immigration policy which has no clear objective other than a fantastic and ill-defined goal of reducing immigration to 'tens of thousands', and went after the soft target of international students at the cost of the global attractiveness of the British universities and other institutions. We are still in early days of these reforms, but going by current indicators, these changes will have a devastating effect even in the short run. Just one year into it, we can already see the rise of alternative education destinations, like Canada and Malaysia, and a virtual wipe-out of the private sector colleges which used to serve as a feeder for most British universities. The banks abroad have become far more sceptical about the value of British education, and started refusing loans to prospective students who wish to come to Britain. Indeed, much of this will continue to play out in months and years to come, but a very likely effect of these reforms is to squeeze some of the marginal universities into bankruptcy and into the lap of private equity (this may be an intended consequence of the policy changes).

London Metropolitan University has had problems in the past, but it was lately making great progress under a new leadership. It took tough decisions, including disbanding the highly discriminatory 'overseas student fees' and even the VC discussed about making some premises of the university alcohol-free to respect the views of its Muslim students, as examples, and showed sensitivity and greater understanding of the changing marketplace than any other university in town. UKBA's suspension will stall the changes and may force this university, which may now become financially fragile and may also need an infrastructure upgrade soon enough due to its aging buildings and facilities, firmly into an uncertain financial future. As for UKBA, they have walked into the uncharted territory of changing the education system, and into the domain of questioning academic judgements. Good luck to them!

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An Update on this post is available at http://sundayposts.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/london-metropolitan-university-lessons.html

Friday, August 17, 2012

Foreign Higher Ed Institutions and India: Much Ado About Nothing?

There is widespread dismay among the British universities this week that the Indian government chose to delay the Foreign Education Providers' Bill yet again, as it failed to gain traction among the Indian MPs (see story). The disappointment is understandable: Despite the lure of 'Myanmar, Kurdistan, Vietnam and Brazil' (which John Fielden of Chems Consulting identified as more interesting markets, quoted in the Times Higher Education story), India remains the biggest and most accessible market for British universities, where they enjoy relative superiority over their American and Australian competitors in terms of affinity and cultural connections. Indeed, squeezed under twin pressures of changing funding regimes and impractical visa regulations, most British universities have lost their business models and staring into the abyss: De-regulation in India would have brought some cheer and optimism in this gloomy climate, which proved not to be. 

However, seen from an Indian Higher Education context, this is a disappointment too. I was  following the fortunes of the Foreign Education Providers bill for several years (see India: Education's Wild West, The Politics of Foreign Education Providers Bill in India and Does India need Foreign Education Providers?), and progressively discovered that the real crux of the matter is a struggle with current vested interests and a liberalization of the sector, rather than inviting Oxford and Harvard into India. It is important, therefore, to look closely at the issues involved in Indian Higher Education at the current time, as listed below:

1. India needs more Higher Education provision. At least three times as much as we have now, says the Minister of HR.

2. There is a significant expansion of India's Higher Education provision, with number of colleges up by as much as 150% over the last five years.

3. However, the quality of provision at most Indian universities and colleges remain suspect, and no Indian universities ever made to any global rankings. (except the elite Technical and Management schools featuring in Regional Tables)

4. India's Gross Enrolment Ratio, despite the expansion of provision, is stuck rather obdurately around 20%, totaling 16 million to 20 million students every year (depending on how higher education is defined). However, this may have other reasons than just the availability of college seats.

5. Indian political class remains deeply involved in Higher Education, with most national and regional politicians having something to do with education. This is less to do with love for education and more to do with the fact that education offers social status as well as a convenient way to launder money.

6. This has led to poor implementation of and endemic corruption in Education Regulatory regime, with some members of the national regulatory body being sent to jail a few years ago.

7. India risks wasting its 'demographic dividend', the peak in the number of young people coming to college-going age, if it does not fix the education question urgently. The college-going population goes up by 5 million between 2012 and 2015, and will peak some time between 2015 and 2025.

8. Due to the weakness of the Higher Education sector, India developed a large and competitive home-grown for-profit technical training industry, in different areas such as IT, Hospitality, Aviation etc. The government attempted to regulate these sectors from time to time, doing more harm than good.

