Saturday, August 31, 2013

Indian Higher Education : The Quiet Death of Foreign Education Providers Bill

Some media reports emerged that the Indian Government has now quietly dropped the Foreign Education Provider Bill from its legislative agenda. This may not be surprising, given that this bill was around - in different forms - for more than 10 years now, but was never a priority; despite a late flourish during the first 100 days of the UPA government, this was never much talked about, debated or considered important enough.

Despite the disappointments this will bring, this may actually be good news. The bill, as it stood, was deeply flawed. It was conceived with the justification of stemming the flow of Indian students to universities abroad, worth $4 Billion of expenses a year: However, such mercantilism is out of step with the global world, and would have ended in a failure anyway. Given this limited goal, the bill was highly protectionist, focused on limiting any outflow that may happen from the Foreign Education providers' activities in India, and left little financial incentive for any foreign university to set up a campus in India. In its original form, the opportunity was only open to Top 500 universities in the world, another demonstration with India's obsession with prestigious education for its privileged, which demonstrated a poor understanding of how Higher Education institutions really operate [Most High Prestige institutions being concerned with limiting the access, rather than expanding]. Though a later amendment took this requirement (of being ranked in Top 500) away, overall the bill was impractical, disconnected from India's needs and requirements and little more than a political grandstanding.

That the political priorities have changed and the bill will be dropped is, therefore, completely unsurprising. The Indian middle class isn't the focus of the government anymore, and it was always unlikely that the government will spend its scarce political capital in pushing through a bill which would have still been highly unpopular, hitting the politicians where it really mattered, in their pockets. Though this may be disappointing for some foreign universities, most have already come to accept that Indian market will never open up (any residue optimism wiped out after a close reading of the proposed bill in question), and this should hardly change their approach to India. 

The only question worth exploring, therefore, whether the demise of the bill will leave Indian students disadvantaged, and the answer, reassuringly, is negative. Indian students need education, not foreign education: Whether foreign campuses are set up in India or not, has no impact on an average student's life prospects. It matters much more whether India can help develop a better Higher Education system on its own, and this is where minds and hearts need to be focused.

The current government's agenda is defined by a focus on eradicating poverty, and India can boast some serious achievements on that count. The rural poverty is noticeably down and literacy has improved across the board. Indeed, these achievements have not translated into overall prosperity and rather caused runaway price increases and consequent sluggishness of the economy (and a noticeable flight of capital) because the government failed to create conditions of productivity increases and achieve reduction of transaction costs. If anything, productivity growth has stalled, as bad education crowded out the diffusion of expertise through global exposure; the transaction costs have gone up with massive corruption, which usually accompany privatisation efforts of any state with weak institutions, and poor infrastructure. If Higher Education was one of the priority areas for the current government, for the next one, due after election of May 2014, it will be one of the life-or-disaster issues, as the relative rural prosperity must find a sustainable path to general prosperity and progress. Neither the productivity growth, nor enabling institutions, can really be achieved without a functioning Higher Education sector, which India somewhat lacks (outside a few elite institutions).

Foreign education providers, as planned in the now irrelevant bill, would not have solved any of these problems: They would have created more options for the already privileged 0.1% of the Indian students; they would have helped lure away the best researchers and teachers from Indian institutions, particularly the state funded ones, and would have created a further cycle of disadvantage at even the top end of the scholastic spectrum. However, enhancements through learning from established practices elsewhere would be of critical importance, and hopefully the demise of this high profile bill will now allow practical, grassroots conversations about academic collaboration, exchange and pathway programmes to assume a new seriousness, which, in effect, will be better for the country.

So, this is hardly a time of mourning, another sign of retrograde direction of Indian policy: This may be, instead, much needed return to realism and the opportunity to re-imagine the educational needs of the country. This may also be the time to bring a twenty-first century update in educational policy thinking - isn't foreign campuses so passe already - and to create space for new conversations about open qualifications and credit systems, technologies of learning, and a new risk- and outcome-based approach to regulatory systems rather than clinging to the old, planned economy ones.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

India 2020: Coming of the Facebook Democracy

Indians are feeling ashamed that the Rupee has touched a new low today, hovering around Rs 67.5 a dollar, presumably on account of the Government's insistence to pass the Food Security bill, which will guarantee 5 Kg of Rice and Cereals every month for every poor person, estimated to be about 800 million people. In a way, such shame is useful, because it was completely absent even in the face of starvation and poverty visible to any casual traveller to India. And, surely, the shame in the decline and fall of the Rupee is profitable too, as this would allow the well-endowed to simultaneously display their patriotism and make some money by hoarding dollars or sterling and helping the free-fall further. 

Events such as this bring out in sharp relief what democracy is really about in India. At one end, there is this claim about the 'muddy', 'corrupt', 'populist' staff that the government does at an enormous cost to the economy, somewhat around 2% or 3% of the GDP (depending on who one listens to): This is ususally seen as 'vote buying' initiative greeted with silent disdain and occasional outbursts on social media, cheered on by International Press.

At the other end, there are outrages on the falling Rupee, generating Facebook chatter about the rising costs of holidays abroad, the outrage in rising prices of petrol, the entitlement of subsidies that the Indian state gives to the relatively well off and costs no less than 5% to 10% of the GDP (whoever one listens to); this is usually seen as representative of Indian public opinion - isn't this a young country with huge middle class - a 'truly' democratic voice, which the mechanics of Indian politics usually overlook.

