Friday, November 30, 2012

Books Become Social: An Idea For the Future

I am already a fan of Open Utopia, an experiment in social reading. I met this with a pure deja vu feeling: First, an article by Jennifer Howard on the project, and then, coincidentally, an email from a Linkedin contact complaining about how rough Amazon and the various self-publishing organisations treat the authors, set me up for this. If I was feeling despondent about books and more so, about creativity, here is the answer.

Indeed, I am talking about the idea rather than the specific project. Open Utopia is an experiment, carefully crafted, though I think Utopia is rather an unfortunate choice. This experiment could have been easily crafted on some other book, one, I may hope, that had a world-changing impact, and by implication, showed a deeper confidence in the way the future will indeed play out. Open Utopia, I would like to believe, is not an utopia, but more a precursor of an excitingly creative future.

Printed books have to change. Those of us in love with paper, with that intimate warmth and musty smell that put us to sleep every night, know that there is something wrong with it. As we enter the realm of a different generation, those who, almost universally, saw computers at school, say, books may seem old-fashioned. But more than that, printed word may appear increasingly stale, particularly in comparison with the openness and creativity on the web.

The travails of my writer correspondent in the hands of Amazon is somewhat relevant here. His narrative suggests that the big beast, he called them the proverbial elephant in the china shop, do not care any longer about the writers. They know they can roll them over. It was fascinating in a way because I am a fan of Amazon: I find their customer service amazing, their strategies so smart. But the story suggests a shift which I have seen elsewhere: A power shift from producers, in this case authors, to consumers, which is the essence of the markets and, by extension, seen as a good thing. However, I have noted this shift elsewhere too - in Higher Education - where in the name of student choice, the power and the prerogative were passed on from the producers, in this case the faculty, to the self-appointed gate-keepers of choice, managers of various creed at the colleges, and finally to big businesses which embody the management ethos.

So, my thesis is that information industries go through extraordinary phases of creativity when a new medium empower the producers to create unhindered, but, in a phase like this, the power of choice gets passed on from producers to consumers, and invariably to the self-appointed purveyors of consumer choice, the big businesses. Tim Wu makes a similar point in his The Master Switch, though he looks at telecommunications and Internet, rather than publishing and education. However, the patterns are quite similar: Creativity usually prospers in safe environments, where the creators have the choice, rather than in those where they are subject to the vagaries of consumer choice; and invariably, the consumer choice comes about as a potent force only through proxies, the big businesses which act as the gatekeepers of that choice. This eventually stalls creativity, and finally, again a breakthrough technology or organisational form come about, reorganise the producers and creative actors, and a new cycle of creativity starts all over again.

I notice in books a similar degeneration, and was quite worried that the new technology, the Internet, was being employed, at least thus far, to create forms which extend the lock-down version of Amazon monopoly. I refused to buy a Kindle, as I did not want to hand over my freedom to read to one platform and one company. But the appeal of this platform seemed unstoppable, particularly for a generation which has loved to hate books as a representation of the old, top-down, 'dad's universe'. The cool electronic Kindle and its cousins represented no freedom, only a more controlled experience, but the novelty of the medium, embedded in the buzz of creativity around the web in general, seemed to have obscured the fact altogether.

The social book, which uses the new medium for what it is, opens up a new possibility. Indeed, it is possible to see Internet as one giant book - remember Tim Barnes Lee's early inspiration came from the idea of Commonplace Book, the genteel habit of fact collection in one massive compendium - and it evolved quickly into a place to meet. One could be fooled by the apparent solitude of the act of reading, but the book-readers know that it is actually a conversation, both with the author and its characters, and the expression 'on the same page' is there for a reason. The social book, a book as a place to meet, is an indicator of the future of the book more than its Kindle avatar.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The 'Inside Economy': Recovering From Rhetoric

Joshua Cooper Ramo somewhat spills the beans in his latest article in Fortune (read here) and says a thing that everyone knew but was afraid of saying: That, to quote Ramo, "globalisation has a reverse gear". Citing arguments that would be familiar to those who followed Pankaj Ghemawat's work (see his TED presentation here), Ramo makes the case for the "inside economy", one made of local consumers and producers, that is fast filling the gap left by the receding global trade.

The point is - we know this already. India, as I have argued before, rode through the tides of global recession looking inward: While its outwardly-orientated industries, IT and Aviation for example, took a beating, the ones serving domestic demand, manufacturing, retail and financial services delivered steady growth and jobs. China turned its economy slowly from an export-driven one to one aligned to local consumption - the slowing of Chinese growth, in my view, is an indicator of this change, rather than its fallibility - and, as Ramo argues, America is doing the same.

However, while the facts are quite clear, the interpretation of it begs a debate. In Ramo's view, this somewhat means we have overdone globalisation, moved too far too fast. However, in reality, we actually never got started. Indeed, the rhetoric - of 'flat world' - and its messiahs, such as Tom Friedman, overtook the reality; this, coupled with neo-liberal conquest of the world, made us, at least those of us who read English language news, believe that globalisation is complete, irreversible and a natural next step in history. This is 'globalony', as Pankaj Ghemawat calls it, a sensationalism that may sell books but eventually leads to reactions such as Ramo's, which denounces the effects of something that never happened. This is where the 'inside economy' argument starts getting problematic.

The 'inside economy' isn't a new reality, but one that was always there: Just that it was unexciting and didn't get the share of the rhetoric. Let's consider India: The middle class boy who huddled through a newly formed Engineering College and suddenly is sent abroad, may be making it his first Aeroplane trip, made a much better story than those village boys who goes to the city and sets up a small shop, but the latter is both more numerous and had more impact, in relative terms, among people around them. The Chinese trinkets, flooding its own market and Asia, were not hailed as the coming of the great power, but the produces of its slave labour, our shiny new iPads, certainly were. And, the worst kept secret of American business was its 'inside economy' - only 1% of any American company had any operation abroad - and the reason American businesses do well is because they could tap into a ready market of consumers who were willing to take risks.

So, in the end, Mr Ramo's presentation isn't in line with Mr Ghemawat's, but its opposite. Mr Ramo seemed to have bought into the flat world exuberance, only to suffer disillusionment as he discovered the twists and turns. His conclusions, in retrospective, are dangerous: We did not do Globalisation too fast, we never did it. We mixed up globalisation with the movements of global capital, which surely moved faster than ever, but that makes no difference to people and lives and even real businesses. And, besides, if we have to get out of this recession, what we need is more globalisation, not less.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

India at Crossroads: Waiting for Mr Modi?

India faces a momentous election in approximately 18 months time, but next week, its first battles will be fought. Gujrat's enigmatic Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, will face elections in his own state, and most probably win. A big win, as predicted, will set him on course to be the Prime Ministerial candidate for the Hindu Chauvinist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which will, given the woes of the current ruling coalition, put him in a pole position to win the premiership.