9. Due to the poor quality of most Higher Ed provisions, Indian companies, which were growing rapidly for last two decades, have now created extensive provisions for in-company training. In some of the cases, new recruits have to undergo several months of training and only get confirmed after passing rigorous examinations at the end of this period. This has given rise to a phenomenon of 'Corporate Higher Education', which is an interesting and rather unique Indian phenomenon.

In the context of a challenge so large, it is perplexing that one area of higher education policy that generates maximum buzz is the question whether to allow foreign institutions to set up shop in India and on what terms. No matter how open the approach to foreign providers is, these institutions are likely to play only a very small role in the mix, will mostly service students, affluent and with good schooling, who are already spoiled for choice. These institutions, if allowed, are unlikely to improve the research output in India in any significant way, as the impetus for research must come from the government and the industry, as it does in every other country. And, however much the government may insist that the foreign providers should not make any profits in India, profits will be the primary motive why any foreign provider will be interested in India: It is hard to see what else can spur a foreign institution to take the trouble of setting up an offshore campus.

Despite this limited impact, the reason why the Foreign Education Providers Bill generates the sentiments it does is because it will signify opening up the sector and taking on the vested interests for the first time. Indeed, the stated reason for even pursuing the bill is that this will bring in foreign investment in education: However, most Indian companies are sitting on huge piles of cash and since they need the high quality Higher Education the most, India may not need any foreign investment at all. What it needs is a regulatory regime with right safeguards and incentives for 'professionalization' of the sector, and it is in co-opting the current model of Corporate Higher Education for the wider public the much-needed redemption of India's Higher Education sector lie. Foreign Education Providers Bill is only a bottle-opener of sorts, to let the genie out.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Asian Pivot

This is a bit of Washington-speak I picked up from watching the news: It basically means that the American strategy for world dominion, shall we say world peace, have changed its focus to Asia. The Cold War is well and truly over, and despite its vast nuclear arsenal and apparent ambitions, Russia is no longer considered a threat. The American military personnel and arsenal would now shift to Asia, particularly East Asia, where the Chinese presents the biggest threat to the current world order, one of American hegemony. Or, at least that's the plan. 

Indeed, despite the professed Asian pivot, very little has actually happened on the ground. The United States has started withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Europe, but they have mostly gone home. The American military may have the biggest budget in the world, but they may have been over-reaching, not in terms of technology or military prowess, but in terms of willingness to engage all over the world and to be able to generate the necessary on-ground support for such engagements from the local population. No empire in history has crumbled because they were weak, but always because they could not keep the internal and external support going for the engagements they must do all the time. Despite the impressive leaps of technology, there are reasons to believe the American power is waning.

The symptoms of this waning power are first and foremost to be seen in this ongoing recession. I am not talking about the follies of the banks, which is a subject by itself. But the unending recession also indicates a disillusionment with the twentieth century middle class dream, fuelled primarily by cheap credit, which meant millions of people all over the world signed up to an American view of the world. This obedience, only if to a dream, meant that people sold off a lifetime of labour in advance in pursuit of happiness as defined by the powers that be, which suited the expansion of American hegemony. The fact that such a system is unsustainable, as evidenced in the recession, starts a different discussion. This is why the global middle class, which is supposed to keep the consumer revolution going, is taking the streets all over Middle East. While the Arab Spring is being given a positive spin and co-opted into the march of freedom in Middle East story which has gone badly wrong, the disorders in Arab states is threatening the world order as American wished and maintained. The dissolution of regimes, even those as murderous as Qaddafi's and Assad's, denote the unleashing of the freedom genie which wouldn't just stop at undermining the authority of the local chieftains, but will challenge all the notions of authority constructed at this time.