India was always a divided country, a multitude of class, caste, linguistic groups. In a way, India was always a project of India, of bringing together these diversity into one identity: Democracy and constitutionalism, which India adapted from the first day of its independent existence, were to enable this oneness.

However, the implicit optimism that the Indian citizens will be the participants in that project, and hence help along the work in progress, have been belied. Instead, it seems now, we created this parallel sphere, the sphere which can now be called the Facebook Democracy, where certain people with privilege and access, but less involvement in the project of India, could point to imperfections, and impose parallel ideas, all encouraged and helped along by recognition by power elites internationally as the true representation of India.

This is not just a symptom of the divided nature of India, I shall argue, but a phenomenon to be considered on its own merit. The description that Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze used in their recent book about India invokes a picture: Islands of California-esque wealth among the landscape of Sub-saharan poverty. Indeed, India was always like this (though it is a shame that 60 years of Independence did not flatten the landscape, and somewhat made it worse), but, as a redeeming feature, there was a sense of shame (though it was expressed in strange ways, such as protests against films of Satyajit Ray, as it depicted poverty). While I don't claim that there was ever an inclusive politics, the parallel politics of 'true democracy', the one which claim to disregard the ground reality and live in a superpower illusion, is possibly only as old as Facebook.

One could point to its emergence in the economic reforms of the 1990s, or the shining moments when lots of jobs came to India post-Dotcom, but the defining moment of this chasm may be found in George W Bush's twin fascination with Indian Middle Class and Democracy: The middle class that formulation conceived, and in effect created, is a neo-liberal beast out and out, global, ethereal and unconcerned with the poverty of India and impatient to pursue their own agenda, solely and over everyone else's. Helped along by the expansion of social media, this segment assumed a life of its own - ironically becoming the first true 'Indian' generation, but devoid of responsibility or compassion for their own countrymen, or of people from the country they left behind, physically or figuratively. This connected middle class Indians in India, and those power elites abroad who left at the juncture of independence and after, in fear of democracy (as they feared mob rule - a flight documented by Devesh Kapoor, in his 'Diaspora and Democracy'), giving rise to a powerful social coalition, with prestige, clout and money.

The battle for India now isn't just a battle of classes, castes and regions; it is now a battle of two democracies, a popular one pitted against a Facebook version. Both have their own echo chambers, and given the nature of interactions, each one is remote, obscure, from the other. The social structure, distribution of jobs and income, popular culture in movies and TV, all reflect this battle of privileges: A global elite unified one end of the spectrum, the Indians on the other.

It is surely not unique about India: One could argue, as Harvard's Dani Rodrick does, the Global Markets, Nation States and Democracies can not co-exist, and of the three, democracy is the most likely casualty. I shall argue that this has now been set in motion in India, with the emergence of Facebook democracy at the expense of the real one. This may indeed be the undoing of the project of India; and may be the undoing of India itself.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Story in Person: Reinventing Me

About a year ago, I set out to do what I always wanted to do: To create a technology-led network of global colleges, offering competence based education abroad. I was fully aware that this is a challenging project, having spent more than four years thinking and planning for it. However, doing it was always going to be different, and it was - full of new insights, unexpected turns and opportunities, and learning, which no amount of planning could have prepared us for. I am coming to the end of the bootstrap phase that we had to live through to get things going. It is, therefore, time to reinvent myself.

One of the great rewards of doing something like this is that I come to know how much I wanted to do this. There should have been no doubt, given the time I spent thinking and talking about how this could work. I took on a rather unappetising job of working in a chaotic private college environment for a period to build my network and ideas: Those two-and-half-years of my life was not the rosiest time, but it was an useful induction into the muddy world of private higher education. I started and completed a Masters in Education from UCL - I thought I needed to understand education to do this as one would need an Engineering degree to do a software venture - giving up my social life and weekends for at least three years. However, living through a period of bootstrapping thereafter, one without income and supported by myriad part time work to pay my bills, was more intense than even all of these. The intensity of this experience made the first part look like picnic on the beach.

Hopefully, now, the elements of the plan are coming together. The courses are ready. The accreditation is complete. Some partners are getting started and soon there will be students. We are talking about an ambitious geographical diversity - once the partner centres open - with outlets in India, China, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Vietnam. We are in the final phases of negotiation with institutional investors, and this may give us, finally, the financial platform needed to make this happen. This is a moment of start of a new phase of my life - and this time, not just an imaginary one - which must be lived anew. 

My life, so far, is all agency and no structure: I have become that kind of person doing various things and creating things for myself, rather than living the usual happily ever after scripts most of my friends prefer. I am always full of long term plans and ideas of big projects; I would like to believe that I am that sort of hardworking dreamer one does not find too readily. The dreamer bit is all too obvious, indeed; but I would always point out that I have followed those dreams diligently, and often made them happen. I have changed careers, gone back to school, earned professional qualifications and lived in three different countries, which is quite a journey from my suburban beginnings which seemed to have clearly defined, or at least attempted to, what I could or could not do in life.

