Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: My Year in Review

I feel the lightness of a crazy year that must be enjoyed once it has passed. This was my year of changing the course of my life myself. Like 2004, when I chose to become an immigrant, this was my year of living outside my comfort zone.

Living like this has benefits: One discovers one's friends. Once the privileges of being endowed is stripped away, what's left is truly us: Whoever loves us at our barest are those who stays with us forever. It is worth living like this at times just to figure out who these people might be.

So, a toast to those, who do not measure, who do not categorise, who do not seek reciprocity, but just remain human: The most pleasant thing to find is that this is not a rare type, but this is most people.

Also, being on the fault line, some of the dearly held myths disappear. Such as, entrepreneurship is a magical thing: Once lived through the blood, sweat and tears, one gets the real deal, the disappointments, the mistakes and the like. However, it is only then one discovers what entrepreneurship is for: It is not to have a better life or more money, but the joy of following one's heart and doing something fun. Standing at the end of the year when I had to deny myself most pleasures of a normal life, I feel good about having made the journey, not in the hope of being redeemed by a VC in the shining armour, but in the satisfaction of building something which may just work and make a real difference.

And, finally, this is the year when I discovered what I am good at. It took all my twenty years of working life to get to this realisation, which is a bit strange. But, it is only when one is living beyond other people's approvals (and year-end appraisals and raises), such things become apparent. This year gave me the space to think through what I do well as well as what I want to do well, and what I needed to learn. I enter 2014 armed with some of the most interesting insights I ever had.

In the end, then, adieu, to a year that will go straight into the hall of nostalgia as one to be talked about endlessly; one lived dangerously, but well; one of perseverance but possibilities; one of discovering friends and strengths, one of dispelling myths and comforts, a very special one!

Monday, December 30, 2013

End of Indian IT Industry?

Vivek Wadhwa is pessimistic about the future of Indian IT because of its inability to change (See here). He makes the point that the CEOs see that the ground realities are changing but are unwilling to do anything about it, with the daily imperative of closing Outsourcing orders dominating their agenda. In short, the sector has become a prisoner of its own success and there is a lack of strategic thinking.

While I share Professor Wadhwa's sense of foreboding (that Indian IT industry isn't changing with time) and his prognosis (the lack of strategic culture), I would think that it is more of a case of an industry that can't change itself rather than industry leaders not wanting to change. Indeed, this makes things worse: Global IT services is an extremely competitive industry, and one thing that works for Indian companies here is the ability to scale, to line up thousands of workers which companies from other competitive countries can't easily do (with the exception of China, where language becomes a barrier). However, with the changes in technology usage and consumption, scale may become less important than innovation and design abilities (particularly in the context of new opportunities) and with Internet of things, language a lesser barrier. The business model of Indian IT industry may indeed wither, if these things come to pass.

Apart from being a prisoner of its own success, I see four interrelated factors hindering Indian IT industry's ability to change. These are the nature of capital, the process-driven industrial culture of the workplace, the lack of start-up ecosystem and the wider education system that supplies the workforce. It is worth understanding each one of these factors in turn to see what is making Indian IT compete with its hands tied behind.

First, most Indian IT companies, those which are able to scale, are publicly listed, and therefore CEOs are under pressure to deliver quarterly earnings growth in the face of declining margins and stagnating demand. Therefore, their attention on chasing the next outsourcing order is understandable. And, because of the other factors present (the ones mentioned above), aligning with the changes in the IT industry is not about mere strategic re-alignment inside, but a more fundamental shift of the business model itself. Stock markets are usually bad at allowing changes in the business model, and the CEOs' priorities merely reflect that of their investors.

Second, because of the Indian IT industry's business model, that of creating huge pools of qualified programmers and other IT workers at a low cost, the company cultures are modelled around process-driven industrial culture. At its best, it is more Microsoft than Google; At its worst, it may resemble Ford Motor Company a hundred years ago. This makes Indian IT good at doing many of the twentieth century IT tasks, but inadequate for many emerging opportunities. And, change here is almost impossible (even the famed experiments at HCL Technologies, so celebrated by Gary Hamel, seemed to be fizzling out) because the internal company ecosystems have spawned a wider system of education to produce more and more of industrial-era workers. 

Third, if there is little hope of change from inside, one way the companies tend to adapt to rapidly changing industries is by tapping into start-up ecosystem outside. However, the start-up ecosystem in India still remains weak, primarily because of the tycoon culture of the Indian economy, as well as the lack of qualified workers, rising overheads and difficult legislation. The Indian government has indeed paid lip service to entrepreneurship development, but the focus of all such initiatives, presumably in the quest of prime time TV, was to endow more land, resources and facilities to large IT service companies, propping up the same endangered business model with some life support. 

Fourth, the Indian education system has failed to up its game. So, not only skilled graduate pool has become inadequate for the current scale of Indian IT industry, resulting in higher wages (undermining the business model) and high turnover, the nature of skills have become out of sync with the changing needs of the industry. The Indian education system reflects closely the hierarchical, process driven culture of the IT companies, and the elaborate tests and ranking systems reward those who can play the system rather than stand outside and innovate. And, again, innovation in Indian education system has been extremely rare and usually marginalised, because of the lack of incentives from the employers and lack of any alternative, like a start-up ecosystem. The regulators have made it worse, superimposing an input-defined system of quality assurance and restricting the entrepreneurial activities in training and skills development sector by repeated and misdirected government interventions.

I am conscious that this view is unerringly bleak, ruling out any possibilities of change, and the reality must not turn out to be that way. However, I fear that we are still looking for wrong formula to make amends and bring about the change. The Indian companies have so far responded to this challenge through acquisition and offshoring using their huge cash reserves, acquiring skills and abilities abroad as well as venturing out to Ireland, Poland and Philippines to set up shop to tap into local skills base. However, these efforts were so far directed to supplement their existing business models, and given their deep dependence on Indian manpower, it is unlikely that these overseas facilities or acquisitions can effectively help transform the way these companies do business.

The other usual retort to this bleak view will be that Indians are extremely innovative, making do with little and pulling off impossible feats in the face of scarcity, the paradigm of Jugaad innovation now popularised in the West. But this presents a fatalistic view - that somehow everything will be alright for such a successful industry - which is very Indian, but has been proven to be incorrect. And, indeed, in my view, there is a limit to Jugaad, and it may actually be counterproductive for India in the changing industry context (see here).

The only way to get out of this and transform the industry may lie in some joined-up policy thinking and cooperation between businesses, educational establishments and government. This should be easy in theory, but extremely hard in practice in India, where the political culture is dominated by the big and the mighty, the business has a blinkered view to work only on its immediate benefit and the education sector is left to drift along in search of a meaning. To be an optimist, therefore, may be about believing in the possibility of change, and there is some evidence of change at the State level in India, with new governments trying to break the mould. Whether these efforts will bring long term benefits is yet to be seen: In the mean time, the only option will be to remain fatalistic and wait for the knights in the shining armour to save the distraught IT maiden. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Arvind Kejriwal Must Fail

Arvind Kejriwal asks for ten days to solve the problems of Delhi! 

He is a novice in politics: One never says when one will do something one does not intend to do. But what if he really wants to solve the problems?

Problems such as corruption, VIPs cornering everything, police standing by as women are harassed, rising water and electricity charges while convenient arrangements ensure unlimited and free provisions for rich men's farmhouses. 

But we have always been told that these problems can not be solved. We just have too many people. And, it is people who don't want to follow the rules. It is their fault: What can the government do?

We have been told, for last sixty years and more, that it is best to have democracy for a day. You vote and you go home. You leave governance to those who can. You vote again in five years. We have got used to being governed: We are too messy, too incompetent, too poor - besides, we are just too many!

The only way out is a strong leader: Someone with a 597 feet megalomania perhaps! Or a matriarch, or a family, needed just to remind us that we have no hope in ourselves. We always must be told what we need to do, how we need to live, what we can realistically expect. As a permanently infantile nation, we must be led.

Therefore, Arvind Kejriwal must fail.