This will be a tragedy for three reasons. 

First, this will turn the debate about India's future into a debate about its past: Mr Modi, despite his new development-friendly avatar, represent a Hindu supremacist view of India. His track record, which he is desperate to leave behind, irreversibly features the pogrom he organized or encouraged or tolerated (depending on what one believes), which killed more than 2000 muslims and displaced ten times that number, making Gujrat a more homogeneous state than it was before. His possible ascendency in Delhi will revive the possibility that he may wish to do the same across the country. While his strategists assiduously deny that this could ever be the case, pointing out the vast minority population of India, they leave unsaid that without a strategy of that nature, it would be impossible for Mr Modi, at best, to be a more than one term Prime Minister. Mr Modi, and BJP in general, has failed so far to present a coherent idea of India which is any way different from what the current Congress government is talking about, except to emphasize 'efficiency'; with Mr Modi in ascendency, everyone will see that this is only a shorthand for authoritarianism.

Second, this will also represent a win for a tyocoon-friendly top-down vision of economic development, which India already has enough of. This is a model dependent on export revenue, foreign investment and a free-for-the-rich play. Last few years have shown that Indian economy's resilience comes from its chaotic bottom-up structure and domestic demand. While this makes a less spectacular story than the shiny new factories, big investment MoUs and prosperity of a few as developments in Gujrat have shown, the bottom-up people-driven model may be the only one that may suit the wider country, which includes more people than just the Hindu Male Gujrati businessmen. India remains a resilient, large, diverse country, with many competing visions and different interests: However inconvenient that may seem, this has allowed India to build a more sustainable grassroots model of prosperity and development. Going back to Mr Modi is going back to the 'India Shining' days, which meant a lot of easy credit fueled middle class hoopla, without an expansion of productive capacity or sustained consumer demand.

Third, this may mean further strife with India's neighbours, who will be uneasy dealing with Mr Modi given his track record. Indeed, one may argue that it does not matter what they think, but that is precisely the mistake Mr Modi and his advisers will be prone to make. India's foreign policy, like everyone else's, may now need to pivot to Asia, as this is going to the most exciting, as well as most dangerous, economic play and strategic arena in the world. Whatever we have seen so far, this is not what Mr Modi or his advisers will be comfortable dealing with (though one must also recount how little the UPA government has done in this regard, and the only Premier to have seriously tried an Asian pivot was Atal Bihari Bajpayee, the only BJP Premier that India has ever had).

Indeed, one may not need to take a Modi premiership for granted. The UPA government has all these 18 months to make amends, and it is finally getting back into action. Even if BJP comes to power, Mr Modi will be unacceptable as a Premier to half the country, and various regional politicians, with whom a coalition must be formed, would prefer a more benign candidate. The BJP has proved to be an extremely fractious party itself, and may fail to fall in line behind Mr Modi. And, Mr Modi, who is currently testing the waters, may settle for the bird in hand, and may never want to leave Gujrat politics for an uncertain future in national politics. 

Whatever it is, there are clear and present dangers, and those rooting out for a more tolerant India, with a sustainable model of economic development and sensible foreign policy, must remain forewarned of a lurch towards extreme right and extreme uncertainty. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Counting Down to Christmas

Finally, it feels that I am in the home stretch to end what has been a freaky year. In a way, I am exactly where I was a year back - not a good thing - in the middle of raising money for a start-up business and completing various personal commitments; seen another way, I am far down the line, not just a year older, but much wiser, having gone through a real double loop learning with business, and having connected with a number of very interesting people along the way. I feel confident and happy, and looking into 2013 to be the year when all this must deliver.

Standing still isn't any good, and I regret that the fact that we haven't moved much forward in real terms. For this, I blame the middle months and a diversion, a period when we abandoned the start-up proposition and tried a MBO of a much bigger entity. There was an enormous learning, but we failed - in my estimate - to consider the human factor at play, a mistake I regret personally. One of the things I consider my strength is interpersonal intelligence, and with hindsight, I know I completely overlooked the some of players in the equation and their personal agenda, and somehow got blind-sighted by what people told me rather than what they meant. In the end, we lost time working on a deal which was destined not to happen, and ignored the proposition that we were already working on, a year earlier.

Learning is one thing I take away, and that is not just about watching out for stakeholder interests next time around. I should have already known this. The deeper learning is about what I really wanted. The most valuable piece of advice which I was given during the year was that I need to focus back on the UK, rather than talking global all the time:An advice immensely valuable, as all my schemes are always global and therefore complex for investors, but something I choose to ignore, because that's what I am, global at heart and in search of excitement in life. Even if it makes sense to take a local health food franchise and make millions hawking stuff to people, that may not be my idea of business: I want to do things that I love, rather than what would make me money. And, it is finding what I love is possibly the biggest learning that happened through the year.

Almost always I knew that dumbing down our original proposal and fitting it around something to do in Britain - an intelligent interactive enterprise training to be delivered alongside college courses, for example, indeed a me-too, undifferentiated proposition solely based on 'better quality' claim - would have been attractive to some of the investors we were talking to. They didn't like the level of complexity of the proposal we were putting on table, a global play in a regulated industry using emerging technologies. I also knew that positioning the proposition to education investors, rather than technology ones, had inherent limitations. However, let's say the story of 2012 was about being honest to myself: We didn't want to sell the idea as a technology play, because we did not see it to be, and our deep conviction was that we were trying to change higher education, and create a global model of it, and using technology to achieve this. The fact that we saw the easier route, yet argued against taking it as we didn't believe in it, gave me, progressively, an idea what I really like to do in life.

The plan for 2013 is therefore simple. We shall go ahead and create this global education proposition, regardless of when and how much investment we get on the table. The last few months taught us about the bootstrap life and improvisation; they also taught us that there are more than one way to get towards one's goal. Personally, the last few months in particular, but also all the events leading into it, taught me the value of remaining focused on what I really like to do and making every day count, building skills and abilities that could plausibly count towards my final objectives. This is the life I want to experiment with - in the remaining 30 days to Christmas: A focused life of making everything count.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Commonwealth Dream: Why Britain should move on

There is talk of reviving the commonwealth, particularly among the British Tories, as they drift away from Europe. William Hague talks about putting the C back in FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and various advantages of doing business with commonwealth countries are mused about. There are sceptics, such as The Economist, who highlights the various roadblocks, and particularly laments that various commonwealth members are not compliant followers of the British, or Western, view of the world. [Read the article here]

The point, however, is not whether commonwealth is relevant from the point of view of Britain, but from its other members, particularly the old colonies. Unlike what the modern British citizens would like to believe (and a comment to that effect was made on The Economist article), Commonwealth was set up much before the liquidation of colonies, and not to assuage the post-colonial 'guilt'. Commonwealth was extended, after India's independence, with modification, as the new Indian state wouldn't accept the Queen as the Head of State and was republican, to maintain British influence, and to retain the trade advantage over and above its other European and North American competitors. In political terms, this was Britain's attempt to cling to a hangover of an empire, in a world being divided in two competing cold war empires at the time.