This boasting, though, is not about claiming that I have arrived, but just about pacing myself for the next plunge. And, at this point, it is indeed the next plunge: I am, at this very moment, trying to imagine my life anew and setting goals for what I want to achieve. This is an useful exercise, because what I achieved is only part of the story: At the same time, I know that my original goal was to see the world and indeed get back home, and I have so far done neither. Coming and living in England was only a step in that process: What must follow is a stint in another country and then eventual return. Indeed, this whole global education project was about this: This is my way of finding my way back to the world.

So, as I build now, hopefully, the networks of global colleges, I am ready to move to Asia or Africa, wherever work will take me. I shall indeed be seriously looking at moving to South-East Asia, as I see that region to be critical for U-Aspire's success. This is also the region which will help us maintain close connections with India and build our network there. From my previous experience, I know this is possibly the world's most dynamic region, with the exception of silicon valley; and I am one of those people who believe in a powershift within a couple of generations. This is also a great base to do business in India, with my home in Calcutta being 4 hours away from Singapore. 

Surely this is an aspiration rather than a plan right now, and I am not going anywhere this Christmas. We are talking about a start-up here and not a huge global bank, where people can move with an week's notice. By announcing the intentions here, I start a long and elaborate process of planning, getting ready, just as I did for my business: It took me more than four years to come to the point of launch. However, this is a goal that I intend to pursue - this is in alignment with what I always thought and spoke about. I am not yet sure what path this will exactly take, and how it will really play out: But I know that if this is what I really want to do, I have to work for it and start working for it now. This may include sharpening my understanding of the region, learning Bahasa Indonesia and developing a network of contacts there, all of which may take time. But, as I have come to see it, this is the logical next step in building my global expertise.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Indian Higher Education: The Globalisation Conundrum

Indian policy makers like to view India as an emerging superpower. Their policy making in Higher Education is guided by this ambition, which goes beyond the usual rationale of labour productivity and national competitiveness. This is understandable: After all, a democratic government in an emerging country must forever keep it emerging for its own legitimacy. However, the ambitions of building an education system worth a superpower are problematic because this distort a practical, labour market led approach to Higher Education. This may open up wide gaps between demand and provision, making talent shortages worse and more permanent, and make the rhetoric unsustainable.

Whether India can become a 'superpower', whether the world needs another one, whether this would bring any benefits to Indian citizens (who, no doubt, have to stump up the costs) are all valid questions, but should be left for another day. I intend to discuss here a few conjectures (which, admittedly, are not empirically supported, but most of my work and research are focused on this now) about the disconnection between Indian Higher Education policy and labour market realities. 

All this could indeed be seen in the broader context of Indian policy making, and particularly be held against the carefully crafted image that things happen in India 'inspite of the government'. But any serious observer of Indian Higher Education will agree that in matters of education, the perennial Indian interventionist state is alive and well, and hugely influences whatever happens in the sector, creating powerful incentives and disincentives for public and private organisations all the time. Despite what seems to be an apparent policy failure to create and promote high quality higher education, students seem to be beholden to the Government policy on Education and driven by ebbs and flows of various Governmental announcements.

This is exactly why the superpower sentiments have a credence and need to be explored. However, what really changed in India (and in many countries across the world) in the last two decades is the exposure to global trade. The urban labour market has been significantly reshaped by integration of India, or at least some of its sectors and industries, into the global market. This has represented the other force shaping the demand for Higher Education - causing a lift off for certain disciplines and professions, at least temporarily.

Temporarily because India's globalisation has so far happened in two stages. First, starting the 1990s and extending into the early years of the 'noughties', certain industries and sectors grew exponentially, Information Technology and IT Services being the most prominent. This lift off was seen in Manufacturing, Pharmaceutical and other export oriented sectors as well. The expansion of these sectors mopped up the talent pool which India's limited, mostly publicly funded institutions generated. Next, the tides of globalisation turned, starting the middle years of the noughties, and the growth of export orientated sectors somewhat stalled (for many reasons, including the strength of the Rupee, rising costs due to infrastructure bottleneck and high domestic inflation, and talent shortages), some of the slack being picked up by the expansion of domestic demand, which was about exposure of Indian consumers to a 'better' lifestyle and preferences. The industries that provided most urban employment during this time have been domestically focused, insurance, banking, retail and education, which needed a different skill set and orientation, and offered different scale of wages and benefits from those of the export orientated sectors.

The Indian Government's, and consequently general public's, quest to become a superpower came with the rising prosperity. The rhetoric and actions, such as nuclear testing, quest for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, formation of an ever closer alliance with the United States during the Bush years, all pointed an increasingly confident and engaged India. It is also the time when the Government started talking about creating a Higher Education sector emulating the United States: The benchmarks were set for a rapid expansion of the university sector, of the prestigious brands of IITs and IIMs, and creations of millions of graduates to serve the needs of a growing economy. 

The needs, however, were changing, due to the 'deep' globalisation India was gradually embarking on. The early problems of not being able to find enough skilled Engineers and Bankers have now been replaced by not able to find willing salespeople. While the globalisation protected (somewhat) the graduate salaries in the West and decimated non-graduate jobs and salaries, one saw in India an expansion of what one would call non-graduate jobs, but no commensurate expansion of skills and abilities at that level. Indian government's policies were driven by the desire to create more high prestige institutions, but at the same time, withdraw from the state-funded local colleges and other non-prestige institutions, leaving that to the private sector. Yet, the regulations demanded private sector to have elaborate infrastructure (or pay a bribe) and ruled out any possibilities of innovation, in curriculum, delivery or certification, making way for black money into education and creating an inflexible structure, which is structurally out of sync with the economy.