And, he sure will, we are told. He is just riding the waves of anger, towards the callous incompetence that led to the rape and murder of a woman a year ago. He is just a middle class fantasy indulged into by an unusually urban electorate. He is just a novice making promises he can't keep, pulling together a ragtag coalition of amateurs who will eventually disintegrate. It is easy to make promises when you don't have to govern, but now that we have manoeuvred him to the Chief Minster's office, he would publicly, terribly, completely fail. And, by making an example of him, our seasoned politicians will prove that there is no hope for the people of India.

Otherwise, he presents a big problem. Just imagine if people really start believing that they can demand accountability from those who vote in. What if the electricity can actually be cheaper, because of the efficiency savings of cutting corruption? What if everyone can be granted the right to safe, free, drinking water? What if the roads could be made safer, so that rich men's sons can't harass middle class girls with impunity? What if people are shown they can solve their problems themselves?

The only issue our politicians need to work out is how they make him fail. The usual, straightforward method of withdrawing legislative support, which the Congress will eventually do (because that's their house style), will not work right away. They must subvert his message first. This is where they must have all hands on the deck, regardless of the colour of one's politics. This is, in a way, politicians and their sponsors versus everyone else!

Subvert his message? Yes, because he is saying that he is just a common man, his whole team is, and that they would solve the problems of Delhi together. But we must hear the message of old politics, conveniently sliced and served up by the media: That HE would solve all problems in ten days! He would be the big guy. We are used to big guys, aren't we? 

For once, it is up to us to know the message regardless of the messenger. This is our moment of hope to waste. This is our time to grow up and be responsible for ourselves. This is our time to stand in a queue, be respectful of others, pay our dues and do our work: This is our moment to govern ourselves. This is when someone gave us a voice, and ours to assume the responsibility to speak up. This is the moment of democracy: Fragile, frightening, but laden with the promise and the possibility of freedom.

If we must, we fail together.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Education for Employment: Finding the T-Skills

I was recently at a seminar where IBM's Global Head of University Partnerships were speaking. In an insightful talk, he outlined the profile of an ideal candidate that IBM wants to recruit: This is a person with T-Skills, one deep skill but a broad range of interests, he said. This is quite common among employers, hence worth exploring. However, whether or not an employer defines this in such precise terms as IBM, this is still worth looking at, because the break between education and employment may be seen as a T-skills conundrum.

The desire for T-Skills can be somewhat obvious: Work in business organisations today are defined by an unquenchable thirst for greater efficiency and to infinite flexibility to ward off uncertainty. To achieve efficiency, they are increasingly specific, demanding in their job adverts an absolutely ready candidate who can add value right from day one. This is more true because most jobs are created today by start-ups and SMEs, which are under even greater pressure of efficiency than the large corporations. On the other hand, the bigger uncertainty makes employers demand soft skills, ability to communicate, learn and be flexible and adaptable. On this, perhaps, both the big corporations and SMEs are on the same boat, though one may argue that SMEs are slightly less focused on the uncertainty bit than the efficiency bit, many SMEs being a business of the opportunity of the time.

On the other hand, most educators grasp the T-skills idea intuitively, but somewhat believe that the employers are not serious about it. The idea that one needs to have a broad range of ideas and interests is indeed the core of a liberal education, and the deep skills, in an educator's playbook, is the outcome of the development of disciplinary thinking. However, the reason why the educators treat the employers' notion of deep skills with suspicion because they see this being about 'mere technical skill', a domain of 'training' rather than education.Consequently, most of the debate and the disconnect between the educators and employers concern itself with the notion of deep skills.

It is natural in a way because there is only one deep skill for any given employer - the one that is related to their business - whereas for the educators, the deep skills are often those which create the students' ability to be flexible between employers. To fit the T-skills paradigm, the educator's T is really a reverse T, with what is supposed to be 'deep' in the mix is really a 'transcendental' protruding part, the disciplinary pride seeking to advance the boundaries of knowledge. This is why, I shall hypothesise, while the ideas of deep and broad knowledge is shared between employers and educators, the ambitions are inherently different.

There is also a disconnect in the nature of broad knowledge. For the educators, the breadth of knowledge is designed to deal with the known, the informational, the basic building blocks of an academic personality. For the employers, however, the breadth of knowledge is primarily needed to deal with the unknown, precisely what the educator's deep disciplinary knowledge is designed to deal with.

Now, one way to resolve this difference is to subject the educators' perspective to the employers', as is usually done by popular media and politicians. However, the problem with accepting the conventional wisdom about educators being placed at the bottom of society's 'knowledge feeder chain' is that this may essentially be degenerative. In successful societies, educators play a central role in creating employers, facilitating knowledge creation and entrepreneurialism that in turn creates jobs and opportunities: The other view may mean that the education system is simply being driven around by businesses who, by definition, must minimise uncertainty and merely accept flexibility as a way of life. The business' view of T-skills would give us prosperity only if we can hold everything else in a freeze, which, as we all know, will never be the case. So, in a way, the society's requirement of T-skills, if one is ever articulated, may look somewhat akin to the educator's, rather than employer's, and indeed examples from silicon valley may present evidence to this view.

The usual retort to this argument, but one is usually left unspoken, is that not all institutions are the same, and it is possible to build a hierarchical structure of institutions to serve different purposes. Indeed, the model draws upon California, despite its current broken state of affairs, and its system of Higher Education: However, this is the model practiced in most countries with a tiny-at-the-top system of education, with highly selective, high prestige institutions being helped out with more than proportionate resources to serve the most talented, who are somewhat pre-selected to lead the social advances and push the boundaries of knowledge.

This is as beautifully and logically conceived as the Soviet Five Year plans were, and seems to be having a similar consequence. Systems always assume a life of its own, and its rules diverge with social realities very rapidly. In fact, development and institutionalisation of this system not only causes a divergence from social requirement of skills - any system is self-preserving and therefore seeks to minimise the possibility of disruption and uncertainty - but also drives students to focus on skills and abilities different from those the employers may want. The system's own schema of T-skills is constructed upon a deep understanding of the system itself, and its breadth becomes basically about playing the system.

The essential divergence between the employers' requirements and the educators' agenda may be emerging from the persistence and ubiquity of the industrial era Post-compulsory education system, its value system, institutions and entire supply chain along with test provisions and ranking mechanisms. Without the meddling of this elaborate system of privileges and resource allocation, even with the reverse T, the educators' priorities are well poised to serve the society, by spawning entrepreneurialism, by creating knowledge and by enabling the convergence of interests in creating opportunities. Indeed, this is not to claim that everyone should have, or even, need the same education: But the answer to this diversity of requirements is not to create a stratified system of privileges based on pre-selection, but a flexible schema based on equality of opportunity but diversity of outcomes.

To visualise how this could work in practice, consider a technology-mediated Post-compulsory education schema, where everyone receives 10 or 12 years of compulsory schooling, providing literacy, numeracy and liberal arts and sciences foundation. After this, everyone goes to work, and an open system of two-year undergraduate education is constructed around practical exposure and experience (which will essentially construct the breadth of skills and abilities), alongside development of reasoned critique and reflection on practice. Completion of this education is achieved through additional one or two years spent in either a discipline-based studies, setting out pathways for research, knowledge creation and thought leadership; or a Professional route, studying technical skills and abilities. This exists today, in spirit, in many countries; in practice, however, this system is trumped by a ranked university system which operate within silos, promoting 'social life' above all else, and expecting employers to recruit on the basis of name-brand recognition. So, this call for T-skills is nothing but a call to deliver what education is designed to deliver, opportunity, by escaping the industrial era legacies of social engineering, stifled mobilities and irrelevant game-playing. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Education for Employment: A New Paradigm for Engagement

As the economies around the world starts to recover, our worst suspicion will be confirmed: This is likely to be a jobless recovery. Employers, living through austere times, have not just squeezed out every bit of efficiency they could by use of machinery and stretching their staff, but also are scarred psychologically: It would take a long time for them to expand their workforces imagining a rosy future again. Yet, the numbers at Education institutions are higher than ever before: As I write this post, the British universities are celebrating an ever higher intake, despite a three fold rise in tuition fees, while moaning, as usual, the loss of 'standards', indicating that people who wouldn't have previously gone to universities are now going there.