The reason, therefore, why Commonwealth has lost relevance can be understood from its history. The cold war empires eventually overwhelmed any other grouping; Britain got too busy maintaining its position as the preeminence as the American ally in Europe and NATO; but above all, the ex-colonies moved on and left their hangover behind. One question that the Tory strategists forget to ask is why Britain is any longer relevant to the Commonwealth nations: The Indian companies invest in Britain and snap up British assets because it provides them an easy way into Europe. Replacing the EU membership with love for Commonwealth will make Britain a marginal entity for its commonwealth members.

While the Economist article accuses Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India and South Africa for blocking Britain's efforts to create a Human Rights Commissioner in the Commonwealth, one has to stop seeing this as an evidence of disregard of human rights in these countries, and see this in context of the pointlessness of the commonwealth. Britain has to come to terms with its declining influence in matters like this, and instead look at its warming climate to become a more pleasant tourist island. 

If Britain is to retain its place in the world as a preeminent economic power, it has to exactly the opposite of what it is trying to do now. It has to maintain an ever-closer relationship with Europe, and become its connector to the rest of the world. It has to preserve its universities and scientific, cultural and artistic tradition, not destroy them by depriving them funding and support. It has to come out of the besieged island mentality and let foreign businessmen, workers and students continue to inject vitality, enterprise and knowledge in its economy. In short, Britain has to adjust to its post-colonial realities, and shed its colonial hangover, once and forever.

For India, Australia, Malaysia, and most of other members of the Commonwealth, the future lies in its relationships with China and America, rather than in the old associations with Britain. All the countries speak English, jolly good, so that they can talk between themselves and with the Americans. The Indians are getting to the point of overcoming their past - and they must look East to be able to do so. If British pretension at telling these countries what to do is seen as neo-colonialism, it indeed is: So is this brouhaha with Commonwealth. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The For-Profit Debate: An Essay in Progress

While the public policy shifts to encourage the growth of For-Profit Higher Education Institutions in the UK are discernible, relatively little is known about how these institutions operate. The policy makers, driven by the agenda of cutting public spending, have significantly altered the way Higher Education is funded in the UK, and at the same time, allowed significant concessions to private for-profit Higher Education institutions in the hope that this will attract private capital to the sector. Apart from recently lowering of the bar on how many students an institution requires to qualify for degree-granting powers, and the proposed extension of VAT exemption to For-Profit institutions, the government has even allowed For-Profit companies to take over and convert Not-for-Profit degree granting institutions into one of its own, in a significant departure from how Higher Education institutions have been formed in the past. (THE, No. 2078, 29th Nov 2012, PP 6-7)

The main body of literature available on the functioning of the For-Profit Higher Education Institutions is to be found in the Press rather than within the academic domain, and the available commentary is mostly anecdotal and informed by a conservative negativity in an attempt to paint a black-and-white picture of poverty of the private sector (usually ignoring the For-Profit/ Non-Profit distinction in the UK). On the other end of the spectrum, the Business Analysts employed by the investor community project a somewhat opposite scenario: Parag Khanna, an influential commentator and Karan Khemka, a Principal with Parthenon Group, a consultancy, writes (HBR, Jan/Feb 2012): “In some countries, regulators have limited the expansion of private colleges and universities or the potential for investment in them. This is counter-productive. Private investment in Higher Education leads to more enrolment in Higher Education.” The article was titled “Enrol the World in For-profit Universities: Growth and Wealth will follow” and was listed as one of the most audacious ideas for 2012 by Harvard Business Review, a leading business journal.

However, in the United States, when the For-Profit Higher Education has shown remarkable growth in the last forty years, there is a growing body of research and literature in the functioning of For-Profit Higher Education Institutions.  While undeniably the growth of the For-Profit institutions in the US is deeply connected to a uniquely American Higher Education system, the trends and trajectories of its development are instructive. While proprietary colleges existed in the US for a long time, its rapid growth were set off by the Higher Education Amendments of 1972, which allowed students intending to study at For-Profit institutions to be eligible for federal student loans (commonly known as ‘Pell Grants’). A parallel development was set off in the UK recently by the Browne Review (2010), which transformed the system of Higher Education funding from one based on institutional grants to a system of student loans, and allowed For-Profit institutions to compete for it, which led to a significant restructuring of the For-Profit sector in the UK, and a rapid expansion of some of the institutions. In the light of these parallel trends, the literature from across the pond is both useful and instructive.

It is also to be noted that the current debate in the UK about For-Profit Higher Education is expectedly influenced by the events in America, where a major Congressional review of the sector took place recently, uncovering many unsavoury practices, and as a consequence, limiting the access to public funds the For-Profit institutions may have had. Also, in response, American For-Profit business leaders, laid out a vigorous defense, explaining the ethical violations as anecdotal and an aberration, rather than the norm in the sector. Andrew Rosen, the President of Kaplan, John Sperling, the Founder of University of Phoenix and Chairman of Apollo Group, and others argued eloquently about how For-Profit institutions are essential in creating a mass Higher Education system. The case they made has been based on (a) how the college fees have risen above inflation and therefore the need for  'efficiency' to reign in the cost spiral; and (b) that 'Harvard Envy' (a term Mr Rosen coined, to signify the drive of Public and Not-for-Profit institutions to become ‘bigger and better’, without regard to the bottom line) is driving public and private not-for-profits into more research pursuits, ignoring the core instructional activities, while the latter means more to the students.