At the other end of Asia, there is another set of forces at play. China isn't taking on America as it chooses to do so, but holding the American (and European) companies and banks at ransom. My view of Chinese power is that it has constructed itself as a true post-nationhood nation, and therefore, despite its internal frailties, should be treated with awe. There is no point comparing the Chinese and the American state: China may have less missiles and tanks and everything else compared to America, but American state is beholden to American corporate interests and Chinese state controls those corporate interests. It is a mistake to use American (or European) benchmarks to measure the Chinese power. We must remember, after all, it is the Chinese who have studied the mechanics of power for more than two millenniums. The Chinese strategist today will see this recession as the waning of power of the nation states, all nation states all over the world, and the power shifting to the Hedge fund managers, who can now dictate what happens in a country, who should pay what tax, and who should get what share of national wealth (as they are doing for Greece, Italy and a host of Southern European nations). The biggest fund of all at this time is the Chinese sovereign fund, and they can wipe out many national systems of government, including possible America's, by diverting their funds elsewhere. What looks like (and claimed to be) capitalism's triumph on China may exactly be the opposite. 

The Asian pivot is, therefore, possibly meaningless as it indicates the assumptions of a world order that may no longer exist. Old habits die hard, as the European powers seem to be consider themselves above any system of law (as evident in Britain's threat to revoke the diplomatic status of the Ecuadorian embassy in Julian Assange case), and indeed, talk like the Asian Pivot soothes nerves across union meetings and tea parties across America: In reality, however, a bigger change, a pivot in the world order is currently under way, with decline of the institutions (of banks, of politicians, of press, of countries and sovereignty), fragmentation of authorities and of belief, coupled with the rise of alternative world views, free of influence of Western media and thinking: America (and its allies) may indeed have over-reached themselves by over-estimating not just what they can do militarily, but also the dictum "one can fool some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time, but not all people all the time".

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Freedom's Dusk: India at 65

This morning will bring unfurling of flags, marching troops, speeches, families sitting around television, Facebook messages announcing unending love for India by Indians living all over the world, special issues and new pledges: This is India's 65th Independence Day. Our relatively new country has now come of age, the freedom's generation has truly passed: The country has now been handed over to a generation who never had to toil to earn the freedom. For most of them, as for me, 15th August is a holiday, a day to celebrate and cheer for, but mostly to sit at home and do nothing, a reminder may be of great events but something I did not have to work for. This generation, therefore, will have to invent India all over again, one on their own image and imagination, as the nation we knew in the past is slowly fading away with the liberation generation. It is our turn, a responsibility - to define the country anew.

To start with, we may have to recognise that India is an experience and an idea, rather than a defined piece of land, which can be chopped and changed. The freedom generation created an idolised Bharat-mata, a mother goddess to be added to the long line of our mother goddesses, something we lived with. However, this, in fact, alienated us from our country: We imagined it to be as gracious, tolerant and forgiving as our own mothers and always expected it to give us our sustenance, our luxuries and our indulgences, without asking anything in return. Today, it may be our 'ask not what your country can give you, ask what you can give to your country' moment: It is time for us to recognise that our country is us, it is our collective will and imagination, our identity but at the same time made of us. It is time for us - in summary - to come of age.

Also, the liberation generation defined the country in ancient terms, a land of Vedas and Ramayana, of mythic heroes and tales; it is time for us to confront the true history and re-imagine the nation. The challenge for Indian freedom was to define India, in the face of imperial denunciations such as 'India is no more a country than the Equator', famously by Churchill, the greatest of the late Victorians. The leaders of the time needed to find the unity in diversity, a common strand that will bind the great country and its millions together: They invoked and invented the ancient Indian spirit to do the same. In many ways, our challenge now is the opposite: To recognise and celebrate the diversity, of the various strands that live together believing in the common dream of India as freedom's melting pot. In fact, our greatest danger comes from succumbing to the rather dated idea of a monolithic India, and limiting our imagination to a fixed notion of Indian-ness.

Finally, we also must step beyond the realm of imagination and get real. We have created two or more Indias: One that became free and celebrate its independence today, but the other, which forever remained in chains, burdened by poverty and despair, chained and disenfranchised. In the fervour of nation-building, we somehow lost sight of the people who make up the nation. We owe them no favours, just an acknowledgement that what we claim to be isn't possible without them. We can't be free without their liberation, prosperous when they live in crushing poverty and knowledgeable when they live in ignorance. In short, we are them. It is hypocritical to expect the world to recognise us when we can't recognise half the people who share our identity. Today is the time for such recognition.