This setting makes it 'the best of the times and the worst of the times' for Higher Education. Never before more people wanted it, and never before its value was so disputed and its practitioners so undermined. The sector's reaction to this brave new world is usually a combination of denial, that employment by itself should be a worthwhile goal for education, and denouement, that employers and politicians have created an elaborate scheme to shift the blame on educators for a broader social problem. While there may be some truth in both positions, a different response to reality is needed: Clearly those coming to Higher Education now, from families where no one has gone to college before and those who can ill afford a significant loan that their adventures in Higher Ed will invariably bestow upon them, would prefer to have a job at the end of their studies: Other benefits are welcome, but an employment will be a life-saver. The employers have clearly forgotten some of their responsibilities (believing, perhaps too seriously, in Friedman's doctrine of 'business of the business is business') but they may claim that the social bargain they have made is to pay tax dollars (which they don't pay, and should be held to account for that) but the educators must produce the grads. Indeed, the companies are often hailed as 'job creators' and they seem to enjoy all that accolade, though, if the above argument is to be accepted, the educators are the only job creators a society may have and the companies may merely passively accept them.

Once the educators engaged in this debate and accepted the challenge though, they would perhaps discover how they have lost control over the recruitment process. For all the talk of creating rounded individuals (a claim which, given the poor run of CEOs, Politicians and other institutions in our society, can be severely contested), the only tool Higher Education has relied upon for successful absorption of the graduates in the workforce is prestige. The sector may love to hate college rankings, but so far, those badges of prestige are the ones which they touted most successfully. However, this mechanism has its inherent limitations: This creates winners and losers in Higher Education, while the ranks of lower prestige institutions usually swelled with those who need the employment most. Besides, the employers are increasingly weary of the prestige-based metrics and in the absence of other alternatives, are increasingly relying on behavioural metrics, complex models which may combine a candidate's contribution to open source code with their interest in Manga, to take recruitment decisions. These techniques and models are still evolving, but their popularity may work against the Higher Education's claim to be sole arbiter of employment in a modern society.

However, an engaged educator may find that the employers are increasingly talking the language they wish to hear. The graduate recruiters' favourite term now is T-skills, a combination of breadth and depth, which, to the educators' delight, differentiates good education from mere training. The late Twentieth century recruitment practice of increasing specificity, which caused anguish among the educators and rightly so, is losing popularity, as the employers themselves face rapidly moving economic situation and start accepting flexible structures as a way of life. In an article in Atlantic Monthly, Don Peck talks about Xerox's recruitment tests and the desirable candidates having a 'creative but not overly inquisitive personality, and (who) participate in at least one but not more than four social networks', which sounds like the modern educators' model of a good student as well. The disciplined creativity that has been the holy grail of Higher Education is now forming the core of recruitment practice.

In the end, despite the divergent rhetoric surrounding education for employment, the practices are, then, converging. The students demand a practical education; the system based on prestige is inadequate for this age of mass education and failing most educators and students anyway. The employers are looking for T-skills, which is indeed what the educators promise to deliver. The recruiters' penchant for behavioural prediction can be better satisfied by the merger of classroom and workplace than the complex models that Silicon Valley start-ups are building. The case here is clearly one of engagement: The sooner the educators catch up on this, the better. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Can Private Colleges in UK Survive?

The private colleges in the UK, and I am talking about the ones which are small, mostly run by owner-operators, and privately funded, have taken a terrible beating in the last couple of years. The British Government's across the board clamp down on student migration, the burden of which fell disproportionately on private colleges, made their business model disappear overnight. Some enterprising ones survived the onslaught by adapting quickly to the new student finance regime established in 2012, where the government made money follow the student and opened it up for private sector, even For-Profit, institutions. 

This strategy has had some stunning successes, as the quick climb of numbers of students opting for private institutions, as opposed to a Public University, show. The success was primarily because the private colleges, leaner institutions without a mandate for public duty or unionised staff, could afford to charge the students lower fees compared to the universities. They could also attract the students with lower grades in the school-leaving examinations as the public universities were subject to a quota for these students, and had to turn down applicants, whereas the private institutions were not subject to any quota numbers.

However, the success has brought out another round of controls, suspension of some very successful private colleges from the student funding entitlements. The student quota for public universities now are due to be abolished, though the private colleges will be subject to a quota, based on their current year's recruitment numbers, which will reverse the equation that led to the recent successes of some of the players. 

This, coupled with the government's projection that the number of college-going students will start to fall from 2015 (a trend that is likely to continue till 2020), and the smaller private colleges look as doomed as ever. Besides, the changes in the regulatory environment has significantly increased the cost of doing business for the private colleges, and this cost will continue to rise in line with the very British indulgence with red tape more of which is sure to follow. The remaining private college owners in Britain are clinging to their businesses in the hope that the current student visa regime will be reversed given the intensely competitive international environment (for example, as the new Australian Minister for Higher Education vows to welcome more International students to Australia and the US regulators start showing openness to payments to educational agents). However, both the Government and the Opposition have worked themselves into a corner on this issue, and helped create the 'island under siege' mood on the main street: It would be hard to get out of this position despite the competitive dynamics. Besides, even if the UK policy changes in a few years, the International student market may have moved on: Apart from a freshly welcoming Australia and United States (and indeed Canada, which gained most from UK shutdown), various significant regional dynamics have emerged, such as accounting students travelling to Malaysia rather than UK for British Accounting Qualifications. This will effectively rule out any turn of fortunes for the private colleges with regard to international students.

So, then, can they survive as they have always done in the past? Indeed, the private colleges in Britain was enormously resilient, often inventing new business forms making the public system play for a catch up. The achievements of the sector have often been overshadowed by various scandals and abuses, but it is timely to remember that private schools led the way in Accounting and Business Education, Correspondence Courses and Distance Learning, and indeed, International Education, before significant public provisions were created. The message there is that the private provisions have always thrived on innovation and creating new programmes and areas of study, and always withered when up against the public sector. While there may be significant changes in the public sector itself which will make it more vulnerable to private sector challenge, the investors and entrepreneurs in the private sector colleges will be well advised to remember this lesson and avoid direct competition with public sector.

The UK private college sector has enjoyed a period of unparallelled prosperity for almost twenty years, as the international student market took off and the British universities started charging significantly higher fees to international students. This has come in the way of innovation and new thinking, as excess demand usually does. However, the period of next ten years is unlikely to be the same: The easy ride on Britain's student loan system is unlikely to save the sector as the events in the last few weeks have shown.

I shall argue that the education businesses now has a greater significance than they ever had. This is a time of disruptive innovation in higher education: While the rhetoric has reached a fever pitch in the States, innovation and new forms of Higher Education are emerging across the world. Britain will be well served by its own breed of 'edupunks and edupreneurs': The last thing one wants at the time of breaking of the Higher Education systems is a Higher Education landscape completely dominated by the Public Sector and a few large conglomerates, which will be essentially anti-disruption. 

One would hope that this big picture, the opportunity of disruption, will spur some education entrepreneurs and make them look beyond the stock constituencies of international students and student loan recipients. This may indeed mean creating new formats, such as employment-based education that Pearson College is already trying out. This may mean emergence of better Online formats, global learning opportunities and new methods of gaining academic credits. In many ways, the cozy days of selling Britain's colonial heritage is somewhat over: The time now is for real innovation and a new kind of private college may be best placed to seize that opportunity. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Is Education for Employment a bad thing?

The link between education and employment appear broken and educators usually get blamed for it. This is somewhat paradoxical: At a time when graduate salaries are holding up despite the global recession and more people than ever go to College, their work should be celebrated. The corollary fact that too many people also remain unemployed after getting a college education can equally be blamed on rapidly shifting job market, something outside the educators' direct control. The employers, sitting cozy in these debates, have some blame to shoulder too: Over time, they have become very specific about who they employ, and adapted the mantra of 'hire slowly, fire fast'. The national governments love heaping the blame of unemployment on the educators' door, with the political objective of deflecting the blame from themselves as well as to craft a justification for reducing the budgetary allocation for Higher Education.

One would think that the educators usually do themselves a disservice by not participating in the public debate, somewhat pretending that the conversation about Higher Education must go beyond 'mere employment'. The idea that the universities have an inherent purpose for itself is central to those thinking: The point that one may need to reinvent what they are for is an anathema to most educators. And, indeed, the educators are not an united bunch: Oftentimes the Sciences and Technology faculty participate in a civil war blaming their humanities colleagues for not getting the point, and thus advancing the argument that a section of the community does not understand what the society expects from them. 