To make sense of this debate, one should start with the well-laid-out rationale for the existence of For-Profits: To deliver the economic growth that the democratic governments need for its legitimacy, more and more citizens must be able to participate in a knowledge economy, and to leverage available technology for productivity growth and for improvements in the quality of life; and universal access to Higher Education is the only way this can be done. However, Higher Education suffers from an intractable 'cost disease' (which the economist William Baumol illustrate with the case of ‘String Quartet’, the highly skilled maestros who play Beethoven, whose productivity haven’t risen since the 19th century, but costs have), and a more efficient means must be found to allow for its mass expansion. Hence, the need for a For-Profit solution, which will allow deployment of private capital in solving this urgent social requirement, and which, to become profitable, will eliminate the 'cost disease' and deliver mass Higher Education at a lower per capita cost to the state.
Given its contextual importance, whether and how the For-Profit institutions could actually eliminate the 'cost disease' should attract more serious enquiry, but it hasn't: The passions the debate generates, with most scholars and scholarly practises being put on the dock, outweigh the urge to pursue a more disinterested investigation. Despite a growing number of students opting for For-Profit institutions and tectonic shifts in public policy, there is very little to go by except the witch-hunt in the trade press and self-congratulatory publications from the For-Profit players themselves (and from various analysts and consultants). However, the battle lines are clearly drawn, and in the UK, where the Government has recently unleashed most profound changes in the Higher Education in last half-century, the debate on the legitimacy of the For-Profit institutions, and indeed of a new wave of For-Profit led expansion of Mass Higher Education, is under way.
For-Profit institutions in Britain, unlike their counter-parts in America, are at an early stage of their evolution and somewhat less prepared for their new-found role in the limelight, and therefore make an easy target for its detractors. The sector consists of mostly proprietary institutions, with limited capital outlay and sparse physical and academic infrastructure, mostly servicing international students from newly industrializing countries. The sector is deemed to be 'efficient' and offer a cheaper way to study, the reason why it attracts international students who would otherwise have to pay a 'overseas fee' in Britain's public institutions and subsidize the relatively richer 'home' students. However, the critics argue that most of these For-Profit institutions are deficient in almost every other count, inadequate infrastructure, poor teaching, credibility of awards, and stand out for 'cheap is cheap' rather than 'value for money'.
However, neither For-Profit institutions nor the criticism are new, and Graham Greene predated many of today’s detractors by his portrayal of ‘St Ambrose’s College, Oxford’ (When Greek Meets Greek, 1954), which offered solutions when ‘war conditions prevented (one) from going to Oxford’ and offered ‘degree-diplomas…. at the end of three terms instead of the usual three years’. Greene’s take on its teaching and assessments would also resonate with today’s critics of For-Profit Higher Education:
"'Priskett here is the science tutor. I take history and classics. I thought that you, my dear, might tackle - economics?'

'I don't know anything about them.'

'The examinations, of course, have to be rather simple - within the capacity of the tutors. (There is an excellent public library here.)  And another thing - the fees are returnable if the diploma-degree not granted.'

'You mean...'

'Nobody will ever fail', Mr Priskett brought breathlessly out with scared excitement."  


This essay intends to explore the rhetoric around the For-Profit Higher Education in an effort to advance the understanding of the sector beyond Graham Greene’s prescience. The author’s own work in the For-Profit Higher Education sector provides a perspective, as well as the emergent body of work, both scholarly and in business domain, about the functioning of these institutions. At the outset, however, one needs to recognize that the sector itself is in the middle of a great change: Primarily because of the new immigration regime, the burdens of which fell primarily on students at For-Profit colleges, have deprived many of these institutions of their lifeblood. In an estimate done by EducationInvestor, a trade magazine, roughly 2000 such institutions, big or small, have gone out of business in the last eighteen months due to lack of student demand (EducationInvestor, April 2012). The change in the regulatory regime, which accompanied the immigration controls, has also upped the costs of operation of a For-Profit institution and required fresh investment in physical infrastructure, at the same time as the demand is contracting. The effort required is well beyond most proprietary institutions, and has led to a number of ownership changes, the proprietors bailing out either in favour of Trade Buyers, mostly American For-Profit Firms looking to expand in Britain, or Private Equity, investor firms who want to restructure the operations of smaller institutions, and sell them for a profit to the trade buyers later.

However, despite the ongoing consolidation of the sector, and the infusion of new capital, it is still unclear whether these changes will result in a sector fit to deliver the efficiency that the policy makers are looking for. The claim that ownership by a larger corporate body rather than individual proprietors result in greater efficiency and more publicly spirited institution stands rather battered by the findings of the recent Congressional investigations in United States, which portrayed a picture of a largely fly-by-night sector afflicted with the problems of predatory selling and flawed economics maintained on a life-support by subsidized student loans. The below-par graduation rates and above-average student loan default rates made some observers identify this sector as the source of a new sub-prime debt crisis there. In light of these observations, an inquiry into the structure and functioning of For-Profit Higher Education in Britain become more significant, as an increasing amount of public money gets diverted into the For-Profit institutions.

The government has farmed out the responsibility of ensuring efficiency in the For-Profit Higher Education institutions to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA); the underlying assumption is that gaining 'Confidence' from QAA will put For-Profit institutions at par with its Public sector counterparts, and thereafter, they could be expected to do the same job.

However, the limitation of this approach was apparent soon after the new regulatory regime was set in motion: The For-Profit institutions operate with a different set of rules and norms altogether, and serve a different kind of student population. To meet its mandate, QAA had to create a limited version of its review framework, presenting it something like a half-way house, to accommodate the For-Profit institutions, increasing complexity and defeating, in a way, the very goal of creating an unified accreditation framework for Higher Education. The For-Profit institutions, even the well-endowed ones like Greenwich School of Management, which is one the biggest recipient of the Student Loan Company money, fell short when they opted to go for the 'full' review with QAA. There may have been a number of reasons for coming up short, though it was interpreted as general lack of quality in For-Profits in the trade press (such as Times Higher Education); however, this further illustrates the requirement of a more informed discussion about what the For-Profits do and how they can play a part in the Higher Education sector.
 
In order to achieve an understanding, therefore, this essay would explore the differences between the Public, Not-For-Profit and For-Profit models, as only the understanding of such difference can help construct a picture of the For-Profit operations and critically explore how it can fulfil its public role. A review of literature, and further exploration based on author’s own experience, highlight three major themes, across which such differences can be studied:

Perception of Risk: For a For-Profit institution, the biggest risk is indeed the lack of demand, and therefore revenue and profits; for a public institution, a large number of which operate with some form of taxpayer guarantee, the risk is of failing to meet the requirements of public scrutiny. For Not-For-Profits, which has a greater exposure to public scrutiny but lower exposure to the pressures of growth compared to For-Profits, the risk perceptions are more akin to public institutions. These differing perceptions of risk define the organizational ethos and dictate operational priorities: The For-Profits are usually as obsessed with marketing and recruitment, and continuous growth, as the public institutions and Not-For-Profits will be with capacities, process flows, and record keeping. A For-Profit institution, which would see close correlation between profitability and just-in-time capacity creation, would usually struggle with a Quality Assurance System primarily based on capacity building.

What Teachers Do: There is also a fundamental difference between these different kinds of institutions in how they perceive teaching activities. The traditional Not-for-Profit institutions evolved out of teaching communities (or individual teachers), and most of the conversations around universities, notwithstanding the current bureaucratic avatar of a public university, are about academic freedom and community. However, For-Profits are industrial form of organizations where the teachers are, among others, tools of production. The usual just-in-time thinking would usually mean pre-dominance of non-tenured teachers on hourly contract, with attendant limitations on creativity and commitment. Treating teachers as resources, For-Profits operate to extract the teaching time as efficiently as possible, but so far, this meant botched application of scientific management techniques (because teaching is very unlike factory work, and more like performance art) into organizing teaching.

