Saturday, September 28, 2013

'De-imperialising' Indian Higher Education

I learnt something new about India when I travelled around the country in April/ May. I was accompanied by two colleagues: One, my Co-founder, a Briton who has never been to India before; Another, a senior colleague who is the Chair of our Academic Board (and previously been a member of the executive in an UK university), who was born in Mauritius but settled down in England three decades ago, and have become as English as anyone (in contrast, though settled in England, I preserved my Indian, arguably Bengali, identity in day to day life, and even in work). I learnt a lot seeing India through the eyes of these two close colleagues,who were visitors to a country I consider my own.

What I learnt went beyond the usual staff one expects: One gets embarrassed by the lack of basic facilities in India when accompanying a 'guest', but at the same time, on reflection, feels proud about how little we have to go by, yet how aspirational we are. Coming back-to-back to a visit to China, one could contrast the hospitality - the Chinese were indeed more hospitable in comparison, and a lot more proud about their own country (indeed, in India, everyone blamed the government, but China, we didn't hear any dissent, as expected). Going around in Indian universities and colleges, we were shaken by the lack of academic culture and integrity. We looked at outdated curricula and was told that the curricula does not change as the university professors who decide on it, usually run a lucrative business of selling notebooks and want to keep selling these without changing much of the content; we were told how academic recruitment is not defined by merit, but caste, religion and the like; we visited schools which ran like factories, with a strict top-down culture of compliance; and we met ambitious students who could only express their personalities by being deviant and disruptive, as the culture of the colleges were disciplinarian, usually run by people from the Army, rather than being student-centric and/or creative. 

But, the most telling thing, apparent to my colleagues perhaps more than me, is how India is still deeply stuck in its legacy. The different treatment that I received from my English colleague was telling enough; however, the fact that this is not due to hospitality towards a visitor to the country was plain as my Mauritian/ English colleague was treated just as another Indian, simply because he appears one, notwithstanding the fact that he was as English as anyone and was also older (there goes the theory of respect for age out of the window). We also noted the post-colonial sensitivities when some Indian Academic Leaders simultaneously tried to tell us how everything is fine with the Indian education system and how respected Indian degrees are abroad, while simultaneously stating that any British degree, no matter from which university, will be highly desirable. To my amazement, I was challenged, rather angrily, by an Academician, in the middle of a lecture because I said that India must address its skills imbalance: The person claimed that all is fine with India because the world is 'outsourcing their jobs to India' and it needs to do nothing: On the other hand, of course, we were told, by the same group of people, that the students are not able to perform even the simple tasks (presumably, the students were at fault). 

If one would believe that one of the goals of the post-independence education system in India was to foster a national identity (and to leave behind the colonial legacy), it seems to have failed. This is an argument I have made in a report I have recently written about Indian Higher Education: That the structure of power underlying the education system has barely changed in the intervening sixty years. This is, I shall argue, that the biggest shortcoming of the Indian education system, that it carries on the imperial legacy at its core: Only that this imperialism comes from within rather than without.

I came to believe that the Indian Higher Education system (and the education system in general) is designed to promote the dominion of certain sections of the society. The complete lack of any critical reflection or discussion, an overtly technical/ professional focus in education, the top-down culture of the institutions and of the classroom, are all markers of this. There is a false argument that Indians are usually passive learners: There is no historical evidence - as traditional Indian education system was based on rhetoric and some of the greatest logicians were Indians - and neither any contemporary proof: Millions of Indians self study towards IT certification, 13% of the EDX students are Indians (the biggest contingent after the Americans) and Indians do very well when they land up in World's finest universities and research laboratories. So, there is nothing Indian about the docility we saw in the classrooms - it was all to do with the education system which is designed to carry on the imperialism, this time by the privileged Indians.

Consider, for example, what is the really valuable skill in India. It is not creative abilities to design, or being a great software programmer; nor it is about having fine legal skills, or the deep training of a physician. The skill that will trump all of these in terms of skills premium is simply English language. Narayana Murthy was right when he said that in India, articulation passes for accomplishment. With right accent and pretense, English language abilities open up career opportunities like nothing else. This means opening up Senior Management positions and higher salaries; at the lowest levels, this means better salaries for drivers, plumbers and electricians as they could service not the expats but the Indians who prefer to speak in English. Talking to Indian employers, we learnt that lack of presentation skills among their staff is their biggest perceived problem: One could read the same desire for English language skills, rather than creativity, innovation, critical thinking and the like one speaks about in the West.

Indeed, English language is not just a skill, but a marker of a class, sustained through the education system, school onwards. This was the original design of Lord Macaulay, but was sustained by the Indian elite after Independence because this suited them. The Indian education system became a legitimising apparatus of imperialism. Imperialism, in this sense,  is to be defined not as subjugation by foreign rulers, but a system of social relationships where certain skills and attitude foreign to the native society, but those that create affinity and cultural affiliation with a global governing elite, are used as instruments of social power. Indian education system, to this day, is designed to sustain this system, and particularly to root out any possible challenges to this way of thinking.