If this is the inside narrative, the events outside the academe make the educators' position even more precarious. 'Knowledge Society', a construct that all work has a knowledge element and therefore more and more people would be required to do sentient work, has two seemingly paradoxical effect on the business of education: One, it makes knowledge central to social progress, and therefore assign an unprecedented importance to the job that the educators do; two, it creates the imperative that knowledge must be commoditised and made available any time and for everyone, effectively decreeing an industrial revolution be unleashed on the educators' craft. The educators, somewhat besieged by wider rhetoric and blindsided by the conflicting demands they face, makes little of the continued importance that this places on their trade; instead, all too often, they seem to indulge in a self-defeating defense of the idea of knowledge for knowledge's sake, with full realisation that once the sexier outcomes are available with knowledge, such tame talk wouldn't impress. In the end, it is not the limitation of an educator's practice, but the constraints of their vocabulary which seems to put them at odds with the popular demand.

This is, however, a serious matter. Because the longer the educators continue to sleepwalk, the trade is filled up with charlatans of all kind, because there is an attractive opportunity to satiate a social demand. That knowledge needs to be harnessed for the goals of employment isn't a lesser goal, nor is it a worldwide conspiracy to undermine education: This reflects the new social imperative that the institutions must satisfy. In context, it is time to interrogate the vocabulary of Higher Education and join the debate in all earnestness: Denying that this is even important, as some educators still tend to do, yield the space to those who may truly undermine the business of education.

What about the two cultures inside the academe then? It may seem that the science and technology disciplines are more ready to engage in the business of the economic value led domain of practical education, but humanities are not. However, this is not the disciplinary boundaries that constrain such engagement, but vocabularies that are primarily grounded in the past. Today's competences are still centered on the search for truth, beauty and morality, assisted by a keen eye and an agile mind. Employment in today's business organisations may indeed appear like slavery to the critical eye, but professions are indeed changing fast and whether individual corporations may or may not want sentient students, they would still push the boundaries of the profession and help build new standards and trades. The good news for humanities is that almost all employment is like entrepreneurship now (or going to be), each one being an individual agent, enabled to take decisions and imagine new possibilities. The moment the humanities disciplines re-imagine their vocabulary, and instead rediscover their values (which somewhat got buried in the technicalities of bureaucratic education), it would be evident that they have not been left out after all.

Indeed, despite many tragedies and wasted lives, that's what many pragmatic students are doing. The successful Sociology student, who highlight their experiences in behavioural research and experiences of working among disadvantaged communities in London, rather than hiding behind the fashionable names and luxuriously obscure theories, is building on his education in the context of social need. The Literature Graduate who have used the power of the language and metaphors into a successful small business of content writing, the History graduate who has taken on policy research for an investment firm, are not surrendering to the neo-liberal values: They are just being pragmatic, as people through generations have always been. They are using the powerful tools that education has equipped them with and making a difference, in their own lives but also in the lives of others around them.

So, instead of holding out and feeling besieged, educators need to engage in this debate. It is they who should hold the others - the employers, the governments - accountable: They should assume their responsibility to build successful lives and successful societies. They should stop hiding behind the disciplinary idyls and stop playing the game of entitlements that they have got so used to. An educator's success, by their own definition, is manifested in that of its students; it is time to remember the core value of the profession over and above the privilege of public purse and bureaucratic entitlements that everyone got so used to.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

India 2014: The Possibility of Hope






The Indian Politics has reached a fever pitch, the final stretch leading up to the General Election in May 2014, an election, I believe and hope, that will mark a point of departure in India's history, perhaps the most significant since its Independence in 1947. The outcome of this election is far from certain, but whatever the outcome is, a break from the past is clearly foretold. And, while many things can go wrong, Indians like me must remain optimistic and keep their faith in the resilience of the Indian electorate. 

It does seem that the Indian politics have finally reached the twilight zone of Gandhi family politics. The regal show that dominated Indian political agenda throughout its post-independence period, first by leadership and then by reflected glory, appears to be a spent force, out of step with the young, ambitious country. The traditional mechanisation of vote bank politics, populism and wilful policy ambivalence that marked Indian politics since the 80s, appear to be a caricature to an eager and engaged electorate whose collective ambitions are set to define the tone of politics from now on. The leaders of the Congress Party, many of whom owe their political fortunes on the patronage of the Family, feel the tremors but are too timid to break ranks and demand change: As it happened in India in the past, the house of cards have to come tumbling down for these 'leaders' to shift allegiance, which will surely happen overnight, once the tsunami of public anger undid the house that Nehru built.

If this first part of the undoing of post-independence India is a tragedy, the other part is, predictably, a farce: The rise of the Hindu fundamentalist BJP with its strongman leader, Narendra Modi. This politics is one of opportunism, one that of trying to be all things to all people, centred on the overarching belief that everything can be bought. In a cynical replay of the Indian political tradition, their political calculus is based on minor regional parties falling in line when the plausibility of a BJP victory become obvious, and buying out minority votes with the promise of favoured treatment. Despite the apparent hatred between the two camps, they are united in the contempt of the Indian voters, who are imagined to be poor, illiterate and narrowly self-interested, despite many signs on the contrary. The political promise of this brand of alternative politics is based on the flipped version of the motherhood politics so favoured by the Gandhi clan, a strong leader who would dictate the agenda. The only difference between the two is if the Congress is hallucinated and can not see the fading of patronage politics, the helpful alternatives are all too aware and wants to offer its 'better' version of the same.

That sounds already bleak, but there is more: The impotent third force of Indian politics is the assortment of hereditary scions, criminal politicians too radioactive for any of the main parties, and regional megalomaniacs who are too fickle to be trusted in any coalition. Add to that the marginalised Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the rump socialists, currently dethroned from the comfort zones and deeply distrusted everywhere, and one would possibly get a clear sense how both delusional Congress and cynical BJP both dream to achieve power in 2014.

However, despite this illustrious line-up, one could still be hopeful about India. In fact, the absurdity of these choices may precisely represent a turning point in the history. The politics of absence has now become so desperate, and so much of a stumbling block in the common people's aspiration of a good life (though it remains to be defined what that is), that an alternative politics of presence and engagement is emerging. The sudden victory of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a ragtag citizens coalition formed against corruption, in the state elections of Delhi may well be a pre-cursor of things to come. It seems that the people of India is tired of living 'instead of the government' and finally want to hold those seeking power into account.

Indeed, the AAP victory in Delhi can fizzle out. Political movements often falter at the moment of triumph: It may not have a cohesive idea how to deliver the alternative government after all. Delhi is also most atypical of the Indian states, an urban conglomerate with mostly literate population, and was also galvanised by middle class activism in the wake of a recent case of rape in the City. And, indeed, AAP can attempt an overreach, as symptoms already show, and try to carve out a national presence overnight - and, quickly lose its cohesiveness given the enormity of the task. However, this may also be the moment when a new politics can emerge - if indeed AAP takes the opportunity and forms the government with outside support - and delivers the Governmental activism that the common citizens desire. In many ways, AAP's post-election conundrum marks the battle of Indian politics - politics of absence versus the engagement, of cynicism versus activism - and despite the fact that its government is certain to be pulled down at its first move against corruption (because it has to depend on either Congress or BJP support to form a government, which will invariably be withdrawn the moment they punish any corrupt politician or official), this is a great opportunity to set the agenda of alternate politics everywhere else.

It is possible to over-glorify the AAP victory and I am painfully aware of the danger of doing so : Surely the biggest danger to this nascent politics of participation is another self-defeating megalomania. However, one must not undermine this sudden possibility of hope - an alternative in step with the aspirations and demands of the ordinary young Indian, a politics defined not by groups or privileges but by ideas and demands. AAP may not even win India, it may not even set a model, but it would help bring back hope in the agenda and open the possibility in Indian politics. And, this nascent brand of political activism, one would hope, would keep in check the alternative prospects of degeneration, of 'arrangements' that any Congress-led coalition may invariably bring, or the marauding crusade against India's democratic fabric that must be mounted if Modi's gamble to power end up succeeding.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Shape of Global Education: Searching for An Alternative Model

The current model of Higher Education is inherently local. 