Despite the limitations of this teaching model, the For Profit advocates cite the growing cost and consequent unsuitability of the current model of teaching employed in the public institutions. In what should be treated as a paradox, many For-Profit institutions in Britain employ teachers moonlighting from the public universities: Often, this is what the For-Profit institutions will highlight to impress the Quality Assurance Agency and other regulators. However, this practice implies an indirect public subsidy to the For-Profit model, a fact the regulators have so far overlooked. The role of teachers in the For-Profit institutions therefore present a potent area of inquiry, with significant implications for public policy and student experience.


Educational Objectives: For-Profits often operate with the assumption that creation and delivery of knowledge can be separated, something completely antithetical to the founding faith of modern Higher Education. The allure of no-frills teaching, something that the institutions proudly proclaim and policy-makers directly or indirectly endorse, is strong, but this essentially changes the role of knowledge in Higher Education.

More paradoxically, the fact that teaching and knowledge creation can be separated is indeed at odds with the current business thinking, which indeed views knowledge as a commodity, but something that still must be produced and competed with: So, it is the production, preservation and dissemination of everyday knowledge, and turning every employee into a knowledge worker, is seen as the only way to survive and thrive in the current business climate. The schools therefore want to focus on teaching and deliver a fixed body of knowledge, whereas businesses believe that it is continuous production of knowledge that keeps them competitive.

The For-Profits claim to be employer-friendly and represent a more career-focused education. The regulators, operating within market paradigm, would usually see this as a strength of the For-Profits. However, this paradox of knowledge lies at the heart of For-Profit education. Many For-Profit institutions offer, in the words of a major Indian For-Profit institution,  'attitudes only' education, turning the whole student life into a consumer experience.


As the above observations suggest, there are important contradictions at the heart of the claims of the For-Profit institutions in terms of expanding educational capacity, being teaching centric and offering better instruction and equipping graduates better for a career. In the following paragraphs, this essay will explore the For-Profit Higher Education institutions along these three axes, and look in greater depth the evolution of the UK For-Profit institutions in each of these areas. Finally, and speculatively, a projection will be attempted to chart the course of future development of the sector. 
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This is an essay in progress, purported to be part of a longer work on For-Profits. I am posting this online to generate conversation and any feedback will be welcome.

 

Monday, November 19, 2012

MOOCs: Falling In The Degree Trap

MOOCs are taking big strides towards becoming accredited, but is that the right thing to do?

As some of the Coursera courses get recognition for college credit, the mood for MOOC enthusiasts is definitely celebratory. The idea is gaining traction, they say, and here is proof that it is no longer a fad. The MOOC will now challenge college education, bemoan its detractors, pointing out that it is surely the inferior alternative. 

The full college degree, as everyone is expecting MOOCs to get to some day, is a far cry from sme college credit. MOOCs will have to change their essential character to do full college degrees, as their major challenge, assessments, will become central in that game. Without the massiveness and the openness, MOOCs are not much of a phenomenon; Open and Distance learning existed for a long time. Russian engineers were training themselves by the Radio in the 1950s, as around the same time, earning diplomas. The game-changing possibility of MOOCs is whether these can disrupt the degree economy, and to do so, they must stay clear of the degree trap.

Degrees will remain the currency of Higher Education, claims Daniel Pianko and Ryan Craig in Inside Higher Education, and indeed they have facts on their side. Never before in history, there were so many students worldwide studying for a degree programme. At the same time, however, the fortune of the degrees can be compared with that of our real world currencies: Everyone claims the system is broken, but since it is too disruptive to fail, the system is allowed to carry on. The question is, therefore, why try to connect an exciting new innovation to what is already a failing model? Why not seek the credibility elsewhere?

The obvious alternative is the employers, but we already know the limitations of an employer-led model. The here-and-now culture of a Hiring organisation focuses too much on immediate skill requirement, which does no favours to the students' future prospects. Besides, employer-led training is also old hash, not something suitable for an exciting new thing like MOOC. It will take away the key attraction - that of knowing something really new or novel - and may make the whole thing about filling out forms and ticking the boxes, as vocational education often is.

The less obvious route, but one that fits the MOOC model better, is possibly to build a community of practice around the platform. It is easier in this case than it sounds: The massive scale of MOOCs is really its strength, and the community already includes a number of decision makers, employers and practitioners. Evolving its own global credential model, based around its own community, is plausible: In fact, if anything, this will upset various national regulators less than if MOOCs purport to give out degrees.

It is indeed something that will play out in coming months. The way I see it, MOOCs are here to stay. If anything, they represent an exciting new innovation in education, and one example where private investment can create a credible alternative. But it is a different game: Falling into the socially mandated degree trap will project MOOCs as the inferior alternative, rather than a different route that they really are.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Living With Big Data

We consume a torrent of data as we live, and we produce the same too. However, the more we produce details of each little step we take to live, we obscure the little data more and more, such as feelings and pleasures of human exchanges. The Big Data, the faster, bigger and more complex stream of data, does not so much chronicle our life as much as it changes it. While the technologists and marketers of various descriptions celebrate its arrival, it is time to pause and reflect how it changes us, our lives and institutions, and further, what it means to be human in the age of big data.

One would wonder why big data is any big deal, as data gets bigger with every passing generation. As our networks grow, we know more; our storage technologies get cheaper and better, and we store more. Having lived in the age of floppy drives and 4kb memories, the big leap into megabytes was as significant as moving from cheap gigabytes to plausible petabytes. While the rhetoric is that the torrent of data will submerge us, it won't: The data we produce, collect and store are exactly as much our technologies allow us to. By definition, the big data can't be bigger than what our technologies could handle.

It is not the bigness of data that we should be worried about, but the impact more data has in our lives. In short, this is not a problem of knowing more, but of understanding less, of the obscurity of meaning. The streams of data project patterns of human action, which neatly fits into our collective behaviour. However, the more we focus on collective patterns, indeed produce them, the individual actions, beliefs and idiosyncrasies, everything that we do everyday defying the pattern, which is essentially the act of being a normal person, become more obscure. The massive analysis of Twitter streams tell us stories of how societies behave, but gradually obscure the fact that most of our lives play out offline still. This hardly uncovers the person who, instead of playing with smartphone, actually marched on the street. It creates a pattern of the universe of the observers, but it is the actors who change our lives: It is so easy to get overwhelmed by the act of observation and miss the action altogether.

Never before so many knew so much about matters which were the preserve of so few. The MPs' expense claims today fit into a few compact discs, and therefore, could be passed onto a newspaper without much problem. But knowing more does not make us free: It makes us hand over our responsibilities of deciphering our surroundings to media commentators, as it becomes so hard to make sense.