I shall argue that this is not working. This is why Indian democracy seems to be in such perilous state, because we have mostly given up on asking questions. The street protests in India isn't evidence of political consciousness, but just mobs driven by successive waves of media frenzy. The public conversations in India are impoverished, innovation is usually marginalised and people born without privilege usually have to go abroad to seek expression and realise their potential. There is a talk of 'demographic dividend' in India: Nandan Nilkeni contends the population is a problem in a planned economy but a source of advantage in a market economy, but he misses the point that India is not a market economy (because this will mean a meritocratic culture and appropriate rewards of talent and work) but a privilege economy.

This is where a new thinking is needed and a process of 'de-imperialisation' of Indian Education must start. This means designing a new kind of education system, with critical consciousness at its core. This also means a good grounding on various intellectual traditions, not least the Asian ones, because such process of de-imperialisation may start in India with the recognition and discovery of an Asian identity. In fact, India is seen as a subject nation in most of East Asia because of our ability to overcome the apparatus of privilege bestowed on us by our colonial masters (Lord Macaulay's brilliant design), whereas the rest of Asia may be recovering from the cold war slumber decisively. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Rethinking the Professions

It is an odd thing to say that professions may be dying. If anything, experience would typically suggest the opposite: Never before, such prestige was attached to the professions much as Law, Accounting, Medicine or Engineering. In fact, one would suspect a professional credential is absolutely essential to get by in the modern world, and therefore, practitioners in many non-professionalised fields, such as Business, want to be professionalised.

However, it is usual to see the future with the patterns of the past, and I would argue that the Professional Society may actually be behind us now. The evidence may be all around us: Andrew Keen moans this fact in The Cult of the Amateur. We can debate whether this is good or bad (for Mr Keen, it is a disaster) but the sense of seize is all around us. The Accountants who fear self-assessment returns, the lawyers who hate the legal advice websites, the karaoke hating professional musician, the journalist made redundant by internet news. Every time I see my Doctor searching and printing off medical advice for me, I feel he may soon be on the line.

But, one must hear the arguments on the contrary. Isn't availability of free information makes the professionals more indispensable, because one may soon lose the sense who to believe. This is essentially Mr Keen's argument in his dystopian book. But this argument equates profession with expertise. Indeed, there is no argument that a professional needs to be competent, but a profession is more than that. It necessarily presumes a social contract, a certain protected privilege in return for doing a socially useful job with reasonable competence and within a reasonable cost. This social aspect of it is currently being challenged.

There may be different reasons for this challenge to the professions, but before we turn to them, we must recognise that this social contract is somewhat broken. The professions often treated their protected status as a privilege, and forgot the other side of the bargain. Some Accounting bodies I know of would spend more time and energy in shutting out global firms from entering their home territory, and accountants from other bodies, from the privilege of doing audit, than they would ever do in developing the ethics and professional competence of their members. They have somewhat failed to learn from the declining fortunes of the trade unions: They have failed to wake up to Globalisation and Technology.

But it will be a mistake to ascribe the decline of the professions to just one or the other thing, like globalisation, technological change or the arrogance and insularity of some of the professional bodies: This decline may be part of a broader social change relating to how work is done, how information is sought and used and how respect for authority plays out. And, it will also be a mistake to think that the fate of the professions will be uniform across cultures and societies: It is unlikely to be. In Bangladesh, it is far more likely to meet someone who uses his profession as a banker or an Engineer as a title (as in 'Engineer Supriyo Chaudhuri') than in England. Surely, one would love to see the trades, such as electrical work or plumbing, professionalised in a country like India. But, there is still an overarching pattern in where professions are going, down, across the cultures: Their influence seem to be passé with the decline of the Industrial Age.

So if professions are somewhat in decline (some professions more than others, the only one thriving being, arguably, that of the politician), but expertise is in ever greater demand, what may we be heading towards? Howard Gardner argues that to be successful in the future, one must have a discipline, a certain way of thinking, believing and arguing grounded in certain area of knowledge. Gardner's idea has an intuitive appeal, when professions face the challenge and known ways of organising work is certainly under threat. We need experts, but we don't want to value knowledge in the form and in the way we did before.

One must therefore the point of reconciliation between the claims that knowledge is being commoditised with the idea of disciplinarity. As socially mandated norms and boundaries of knowledge and expertise become transient (and commoditised), a new form of expertise gains ground. It may no longer be about a narrow but deep skill, but a complete way of thinking, designated to address a wider variety of problems, that become valuable. In earlier ages, this was simply not possible, and hence was never recognised: Now, with most mechanical functions related to storage, discovery and retrieval of knowledge safely relegated to the realm of the machine, a distinctive way of deep thinking centred around broader problems (not medicine, but how to be heathy) may define the new expertise. This is indeed a familiar ground well explored by Ivan Illich, and we are staring at his notion of 'counter productivity' in its face - the institutionalisation of knowledge led its decline and obsolence. 

The time may have arrived to 'disable' the professions.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

On Being Free

I have always been one for serendipity, the view that the best things in life happen unplanned. Being raised in a highly disciplined environment, which I was, the best things in life were always outside for me: It was always about being free. 

This is why, perhaps, I lived the way I lived, doing various things at different points, setting off on journeys without planning out where I am going. This is why I perhaps write like this - conversationally and confusingly, veering off to different subjects and putting on different styles - leaving the structuring of thoughts and ideas to people reading it. This is what defines my politics, averse to authority and to conformity, equally ill at ease with the groupthink of the left and market-fetishism of the right. In a way, this is what makes who I am - excited about new ideas, purveyor of new opportunities, but bored with structure and set ways of doing things.

