Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Politics of Foreign Education: The Colonial Memory

When I wrote a post titled 'Does India need Foreign Universities' I got the usual, and perhaps correct, response from many that the answer is obvious: Indian universities have a long way to go in terms of quality and innovation, and they need partnership with foreign universities to achieve this. However, my purpose of writing the post was never to argue on the contrary. In fact, it was not about collaboration and exchange of knowledge between the universities at all. This discussion is not about education, but about politics: My purpose is limited to exploring the political context why it is so difficult for India to pass the Foreign Education Providers' Bill (or allow Foreign Universities in India), when the educational benefits may be rather obvious (not to mention that most of the policy-makers themselves, and most certainly their children, are foreign educated).

While it may be easy to dismiss this as yet another example of the inefficacy of India's political class, the exploration of this politics, as I am doing now as a part of a project, is fascinating in itself. This is not just about lifecycle of a proposed legislation, but a broader discourse about Higher Education in India. The more I explore this, I see my own previous attempts to this, including the one I wrote  in a report about Indian Higher Education, may have been inadequate. The politics of foreign education is multi-layered in India, and it is indeed a worthwhile project to try to come to terms with it. This exploration may help dispel some of the myths - such as the delays around the bill are just about politicians and black money (which may be a reason, but only a partial one) or that a new administration led by business-friendly Narendra Modi may be able to quickly pass this legislation (which may happen, but it is unlikely that any administration will be over-eager to do it) or that the Foreign Providers' Bill is the solution (It is a flawed bill, as many have argued) - and may indeed stir a broader debate perhaps about what Indian Higher Education should look like in the coming years.

But, before I get into these broader issues, I intend to explore one of the reasons that keep coming up while discussing foreign education in India: Its colonial memory. This crops up in the discourse in regular frequency, and a key reason behind the ambivalence that successive Indian governments had towards foreign universities (and one key issue that a future administration, however business-friendly, may have deal with).

There is a simplified story about Indian Education system which often gets told in the West: That the British Colonial Administration endowed India with its first modern institutions, including the first civic universities. This started a sort of renaissance in India, with great flowering of literature, science and historical and social science research. This was, however, not followed up after Independence, and the excellence was gradually lost with the expansion of the education system. Today, India is afflicted by learning by rote, which the Indian students love to do, and is falling behind in Higher Education.

However, this is not the Indian story. An alternate story often captures the Indian mind. This narrative casts the colonial education system as the villain, rather than the enabler: The great Indian civilisation was systematically destroyed by the Anglicization of the education system. The Indian values were undermined, and learning by rote was introduced to produce civil servants who will help run the empire. The modern Indian state just sustained the handed-down colonial system, maintaining the same systems to sustain state power and ruled by a bunch of semi-colonialists educated in England.

The politics of Foreign Education is usually framed within these narratives: Outside India, it is about a nation that needs to free itself from its rote learning and obsolete education system; inside India, it is about finding its excellence within, not by subjecting itself to foreign methods which caused the subjugation of thought and destruction of its imagination. It is, therefore, important to try to make some points about the history of modern Indian Higher Education, which may hopefully cast the narratives in less emotive terms.

India did develop a system of science, medicine, jurisprudence and philosophy, but this had a more dynamic history than the proponents of the Indian glory would like us to believe. India's progress did not come from all endogenous developments through the ages, nor did ancient Indian scientists and philosophers had all the answers. Instead, the history of knowledge of India was one of rise and fall, of absorbing ideas from all over the world and developing successive waves of civilisation through the ages.

Coming up to the Eighteenth century, India was a still a prosperous country when the East India Company started making inroads in India. The country had its own system of education, quite an elaborate one with schools across its vast landscape, which was primarily funded and maintained by the feudal state (at the time of twilight of the Mughal empire, it was mostly its local chieftains who were independent in all but name). After East India company won a few local battles and landed up with the oversight of one of the most fertile territories on the land, Bengal, in 1760s, it did what merchants do (and what some of today's For Profit institutions focus on wholeheartedly) - it sought to maximize its profits. Education of the Natives was not one of its priorities, and though it may have had a line item of education fund in its budget, this was mostly about training its own officers policies of the company and customs of India. It was clear in its rationale: That the British share-holders were not to pay for the education of Indians.

Indeed, this is not about denying that some efforts were indeed made, particularly by key officers of the company. Warren Hastings played a key role in setting up the Calcutta Madrassah (which became Aliah University recently), which one can reasonably call this the earliest (or one of the earliest) modern institutions in India. Two Sanskrit Colleges, one in Calcutta and one in Benaras, were also established around the time. However, these attempts were more to train company officers than general natives, and while these institutions evolved over time, the story of colonial education in India should be seen as one of expedience rather than philanthropy.