In short, today is an opportunity to come of age. We have somehow taken our freedom as granted, our greatness as a given. We have forgotten that for a long time, we were a subject nation crushed in poverty and despair. We have allowed demagogues and the corrupt to take over the public sphere, retiring ourselves in the cozy insincerity of Facebook patriotism and EMI and other preoccupations. It is time for us to recognize that freedom can not stand still: That our country is us, each one of us. It is not a flag, a song, a fridge magnet, but a living and breathing entity made of living and breathing entities. Also, that Indianness is not an entitlement, but a responsibility: A responsibility we are reminded of at least once a year, such as today.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Fear and Loathing in British Higher Education: Pearson Enters The Market

If one has to put markers to trace the rapid change in the British Higher Education space, some watershed events will stand out: 

First, on 26th July 2010, it was announced that BPP University College of Professional Studies, a For Profit institution which was taken over by the US-based Apollo Group only a year earlier (August 2009), will be granted degree granting power, a first for private sector in nearly 30 years. This led to fierce criticism from the Public Sector Universities and Teachers' Unions alike, who criticised that this amounts to a foreign, albeit American, invasion of British Higher Education, which will lower standards and dumb down student experience. BPP came with a history of Professional Education, primarily in Law and Accounting, and there was resentment about blurring of boundaries between these disciplines and the walled garden of Higher Education, a preserve of the pure.

Then, in June 2011, A C Grayling, a prominent philosopher and atheist, announced the formation of New College of Humanities (NCH), an elite For-Profit college with a celebrity faculty line-up including Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson, modelled after elite US liberal arts colleges like Amherst. The degrees they offered were the popular University of London external degrees. The public university community was up in arms again, this time purportedly on the proposed fee tag of £18,000 a year. The objection was seemingly directed at the elitism of the school as most students will not be able to afford the fees (though British universities regularly charge overseas students from poorer countries a fee of £10,000 upwards a year). There was a sense of betrayal in one of their own going over to the dark side of For-Profit Education, and since then, Grayling's lectures and events have regularly been disrupted by angry protesters.

Finally, today, when the entry of Pearson into Higher Education was announced and somewhat dominated the BBC News. Pearson, publishing conglomerate which also owns the examinations body Edexcel, is on the other end of the spectrum from NCH, charging £6000 a year for undergraduate degree (which comes from Royal Holloway, an University of London college). Indeed, in between the BPP announcement and Pearson's entry, a number of other colleges, including the American-owned Regents College, were granted the degree granting status. Pearson's scheme was the most modest among all these events, as they only announced plans to admit 30 students each in two locations, London and Manchester, and instead of setting up a college, their courses were to be delivered within their offices. The idea is to build a strong linkage with work experience, allowing the graduates to work within Pearson's own businesses and elsewhere using their industry relationship. Surprisingly, though, this generated the maximum unease among the vested interests, with Million+ (an universities group) Chief Executive Pam Tatlow going public on BBC with her, rather unfounded, concerns about lack of regulation on private sector (not material, as Pearson is offering University of London degrees, and therefore, regulated) and about channelling the public subsidies to private organisations (again, irrelevant, as Pearson students will not receive student loans at this time). 

It was long anticipated that Pearson will enter the market, with the Universities minister being criticised about the amount of time he spent consulting private sector companies, including Pearson, on the eve of Higher Education funding reforms in 2011. One can argue that Pearson's entry was a rather damp squib compared to the expectations of a real disruptive entry, as it did not get the degree awarding power (and is unlikely to get it for five more years), and more surprisingly, they positioned themselves at the lower end of the price spectrum, trying to wean away students from universities by price incentive. The fact that they have put an innovative offering together, bolstered by a strong learning-at-work message, may be somewhat undermined by the lack of confidence in going for a higher price point. The risk is, indeed, of being perceived as a mickey-mouse degree provider, a popular British tag which they need to avoid at any cost. However, though they are providing a degree with greater prestige than the NCH (a full University of London degree rather than an external one), NCH may have trumped them in prestige at the outset simply due to their outrageous pricing.