However, one question I always left unanswered is what those best things in life are. While I wanted to get outside the structure, the 'best things in life' were all defined by the structure. It is not so much about trying another way, but defying the gravitational pull of what's desirable, the values and desires of others that we all live by, makes freedom so difficult. So, my life has been a cycle of setting off for dead ends, where the inherent promise of freedom was incompatible with the intended end result: The disappointments that came on the way were obvious with the benefit of hindsight.

As I learned, I came up with another theory: That focus, the deliberate embrace of unfreedom, may be the best temporal strategy to achieve freedom. So, I put my head down and achieve certain goals, goals that, once achieved, will allow me a certain escape velocity to live a life more freely. This is suspiciously similar to a retire rich dream, but it did not appear that way. For me, it was a 'critical minimum effort', borrowing a concept from development economics, to get to a platform for free pursuit of opportunities. In the end, it was about enough money in the bank to buy a house on the hill.

But, this strategy is a myth: It does not work. This is because one can't achieve freedom through repression. This is a Freudian formula - repression as a price of civilization - but we know that the elaborate schemes to promote repression, consumer culture in the latest form, has always failed. At a personal level, this meant living someone else's life, while always dreaming to be free: This made me a perennial and incorrigible dreamer, while living a rather ordinary and orderly life. There are two, rather contradictory, problems that come with living like this: I started to treat indulgences, like buying books, as markers of freedom. They became obsessions rather than freedom, and they bound me more into the conventional bounds of desire. On the other hand, though, the pursuit of freedom within convention made me dream up grander schemes, far over-reaching the limited goals that my flirtation with conventional life was to achieve. This was an irreversible obsession too - the commonplace ideas of business and life lost its appeal to me completely, and I was fixated within this Quixotic complex of chasing the impossible bigger dreams.

It is only recently, therefore, I have started reconciling the necessity of focus with the beauty of serendipity: To do this, I had to focus on serendipity. The only way journeys to nowhere can be successful if they were intended that way: My earlier journeys to nowhere were full of milestones, so they were almost always circular and full of disappointments. My repulsion of structure stopped me from seeing that the way of freedom is not necessarily prescriptive, but deliberate. Pursuing freedom does not start with giving it up for a limited time, but rather always being free, in whichever limited way, in everyday life. And, this freedom is as much a means as an end: There is no big signboard for the territory of freedom but it is manifest in the omnipresent desire to be free. The retire rich life, the house on the hills, isn't being free: They are trophies of unfree designed to sustain the illusion for the next person on the line, and they are sustained by the lack of freedom in the life leading up to it, and even essentially thereafter. Freedom is, on the contrary, manifest in this very moment of writing this article with no clear purpose, and to no clear end, other than the joy of writing and the peace of settling the argument within myself, even at the cost of looking foolish, confused and lost. 

This is a rather significant shift - from searching for a life of freedom to recognising and enjoying the episodic freedom of life, the everyday moments that make us free and happy. It is about escaping the lure of objects, because they are purely markers of a socially ordained position, and even of ideas, because they are usually socially sustained messages to constrain the individual. The true freedom, in that sense, is the momentary connection that firms between the nature and humans, often in the most serendipitous way, something that is freely available to all, regardless of education, taste or financial means: This is not about freedom to look into the river from the balcony of one's million-pound apartment, but the purely accidental joy of looking at a rainbow on the suburban sky, even if interrupted by endless airplanes cutting along the line of sight. These freedoms are inherent in us, and not based on material enablers tied to unfreedom. They depend on no one but me - because nothing can take away my freedom of ignoring the work at hand and looking out to the damp grey sky of Wintery London and being happy. 

In the end, the great myth of civilisation is that freedom remains outside and one needs to earn the way to freedom: This is a deeply Freudian construct that our lives are built around around repression. But it is possible to give up the transmuted forms of desire - things - mandated by the society as the end in itself, and rather look out for the episodic, persistent, freedoms all around us. I don't have to try to be free once I understand this, because life is essentially free - it is only when we start listening to others, those want to pool others' freedoms into a vast reservoir of power for themselves, that we give up the freedoms that comes with our being. 

Being bound is a choice and freedom is our default state of being.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Why might 'the college' be dying?

Eric Schmidt seems to think that the college is a 'slow dinosaur', on its way to extinction. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, given that more students are going into Higher Education than ever before and the promise of skills, when jobs are disappearing fast, is the only hope that the working class has. In fact, one can argue that the modern society stands at the back of the college - the hope of social mobility that it provides - and without it, there will be no social order.

One way to think about this is that for too many people, this is turning out to be a false promise. The college does not lead to redemption, as it is promised to be; it rather leads to the same old place in the social pecking order, now made a bit more difficult and a bit more expensive to achieve. For all the talk of becoming a sentient being and developing a critical consciousness, going to college means turning out huge debt and becoming prudently conformist thereafter.