In fact, how this foundational story was twisted by later interpretations on both sides is most apparent in the story of Hindu College (now Presidency University), which is arguably the first 'liberal arts' institution in India to offer instruction in English and study modern sciences. This was a private initiative rather than a government one, instigated by the liberal reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and funded by the rich Hindu businessmen of Calcutta. True, the enterprise was hosted and facilitated by the company officers, but the impetus of studying European science and English Language came from the great Indian reformer, who sought to bring change in the Indian society. Raja Rammohan was later excluded from the founding of the college - the Hindu donors saw him as a 'Mussalman' because he was a Farsi and English scholar and even travelled abroad, which was considered a sin (and ignited liberalism all over the world, earning a dedication of the Spanish constitution) - and the credits therefore were duly passed onto the English officers presiding over the founding of the institution.

Soon after this, however, the attitudes of the Colonial Administration changed towards the Education of the natives. The gradual expansion of the company rule in India, Lord Bentick's tenure in India (1828 - 1835) during which various reforms were initiated and the Company gradually started inducting natives into some jobs and the effects of changes in Britain (Utilitarianism, Free Trade ideologies) all resulted in the policy of developing, captured eloquently by Macaulay, 'a class of Indians, who are brown in colour, but English in taste'. The policy of cultural hegemony was firmly in place by 1857, when the Raj was eventually established after the Sepoy mutiny and the abolition of Mughal Empire. A Victorian Education, with learning by rote at its core, was firmly established in India. Almost all government money was spent in educating Indians to become officers of the Raj, 'education for clerkship' as one Indian Education reformer would call it, which undermined knowledge of Indian Heritage and established English Language at the top slot of the skills spectrum.

In fact, this system of education was resented and several attempts were made by Indians to reintroduce learning of Indian culture and languages.  One can cite various examples, such as:
1. Bengali landlords and philanthropists set up the National University of Bengal (later to become Jadavpur University) in Calcutta in 1905 to challenge the ‘education for subjugation’ offered by the state sponsored Calcutta University. 

2. This was also the objective of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, who founded Benaras Hindu University in 1916. 

3. Using the Nobel Prize money he received, Rabindranath Tagore started ‘Viswa Bharati’ in Bolpur near Calcutta in 1923 (later to become Viswa Bharati University in 1951), challenging the pre-dominant Western, training-for-jobs education. 

4. Noted Industrialist and Banker Sir Annamalai Chettiar endowed Sri Meenakshi College in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, to promote Sanskrit and Tamil learning, in 1920, which would be given the status of an university (‘Annamalai University’) in 1927. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It was clear among the Nationalist Indian leaders, almost all of whom received some form of English education, that an Indian education system was needed for 'national awakening', but they were divided in their approach. Gandhi's early approach was to reject English education and values (When asked what he thought about Western civilisation at the wake of Second World War, Gandhi remarked that it would be a good idea) as inappropriate for Indians, but he eventually came around to the alternative view espoused by Tagore, that "if a lamp of knowledge lit anywhere in the world, we should gratefully receive that light". 

Nehru and most of his colleagues in the Indian cabinet (including his Education Ministers, Maulana Azad and Humayan Kabir) were proponents of this latter view: They instituted an Indian education system, which would be open to the ideas of the world, but would be driven by India's national requirements and priorities. However, English Language still persisted (and does) at the top of the skills ladder, earning the best jobs, salaries and even brides for prospective grooms.

Recently, however, there is an opposite trend gaining ground. With economic development and pre-eminence of the 'inside market', as the Indian consumers become the main source of business activity in the country rather than exports, the alternative narrative that the colonial education disrupted an Indian golden age is gaining ground. This is consistent with the ascendent Hindu nationalism, and an ideology that is likely to inform Narendra Modi's government, if he manages to come to power.  

The current dynamic about Foreign Education in India should be seen at this backdrop. As I intend to develop this narrative further (I am conscious that the story is still incomplete), I am learning several things that underlie India's attitude to Foreign Education: It is still a coveted thing for Indian middle class, which continues in its culture of government jobs and state patronage. However, at the same time, there is nothing Indian about rote learning, nor the Enlightenment project in India was a gift of British philanthropy. India may not need foreign institutions, nor it should go back to find its ancient route: Rather, the solution may lie in looking around for ideas of reformers such as Raja Rammohan, who imagined a new country within the civilisation of the old one. Indian education may need a reinvention, and this may happen outside the current ideas how this can be done. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Reflections and Interests: Learning for A Pivot

I feel free. I feel free to do new things, and start learning again. 