One policy response to this apparent mismatch was a rush to vocational education, with Indian policy makers and some education entrepreneurs deciding that the need for skilled tradesmen are far greater than graduates. But this is also grounded on a similar misreading of the labour market: The Western style tradesmen training pays off when the market for trades has been professionalised and regulated, and India is a long way off from doing this. What resulted is a supply-side grandstanding where Ministers rattled out big numbers, but the training organisations produced even more people who can't find a job befitting their skills and training.

India's education problems, therefore, may be emanating from using inappropriate Western models and mindsets in the context of a very different economy. It seems that Indian economy is producing a number of sub-graduate level jobs, which requires high level of literacy and numeracy, and presentational skills, but not the advanced level of analysis and critical capabilities that a graduate may be expected to possess. The MBAs in India usually get into these jobs, because they can't find any other: But this also creates a power disincentive for future applicants, as the pay-off from advanced degrees become obscured.

I would argue that the solution may lie in understanding India's position in globalisation value chain and coming up with an education structure appropriate for the same, rather than trying to copy inappropriate Western models of education. This may indeed require a broadbased reform of degrees and awards, the levels of institutions and may even extend to professionalisation of certain trades. This model, if it has to produce an appropriate labour force, has to enable the local colleges, and aim at creating a flexible system of education with incentives for progression and lifelong education. India is currently embarking on deep globalisation with an education system based on planned economy principles; it is time to relook at the assumptions and redesign the system all over again.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

India 2020: Dealing With Corruption

The Indian General Election of 2014 is quickly turning out to be a single agenda event - a referendum on corruption. The chequered records of the incumbent government necessarily makes it so: The continuing discovery of skeletons in its cupboard, its inability to deal with it due to the power politics of the coalition and the sheer scale and audacity of some of these scandals, make it almost the only story dominating the media. It is rather sad, as this steals the focus and detracts everyone from the great promise that India seemed to have shown early in the new millennium. The spectre of complete breakdown in governance makes people shy away from investing, even involving, in India. 

However contrarian this may sound, it is worth asking whether this should indeed be so: Whether we should single-mindedly focus on Government corruption at the expense of everything else. India is a big country with myriad of issues; some of those, like communal or regional harmony, is as at least as critical as corruption. Indeed, the picture may be different from inside India than outside. From the outside, corruption looks bigger, as this imposes a transaction cost on everything that a Foreign Investor or even an expat may do. It is, for them, more important than the supply of water, electricity, jobs or paved roads. From inside, however, someone living a life in India, those other facets of life may actually be at least as important. In a way, the General Election is, or at least should be, more than just a vote of confidence of the global bond traders and expats.

To understand how big an issue is corruption, and how one might deal with it, one must go beyond the political grandstanding of the hour: Because, despite the media frenzy on various corruption scandals, newsworthy as they are, it is not the number of cases nor the sums of money involved make it more or less relevant, and by extension, less or more solvable. It is rather the context of corruption, whether the prevalence of corruption is increasing or decreasing in relative terms (this is exactly what economists like Dr Meghnad Desai will argue), and whether and how much it affects the daily life of an ordinary citizen, that must be taken into account. Besides, given the well-honed myth that things happen in India 'despite the government', one may need to ask whether shrinking the government's sphere of influence, making the markets replace what the government had to do earlier, would be the answer to the corruption woes.

So to put corruption in context, here is a thought experiment: Remove the government and the hapless Prime Minister from the equation for the moment and ask whether the level of corruption has indeed reduced. This is not about what one sees on TV, but what one would experience first hand: Are the Doctors dispensing private advice do so with professional integrity? Are the teachers in private schools have a greater level of professional ethics? Do private organisations operate in a professional manner? Do private citizens display responsibility, compassion and commitment to each other?

Someone told me that the Golden Age always looks like the world one experienced when twenty years old, so I am careful not to go back on time and be nostalgic. However, when I ask these questions to people in India, or experience life first hand during my own travels, I get desperation: A big NO, there is a wholesale lowering of standard of professional life. Quite rightly, people blame the government, because, apart from being moral, it is the government's job to maintain professional standards and integrity in public life. However, with an expat's luxury of detachment (just like the other expats who see corruption at the biggest problem), I have to wonder about the direction of causation - is general life becoming more corrupt because of the government, or is the government is only reflecting the corruption of day to day life.

It is neither an idle thought experiment, nor an attempt to condone corruption, but merely an attempt to argue the following - one, that the problem of corruption is a many-headed hydra and it is unlikely to go away if the current Government is thrown out of power, and two, that it is necessary to discuss private morality while rallying against corruption. While these two statements are quite intuitive (at least to me) and should not need much debate, making such statements in India invariably attracts heated arguments, of taking sides and diverting from the core issue. This is the point I am trying to make: That the key issue about corruption isn't the Government. In fact, I am trying to argue that politicising corruption, as we tend to do now, shifts away the focus from systematic corruption that ails the day to day life in India. Politicising corruption, while allowing the journalists the opportunity to rant and rave, allows us to deny the gradual degradation of professional standards, social commitments and loss of citizenship values. There is nothing wrong is venting one's anger about corruption by voting out the ruling party, but by making the vote singularly about corruption, we are changing the nature of the discussion about corruption and obscuring the solution.