Of course, in sunny California, Schmidt does not say what he says with pessimism: He believes that the nature of knowledge has changed, or, it has become dis-intermediated. Which means, to know, one does not need to go anywhere: They just need to have a willingness to know, and a critical mind to know what to believe. The college, in its stupefying current format, kills of precisely the abilities one needs to survive in this world of freely-accessible knowledge: Willingness to know goes out of the window after the boring, pointless years spent in classrooms, and critical mind is sacrificed at the altar of the diploma paper (or the degree). 

But, this second view presupposes the first, even admits it. While some may see the half-full glass, the other, empty, half isn't going away. The colleges all over the world is still spinning the mid-twentieth century dream of social mobility through education, whereas life has moved on. The fact that there is only so much room at the top has been exposed: The career escalator is now jammed, as Linkedin founder Reed Hoffman says. One career lifestyles are history, and the college hasn't had a twenty-first century update. This is why it is now out of place, with its out-of-date premises, false hopes and nonexistent benefits.

So, how did the places of learning fail to learn themselves? They have stopped being learning places for a long time, perhaps when the self-organising learning communities were expropriated in the service of the modern state. One could argue that the universities changed over time, but it is possible to argue that this change came as they sold their soul: The welfare state didn't sustain, but rather destroyed them - in making the false promise to its citizens about a kind of rags-to-riches mobility that was never going to be. 

So, here is my thesis: That college is long dead. The kind of ideal that the apologists of the college talk about may only exist in rarest of places, if that. The rest of the institutions have been devoured by the march of welfare state. We may twist the story today and blame the colleges of navel gazing, and indeed some of that goes on, but that's the essential nature of bureaucratic institutions as they have become, drawing their justification from their being themselves within the bewildering changes in the social context where nothing could hold, and everything must continually shift. 

The college today a bureaucratic parapharnalia of an elaborate higher education system, which sells dreams of social mobility to the multitude, but delivers willing slaves to the twin prison of production and consumption. Not choice and opportunity, but it is designed around a fixed view of life and success, based on our grandparents' formula: and, as the party gets over for Consumer Capitalism, the college is as redundant as the dinosaur.

As the jobs shift and lives change, college diploma will no longer be the marker of competence and ability. The way it is going, it may soon denote silly conformity and lack of initiative. Ivan Illich may have seen this a long time coming: We are finally getting to de-school the society as the nature of what we do fundamentally transforms. Self-organising learning communities are coming alive, not just in MOOCs, but on YouTube, TED and Meetups, and people there are doing something they don't do in college anymore - learning. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

And There Will Be Blood

Let's be irrational: Friday the 13th. Four Death Sentences. An Announcement that can define India's future. Despite this being plucked from Hollywood lore, such connections always appeal to Hindu mind. However, even if one does not believe in omen and try to be rational, Friday the 13th of September would still appear to be a great day for the Indian Middle Classes - as they got what they wanted: Death sentence for the four people who brutally raped and killed one of their own, and a 'strong' leader who would drive India to its destiny.

If one wondered what that destiny may look like, the signs are already there. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party in India, calls the inflation in India 'Jijiya Tax'. Inflation is corrosive, and it spiralled out of control under the callous economic management of the incumbent government, and has indeed hurt the salaried middle classes. Protesting against inflation, however, is not the point here: Likening it to a historical tax that Muslim Emperor Aurangzeb imposed on people of other religions, mainly Hindus, in India, is. 

Indeed, it is a stretch of imagination to compare a tax and inflation, but one can argue that such metaphors are allowed in politics. But, the reference to Jijiya is telling. This is the 'us-and-them' game, 'India-for-Hindus' doctrine at work. Indeed, inflation is utterly secular and it hits everyone, more so the poor people, and overwhelming proportion of muslims in India are poor. However, this isn't about tax/inflation at all: This is the battle cry for the re-establishing the dominion of Upper Caste Hindus, from the loss of power that democratic India meant for them.

We have been here before: Men who don't read history are condemned to repeat it, and the induction manual for aspiring middle classes in India does not include any reading of History, because they are special people born outside time. These components were all there: A world recession and a wobbly economy; a middle class proud about their progress and dreaming about their rightful place in the world; a listless democratic government serving too many masters; and a canny and cynical political movement, gambling with a country's future. This is uncannily like the narrative of Nazi Germany.

If a strong leader could fix a country, Hitler would have done very well. You couldn't afford to disagree with him. He would have done anything he liked. But, this is how it works for despots: They cynically manipulate the electorate to take power. Then, they impose a technocratic formula of development, and treat all dissent as anti-development. When their formula does not work, then they blame 'the other', those who don't agree with them, and turn them into public enemies. This leads to purges, progroms and finally, a war, because this infallible leader's credibility depends on proving that the others, traitors and outsiders, are really stopping his unworkable plans from bringing the prosperity that he promised. This has been the trajectory of all such experiments in history, and India seems to be just signed up for this.

But, I exaggerate: India hasn't signed up for it yet. It is still a middle class pipe-dream. Ironically, this latest surge of this 'strong leader' is orchestrated by money coming from business owners and expatriates, coordinated by a highly organised minority group, and driven primarily through social media, a formulation which sounds almost like a terrorist network. It is just the latest attempt by Facebook mercenaries to take over a country, and indeed, its most audacious. This may work, but equally, this is a tiny minority enclosed in its own echo chamber. Hopefully, this chosen 'strong leader' is divisive and arrogant enough to let the disparate majority of India, the non-Hindi speaking, the women, the minorities, the poor, the villagers (overlapping and chaotic formulations, but united in the fear of disenfranchisement) to come together for a day and save the republic.