This is a wonderful feeling. For several months, I pursued a fixed goal, whose shape was pre-defined. This is not just at work, in my personal life too - there were things to be completed, awards to achieve, promises to be delivered, all arranged in advance. Then, suddenly, I arrive at this point, from inside perhaps rather than outside, when some goals are achieved and some have been exposed as useless. I feel footloose, the settlement done and the road calling me again. All the affections and memories of yesteryear beautifully curated and arranged in my mind in a wonderfully rich display, pregnant with all the love and comfort and belonging, never to go away, but just as the starting point of the travel that must follow. 

I have always questioned the need for an end in life, particularly an end known in advance. Yet it is the end known in advance, matters most: In some societies, it is prearranged before one is born, and in some others, this is negotiated in school, but in all, life is just a journey in some direction, and an endless quest for settlement. And, yet, this is just terribly depressing, because no one really wants an end to a pleasurable existence and would rather have endless beginnings; what we know from school or our parents is just the ideal life that was but not it would be or could be at our own time, and indeed, it is impossible to see ahead what we like without being in the situation.

This is what I do, put myself in situations. My experiences have so far been modest and middle class, but I skirted with bankruptcy and felt rich at times, I conformed and subverted, schemed and been noble, loved and been manipulative, settled and left, and alternated between dreams and the practical. In all, I resisted the end, being categorised and defined. For me, the narrative of love and belonging is the one that needs to be reinvented at regular intervals, and something that needs to be a moving feast rather than a set menu, because life is ordained to be that way. So, however much I may cherish my memory, love and belonging, they are beautiful because I leave and only carry a weightless sense of them, rather than be buried, like any ancient pharaoh, with all the accumulated gifts of life, to become stale, to degenerate and to lose it in meaningless abundance.

At this very moment, I am at a similar point of departure. I am not tired or bored, but it is the lived intensity that I have achieved and what must be maintained by moving the goalpost. But the reinvention is not just about changing the goal, but essentially subverting any desires of stability that may have creeped in, like the mould on the unused hinge, that we must battle from time to time and cleanse ourselves of it. 

Of the many ways of possible subversion, the most potent for me is to try to live in a language milieu that's not my own. I believe I am now too used to a certain kind of thinking, having lived in certain language societies all my life. And, that, by exposing myself to a new kind of language, I shall let the world change around myself, subverting my own sense of stability, and thus generating the intensity that must accompany a meaningful life. 

To my friends and colleagues who invoke Samuel Johnson's Tired of a London, Tired of Life dictum against my desire for the road, the point is to cite the very variability of London that allowed the space for Dr Johnson's wonder, and not the mortgage fuelled City economy that lives,depending on who you are, either in gentlemen's clubs or museum galleries, building a language society that narrowly defines a version of the world that persistently show up in any possibilities that I may be able to explore from inside it. Instead, my quest is for the variability and the intensity that lies in the edges, perhaps outside, the boundaries of the languages that I know, a very different sensibility that should be explored as my next new adventure.

Finally, what if all this fails? Failure, however, is just set against a norm defined, and doesn't exist outside it. Seen one way, all departures are failures, but from a different vantage point, once a departure is possible, failure ceases to exist. In fact, departures then become norm defining, as the norms must expand to plug the possibility of departure, and must seek to turn the leaving into failing all over again. My quest is therefore to play this new hand, defy the expectations and subvert the patterns, and do something that confounds, and in confounding, start something new.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Politics of Foreign Education: Does India Need Foreign Universities?

India is Higher Education's El Dorado: Every university seem to want to get there, and no one knows how. The British Council's report on Transnational Higher Education puts things in perspective. India is firmly in amber territory in terms of friendliness to Transnational Education, it scores High in market attractiveness but low otherwise, because of the policy and regulatory confusion. It is one of those countries which everyone loves to talk about, but never does anything with. The Indian Government loves to play the game - it has been discussing a bill to allow Foreign Providers into the country for more than a decade now, but never got to the point of putting it forward to the Parliament.