So, the furore surrounding Pearson's entry to the market is a rather surprising. At this time, their market positions and offering threatens no one; the public universities have long been working with private providers and Further Education colleges based in the UK, and this is another such event. However, it surely seems that the British public universities, particularly the mass market ones which does not excel either in research or teaching, and are currently surviving by exploiting their advantageous positions derived through their charter, are really feeling the heat, and their reaction is not against Pearson, but the change of the system itself. Their position is that they don't like companies making profit out of education, though rent seeking is alright; and, also, while public money should not be spent helping students get a qualification from one of these private institutions which seek to connect education with work more closely, it should be given out to them to maintain the Oxbridge pretentions of the mediocre academics. Pearson really hits a raw nerve here; this is so far the biggest organisation, with a $1 billion war chest, to enter Higher Education in Britain. Despite its modest start (and, it must be mentioned, rather poor record in businesses other than the core ones), they are really shaking things up.

Indeed, this is just the start, and more will happen in the coming months, with new players, exciting offerings and greater innovation (some of which will fail). The British government is effectively bailing itself out from Higher Education, by moving to a system where money follows the students, and giving out strong signals to the universities not to depend on public purse anymore. I remember attending a colloquium in British Academy, where Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University, reminded one serial moaner (who complained about the funding regime) that American State Universities only receive less than 20% of their funding from the government and treat government as one of their many customers. Indeed, some of the British Universities, created in the heydays of welfare state and governed by career bureaucrats, living without government funds and treating everyone else, particularly the students, as customers, is unthinkable. Pearson's entry may signal that those times indeed may have come. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Changing Face of the British For-Profit Higher Education

In the last 18 months, the structure of the British For-Profit Higher Education has changed completely, and there is more to come. First, the Government went about culling the British For-Profit Higher Education sector with a set of sweeping changes affecting their overseas student market; these changes have been largely successful in closing down most of these colleges, and only those which had very deep overseas connections, most commonly with the owner's country of origin, or well-cultivated relationships with their university partners, have survived. Next, the Government changed the funding regime for all British universities, making the funding follow the students rather than grants to the institutions, and this has opened up an opportunity of public funding for private For-Profit institutions, the same kinds which saw their overseas market disappear in 2011. And, finally, a set of new legislation allow even relatively small colleges, with only about 1000 students on roll, to get degree-granting power, though, admittedly, this can only be achieved through a long and arduous process.

There is more to come. The next set of changes will affect the vocational education system, which feeds the Further Education colleges and vocational training companies that supplement the Higher Education sector and services, mostly, students who would want to follow a 'trade' career. The changes are on similar lines that of Higher Education funding, where the funding will follow the students rather than come as grants to institutions. This means a field wide open for competition, and hopefully, for innovation and new players breaking through the existing cosy arrangements. This opens up a further opportunity for currently beleaguered For-Profit colleges and training companies, though they must change their business models significantly to take advantage of this shift when it comes next year.

Apart from these changes inside the UK, there are other changes in the International Higher Education space, which will affect the For-Profit institutions. First, the British visa changes are having their desired (hopefully planned) effect of making the country less attractive to foreign students. Apart from rising costs and stagnant economy, the withdrawal of rights of a student to stay temporarily and work after their courses are complete has a huge negative impact: Most students in the recent years used this time to repay the education debt, and the withdrawal of these rights are now, reportedly, prompting banks in different countries to deny education loan applications citing greater risk of default. 

Second, the relative difficulty of coming and studying in Britain has increased the appeal of colleges overseas which offer collaborative British degrees. Often, this is an arrangement by which the students stay in their own countries and study for a course which is locally accredited, but also accepted by a British university for award of their degrees. Such enrolments were up 40% last year, and it is expected to go up frantically, despite the apparent displeasure of Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) of UK with many such arrangements, as the British universities fight to keep their overseas franchise. The colleges overseas also has a strong reason - differentiation from their peers - to do so; the rewards for this, the premium they can charge, has also gone up as the easy options to go to Britain disappear. [By a rough, back-of-the-napkin calculation, the annual cost of British undergraduate education, from the perspective of an average Asian student, has gone up by at least 50% with the disappearance of low-cost private education options]