Otherwise, there will be blood.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

India Education Conference: 'A Case For Changing Higher Education Paradigm in India'

A Conference is being held to discuss Indian Post-Secondary Education in London on the 2nd and 3rd of October. About 100 delegates, from India and UK, comprising of University Representatives, Indian Educational Institutions, Education Innovation Companies and Private Equity Organizations, are expected to attend. Here is an opinion piece I wrote at the Conference Website outlining a case for change in Higher Education in India. For more on the Conference, visit http://indiainvestmentconclave.com/
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 “India has an examination system, not an education system”: Prime Ministerial Advisor C N R Rao used these words in April 2011 to argue for a plan to introduce an American-style common university admission examination across India, but he also managed to capture deeper maladies of the Indian Education system well.

Indian education, evolving from its colonial roots, still centered around social prestige through a good job and entry into a privileged class: a good education may indeed inflate the amount paid in dowry, and in case of women, result into marriage in a prosperous family.

After Independence, the education system India built was “Tiny At The Top”, as Education Researcher Phil Altbach calls it. The discussion about education in India is still centers around this tiny top – the IITs, the IIMs, a few elite colleges – institutions that attract the best talents in India and prepares them, effectively, for jobs and careers abroad. About 40,000 IIT graduates live in the United States alone, a significant number considering that even in 2002-3, the yearly undergraduate output of total IIT system in India was only 2,274 students (excluding Postgraduate and Doctoral students; the system has been extended to about 7000 seats a year from 2008) The rest of the education system in India, massive, underfunded, left to the negligent and variable care of its state governments, largely produced graduates for the jobs and careers in the public sector economy, which has started vanishing with the “extraordinary fiscal contraction” in the last few years, bringing deficits down from 10% of the GDP to about 7%. With India’s current economic woes, there will be further contraction: these jobs are not coming back.

The government tried to solve through the problem through expansion. The extraordinary expansion of Higher Education capacity, that took place since 2006, saw 10 colleges being set up in India, on average, every day, mostly by private business groups. With more than 33,000 colleges now, India can boast the largest Higher Education system in the world in terms of number of institutions, though, arguably, the size of these institutions are very small, only 600 students on average compared to China’s more than 8000 students per Higher Education institution.


Many, millions, Indian graduates sleepwalk through college education. The saving grace in the first few years of the new millennium was English Language: the growth of outsourcing offered an opportunity, limited and often with a dead end, for anyone who could speak decent English. Then, since 2004, after a massive fiscal shift to rural job creation, the new opportunities were in the Inner Market: in Banking, Insurance, and in the industries taking modern consumer habits to rural India. This expansion, however, with hindsight, was not about opening up of new sectors, but a shifting mirage of job creation. It was more “the charge of light brigade” than the usual happily ever after kind of narrative: waves and waves of new graduates were absorbed into the industry of the day, only to be left stranded, with stagnant salaries or no jobs, leading to disillusionment, desperation, even poor health.

At this very moment, a mini economic crisis brings perhaps an opportunity for reflection. Indian Education seems to be at a crossroads, yet again. Its students seem to be stricken by the curse of narrow skills, clueless in a shifting job market. Its employers seem to be facing the problem of a “skills hour-glass” – a good pool of talented and well-educated (read, educated abroad) senior managers, but a dwindling skilled middle and front-line management pool, as well as shortages of good researchers, teachers, designers, programmers – inducing them to go to Krakow, Manila and Dublin looking for talent.


In short, a “change-or-stagnate” moment has come to India, and Indian Higher Education must pick up the gauntlet. Policy-makers must stop referring to the economic development models of the West, played out centuries ago against the backdrop of imperialism, and start looking for ideas in contemporary success stories, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore: tiny nations which were successful in transformation and an extraordinary economic rise in a fiercely competitive world. Their tininess should not matter given their gigantic success: the educational models in these nations – one to develop broad range of real world competencies, and citizenship values – may better suit India to face the impending economic transformation. Education should not be about the entry into privileged class anymore, but should be about enabling the individual citizen to live a productive, healthy, engaged life.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On Writing This Blog

The question keeps coming back: Why do I write this blog? Those who don't see the point wonder where I find the time. Those who appreciate what I do tells me to do it 'more professionally'. I have so far remained true to my original purpose of writing - to create a digital equivalent of a 'commonplace book' - to maintain a scrapbook of ideas and record my wonder. 

However, I agree that my occasional attempts of weighty posting - trying to write academic essays, for example - make things go off kilter. While these create a great timeline for me, something that reflects my state of thought at the time, that is no use to anyone reading the blog. While this blog indeed serves many purposes, being a record of my life is the most private of those and it is indeed unfair to impose the same on those who generously give me their time in reading and commenting on this blog.

In summary, then, I acknowledge that this blog, anything public for that matter, isn't mine any longer: Its public existence essentially makes it social. While I can, and do, control who gets to read this by highlighting some posts (and not others) on my profile on Linkedin, Facebook and other social media, I am not, and don't intend to be, in control of those who serendipitously stumble upon it, and those who choose to stay, signing up for email updates or follow this blog. Initially, these were friends I knew: Over the last eight years, this has come to include many people that I never met, but come to consider as friends. At sobering moments such as now, I recognise that this blog is no longer just mine.