Indeed, the credentialing system, the degrees, are conferred under authority from national or regional authorities, and are primarily set in context of the local schooling system. The sensibilities are rooted in the local connections, interests and priorities of the faculty. 

The growth of Global Higher Education, both of mobile students and virtual instruction, is a narrative of exporting one country's, or region's, knowledge, values and ideas to another. This indeed is problematic if the nature of work for the learner is local. This is the cautionary tale of the Foreign Educated who works in the inside economies of the countries, FMCG, Retail, Insurance, Logistics, Banking sectors etc., but are dismissive or contemptuous of the norms and practices and live in a futile pursuit of doing things in a 'better' way. But it is equally problematic for those whose work is global, in the trades and practices of service industries, be it developing an app or taking a global brand to inside markets, because the rooted sensibilities of a certain better way may come to prevent the understanding of the moving contexts that must accompany such work.

Indeed, one can take the view that global culture is an illusion, and even CNN or MTV are really export mechanisms of a certain dominant culture, but this will be to deny the hybrid cultures emerging across the world. The local refuses to die, and even solidify with prosperity and contact with outside, but the emergent local sensibilities, both in desires and values, consumption as well as production, are not the same as the 'traditional local', the way things used to be. And, indeed, this understanding - that there is no 'global culture' but 'global cultures' - is the key not just to global work but the success formula even in local work and contexts.

Emergence of such cultures present not one but two challenges for education. First, to be successful in the work contexts, which would, in one way or the other, but almost invariably be rooted in this hybridity, one needs an understanding quite different from the imperious assumptions rooted in most of the export-brand education systems of the world. The hybrid, 'global' cultures of work is not just about dominant cultures changing a traditional one, but in this age of ascendant individual creativity and expression, it is a dynamic that works both ways. At a very generalised level, this means shifting our focus from the mechanics of transmission - how one culture affects the other - to the underlying architecture of participation - how individuals pragmatically drawing on the contexts and cultures to create, enable and advance their own lives. This, however, remains a foreign context in education, which is still rooted in knowing than participating. In fact, rather paradoxically, the suggested cure, the other fashionable view that knowledge does no longer matter in education, overlooks and undermines the participation, and promotes instead the hegemony of practice, obscuring, rather inadvertently, the power and the possibilities of individual creation of knowledge and ability to shape the practices through participation.

Second, indeed, is the challenge in terms of values and the great temptation of indulging in relativism at the time of emergent hybridity. But this is not necessary: That even deep values stand on certain assumptions about life can be an useful starting point for any good education, and the process of education may, at its core, involve challenging and reaffirming these values (not all, but some that may indeed be reaffirmed). Indeed, one may call the process of coming to terms with oneself the core of education, the sense of being/becoming that educators root their practices on. This is both different from teaching 'better' cultures, and the unashamed fetish with change, that nothing must hold at the time of progress. For the learner, this is about developing 'global dexterity', as some commentators call it, a system of rooted, examined values, which may then inform practice and participation in hybrid and morphing contexts. Again, the current attempts to change education practices through technology often run counter with this aim, because most such endeavours work as handmaidens of education transmission, and not a purveyor of examining beliefs. 

So, here is the challenge: We are at a vantage point of experiencing rapid transformation of cultures and emergent hybridity. This makes local work globally sensitive, and global work locally influenced. The education system we have, which is essentially locally grounded even when transmitted across borders, fails to meet the twin challenges of such a world: Its transmission ethic come in the way of understanding pragmatic participation, and at the same time, the approaches to globalism become either patronising or relativistic. The current attempts to change the education system for the global age, the emergent global cultures, often reinforce the tendencies that may be most antithetical to global participation: The commitment to a given practice undermine the possibility of participation, and the notions of progress often indulge in rootlessness. In conclusion, 'global' education today represent the culture of global capital, transmitted from the centre to periphery and a celebration of relativism.

However, this does not have to be. The underlying architecture of participation, facilitated by the same technologies, possibilities and connections that the above-mentioned brand of global education rely on, creates the possibility of a new global education, which could be constructed to be locally responsive and participative. It can be based on a new epistemology, one where rules of the game are set by participation rather than transmission, a global wiki-education of sorts responsive to generative hybridity. At the same time, this may also represent the educators' finest moment, a chance to bring about reaffirmation of values and restoring it to its centrality again in the great scheme of education. This global education may be less global in performance but responsive to the possibilities of change, empowering for individuals and located in the deep values that make us human.    

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Student Loans and Private Colleges in the UK: The New Controversy

Times Higher Education reports that the Student Loan Access for 23 Private Colleges have been suspended (See story). This means that these private colleges will not be able to recruit any more students for the current academic year. Presumably, they would be able to recruit again for the 2014-15 Academic Year, when their numbers will be capped (they have been uncapped so far). Indeed, this should not amount to much as the main recruiting season, Autumn 2013, is already over, and some of these private colleges have recruited more students than they can possibly service. However, this tale of expansion leading to knee jerk reaction from the Government is yet another illustration how little the Policy Makers understand the Private Providers in Education.

To be clear, private providers have not over-recruited. This is because there was never a limit set on how many students they can actually recruit, and hence the Government's decision, prompted by 'expansion', may appear strange, and may even be open to legal challenge. However, apparently, some of these providers have indeed recruited too many: There are colleges which may have projected, in their application, only a few hundred students but ended up taking in thousands, throwing off the Government's calculation out of the window.

Indeed, this debate is muddled because it is so ideologically potent. The Universities and Colleges Union immediately demanded suspension of funding to all private providers. Others have made the case that taxpayer money should not go to the Private Providers at all. Times Higher Education, a respectable publication, indulged in some sensationalism by dragging Pearson's name in the fray, though Pearson has nothing to do with this other than being the accrediting body of the qualifications that these colleges offer. (Pearson makes only a couple of hundred pounds per student and to describe that as 'Pay Dirt' is purely an attempt to change the debate) Indeed, this is a losing tactic, as, by broadening the debate, the discussion shifts to the issue of principle (private sector delivering public services are all too common and successful in many sectors) and away from the incentives that must be closely examined. 

Why did this 'expansion' happen? One can possibly find the answers in the incentives in the system as well as inadequate control mechanisms. The first reason why the numbers are high this year is because they are uncapped (private providers were allowed to recruit as many students as they can) and will be capped at this year's recruitment levels next year onwards. So, there is a clear incentive for private providers to maximise their recruitment this year, so that this becomes the base number for them from next year onwards. This, indeed, is a dangerous incentive to give to any private provider at any time. The second reason is indeed that there is very little control over how the student recruitment is being done by the private providers: Some of them are already employing agents who are standing in street corners recruiting students who have no intention to study but do not mind turning up for a few days as some colleges are offering monetary incentives and access to maintainance loans etc. These are perfectly legitimate operations at the face of it, and may even pass off as a bold attempt to widen participation, but as everyone involved already knows, this is a quite elaborate con the Government has no means to control and penalise other than taking these knee-jerk measures which affect everyone in the sector.

The obvious conclusion to draw is that the private sector is prone to such practices and therefore be barred from accessing public money, but that's the wrong conclusion. Private sector providers can quite successfully point to less than kosher recruitment practices of public providers, carried on their behalf by their recruitment agents, which are as edgy as that of the private ones. Besides, there are number of private providers who would object to being painted with the same brush, and will point to the variety of the sector. And, besides, broadening the debate into the Public-Private divide effectively allows the malpractices to go unaddressed: When we should be looking at what effectively happened in these colleges, debating whether Pearson has gained from this expansion is indeed the wrong way to start.
 
The over-eagerness of public universities to paint everything into a public versus private debate continues to obscure the much-required discussion about how to create a responsible private sector in education. There is an argument about keeping the public sector in Higher Education, but this must be debated outside the narrow band of keeping the privileges of those involved in it currently: The wider issues of diversity of goals, the variety of student aspirations and the multiplicity of challenges must be addressed before jumping into the conclusion that there can be only one kind of Higher Education. And, this applies to the proponents of Private Higher Education as well: The succession of failures of the private sector is proof enough that a laissez-faire model may not be the panacea of all our problems with Higher Ed.