This trend also has interesting long term strategic implications worth pondering about. Indeed, the government policy is based on the assumption that British Higher Education has a strong brand equity and despite the changes, students would still come to Britain to earn British qualifications. However, while the underlying assumption may be true (that there is brand equity), this may not automatically mean that the students would want to come to Britain. 2011 was the first year when the students staying abroad and studying for a British Higher Ed qualification outstripped the number coming to the UK; with the former growing rapidly and the latter widely tipped to fall this year, that gap will widen over time. It is also worth considering the fortunes of Accountancy training sector in Britain, where the country had a lead and a strong brand equity: In the 80s, a large number of overseas students studying for an Accountancy qualification came from Malaysia. In the subsequent decades, the Malaysian students declined, and the industry was mostly surviving on Indian, Pakistani and Chinese students. This year, the number will decline precipitously, as the immigration restrictions start to bite (Accountancy students are most affected, as they mostly came to private HE institutions). The Indian and Pakistani students are now going to Malaysia, which now has a strong Accountancy training sector and reputation. 

Another fundamental change in the overseas market is in the nature of the recruitment agencies, which were the prime source of students for the British Higher Education institutions. In the last decade or so, during which time the business had a very profitable run, it attracted many small entrepreneurs who converted their labour recruitment businesses ('dispatch agencies', as it is called in some countries) into education advisory businesses. The effect of these agencies on British For Profit Higher Education sector should be explored further, because, in such exposition lies object lessons on what really went wrong in the sector. The proliferation of such agencies presented an easy route to market for British Higher Ed institutions and enabled their explosive growth: However, the institutions without proper systems of accountability and oversight, where revenues dictated business policy, got easily swayed by the imperatives of their agent recruiters: In case of most For-Profit colleges in trouble, the root cause can be traced back to their relationships with agents and their failure to provide adequate oversight of the recruitment process. 

However, as the immigration rules were tightened, most of these agencies have now moved on. Most have invested the wealth they earned through this business in diversifying into other unrelated businesses. Despite its mostly negative impact, fast disappearance of the agent network (and the fact that the ones still in business have become largely ineffective) has affected the British Higher Education in general and For-Profit HE most severely, effectively robbing most of them of their only route to market. The usual marketing routes, that based on branding and marketing, are mostly alien to most British For Profit colleges, who had mostly left their brand to the agents in most markets and now have to make significant investments to turn around the largely maligned brands. For most of them, coming in the middle of a recruitment squeeze, this is an existential problem.

All the forces described above are in play right now, and this is indeed changing the For-Profit Higher Education in Britain beyond recognition. At this time, there is a lot of M&A interest in the sector, though this isn't matched by proportionate level of deals, indicating a lack of quality assets in the sector. The few deals that have happened were grossly overpriced, indicating that private equity is largely in the dark about the mechanics of the sector, and the models they are applying to achieve valuation isn't accurate yet. In summary, everyone seems to think there is a business opportunity, but no one seems to figure out where that is yet.

The opportunities should be clear to those who want to see it. The government is indeed creating space for For-Profit Higher Education, and is clearly keen on small specialist colleges. These colleges do not necessarily have to be elite or semi-elite, but it is expected that most of them will fall for the pricing-equals-reputation mindset (the efficacy of this is questionable, but this is a discussion for another day). Most of the winning institutions in the marketplace in five years time will be new, rather than built on M&A activities, as the premium bubble or the baggage of failed business models would eat away any new investment and sap the energies of the management teams. Besides, how does one create a small, specialist high-value college on the remains of a generalist, undifferentiated, demand-absorbing (at the bottom end of the price and/or talent spectrum) institution, within a relatively short span of time? 