Do I then start taking myself more seriously and try make this blog professional? I have wrestled with the question any times before and always decided to stay true to its haphazard, personal nature. While I am considering a career as a writer, I am not sure I want to turn this blog, a labour of love, into a professional exercise. That would be, in my mind, inauthentic. I have endeavoured so long to keep this advert-free, stayed out of various offers to commercial writing, and link exchanges (except straying a few times initially), because I wanted this place for being myself. I have come to consider even the unedited style, with the occasional grammatical errors, the mix of US-UK spellings, the brooding and complex sentences that I am not proud of, all part of that authenticity. In other words, in a strange reversal, this blog makes me who I am.

Personally, I am at a critical juncture in my life. I have lived the start-up life for about a year, a life of extreme sacrifices and swings of hope and despair, with the endless cycles of self-doubt and self-confidence. With time, though, such a life in precipice become habitual, bearable, almost commonplace. But this has also clarified many things that needed clarification in my mind - particularly, what I love, and what I should be doing in my life. Indeed, I don't have all the answers - don't know how I get to do what I would love to do, for example - nor such knowledge comes in neat packages giving me a career path. But, getting a sense of what's worthwhile is important, and it is surprisingly difficult when life follows a pre-set pattern and the trivial overwhelm the not-so-urgent. 

So, I possibly know three things: That I want to work in Education and the goal of my life will be to set up an institution, perhaps a Liberal Arts College, which will bring together the possibilities of creative thinking, disciplinary excellence and the power of technology-led innovation; that I would want to make my life, and this institution, global, steeped in values of openness, exchange and cooperation; and that I want to become a campaigner for this idea of education, shifting away from the values of 'money economy' and getting ready for the 'gift economy'. 

Not all of this is immediate: My current project is global, but this is neither about setting up liberal arts education nor about 'gift economy'. I am a suburban Londoner at this time, with boring regularity of routine and expectation. The life I seek to live is not about globe-trotting, which means peering out to different lands from five star hotel lounges, but rather full of travels on dusty roads, knowing other languages and seeking truth outside the proclamations of world leaders and English language media. I don't have a roadmap from here to there, but just a sense of direction; no skills, except perhaps my love of writing; and nothing in my past to be able to do this, except the track record of defying the gravity of my past all the time.

As I hit the road, then, metaphorically, it is time to reinvent my writing, though not necessarily my blog. I am starting to write different things, seeking out commissions and building a portfolio, as any aspiring writer will do. I am trying to change my style, making it more user-friendly by abandoning philosophical pretensions. I am considering taking up studies again, one final time, to complete a Research Degree, once the U-Aspire project has truly commenced. Amid all this, I have decided to preserve this blog as it is: Personal, a labour of love, full of errors but straight from the heart. Expect less of scholarly pretensions then, and more of my personal story: I didn't forget that this is why I started writing the blog.    

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Indian Higher Education: Nationalism Redux?

The context is the apparent demise of the 'Foreign Education Providers' Bill' in India, an event causing much anguish among certain sections of International Higher Education community. It is difficult to mourn for this bill, as this was an useless piece of legislation in the first place. The bill was initially designed for the Top 500 universities in the world, and the purpose of the legislation was to allow these universities to set up campuses in India and teach students and not take any profits away ever from India. In short, the purpose of the bill was to make India's educational improvement a responsibility of the Top 500 universities in the world.

Despite the bill being an exercise in futility, this could still be considered an important artifact in Higher Education policy: Its insistence on the requirement that the university applying under it has to be in the Top 500 list on Times Higher Education or Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, a provision that was dropped eventually, and on no money ever being taken out of India, which possibly contributed to its eventual demise, did not just demonstrate the Indian government's lack of understanding of what the top universities in the world do, but also how nationalist rhetoric was used to hide the entrenched interests in policy making. I shall argue that to view its demise as just a nationalist throwback would only be a partial explanation, and instead, a closer examination would also expose how the politics of Indian middle class is playing out.


I shall claim that the bill was a nationalist creation in the first place. It is worthwhile to pause and think about the conversations leading up to the bill, which was not about enhancing the standards of education in India at all. The underlying assumption was perhaps that all was well with Indian Higher Ed, and nothing really needed fixing. The Bill was justified, from the start, as a mechanism to stop the outflow of $4 billion a year that Indian students spent studying abroad: An apparent protectionist motive, perhaps misplaced, was behind the creation of the bill.

This was, however, not about drawing investment into Indian Education - if so, why attempt to limit who could invest, and preclude those who are most likely to invest, the global For Profit providers such as Pearson and Apollo Group. This bill was instead a sop that the government was giving to the new urban middle classes, just as they were being pampered with easy credit and foreign liquor; this was about making foreign education, just like foreign cars and perfumes available in India. This was part of the great Indian Dream, somewhat poorly constructed, which was about making India the next great power, trying to jump the queue somewhat. Such great power existence, as constructed in India, is seen in terms of global consumption habits, and Foreign University campuses would have been another set of monuments to be constructed for the same purpose (alongside shopping malls and amusement parks).