This current debate is yet another opportunity to revisit the possibility of creating a more diverse, responsible sector.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Waiting for a Future in Kolkata

It's a slow city. One can notice this as they watch the taxis mill around, somewhat slowly pulling over when waved at, declining a fare if that would make them late for lunch; one can hear that in the art of making conversations, bringing up things which may not be of any immediate or practical interest, but would just fill an empty time; and indeed, feel this when one goes around the city, as if it is frozen in time, in its degenerating buildings, unkempt roads, lazy policemen, people loafing around endlessly. 

One can see that Kolkata's attempts to catch up with the modern and the fast is somewhat out of sync, somewhat comical, in fact, if one cares, mostly tragic: One could take personal stance about how to view the Office Secretary spending a day at South City Mall peering into the branded clothing all day, but, unlike as her counterpart would do in Oxford Circus, never really having the courage to buy anything that would max her credit card out. It is melodramatically sweet to take someone out to Peter Cat, with its Raj-era dressage and dimly lit interiors, and to enjoy a signature meal which originated in Ottoman Harems as an aphrodisiac. It is also deeply erotic to walk the gardens of Victoria Memorial, a Raj era museum mostly forgotten, which display a collection of company memorabilia, and have beautiful gardens which allow couples a chance to steal a kiss and the assorted policemen a chance to harass them to earn a bribe. And, in conversations with the modern office worker, one can hear the eternally emerging Kolkata dream, the lure of the 'flats':  The idea of happiness away from the past and the responsibility of the crumbling family homes, to the bondage of a mortgage and sweetness of anonymity within a gated community. 

My visits to Kolkata are always full of such melancholy. Watching a 93 year old relative cry as his family home has now been sold by his nephew and has to be vacated in a few days is somewhat anachronistic to the general merriment of the celebratory feasts inside these new communities. True, if you are a middle class Bengali living on a meagre income, you never get to own one of these flats, but rent them.  True, you get a 'T' ticket, representing your tenant identity, which gets you an inferior meal than those holding 'O', owner, tickets, in the community gatherings. But it is still better to live in a community where you are defined by income, because income could rise and you can change, rather than in a community where you are known as someone's son, or brother, because it is hard to change those identities. Being nostalgic about the past is a good-natured Kolkata amusement that newspapers indulge in and modern Bengali art celebrates; but denying this nostalgia and being practical is equally the hallmark of a Kolkata professional, who treat the insensitivity towards such attachments as the badge of being modern. 

In this setting, it is only fitting that I get to see 'Achorjo Pradeep' ('Magic Lamp', as in the story of Aladin), a Woody Allen-esque rendering of the City, a fantastical narrative of a Bengali professional coming to fortune. This smart film, adequately displaying the best acting talents, sharp editing and brilliant cinematography, escapes the 'golden age' thinking and rather attempts to portray the disenchantment and bleakness of the middle class life. Its evocation of melancholy comes as a shock, a sudden, rude exposure of the downside of consuming lives, rather than the steady decline and trivial sadness that really marks Kolkata. However, despite the technique which reminded me of Woody Allen, this fantansy is deeply Bengali: Despite the attempts to avoid nostalgia, there is a deep attachment somewhere, a belief that the centre still holds, an illusive quest of love. It is also very Bengali because it is very male, its aesthetic defined by the morality of magic, celebrated over the degeneration of work: Its story told from the vantage point of sudden fortune rather than the murky world of dehumanising work, that represents its inescapable other half.

That, in essence, is the life in Kolkata: An irreversible dream alongside a hopeless life; a past without a future, which we have no time to live but no space to abandon it into; a quest for an identity without the roots, but a fantasy of love that must survive such a leap; a City, uncomfortably at ease, living modernity in a slow motion, reliving its festivities on Facebook, recasting its old narratives within a new fantasy. Every time I go to Kolkata, I lose a little part of myself: The paradox is that this makes me belong there even more.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The New Humanities Education

Humanities education needs to be reinvented.

Most of the conversation about humanities education today, led on by the Professors of Humanities, is defensive: It is about the value of humanities and why it needs to be protected for the sake of a democratic society. While the proposition is possibly correct, the style of reasoning creates three problems: One, it denies the obvious need that we must interrogate humanities education as it is done today; two, it somewhat projects that humanities subjects are somewhat superior than other subjects in fostering democratic values, which makes the argument elitist; and three, it overlooks the needs of the individual middle class students, of the kind of flocking to the universities today, and forgets to establish the link between humanities studies and jobs and careers.

The flaws mentioned above makes the case for humanities elitist and fails to appeal to people thinking about university. That it is important for democratic society will be appreciated by middle class students, but they will indeed be thinking that humanities should then be the preserve of those who can afford an education for the sake of social good, those who don't have to worry about a job afterwards. 'It must be a good thing, but not for me', would be their response.

Indeed, the point of this argument is less to impress the students and more to appeal for state funding: But this in turn misses the point how state funding priorities are, and should be, decided in the era of mass education. If the students are not wanting to do humanities, it is even less likely that the state will want to fund it.

However, an alternative view of the case for humanities education could be made on the basis of the need for judgement in modern professions: As we move from industrial to post-industrial professions, progress from process orientated decision making to more creative challenges, the ability to deal with complex information sets and make judgements, deal with things such as ethics rather than laws or rules or processes, and accommodate aesthetic imperatives alongside functional ones, become critical. A training in humanities can indeed further these abilities: This is not just social good, but also for better employability, and professional success, of the learner.

Surely, humanities is not the only way to do this. Sciences can do the same. No one should claim that creativity only lies in the realm of humanities, because great scientific creativity has got us where we are today. However, the point is to allow creativity and judgement to flourish, and variability to accepted and established. Sciences in our education system is too often too closely associated with technologies, and humanities present a viable alternative to nurture these creative instincts and abilities in the learner.

So, we need humanities education back in the agenda, but indeed, in the context of the changing requirements and the aspirations of the students. The new humanities education should embrace technology and not treat this as an enemy. It should step outside narrow disciplinary boundaries and treat the students' aspirations as the start point. It should indeed embrace the learners of today, often from a different social background from that of yesterday, who are driven by the aspirations of living a better life than their parents rather than taking the previous generation as the benchmark. The new humanities should ready the students for the uncertainty, the changes and the dilemmas of globalism, rather than putting walls around their thinking and rejecting these developments as a devious conspiracy.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Limits of Jugaad

We have duly celebrated Jugaad and made it part of the management canon: It has now come to be seen as the ethic of Indian business, perhaps Indian life, where one has to make do with less. What seemed once an awkward thing - visitors to India would often wonder about the Bamboo scaffolding used in the construction sites, for example - has now been accepted as evidence of Indian ingenuity.

We should celebrate Jugaad, and even see it as a precursor to things to come. The life of abundance, afforded by the industrial revolution, may soon face significant constraints as natural boundaries of our civilisation get exposed. And, even if this is an unreal fear, there may not be enough for the middle class millions in Asia and Africa as they aspire for good life. Improvisations, with a scene of constraint, the spirit of Jugaad, may indeed define the ethic of modern living at the periphery.

However, at the same time, we must be cognizant of the effects Jugaad ethics may have on India and Indians. There is a risk that once it becomes institutionalised, as it seemed to have been now, we may start taking this too seriously. While the point of Jugaad is about working things out within constraints, there is a risk of it becoming an ethic of short cuts.

The Jugaad ethics may indeed significantly undermine the concept of skills and one may suspect that is happening in India. It may have become a fancy term to celebrate poor workmanship, and informs the way the country has come to view skills. Jugaad entrepreneurship is the new official term for buccaneering. The idea of Good Work and Commitment may have been its greatest casualties.

While Jugaad may make waves in the corridors of business schools, Indian businesses preparing for the future must look beyond Jugaad, therefore. Their consumers, once satisfied with the philosophy of something is better than nothing, may have arrived at a stage of aesthetic maturation as they got wealthy. The young may be impatient to accept things as they are, and their life ethic may be standing out rather than subliminate.

Within this changing context, it is necessary to explore the limits of Jugaad: While we may celebrate the ingenuity within the constraints, this may breed lethargy to challenge the constraints as one must. This may become the excuse for second best, sloppy work, muddled ethics and muted ambitions, manifested in opportunism rather than change making. The celebration of Jugaad may help perpetuate mediocrity, and establish value systems that are contra-innovation eventually.