Indeed, discussions about private morality sounds 'utopian', but then 'utopian' has become a catch all term for all that is worth doing but not easy to do. I shall argue that it is quite practical to make private pledges - that I shall not give or take bribes or favours, I shall recognise and carry out my professional responsibilities with integrity, that I shall not let my behaviour be influenced if others around me behave differently and that I shall treat everyone as equal citizens - and make an effort in keeping them. And, the usual excuse that if you drive properly and maintain lane discipline, other people will overtake you, falls apart as a reason for not maintaining lane discipline and driving improperly. However, this is a difficult thing to do because this would expose the inherent hypocracy of our approach to corruption: We love to see it as a political thing, but when we ourselves cross the lines, it is always for a reason. This moral relativism is supported by our modern construct of Hinduism, where we boast about being flexible and treat moral relationships as one of paying off the Gurus.

Where this is 'utopian' is to expect the media to promote private morality. Such movements, and surely such attitudes form into movements, usually germinate at the private level, a small group of people started practising it. Such private movements can be started by people coming together with a commitment to the ethical practice of daily life. I am an optimist, but beyond my usual sunny vision of life, there is clear historical evidence that such movements happen, life gets better. Hindus in fact believe that when life becomes unbearable, an Avatar, Kalki this time, will appear: And, then, use the beautiful but self-defeating logic that 'everything will be alright in the end; if it is not alright, it is not the end'. The causation in History works in reverse, though: Social movements do not start with the appointed person, even a God's reincarnation. It rather starts with private persons, you and me, choosing to put ourselves on the line, accepting that the responsibility of setting things right is on us, and we must not wait till the end. I remain optimistic about India and Indians, and their deep practical sense, uncorrupted by mythical indoctrination and modern privileges, and believe that such a social movement is about to start. The conversations I hear on the streets of India gives me that sense, of despair yes, but also, at times, of initiative. It is on that hope, on those small, very private, efforts, I shall hang my hat: It is not the appearance of an Avatar, but the arrival of the common man which we are indeed waiting for. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

15th August: A Wish

'Happy Independence Day' is a new kind of wish, which may neither denote too much happiness nor independence. But chanting this may remind us of its exact opposite - that we were 'dependent' once - and that, one may hope, should remind us to strive harder and protect the Independence. This is needed because that state of servitude is a distant memory: Not many of us have known that state and what that may mean. Such vacuousness is easily demonstrated in the text and social media messages congratulating each other for Independence Day, but this has a more sinister effect as well.

Take, for example, the current blockbuster joke, initiated by one prominent politician: 'One Dollar used to be equivalent to one rupee on 15th August, 1947; it is now equivalent to the Finance Minister's Age'. This statement has all the qualities of being nominated as the Joke of the Year in a Comedy competition, and would be hilarious if it came from a Comedian. However, coming from the politician who is seen by the Middle Classes as the Messiah and a future Prime Ministerial candidate, this illustrates the point I wanted to make. On 15th August 1947, India had no external debt, because the Indian government did nothing. It was not just equivalent to one dollar, it would have been equivalent to any existing currency in the world if one wished to: It was being born, and like a newborn, had no follies. But it was also dependent: The artificial equivalence was only willed to get it started. Such naivete sells well in India, Hindi movies being a good example, but soon this may inform policy-making, which is indeed a terrifying prospect.
The second problem with this statement is the reference to the Finance Minister's age. The Finance Minister is quite young by Indian standards, but the politician was still bringing up the point of age apparently to mock his elder opponents, both in his own party and others. This is a deeply subversive statement about 'we don't need older people anymore'. In that sense, this is representative of street sentiments in India, an young, impatient country, desperate to break into the world, suffering from all the acne and insecurity of young adulthood. This is indeed the mindset that makes the Independence Day a happy occassion.

Here is an alternative script to this Rupee-Dollar conundrum: 15th August 1947 was a deeply unhappy day; we have now made it into a 'Happy Independence Day'. [This could indeed be a slogan for the Congress Party, which will be equally misdirected] Indeed, the popular imagination of that day is somewhat like the one seen in the video that follows, showed in thousands of Cinema Halls for the next half century.

However, there could be another view. Amid all the celebrations and tributes being paid to his leadership, Gandhi was sitting in Kolkata, in a dilapidated house in Beliaghata, distraught, defeated. He did not raise the Indian flag that morning, he did not celebrate (and certainly did not post on Facebook). His feelings were perhaps like the one captured in this timeless poem, which I come back to every 15th of August:

Ye daagh daagh ujaalaa, ye shab-gaziida sahar,
Vo intizaar thaa jis-kaa, ye vo sahar to nahiiN,
Ye vo sahar to nahiiN jis-kii aarzu lekar
Chale the yaar ke mil-ja`egi kahiiN na kahiN 

(This stain-covered daybreak, this night-bitten dawn,
This is not that dawn of which there was expectation;
This is not that dawn with longing for which
The friends set out, (convinced) that somewhere there we met with)

- Freedom's Dawn, Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Sitting today, it is easy to imagine what the celebrating crowd on 15th August 1947 would have thought of people like Gandhi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz: They are old and grumpy and disconnected with the young nation. But this would be a mistake: Because most people that time would have been rising from the terrible devastation of the partition, having lost loved ones and all possessions, and their celebration, one would imagine, would have been muted by sentiments shared by Gandhi and Faiz. 