On the other hand, Men in power want to access the data streams and watch every detail of their citizens' behaviour. They employ armies of data scientists and technologists to uncover any clues about private behaviour. Not all of it is sinister, surely - most of it is designed to keep its citizens loyal consumers of democracy, just like chocolate marketers and trinket sellers of various kinds, dedicated to status quo. The problem that confronts the state is the same as what it does to us individually: Knowing more may obscure the meaning, the trends may hide real action, the data walls may make the state more distant and blind than it has been ever before.

Also, the same qualities that make the data streams available, help it shift power, finally and perhaps irretrievably, from state to private spheres. Weightless as it is, big data today resides with private companies more and more, and the state apparatuses, big and powerful as they are, are increasingly reliant on private repositories of data, held with Google, Twitter, IBM and the like. The state always had the big data - or should we call it bigger data - than was available in private sphere; that balance is now altered in favour of businesses.

This, in the end, is the bigger point of big data - it makes us all consumers now. The underlying vision, that everyone will follow a pattern, and the moral justification, that the state, its institutions and private corporations should know more to serve our material needs, weave an information society to make us consume more, to make us 'happy'. This also puts the act of being human in stark contrast, of defying the trends, of countering stereotypes, of marching on streets and caring for more than what we need to consume. The small conversations suddenly shed its usual boredom and give us relief; the familiar, the usual, the trivial become special, and the act of rediscovering love, respect and little pleasures reappear as authentically human, almost heroic. It represents a chance to regain our humanity, hidden within the vortex of the data stream, away from the prying eyes of our lords and masters, and in contrast with our own consuming selves.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

India 2020: The Uses of Crisis

India goes from crisis to crisis, but that may not be a bad thing. In fact, if you imagine the country to be a jungle, these small events are equivalent to small fires, one that prevents big fires from happening. India, chaotic and crisis-prone, can be relied upon not to have a big upheaval, even if the Hindu extremists get the power to run the country. One would expect them never to get there, given the extreme complexities of Indian democracy, which will always ensure a coalition of interests, rather than one extreme view, gaining ascendency. 

But, apart from the prevention of big crisis, the perpetual state of crisis is helpful to move the country forward. Though largely unacknowledged, the Indian government has scored some significant victories over the last couple of months, passed a raft of unpopular reforms, stalled for years, within a few weeks, got rid of an obstructionist ally, and promoted a new group of Ministers known for their effectiveness, and importantly, honesty. With the new team in place, and an existential crisis, a general election due in 18 months which may throw the Congress government out of power and alter the country's political equations for good, around the corner, the Government may be more inclined to act than they were able to in the last three years or so. Besides, as the India's economic growth is stalling, the fear of God is making them move: Despite the huge sense of entitlement that some of these politicians are bestowed with, even they know that there may not be any second coming if they screw up now.

This is indeed my big hope about India, despite its recent run of corruption and crisis. I see that the Indian politics have finally changed. The vote bank politics, which emerged a strong force in the 80s and have dictated the country's political configuration since, is receding slowly under the pressure of middle class aspirations. Indian middle class is showing up, not as a columnists' imagination but a rather practical political entity, and demanding better lives. Some savvy politicians have understood this: Despite initially winning vote-bank victories, they have successfully turned themselves into development messiahs. Gujrat's Narendra Modi may be its finest example, but Bihar's Nitish Kumar, Uttar Pradesh's Akhilesh Singh Yadav, Rajasthan's Ashok Gehlot and Madhya Pradesh's Shivraj Singh Chauhan are all in it. And, this message is spreading: India's Anti-corruption movement, as it claims its prominent victims, is surely having an effect, and changing the political context. The general elections due in 2014 will be the first time this middle class muscle will be flexed on the national stage: The politics may completely change thereafter.

Surely, while we are on the subject of crisis, we must also take cognizance that the big external payments crisis, that in 1991, was the context of Manmohan Singh's initial economic reforms. This time around though, Indian government attempted to sleepwalk through the worldwide recession, hoping, somewhat correctly, that its domestic demand will not slow down because of the worldwide crisis. This assumption may have proved correct, but this has changed India's economic configurations somewhat. Suddenly the great Indian IT services companies, at least some of them, are struggling, and Indian exporters, particularly in the fledgling manufacturing sector, are finding it hard to sell to their European customers. Indian government could do very little to change the fortunes of these companies. What it had done rightly is to focus on industries which ride on domestic demand, such as retail, and could help the domestic manufacturing and help stem job losses. One would expect, in the coming months, the government will continue to focus on sectors which will create jobs in the immediate term, retail, aviation, transport, hospitality perhaps, as well as on those which may absorb the excess middle class workforce left stranded by the slowdown of export-facing sectors, such as education. Crisis is helpful not just to avoid bigger future crisis, but, as in case of India and given our lethargy and inclination to do things at the last moment, it is good for initiating action. 

As they say in India, everyone can use a good famine.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Breakpoint: Towards A New Model

We barely started, but already experienced a pivot point: In the last couple of months we are at it, our idea of the kind of college we want to build has evolved already. We learnt, as we liberated ourselves from the constraints of practise, that there is a bigger opportunity out there in connecting, rather than recreating the wheel and trying to deliver, educational experiences. The metaphor for what we are creating is no longer a college - we shall work with colleges rather than create a new one and compete with them - but a global network based on shared values and commonly agreed frameworks. This is so much closer to what we believe adult education should be, an enabling mechanism to connect with the world and collaborate with the like-minded, and our technology tools and business model are fast evolving in line with this education ideal.

Initially, when we imagined the learning environment, we imagined the students will come to a portal offering various services, just like a college, and then access the course micro-sites just as they do when they go to classroom. It made sense, but only for a few weeks when we were still entrapped in our brick-and-mortar college mindset. It was logical, but constraining; it made the same mistake that colleges often do, treat the adult, self-motivated learner as a child. Rather, we needed a social space built around learning and intelligent conversations, a coffee shop set up with some membership rules and etiquette, minus the coffee. We needed to induce the openness and the fun, and we almost forgot that in our paradigm. So, after working several weeks on building a course management platform, we pivoted, settling instead for a more open, more social environment, where learning is about sharing and conversations.