We haven't seen much start-up activity yet, but considering the landscape looks like the Internet industry in the middle of the dotcom bust, we should see new and disruptive start-ups, with global/local business models and commitment to educational innovation (away from the current strategy of pretending to be an university), winning in the marketplace. This moment will come once the dust settles in the industry, around the end of this year, when the new regulatory regime as prescribed by the government fully falls in place, the winners and losers of the For-Profit industry are sorted out and when the Public Education system begins to crumble, with the universities showing their vulnerability for the first time with dipping demand at home and abroad. This is also when the investment bubble in Higher Education will also be exposed, and the current wave of M&A interest, which is following its usual 5 or 10 year cycles, which is crowding out the space for innovative start-ups, start to dissipate, just like it did after the dotcom crash. Indeed, some ventures will take off earlier, and these will be the first-mover winners of the game; and, indeed, there will be some better funded second acts, coming into existence in 2013, which will divvy up the market.

Welcome to Higher Ed 2.0!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A College in India: My Next Steps

If there is one thing I truly want to do, it is to build a college in India offering access to global education to Indian school leavers. Having studied in India and in the UK, and having spent a few years trying to understand the systems of Higher Education in various countries, I am convinced about the need to develop Global/Local offerings for young people, who have to live and work in a world very different from our own. And, with 5 million more people going to college by 2015, India is the place where this demand will be most acute, and if it is not met, the human wastage most devastating.

Writing about my future plans in December 2009, I wanted to do three things: Do something hands on, get knowledge and experience in Higher Education sector and go back to India by December 2012. I have done the first two things, and though I acknowledge that it is unlikely that I shall pack my bags and return to India in the next few months, this is something I truly want to do and may actually end up doing it when I can get the education project started. I have reached a point, given my family commitments in India, when I know this is something I really want to do. Though I love the English weather (strangely), my friends here and the life I live, I am reaching that point in life when I must have a purpose to serve: I can find no greater purpose than getting this educational institution off the ground.

This does not necessarily contradict what I am trying to do in my day-to-day work now. My work towards building a network of global business colleges is consistent with this goal. Indeed, I believe the college I start in India must be globally connected, and the plan is to situate it within the network of global institutions. I build the network first, now, working alongside colleagues and fellow-travellers from different countries, and in next two years, and then run, hands on, one of the institutions in the most attractive of the global education markets.

I see this existence of network as absolutely necessary, and not just something that fits around my lifestyle. The reason global education projects fail is because of their dependence on rich country universities, which, despite their strong heritage and large endowment funds, often fails to understand and adopt to the realities of global student demand. Most universities operate with a strong home country bias, a form of laziness and bureaucratic paralysis which is cloaked as commitment to quality, that umbrella term which has become catch-all for everything that stifles innovation and new thinking. Within that framework, it is almost impossible to deal with the challenges of creating a global/local offering, which will invariably involve experimentation (a no-no in higher education), risk taking (one can't see career bureaucrats taking risks) and humility to understand the local contexts (another no-no for Western universities, mostly). In summary, the success in creating a global/local offering in India can only be done through new thinking about learning and teaching, quality and curriculum, which needs to be sustained through building of a network based on similar values. 

Returning to the Global College project in India, I am now looking for partners and collaborators, and indeed, money, to get it started. In my mind, this runs parallel to my efforts in the UK to create the network, as I intend to join the two together when time comes. I see myself uniquely qualified to do this experiment, having forced myself to global thinking for last ten years and undertaking studies on learning and adult education in the global context. My current efforts are focused on connecting with people who share similar views, and who, through collective resources and networks, can bring this project into being. As I have described before in this blog, the first few programmes that I intend to build for this college are to be in the Digital Industries space, an acknowledged gap in the Indian market and something that aligns very well with what we are trying to do elsewhere in the network, particularly in the college to be situated in London. The idea is to have a range of digital industry focused programmes, alongside Business programmes focused on similar areas, and a number of cross-discipline modules that builds into both, which will then be accredited in India as well as for global awards. 

I am at a very similar point as I was in December 2009, the logical end of one project and start of another. I did well as I accepted my new project with all humility, with the acknowledgement that I am starting fresh and without any sense of entitlement. I did put in hard work and tried to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can. And, most importantly, I worked with people, who had different talents which complemented what I could bring on to table, and saw the magic effects of collaboration. This is indeed what I wish to repeat now. I am back to the starting block, taking nothing for granted, seeking out co-travellers who are united in aspiration, and ready to put in whatever it takes.

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