Gandhi's brooding mood may have been influenced by another feeling that would be hard to imagine today: That freedom is a responsibility. Having worked for it for most of his life, and having arrived at the dawn of deliverance which looked very different from the expected glory, he would have thought, as he would say later when he arrived in Delhi, 'A worthy enterprise carries its own blessing. On the other hand, if an unworthy project receives any blessings from outside, it becomes, as it should become, a curse.' His thoughts about what to do with Independent India would soon start to take shape, and he would write this a day before he was assassinated:

"(T)he Congress in present shape and form, i.e., as a propaganda vehicle and a parliamentary machine, has outlived its use. India has still to attain its social, moral and economic independence.. It must be kept out of unhealthy competition with political parties and communal bodies.. For this reason, the AICC seeks to disband itself.."

This was indeed not the victory mood but deep reflection, not power grab but its repudiation, informed by a sense of responsibility rather than a sense of entitlement. 

Without sounding out of touch, and indeed old, my wish for the Independence Day will be to rediscover this spirit of responsibility; the understanding that freedom is a precious thing to work for; and that our privileges are not to taken for granted. I don't mind sending out text messages - 'Wish You A Sombre Independence Day. Wish that we recognize the sacrifices that got us here, and carry out our responsibilities as every citizen must'. For me, I wouldn't want to go back to the day when we were dependent and one Rupee equalled one Dollar: I would rather reflect, and celebrate through reflection, all our achievements despite all our follies.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

About 'Unbundled' College

I am often told not to bother about content. That is odd, considering that my business is Education. Only a few years ago, the advice would have been the other extreme - Content was the key! And, considering that we are really only a few years into the era of digital content, compared to 500 years of print, content could have been, should have been, exciting business. But it seems common sense that being in the business of content does not make sense any more.

Indeed, it is obvious how much open content is out there. And, it is not just the various universities giving away their content, and often videos, for free, and not even YouTube, TED, Vimeo and the like, but the whole array of contributions on SlideShare, blogs, Scribd and the like. In educational content, it seems like Internet's promise to be the great commons of knowledge has been somewhat realised. Against this fascinating array, it is hard to see why a small education company like ours should bother about making content.

There is a broader point beyond our strategic predicament, though. It is that the education has now been unbundled: The idea that specialist organisations should focus on content, teaching, platform, network has taken hold. This isn't unlike the other Information industries where such unbundling had happened before. And, in context, the idea of a college may be reduced to a credentialing institution, and in some cases, hosting place for networks. For us, it is worth exploring what kind of opportunities this transformed education sector present to a start-up.

At the face of it, creating a college now may be a bad idea. In context of all this unbundling, different niche opportunities are emerging, which may already be more profitable than an integrated education institution: Businesses such as Pre-university Preparation, Graduate Internship Provision, Niche Publishing, Social Networks for students, Employer Connect Specialists are all very interesting. The 'college' may now just be an assembler, an integrator concerned with certifying the experience.

However, while this may work in practise, this structure looks really bad in theory: All these parts may eventually create a fairly limited and mechanistic experience for the students. This assemblage indeed looks more like a processing plant than anything akin to the concept of an educational institution. Indeed, I am no more fond of the teleological conception of the university having a purpose in itself, but people who have had a good university experience would usually recall the friendships, the odd inspiring teacher, the joys of making a discovery (usually of meaning into previously undecipherable material) and of the idle spirit-lifting aspiration to change the world. These are, by their very nature, serendipitous, rather than planned, experiences, and difficult to reproduce in an 'unbundled' college.

I shall explain why I think so. I think where our construction of unbundling fails is in perceiving the role of the teacher. Indeed, she is no longer the Guru and the fountainhead of knowledge, having acceded that role to Google long ago. With predictive analytic of learner preferences, adaptive content, employer driven assessments, she is not even the human conveyor belt of learning: She is now reduced to the role of, as the TED fellow Dr Sugata Mitra will suggest, a 'grandmother', who just need to stand back and encourage - and let people learn. One of the key assumptions of the unbundling theory is that the knowledge has now been alienated from the teacher: This is really THE CHANGE that makes unbundling possible.

However, my experience tells me that good teachers are not just conveyors of learning, but they are catalysts. My lifelong love of poetry came from a fascinating teacher who could recite memorable lines by heart, and had a great sense of context: So, I shall still remember the lines of the poems depicting a coming storm and feel the cool air of the storm that happened on the very moment we listened to that poem first time in our classroom. When I explain price elasticity to this day, I can still remember the diagrams drawn on the board and stories told to us, as it was driven a great teacher. And, so were other experiences, driven by teachers who were not just popular or charismatic, but who had a great way of communicating, empowering, contextualising, and bring lessons to life. And, they could do that because they could control all aspects of the learning experience, the content and the classroom: What they did was not just to prepare me for the assessments, but to equip me with skills, abilities and indeed love for poetry.