What we stand for has somewhat changed too. Initially, this was about taking British qualifications abroad. We saw the big opportunity as UKBA was wrecking the prospects of the whole higher education sector, being an insensitive and irresponsible regulator, driven by an electoral agenda but completely oblivious of the role of the regulator in a modern society - not the lord or the master, but in service of creating a more efficient sector. Our model was designed to connect UK Higher Ed to students in growth markets more efficiently, and this was the primary rationale we presented to the investors. But, soon, as we started our conversations with colleges that we want to partner with and students that we wish to recruit, a surprising possibility started to emerge: What people valued abroad is the quality assurance system underlying the British Higher Education, this is where its prestige came from, rather than the degrees and diplomas themselves. Again, we possibly overlooked the fact being a prisoner of our experience, within a private sector college. Suddenly, it is deja vu - people care more about educational quality and whether they learn something useful in the end than the government regulators, university bureaucrats or financial analysts believe - and we felt liberated. We were always fearful of falling into the Diploma Mill trap which so many other private sector education enterprises fall into, but our first conversations pointed us to a way to build something meaningful.

In fact, we quickly learned that students, when taking a British qualification, worry how relevant it is for the local job market. In fact, for all the neo-liberal dreams of global education, this remains the most difficult challenge to solve. What Pankaj Ghemawat calls 'Globaloney' (watch his presentation at the TED here) pervades higher education: We believe world is flat and teach the students skills that are often at odds with their own native beliefs (which remain strong and strongly influence actions) and mostly irrelevant in their own home marketplaces. We needed to do more than just to create a platform to deliver British qualifications abroad: We needed to create a framework to create global-local education. As we are now calling it, it is a mix of global confidence and local comfort: No one can deny that being global is essential in this day and age, but keeping the local context alive and skills grounded is of key importance for the students we intend to serve.

This experience, all these challenges and changes, is already giving us what the entrepreneurial life can best offer, a wealth of learning. Many of these new lessons, as I mention above, are so liberating. Another example of what we thought about teaching. I have been exposed to the very best, doing my Masters in Education in one of the best universities in the world, full of intellectual challenges and unrivaled rigour and aha moments: I could see how best teachers can inspire and wanted to create the same experience. But, having lived the other life in equal measure, I also know the teaching in private sector is often too narrowly goal-focused, assessment-focused is the right word, and often devoid, for students, of any joy of serendipitous discovery. Indeed, the theory is that today's students don't want serendipity: They want the degree or the diploma doing the least they need to do. Which is a correct statement, I can vouch, just that this does not automatically mean that one must lower the bar. In fact, if anything, this means that one must raise the bar and make the students do more, so that they discover the joys of learning new things. I went to UCL to get a degree first; but once I was exposed to the joys of learning and pride of creating something great, I never wanted to leave. In our business, we want stickiness: In education, that would mean an alumni network that values the experience. We see stickiness as the only way to build a sustainable education brand, and we know that we can't create the stickiness with the diploma mill mindset. But it is so uplifting to be able to come to this conclusion.

More, the Open Social environment that we are building, and the framework of technology-led learning, is creating a different model of teaching. There will be a dis-intermediation in terms of the teacher's position: The automatic authority that an older man sitting at the head table (or better still, on an elevated platform) could assume will no longer be that powerful. Besides, teaching in this context is a design exercise and the teacher needs to be a skillful designer, aggregating experiences and activities, blending face time with independent research, and balancing teacher-led communication with reverse feedback and peer-group conversations. The teacher's authority will be incrementally built, more like the way one builds klout scores and less like how a government minister enters the room with a 'you-know-who-I-am' look. But at the same time, in this truly learner-centric environment, the quality will be in achieving the expectations of an 'optimal' learner (not just any learner, but a successful one, which needs be defined and benchmarked against) and delivering success. I am already toying with a new measurement of success - alumni stickiness - rather than the tried-and-discredited measures such as pass rates, student satisfaction scores or employability percentages. Living within the new model of Higher Education, I believe that the only goal that we should have is to build a lifelong relationship with all our alumni. 

So, making sense, learning - that's what we are doing now. And, I believe, we are getting a glimpse of the future: Our lives are suddenly more meaningful than it ever was. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Dampness of Hope

I maintained social media silence on the playing out of the American election, despite the alluring narrative of this being Wall Street versus the world. Despite, admittedly, there was much at stake: If Wall Street could impose its views of the world on America, the World would have been in line, with the guns and bombs and enough American young men still ready to sacrifice their lives without really knowing why. While I got up early enough on Wednesday to catch Obama give his victory speech, and exclaimed on Facebook that he seemed to have got back his oratory just in time, this was very different from what I did four years back: Sat through a night of vote counting, in a hotel in the middle of a business trip, just because I hoped that this President would be different. In 2008, in a world of continuous war, terrorist attacks and recession, I needed the hope as badly as anything: I surrendered my sense to the blind belief that if someone looked different, he must be.

Obama turned out to be a disappointment, but that's partly my, our, fault. He behaved like an American President that he is, upholding American national interests and playing within the constraints of American realpolitik. The euphoric vision of a world statesman, climaxed with a premature Nobel Peace Prize not long after he assumed the Presidency, started fading in the first contact with reality: Guantanamo Bay remained open, the assassinations continued as usual, the banks world over acted with impunity and the rich became richer and lazier. But, all of this could have been, should have been, well foreseen, but for the naive hope that we harboured. As the events unfolded as expected, we looked intently for the signs of doubt in the man himself, arguing to ourselves that despite being the most powerful person in the world, the President is only a victim. I believed too much into the narrative I constructed myself.

Indeed, in the election, President Obama was the least worst choice, and therefore deserved to win. Governor Romney, apart from being propelled to the Republican candidacy by the Wall Streeters who saw him as one of their own, did not really know what he stood for. Admittedly, that's not a bad thing for a politician, but he didn't behave exactly like the boss: He sounded too desperate and mostly clueless about the job he was applying for. Besides, it was rather improbable that a candidate like Mr Romney, unquestionably a plutocrat, will be elected by the Americans in the middle of a recession and when the banker's social prestige is at its lowest. So, while the President evaded answers, prevaricated on crucial decisions, and remained partisan and quite narrow in outlook, Mr Romney looked like a loose canon in search of a target. He was not the person even the Americans could vote for.

So, despite that the best man may not have won - because it looked more of a puppet show than the battle of men - the outcome should give me that catch-all consolation typical of middle class life: It could indeed have been worse. The Americans prevailed, as they can always be trusted to after all options have been exhausted, as good old Churchill hoped for. The speeches have been made, full of the same old rhetoric that gets spoken election after election, no matter which country. Hope, now dime a dozen, has lost its redemptive shine, and become a trinket to be handed down to the voting public with a make-believe 'yes, we can' slogan. One more time that the cans have been kicked down the road.

There will be much read into the results now: That Americans have changed and become much liberal; that the tea party madness should now recede, Israel may see sense and climate meltdown may be contained; that democracy beats the money and power, and therefore inherently regenerative. President Obama will now make promises to be decisive and wind down the wars as he promised. Some of it will happen, but most, including the structural changes for the sake of a sustainable society and a cooler planet, will not happen.