Understandably, from this viewpoint, it is only reasonable to limit the scope of the legislation to the Top 500 universities of the world, as It was the 'brands' the Indian consumers were after. This bill had nothing to do with expanding India's Education capacity to include those who can't afford Higher Education. Conceived in the days of shining India in its original form, this was about expanding access for those middle classes who can now buy foreign brand cars and take holidays abroad. This was about getting those students to Harvard and Oxford - and indeed about bringing those universities into the gated communities and luxury townships such as Lavasa - an element of the great Indian Shopping Festival, rather than an exercise into nation-building or enhancing educational abilities. Indeed, there was this rhetoric about protecting Indian students from unscrupulous foreign players - but this only meant the government sacrificing those unsuspecting students to unscrupulous Indian providers instead.

Indeed, the other side of this Foreign Education Providers' Bill was an excitable projection of the size of Indian Higher Education system: It is the second largest higher education system in the world in terms of student numbers and with its larger young population pool (than China), India's Higher Education system is tipped to grow faster. All kinds of exciting student numbers are usually rattled off at this point to substantiate that it is indeed an exciting opportunity to offer Higher Education in India, if not the most exciting opportunity. This, however, is quite unsupported by the experiences on the ground: For most of India's 33,000 colleges, the mood is of panic rather than excitement, as the student numbers have failed to materialise. For older colleges, it is somewhat a reversal, as they clearly have seen better days; for newer ones, it appears an unmitigated disaster. The Engineering Colleges, which funded themselves as students lined up to pay huge donations for the few free-market 'management quota' seats outside the state-mandated admissions and fees regime, are in full crisis mode as the students seemed to have decided that 4 years of Engineering study is not worth it anymore. The Business Schools are worse off, with closures, mergers and voluntary de-accreditations, with their MBA programmes seen mostly as a joke.

The student number projections and the empty seats are, however, not incompatible, but two sides of the same coin. Integration with global markets in many sectors positions India at a certain level in the Global value chain: This is about feeding lower order knowledge labour rather than defining the agenda. Indeed, the middle classes are all rushing to do Engineering and MBA, but in the end, they are all fed into sales, with the job to sell, for example, financial products designed in first world financial institutions to the rural Indian consumers. The function the Indian education system is designed to serve is to give the students a pretension of modernity, an exposure to global consumer habits, so that they can happily take up their position as the foot soldiers of globalisation in India. Indian students are therefore questioning the value of their Engineering degrees, as they see them leading to the same sales jobs that a good Bachelor of Commerce degree may lead to. The oversupply of Engineering seats is just poor business planning, arising out of the hubris of the Indian government policy.

Given the initial rhetoric about saving money on foreign education, one would think at this troubled time for the Rupee, when the Government is taxing Gold imports and talking about closing Petrol Pumps at night to limit consumption in order to save foreign exchange, the bill would be back on the table and look more relevant than ever. But, even such emergencies didn't save this bill, perhaps due to interplay of three interconnected factors:

First, because everyone involved just know that this is just a false hope that the bill will deter anyone from going abroad for studies: Those students who were planning to go abroad for an education (particularly those looking to go to the top 500 universities) were always going to abroad, and would have had the necessary financial and social capital to do so. It is most likely, however, that entry of any foreign provider will push the academic salaries up, causing an exodus from India's top Government-run institutions, where academics are poorly paid.

Second, Indian government may be in a full state of panic because of the state of India's private sector colleges, particularly due to low enrollment, and they are afraid that a real estate price collapse is around the corner, which will expose most of these ventures, as banks start calling in the loans. This is the least the government could do to retain the protected status of the sector, and save at least some colleges from closing immediately.

Finally, the Middle Class, for those the bill was originally conceived, are no longer a legislative priority. The middle class job creation has already stopped, the salaries have stagnated. The Indian companies, faced with rising costs and political uncertainties, have started shifting abroad, rather than creating jobs back at home. There are greater priorities on the table - the rural masses - something that the current government needs to focus on to remain in power.

Being an ardent supporter of measures focused on reduction on rural poverty, and having a very low opinion about the practicability of the Foreign Education Providers' Bill, this should be easy for me: But I still see a huge problem in the way the priorities are stacked. I do not think this is an either-or choice: The rural prosperity, towards which some imperfect efforts have gone in the last decade, must be matched with urban mobility. India's big problem, to me, isn't its efforts of 're-distribution', which is an absolute priority, but its failure to ease out infrastructure inefficiencies and productivity growth, the levers which would have translated the poverty irradication measures to general overall prosperity. Indeed, this were difficult things to do: This would have not only required curbing corruption (which dogs infrastructure projects), but also challenging social privileges. However, in the absence of such efforts, government's efforts to address rural poverty have become vote-buying handouts, and worse, because this is now creating disenchantment in the villages as the privileges have unequally distributed and social and economic mobility have reduced.