I am indeed one of those who argue that education must move forward by assimilating and making the best use of technology of the day. However, I believe the unbundling may have significant shortcomings even if it may work in practise. This may sound like a self-defeating statement, but it isn't: The unbundled college may deliver undifferentiated outcome in terms of assessments, but anyone remotely concerned with education will agree that assessments are only one measure of educational outcome, and a fairly limited measure. The transformation of a person, through good education, is the professed goal of any education: Proclaiming that such transformation should be reserved for a certain, privileged, kind of people is as wrongheaded as the explorations of timeless purposes of the university. And, this isn't an explicit argument about status quo: Indeed, the practises could change with time and technology, as it did in many other industries. But, where this logic is problematic is that the students are not exactly consumers and transformation isn't exactly a production process with definitive outcomes; and besides, unless we know for sure that there is an alternative method available (which we wouldn't know because we can't carry out the experiments without creating significant educational disadvantage), we must keep the teacher at the centre of educational experience.

So, while we must take advantage of the great advances in technology, a teacher-centric institution structure still remains the key, which will possibly save the college as an institutional form (and not reduce it to an examination board). Indeed, specialist businesses will continue to prosper, but we must be careful in claims we make: The specialist businesses are to enhance, and not replace, the educational experience. The question of open content is similar: While the teachers should be made aware of and encouraged to use open content, they should still be left in charge - as architects of educational experience. We know no better way, at least as yet.

India 2020: Re-Imagine!

What seems a lack of choice in most cases signify a need to make a hard choice: It is actually quite obvious in most pursuits of day-to-day life, where such a situation will be called a 'dead end' and the usual way ahead at that point would neither be left or right, but rather a reverse or a plunge. However, in political life, such dead ends seem to lead to sleepwalking, choosing bad alternatives just because one does not seem to have a choice, and putting up poor arguments justifying the unjustifiable. One wouldn't complain if such conciliatory behaviour did at least lead to a status quo, and not resulted in, as it does so often, the rapid decline of the standards of governance over the last two decades. Clearly, the compromise does not save us, but rather pushes us down the slippery slope of corruption of democratic ideals, limitations of our liberty and worse, makes all of us so cynical about politics that we are likely to reinforce our  fate ourselves.

But, if we can step back, the options rarely look as bad. One of the great achievements of the modern politics has been the political party, an institution which has monopolised our political imagination. In a somewhat cynical turn of events, we, individuals, have been tutored to devolve our political activities to political parties of our choice. However, while this may have worked in early, small political communities, this practice has eventually resulted in alienation and disconnect, with politics emerging with a life of its own. In a way, what we have now is the rise of political machine at the expense of citizenship, and this lies at the heart of the current powerlessness that many individuals across the world feel about the political process.

To be sure, the hard choice that I talk about isn't personal, but collective: No one individual will deem himself/herself powerful enough to question the 'system'. The personal costs of doing so can be enormous; besides, such political action runs directly counter to the consumer ethic of modern life, where what one consumes defines the person and therefore, every moment of a person's working time may need go into expanding a person's consumption portfolio. Political activity, even in pursuit of good life, should be best left to people who are already endowed well financially, so goes the quintessential middle class wisdom of the day. Hence, our lack of political choice is indicative not of the general lack of leadership but the poverty of our own political engagement.

Nowhere this lamentable trend is more visible than in India, touted to be world's most populous democracy but one built without social emancipation and political equality. It fashioned its political culture around representative democracy, a high ideal for its constitution makers but a convenient excuse for its successive governments for at least the last thirty years. It is an illustration why a democratic system isn't an end in itself: Indian democracy is mired with a governance culture devoid of any sense of accountability, built around political inequalities and social servitude, driven exclusively by a distant political class. And, contrary to the fashionable theories of middle classes being the vanguard of democracy, Indian middle classes are very much complicit in creating this democratic deficit. They have made a convenient bargain with the political classes - they can continue leading their consumption centric life without regard to the 'politics'.

The Indian general elections due next year is widely perceived to be a watershed one, but it is not significant for the reasons one would expect, or hope. It is not the battle between Modi and Rahul, secularism versus fundamentalism, investment-driven versus inclusive growth debates that make this election special: Rather, it is the question of viability of the Indian state, credibility of its whole polity, that hangs in balance. Indeed, the media brouhaha may all be about Modi and his record, or Rahul and his lineage, the validity of shining Gujrat claims, and the weighty issues such as corruption, stagnation and loss of hope: But the elephant in the room is a silent cynicism that things won't change in India. In fact, the desperation is evident in the hope of redemption itself: A man with Modi's track record won't be considered fit as a leader except in a society completely cynical about itself.

A number of educated, middle class voters in India will argue that they would prefer 'decisiveness' than 'democracy': Invoking Benjamin Franklin's dictum about liberty and security trade off has little effect on their thinking. This rhetoric isn't about one candidate over the other, but a complete reversal of the democratic ideal, and with that, the idea of Indian state. True, there is an underlying claim that there is a timeless India, and the modern creation does not matter very much, and therefore, tearing down the modern conception of the state will only return everyone to that idyllic land of milk and honey. But, indeed, that's the typical nationalist mythology, arrived in India about hundred years too late: The conception of the timeless state is ironically modern and European, and the fact that such a state will emerge only once we have dismantled the secular and democratic edifice is pure mythology. This is a fine example how the political ideals degenerate, in the space only a few generations, how rights can be taken for granted through a collective amnesia and how, in the absence of struggles, political responsibility is quickly forgotten. 