In the end, therefore, Jugaad should be seen as a transient phenomenon, not a way of life: We may celebrate the ingenuity of human spirit but must seek to remove the constraints.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Building An Alternative to University

It has always been difficult to build an alternative to the universities in the modern times. Even if any innovation in learning happened outside the universities, the system expanded to absorb the new areas: Medical Schools, Business Schools, IT Schools, all started outside universities and prospered for a while as private initiatives, but then the moment university system expanded to absorb the new areas, the challengers withered. 

However, at this time, we are approaching a point where these venerable institutions look increasingly open to challenges from outside, and look vulnerable. There are several reasons for this: The universities have less resources to keep expanding, for a start. And, new global possibilities are emerging which publicly funded universities can't do very well. Technologies, not just of learning delivery, but of community building, of measurement and management, are emerging, making 'open source learning' possible. And, besides, universities themselves have become too attached to the 'System' - in a way, they have been consumed by the bureaucratic Higher Education systems, and have somewhat lost the claim of the community they wish to be. 

Also, the universities have mostly become a credential factory, drawing legitimacy from the recognition by the sponsoring nation states than anything else. Its role isn't defined by learning any more, but just by the mandates from the omnivorous 'Higher Education System'. Instead of building successful lives, which they claim they are for, all too often, they indulge in language games, making people failures and making them feel guilty for their failures. Its credential mechanisms seem to exist solely to justify layers of social privilege and exclusion. In a way, the system has devoured all the ideals of an university - a community of learning, the safe place to find an identity, a social place to produce knowledge - and what's left is a caricature of brain-programming machine, a tool to engineer and maintain a social order.

The universities are indeed terrifyingly effective in this, indeed, but the context is shifting. The nation states sponsors of the universities are as weak as ever, and will continue to weaken as the shift of power from states to financiers continue. However, there are other pressures that undermine the universities. The link between the education and employment seems to be broken: Whoever may be responsible for this, the net effect is that this undermines the need, and the value, of the credentials the universities hand out. And, finally, and more ominously, people wanting just the credential and nothing else is on the rise, creating huge incentives for pseudo-universities all over the world, which exist in the twilight zones of the system, but nonetheless exist and are even successful.

It is more difficult to spot a pseudo-university than one would think: These are no longer one room entities handing out fake degrees, but large operations with building and staff handing out perfectly legitimate degrees which involve no learning. The markets, which seem to enjoy supreme confidence of all our policy-makers, have decisively valued 'credential for the sake of credentials' over 'learning for the sake of learning'. The result is indeed those legitimate operations which satisfy the needs of the markets, but have a corrosive influence on the core proposition, reconfiguring the student expectations and eventually undermining its own construct of degrees-for-jobs.

It is on these ruins of the ideas of the university new alternatives will be built. The 'System' will continue to exist and exert great influence, till it crumbles one day under the weight of its own unfulfilled promises. We are not yet sure what the new alternative life-forms will be like, except one thing: That they would be diverse. The diversity of aims, the diversity of aspirations, the diversity of methods and possibilities - all point to a diverse future, where more than a single idea of university can successfully exist. One would expect this will lead to the construction of employer-led entities which will focus on economic productivity and further away from traditional activities that we know the universities for; on the other end of the spectrum, there will be learning communities united to explore and converse, and to create alternate possibilities from simply surrendering to the employer-mandated world. Acceptance of this diversity will be a challenge, but an imperative, for all educators: Each constituent will no doubt claim to provide the 'final alternative' to what has come to be regarded as a broken system. However, there may no longer be one solution after all: The days of the 'system' may be truly over.

Monday, November 18, 2013

An Argument about Public Higher Education

During my current tour of India, I got involved, somewhat against my will, in a long discussion - argument is a better word perhaps - about the necessity of public funding of Higher Education. This is one debate I usually seek to avoid, because, on this issue, there is little opportunity to have a nuanced position, and I do have a nuanced position. In this particular case, my correspondents were committed defenders of Public Higher Education with a 'you are either with us or against us' stance, and indeed, my reservations about the bureaucratisation of Higher Education (combined with my background in For-Profit education) immediately made me a target of vociferous attacks and compelled me to defend my views. This post is a short summary of the arguments that I made.

My first problem with the high pitch defense of public funding of Higher Education is that this is hardly an honest stance. Most of the advocates of public funding represent themselves to be in opposition of marketisation of Higher Education, though they are acutely aware that these two are completely separate issues. The marketisation of Higher Education is happening, has happened, within the public sector Higher Education. So, the logic of money is quite blind to who funds and runs the institutions. There is indeed a need to debate the marketisation of Higher Education, but this is not one and the same about public funding of Higher Education.

My second problem is that the defenders of public Higher Education decline to answer the charges against it. I shall give one example in the Indian context. This is a college local to me, though I didn't study there: It was set up a local philanthropist in the 1950s to serve the local community and one that got integrated into the Public Higher Education system at a later date. In the 1980s, however, our local community was fundamentally transformed due to a massive infrastructure project (the Second Hoogly Bridge in Howrah, West Bengal), which displaced hundreds of Bengali Middle Class families from the area: The gap left by them was soon filled by thousands of migrant workers, often from other parts of India who didn't speak any Bengali. Instead of sons and daughters of educated families whose main breadearners worked for the government and wanted their children to 'at least complete graduation',  the college was left to serve first generation college goers who spoke in Hindi and other languages, which most college teachers were not used to. The Vice Principal of the college wanted to recruit a Hindi-speaking History lecturer. There was a vacancy but the publicly funded colleges in Indian States have to go through the College Service Commission. This unusual request for a Hindi-speaking lecturer in what was presumed to be a Bengali Middle Class area from the bureaucratic safe distance was immediately and duly refused, and the College Service Commission chose to send someone they thought would be suitable. This may have resulted in many tears and frustrations in the History classroom and surely a few more alienated students in the process. While this story may be anecdotal, this is representative of the problems of public funding of Higher Education. 

Fundamentally, the debate about public higher education - an important one, no doubt - has become one about entitlements rather than education. This happens within the context of a teleological view of the university, that this has a timeless nature and purpose mandated by God and it must carry on doing what it is doing regardless of the social changes: However, the reality perhaps is that we have arrived at a Nietzschian moment of re-imagination and one must seek to 'will' an education that serves the society that we live in, rather than the other way around. I am not trying to make a case for For-Profits or any such thing, but pleading to change the debate from being one about entitlement and privileges to one about what kind of education we really need and what can best serve that requirement. My default position on this issue is that we need variety, both in terms of education and types of institutions that provide them, and closing the debate and taking a moralising position that the state must remain the only provider of Higher Education is inherently counter-productive. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

An Education for Indians: An Alternative Narrative

While I have been studying and thinking about the political dynamic of the Foreign Education in India, I wrote about the past of English Education in India, which helped to create a new professional elite, the vanguards of the eventually independent Indian state. I have been somewhat critical of this development because consolidation and continuation of the privileges for English educated in Independent India has been one of the stumbling blocks for the country's development, vested interests pooling subsidies and resources towards itself and away from development efforts. Besides, in a subsequent post, I also questioned the rhetoric emanating from foreign providers, as they rest their great hope for access to the Indian market on the dissatisfaction of the Indian employers with current graduates: While this dissatisfaction is certainly real, it is situated very much within India's labour market context, I argued, and simply having a foreign education provision wouldn't going to solve anything. 

From the above arguments, some of my correspondents came to the conclusion that I am arguing in favour of a traditional Indian system of education, to be resurrected and protected, based on Indian values and traditions, including the Sanskrit language and its ancient sciences. It is a reasonable conclusion in the context of the discussion about the limits of Western education, and the emergent confidence in the future preeminence of the Indian economy. However, I believe such thinking is somewhat misdirected and I was not, despite being critical of the current options on offer, advocating a return to the past or revival of traditions. This position needs clarification, which I intend to provide here.

First, I question the wisdom of imagining the preeminence of Indian economy in predominantly western terms. There is an undoubted expansion of the formal economy in India and modern consumer goods and practises seem to be taking hold as a result to globalisation. However, this is a catch up, a process of incorporating the Indian economy in the global economic structure and not a shift of power away from the West to Asia, or BRICs, or any other groups of countries. In a way, this is a dynamic of integration rather than a route to preeminence. Indian economy may consume more and may supply a large proportion of world's workforce, but that does not mean it would define the rules and be in a driver's position: Rather, this discussion is all about hitching on to the globalisation.