The bill in question, then, is just a symptom of the travails of post-liberalisation India, not just of middle class dreams shattered, but of misplaced priorities and political myopia. What happens next is anybody's guess: Without a framework, the chaos and anarchy are likely to continue, resulting in further impoverishment of the Indian system of education. This may again be left to those private citizens who have to make do without much from the governing classes,and perhaps, some good and some bad solutions will emerge from the same.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

India 2020: 'How India Got Its Funk'

India has a problem: Suddenly, everyone seems to agree on that. In a few short months, India has gone from being the beacon of a new economic order to a prospective failed state, only to be engaged with to avoid the creation of a black-hole equivalent of a state. Strangely, the Indians seem to agree: There is hardly any resentment in the country towards the fickle bond traders and currency speculators, who are primarily responsible for the anorexic Indian rupee, and rather a mood of self-blame, though not of introspection. India's time in the sun, and the hope of being counted alongside China, seems to be over.

The International Media has started commenting on India's fall with gusto. Almost every major newspaper has run stories, mainly blaming inefficiency of its government, and primarily, of its Prime Minister, who seems to be a 'natural follower than a leader', as a German magazine hopefully observed. The Economist pointed to India's failure to reform its labour regulations, which would have unleashed its manufacturing sector and lifted its exports, easing out current account deficits somewhat (See here). The point they conveniently remain rather quiet about that this may be just an all too familiar saga of dependent development, and despite all the negativity about India, the fall of Indian Rupee has less to do with the ineptness of Indian government than the investors shifting their money to United States: This observation will be in line with a new research by Hélène Rey, of London Business School (See The Economist story here).

The Indians in India, apart from blaming their hapless Prime Minister and wishing for a 'strong leader', blame corruption and, menacingly, population, notwithstanding the fact that its young population is the only thing India has going for itself.

Indeed, the failure in Governance is too obvious, but whether the Prime Minister is the cause or the symptom of the problem is debatable. That Indians can't come up with any alternative idea other than a xenophobic megalomaniac may illustrate that the problem may be entrenched and it is not going to go away. The corruption is a problem, but again bigger than one imagines: It is not going to go away with any change in government as every private citizen seems to be complicit in corruption. There are movements against corruption, but these advocate highly technocratic solution - put a bureaucrat or a judge in charge and the corruption is going to go away - which is discredited already. India has the classic game theory problem that everyone is corrupt because everyone else is corrupt - and this problem may need a social movement, however utopian it may sound before start, than a top-down political solution.

The most terrifying among these loose-talk solutions is the one regarding population: Well-placed Indian elites seem to believe that the country's population, whatever is the opinion of International Media, puts the country down. There is simply no way a country like India can provide for so many people. This is very similar to Hitler's original argument for genocide and aggression - that Germany simply does not have enough land for the German people - and perhaps precursor of things to come in India. This is indeed not the solution, but the cause why India may become a failed state, and reason why one must steadfastly oppose the 'strong leader' talk and xenophobic tendencies, which are gaining ground among Indian middle classes.

Surely, this population talk has come to the fore after the Indian government belatedly pushed through the Food Security Bill, which will guarantee a minimum amount of cereal to every poor person in India, and avoid starvation and malnutrition. This is seen as a massive betrayal of the privileged class, particularly as at the same time, Petrol and Diesel become more expensive. The immediate reaction was about populism, which is now become a bad thing in English lexicon, and vote buying: Once the emotions settled and inevitability and irreversibility of such measures in a democratic state dawned, some of them could clearly see the problem - the poor people. This is indeed the starting point of xenophobia, and politics that make states fail, eventually.

In fact, an alternative explanation to India's woes, which is underlined in the commentaries in the International Press, lie with its elite, the same people who are looking for 'solutions' and trying to drive the discussions about a new India. In a way, post-liberalisation India has been hijacked by them, and now Internet (particularly Facebook and Twitter) has given them a platform to organise and spread their views, and indeed, appear more numerous than they really are. They have vigorously protected their privileges, and expanded them, twisting the legal and administrative system and trampling other people's rights whenever an opportunity arose, thus creating a jungle state. If anything is failing today, it is this state, lopsided and inefficient, that is failing. And, there would be no solution in sight as long as these inmates are running the asylum.

How this has come about is indeed worth exploring, but this may have its roots to the post-Independence preservation of social and economic privileges. If, however, there was a sense of nation-building and sacrifice owing from the memories of colonial rule and the partition in earlier generations, which sustained a sense of society in India, for the generation of people in power today, the 'ask not' questions have not been asked. The post-liberalisation policy-making, enthralled in neo-liberal quest for growth (alongside an utopian belief in trickle down of prosperity), has driven most of the Indians to abject poverty and despair, while a false story of India's development was spun in the English speaking media. The most potent symbol of the state of the nation in India was not its space programme, but that it had to recall its Helicopter Gunships from the peacekeeping missions in Congo to use on its own people in Central India; not the hosting of the F1 Formula Racing in Gurgaon, but that its trains can not travel at night through the forests between Kolkata and Mumbai, two major cities.

Indeed, all of this look surreal from the airconditioned offices in the cities (where such problems are attributed to a few wicked Maoists, and questions why these handful of miscreants can't be defeated even after a twenty year war, go unanswered) and such discussions cause unease and disappointment. The House of Cards that the Indian Middle Classes have built, while they enjoyed their holidays abroad, shopping malls, and imported Whiskeys, is just now been exposed to fire. At this time, not just the Government of India, but all those who enjoyed the prosperity of the last two decades, seem to have a case to answer.

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