This loss of political self is, then, the biggest issue in the next election. Indeed, one can be optimistic about turning around at the precipice: However, there are far too many examples of chaos and degeneration than the rise of self-conscious and political obligation on its own. This is indeed a great opportunity to re-imagine, to unite, to work together and to restart India's democratic experience, but this will require stepping out of our own individual cocoons of consumption and getting our hands dirty. Countries have done that before, surely, but only after Civil Wars and Revolutions have torn down the fabric of the old society. Such a moment is fast arriving in India, and the hope that we will learn from history and act pre-emptively looks increasingly remote.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

If MOOCs fail

Last few weeks have been quite difficult for the MOOCs: After the initial flurry of change of the world rhetoric, suddenly some setbacks dampened the momentum. This started the usual I-told-you-so chatter, that MOOCs are just a passing fad. On the other end of the spectrum, the very usual optimism continues to persist: The balance has invariably tipped and will continue to tip, regardless of the fate of one or two companies. And, as in many other things in life, the sensible stance to take is somewhere in the middle, to consider the issues but not write off the phenomenon altogether.

To be clear, what we are dealing with isn't any reversal of fortune, but slowness of progress. And, despite the slowness, new things did indeed happen. Coursera raised another, bigger, sum, and new services, like NovoEd, did indeed launch. Some of the older services, like Alison, got eyeballs and traction, somewhat because of the general media enthusiasm about the MOOCs. The balance did indeed seem to start to tip, when individual training consultants and classroom training companies, who were sworn enemies of online learning (justifiably so, as they imagined that online learning will eat their lunch), suddenly discovered the promise of it and embraced it, replacing their costly training videos with free TED talks and even lectures or concepts from Udacity et al. So, the buzz is still powerful, ubiquitous and persistent, just as expected.

The bad news is, however, rather bad, because it undermines the MOOC's quest for a business model. The idea that these free courses will become the currency of college education, solving at once the costs and the access problem on a massive scale, helped the term to enter policymakers' lexicon. However, the first few experiments of the kind, Udacity's experiments with San Jose State University, has just gone down spectacularly. What is worse is that this reinforces the traditionalist's objections to online learning, that it is not easy to transition from classroom to online learning, and access to ICT, particularly for poorer students, create a disadvantage that undermine the claims of levelling the field otherwise. Everyone indeed be searching for answers, as is inevitable in experiments of this kind, but some answers may be worse than others. Sebastian Thurn, the Founder of Udacity, points to the existence of 'deadline free' courses, and 'poor communication of expectations'. Anya Kamenetz (see the article here) writes about lessons learnt thus:

While this trial certainly proved that MOOCs aren’t magic, nor will it be the end of experiments with online delivery or for-profit partnerships in public higher ed in California or elsewhere. Upcoming offerings like the Udacity-Georgia Tech $7,000 master’s degree in computer science, and Coursera’s partnerships with 10 state university systems to increase flexible paths to degrees, hopefully will learn from this pilot that, when they offer an online course, they’d better make sure there is a student at the other end with a laptop, an Internet connection and reasonable preparation and support to learn.

This is coming at the back of several other delays and setbacks on the 'For-Credit' MOOC front, notably the postponement of Altius Education and Tiffin University projects in June, and the postponement of SB 520, the bill in California legislature which would have allowed college credits based on MOOCs (see here). Arguably, the SB 520 postponement comes on the basis of expansion of online offerings by State Universities themselves: So in this case, the technological argument still holds its ground. In such cases, it seems the politics of MOOCs, that everyone would be expected to use the same content and structure of courses, leading to 'mechanical reproduction of the work of teaching', seems to be the bone of contention. Nathan Heller, of New Yorker, describes the furore:

"Two weeks ago, the philosophy department at San José State wrote an open letter of protest to Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard professor whose flagship college course, Justice, became JusticeX, a MOOC, this spring. “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves,” the letter said. The philosophers worried that the course would make the San José State professor at the head of the classroom nothing more than “a glorified teaching assistant.” They wrote, “The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary.”" (See Heller's Laptop U article here)

One could argue that these are rather minor problems and take away nothing from the inexorable popularity of the MOOCs. However, such setbacks in its heartland, California, which seems to be the fountainhead of a new spirited ideology of reforming public services, questions the speed and ease of changing the world. The MOOCs set out to gain users first and figure out the business model later (as this Economist article points out), but this approach always carries the risk of being labelled a fad and going down in smoke if the investors suddenly found a new love object. MOOCs have been the dominant form of educational innovation in the last couple of years, but it still carries the risk of overreach.

Here lies the central problem with the glitches with MOOCs: Not just that they may look the whole phenomena vulnerable, but put in doubt all the different efforts of educational innovation. It is possible to argue that the buzz around MOOCs, funded by endless pots of investor money, undermined the innovation culture in Higher Education by promoting this one brand of innovation: If this fails to deliver its hyped up promise soon enough, this may mean a roll-back of many other initiatives, some completely unconnected with MOOCs. Education innovation has a blighted history: For example, two -year degrees (for what they are worth) has been debated for over a hundred years. Even if the pace of change has hastened in every other sphere of life, in Higher Education, such changes have been difficult and slow: One does not want another battle to be lost because someone promised someone the earth.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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