Ironically, India's current attempt to redefine its nationalism on the basis of its traditional culture, personified in the collective affection for Gujrat's Narendra Modi, is also a part of this globalisation narrative, than a departure from it. The revivalists believe that they have found the vote-winning cocktail in traditional culture and neo-liberal economics, in an ideological equivalent of veggie burger, though this view discounts the inherent possibility that a globalised investment regime must transform the nature of cultural consumption: The innocent veggie burger is already making way for TV Gurus and saffron-white-green bikinis.

This revivalist trend then represent not an alternative imagination, but merely a submission to global norms, with the fetish for GDP growth, foreign investment as a panacea for all ills and dreams of a Ramayanised Disneyland at the core of it. This is not a moment for going back to the traditional Indian lessons of sacrifice, abstinence and toleration; presumably, the temples of this new Indian identity will be the shopping malls. In this context, talk of reviving traditional Indian education is a stillborn, a rhetoric and a pretense not to be taken seriously.

Also, going back to the past would hardly bring any resolution to India's persistent problems of exclusion. A Sanskritised education represent further disenfranchisement of the already disenfranchised communities: If anything, this will be a reactionary move stamping out the rudimentary democratization that the education by vernacular brought about in the last three decades. India's educational tension is signified by the tension between the over-riding aspirations for good life and constraints set by economic imagination - schools and TV have prepared a generation to start demanding access while the system is only concerned with creating jobs and opportunities in the limited context of global back-office and service industries. Within the current structures of global economy, it is indeed hard to accommodate a few hundred million aspirants: That is a problem which will remain unaddressed without a change of discussion. Going back to traditional education, in context, is a pathetic, and doomed, formula to put a lid on these rising aspirations, consolidate privileges further and put a lid on these aspirations. 

Having said this, I still believe that it is possible to construct an 'Indian Education', but recommending that the ideas for it should be grounded in India's social and economic reality of today and tomorrow rather than of its past. In this context, India must be taken as a new country and a federal entity, and not some timeless country inhabited by Aryans who spoke Sanskrit (which is a false image anyway: Even if we shy away from the debate where Aryans came from, there were always other people in India who were non-Aryans and who never spoke Sanskrit). This education must take into account this historical and persistent diversity of India, and the inherent idea of cosmopolitanism and toleration that make the country work.

If this is the opposite of the revivalist notion of Sanskritised education, there is more to break away from India's past. At the core of Indian education, even the English education of the colonial scheme, sat the tradition notions of caste; education was for a certain role in the society, for a certain privilege, which is essentially conceived as moving away from the necessity of physical labour, of the requirement of doing anything by oneself. The lessons of caste lives on in the very Indian aspiration that an education must make one a manager. Restoring the dignity of work, which is also somewhat undermined in the modern global education based on the mantra of service economy, will be one key departure that an Indian education must make. This is needed not just as a moral thing (the moral imperative of breaking away from the caste mindset will be there) but also pragmatic, because, as Richard Sennett will argue, skills are usually formed with patient work of a persistent nature, and alienation, which is one of the key impediments of creativity and imagination at work, can only be overcome with an identification with one's object of labour. In the Indian context, it is not the mechanics of industrial production, but the hierarchical notions of labour and work embedded in education alienates the person and impedes creativity.

 Finally, an Indian education must be based on a realistic expectation and appraisal of India's role in the global economic system. The false rhetoric of India's emergence as a world leader should be discarded in favour of a practical quest for creating a good life for its own citizens. Abstract as this may sound, such quest may entail discarding the ideals of free consumption at the core of Western education system, because that may indeed be impractical, financially and environmentally, to provide for hundreds of millions of Indian aspirants, and finding ways of sustainable and productive ways of living a better life. And, to do so, indeed, one needs to take a global view, understand the economic, political and environmental challenges that we collectively face, and the common effort that one must pool together to create prosperity in the future (which will be different from the experiences of the industrial revolution).

So, in summary, India needs an education system which addresses its uniqueness, but this does not mean going back to the past. Rather the opposite, it will require overcoming the constraints imposed by its past and tackling its present and future challenges, such as fostering tolerance and accepting diversity, and developing skills and promoting the ideals of good work. An Indian Education system must also seek ways to ensure prosperity within the constraints set by the global economic system, and break away from the notions of a re-run of industrial revolution: It must seek to create a sustainable path to prosperity within the reality of a global late industrial civilisation. 

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Politics of Foreign Education: An Education for Indians

In the debate about Foreign Education in India, one question is left unmentioned: Why does India need foreign Higher Education? There is an educational response, or several possible different responses, ranging from it is desirable to have a global view of education (or that one can't have a modern education system without a global perspective) to various specific responses, such as the rote learning currently practised in the Indian system isn't good enough, and more must be done, arguably through foreign collaborations, to enhance skills such as critical thinking etc.

However, whichever end of the argument one starts with, there is a political case to be answered. Globalisation is a contested field, and its benefits may be more obvious to the readers of The Economist (and other Western periodicals) than those living in villages and small towns of India. Besides, the question of globalisation - and globalisation of education - is intertwined with the colonial memory in India, as the British Raj was more a Raj of the mind, rather than of machine gun. From a political perspective, therefore, it is a hard argument to win.

What this leaves us with is the educational reform argument: That Indian Higher Education has to raise its game beyond the culture of Rote Learning, and imbibe abilities of creativity, innovation and critical thinking. The major employers regularly state that they are not getting the graduates with right skills and abilities. This is seen as a clear case for induction of Foreign, primarily Western, ideas into the education system. 

However, this argument may not be as solid as it appears at the outset. To understand this, one may start with the business model of large Indian companies, particularly in the service sector where most of the new jobs have been created. One would see that most companies are engaged in the business of cheap labour, taking on unimaginative work from Western corporations and throwing lots of cheap Indian labour at it. This is not just the story of the Business Process Outsourcing sector, but also of the Information Technology companies, including the global ones which employs a lot of people in India. So, despite all the vaunted names and fancy salaries (in Indian terms), the business model of Indian Service industry has actually been hiring lots of people at cheap salaries, and keeping them at it at a low cost. Surely, they don't want an education which makes this workforce suddenly start asking questions about whether they should be doing these dead-end jobs!

When one talks to Indian employers, this impression is usually substantiated. While they moan about education, what they want is not critical thinking or innovation, but rather 'confidence', 'smartness' and 'presentation skills'. So, in a way, the job market is not requiring the students to imagine, but just to become better sales people than they are currently, having better 'work ethic' (another nebulous term which has a special meaning in India) etc. And, this is common sense: Why would the industry want a student who questions authority when their own business models and work practises are structured around unquestioning submission? The employers in India often wants not just their employee's work, but also their gratitude: A truly foreign education can really be quite disruptive.

Now, the other part of the education reform argument is that once the educational institutions produce enough imaginative graduates, the industry (or industries) will gradually move up the value chain. But this is perhaps a fairly naive assumption (one I am guilty of making myself, in some of my earlier posts). The education system, unless driven and funded by deliberate national policy, will be driven by the realities of the labour market, which is, in turn, shaped by the global economic hierarchy. Indian education system, currently, is driven by self-funded students and privately operated colleges, a structure which is unlikely to buck the trend and try creating capacity without a corresponding demand for graduates. 

Hence, the education system of India, in a sense, is already global: It is reinforcing the position of Indian labour market in the global economic system. Seen this way, the role of foreign education in India can only be limited: This could work as a marker of prestige, but can make little meaningful difference otherwise. There is indeed a case for improving the local institutions, and do something so that their graduates become more 'presentable', but this is not about thinking for themselves or the other exalted liberal education propositions that the Foreign Educators make their case with. 

In summary, I shall argue that the discussion about foreign universities in India often gets too narrowly focused on what the government is doing or not doing. However, the realities of the labour market remain largely outside the discussion, perhaps intentionally so. The Western universities, which are themselves becoming more market driven (and, therefore growth is becoming important to them more than ever, as markets reward growth above all else), somehow fail to appreciate this aspect of Indian Higher Education: The Indian Labour Market is not what they really know and can service, and therefore, their scope of work is rather limited to the privileged classes rather than the multitude that gets talked about in the conferences.

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