The rhetoric of fairness, justice and opportunity, will be paraded around, without conviction, courage or commitment, by politicians, but that does not necessarily undermine what these sentiments mean. One must remember that hope wasn't meant to be a good thing when it was sent in Pandora's box; it was meant to be a way to ensure suffering. Real change comes from necessity, not hope. So will it be, as people will march for democracy and for rights in different places and will be shot at, imprisoned and tortured all over the world, in the belief that things would change. This election, Obama's victory and all the rhetoric around it, is inconsequential and will always be so. All wiser, I have now come to see that these elections didn't really matter.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Open Courses and Its Enemies

Open Courses have arrived, with thousands joining in from all over the world, and that does not make everyone happy. Depending on who one speaks to, it is described as anything between a fad, soon to disappear into irrelevance, and a game-changer, something that will soon render our great universities useless: Both of these views are indeed extreme, and it is fair to assume that the truth is somewhere in the middle. However, the extremities of these positions indicate that the advent of open courses generate strong passion and heated arguments, and surely its enemies can match its adherents, if not by number, but certainly by strength.

Open Courses are indeed upending an industry, though it is not higher education and the universities. If anything, I shall argue, Open Courses are saving the universities and helping them to re-establish themselves with a more democratic credential and connect with a large number of people; the universities are regaining, through these courses, a sort of political legitimacy that they lost somewhere along the way. And, besides, Open Courses are helping to resurrect knowledge, rather than mere credentials or access to a privileged group, as the thing that the universities deliver: This will not just save the universities from the diploma mill challenges, but from itself.

However, not everyone is happy and textbook publishers are among them. Open courses is Internet delivered: This is what they feared will happen. Open courses transform the free but chaotic knowledge of Internet into streamlined, credentialed, but still free, chunks, fusing multiple medium and organized in an easily recognizable structure. This is what textbooks used to do, and they were hoping that Kindle and the like will help preserve them that privilege for longer. Open Courses is a big fly in that ointment.

But there is an even bigger problem and it is this - Open Courses will definitively shift the power from content to community in Higher Learning. The second coming of knowledge is firmly associated with free connections, inquiry and conversations, something that textbooks implicitly discourage. Textbooks, for all they stand for, are the industrial age contraptions that dominated learning for most of last fifty years; Open courses bring a much needed, paradigm shifting update.

In summary, then, Open Courses are eating the publishers' lunch, and that's where the resentment comes from. These masters of the learning universe already had enough trouble with the culture of Internet, and Open Courses represent everything they feared: the communities, the conversations and the knowledge commons. This isn't a battle which is over yet, but we may just be witnessing a passing of an age.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Universities of the Future: A Report

An Ernst & Young report looks at the Australian universities and come to interesting conclusions. The British universities, which look at their Australian counterparts with envy these days, may take note of this: The report offers some insights which may have universal significance, and universities all over the world, barring the few at the top of the pyramid, may have to reassess their strategies in the rapidly changing context of today's Higher Education.

In summary, the report points to five disruptive forces that confront what it calls a 'thousand year old industry' (though many in Britain will be affronted by the 'i' word):

First, 'democratization of knowledge and access', which means not just the MOOCs, but more fundamentally, Google, and YouTube, and the like; as well as the expansion of Higher Education systems in the developing world, based on the emerging consensus on Higher Education as the key to good life.

Second, 'contestability of markets and funding', which points to the increasingly intense competition at home (in Australia but equally true for the UK) for funding as well as for students in the global market.

Third, 'Digital Technologies' and the possibilities they create, which go beyond online learning, and enters the other realms such as recruitment, student services and partnerships.

Fourth, 'Global Mobility' of academics, researchers, students and funding, which creates a huge disruption for the nationally grounded models of higher education.

And, finally, 'integration with industry', which, in modern universities, reaching a proportion parallel to the closeness the institutions had with religious bodies before the secular universities came along (read Ken Auletta's take on Stanford's closeness with silicon valley), raises new questions about academic work and life.

The broad conclusion of the report is indeed that the public university model, as it is now, will prove unviable in all but a few cases in the next 10 to 15 years. Though this is kind of obvious, yet such a conclusion would be met with as much derision as Peter Drucker's infamous prophecy,  "universities won't survive", made in 1997, when he talked about big university campuses being relics 'thirty years from now'. The uncanny coincidence of timelines may indeed raise the suspicion that the researchers of the latest report is merely adding substance to Drucker's statement, but the university leaders and policy makers will do well to look closely at the predictions made here.

The E&Y report sees three possible evolutionary outcomes for the universities in the next two decades, which they call 'streamlined status quo', 'niche dominators' and 'transformers'. Indeed, most of it is happening already. The 'streamlined status quo' model, where digital and partnerships play a bigger role in recruitment and delivery, is the most favoured, understandably, and a reading of most university strategic plans reflect that unequivocally. Almost everyone agrees that things can't remain as they are (indeed, the E&Y report drew on the observations of university leaders) and the digitally enabled collaborative future is widely accepted as the way to go.

'Niche Dominators', where the report focuses on institutions which focus on a few subject and activity areas, rather than trying to build a broad all-purpose community as in the modern public universities, is also a popular model already. Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring highlighted the approach of Bingham Young University in Idaho, in contrast to the model followed by universities such as Harvard, as the way to go for modern universities in their The Innovative University. Whether or not this happens in Australia in the next 15 years, the bottom half of the British universities are already in the middle of an existential crisis, squeezed between a savage cut in public funding and a cavalier change in student visa norms that cut Britain out of global competition for international students, and with little choice but to follow this model. Indeed, this will need courage and wading through the teachers' unions etc, but reading through the strategic plans, the seeds of change have been sown. 

The 'Transformers', however, will remain a highly contested category, since this is to be dominated by private investment. Profit-making in education remains politically toxic, even in countries like America where business is all-pervasive and corporations are allowed to run every other function in life, including national security. So far, most countries allow Private Not-for-Profit but not their For-Profit cousins, which restrict, more often than not, the flow of capital in education. This is going to change, as is obvious from the current policy rhetoric (despite the persistent scandals in America) and the imperatives of choice, markets and expanding access. The report sees these private players to be niche and dynamic, innovating on technologies not just of delivery but of recruitment, student services and engagement, being in close collaboration with the industry. 

Indeed, despite its grim pre-supposition, the report is optimistic. It maps out an evolution of higher education in step with the changing time, and predicts that politics won't get in the way. It assumes the emergence of a responsible and responsive private sector complement, despite the current scepticism about the role of the private providers. There are bold predictions about the nature of subjects and disciplines on offer, and the optimism that markets will impose a sort of interdisciplinary cohesion not usual in the academia. In conclusion, this optimism about change would itself be the biggest change in the universities, which, despite its unprecedented current popularity, is facing the pressures of disruption as acutely as ever.

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