For the outside observers, this is just the way India works. The lethargy in governance is just too well known. The various International Directors at various western universities love this, as it always allows them a talking point in the meetings, a topic about which one can appear knowledgeable without having to do anything about it. What gets missed, however, is that the Indian government can be remarkably decisive and even authoritarian on the issues it wants to act on. It can ram through much more difficult reforms and can even pass laws reducing petrol subsidies or getting foreign retail companies into the country. For some reason, it never felt the same kind of urgency to do anything with foreign universities. However, no one seems to ask why this may be so.

It is an interesting difference in perspective. For most foreign observers, India needs foreign universities. Period. It sends out more than 150,000 students every year who seem to spend US $10 billion - US $17 Billion (there has been different estimates) in educating themselves outside India. This is taken as a clear evidence that the country needs foreign education. Any interaction with the academic leaders (and education businessmen) from India establish that they are over-eager to get a foreign partnership. And Indian employers routinely complain that they are not getting the graduates they need. 

Yet the question may evoke a different response in India. Most Indian academics believe they are doing a fine job, under the circumstances. While students may prefer a 'foreign stamp', they seem to want a locally recognised award. While the employers may complain about the Indian graduates, they are not eager to employ foreign trained graduates either. And, while Indian companies may be going global, most jobs in the recent years have been created in the sectors servicing the 'inside market', retail, insurance, banking, education, where knowing the ground realities are more important than knowing English.

This is the context, therefore, of Indian Government's flip-flops on the Foreign Education Providers' Bill: It can't make up its mind whether the country needs foreign education providers, because it has never fully clarified why it may need them. The reason why India wants to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India isn't because the country needs their expertise in research, or even their money to boost the investment in the sector, but to stop the outflow of foreign exchange. 

This rationale should be seen as the starting point for judging the Indian government's intent to get the Foreign Universities in India. It is not investment (with a market like that, there is no dearth of private investment that can be found) nor expertise, because Indian policy-makers still think that the the expertise must be developed endogenously (more on this argument in a later post) but preservation of Foreign Exchange prompts the bill. Indeed, this is out of line with India's overall, rather liberal, approach to capital movements, and this is why the bill may never have been a legislative priority. 

Once this is understood, the most befuddling aspects of this bill becomes easier to understand. Why is India trying to make repatriation of surpluses so hard? Or is trying to restrict this to only the top universities, and not opening up to global For-Profit chains which may bring investment? Or thinking only about branch campuses despite India's different regions and priorities may be better served by recognition of partnerships entered with different universities, rather than setting up campuses? All the answers seem to lie in the fact that this is about discouraging Indian students from going abroad and keeping the money in the country. 

Are the Indian policy-makers deluding themselves? No university in the world, and much less the top ones, will ever agree to such restrictive conditions anyway and no one will ever come to India, the commentators opine. However, this may precisely be the intention. Under the terms of the bill, the only thing that will be possible perhaps is that an Indian business group sets up the campus and the foreign universities bless this with their name and expertise, holding the Indian students there. That way, Indian policy-makers can do what Mahathir Mohamad achieved for Malaysia - a self-sustaining education infrastructure in the space of a couple of decades - without having to lose control over what gets taught and who gets the money.

This post isn't an endorsement of such aims, but a commentary on the discourse. India can be confusing, but it can be understood once we seek to understand it on its own terms. Whether such 'protectionism' in education is necessarily bad, can be debated: However, any argument against the same is severely undermined once the interlocutors themselves indulge in protectionism of different kinds, including restricting foreign students from coming to their universities. Besides, if the economic development of a country is the central purpose of education, the whole debate needs to framed in economic terms, and policy priorities must be defined within its context. There may be many educational reasons why Indian education needs to have greater intercourse with ideas generated elsewhere, but this needs to be seen against India's colonial experience.

In summary, the politics of Foreign Education in India is complex, and deserves considered discussion beyond the usual rhetoric, for and against. A good place to start is to delve deeper into the need for Foreign Education, which I intend to do as a part of a project on this blog.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Project of 'Liberal Education'

The project of liberal education, as Professor Michael Roth of Wesleyan University memorably puts it, is to - Liberate, Animate, Cooperate and Agitate. 

Liberate, as Frederick Douglas put it - education made him 'unfit to be a slave'. This is the first object of a liberal education perhaps, to make a person free, so that he can never be a slave again. Animate, as Emerson and later Whitman will argue, is about discovering beauty by engaging with the world: With Education, suddenly, things that did not mean anything before, a painting, music, a building or a public square, may suddenly appear laden with meaning, full of history or promise for future. Cooperate, as Jane Addams described, because Education should allow one to see different points of views, and see, beyond the petty rivalries of everyday existence and make us see the commonalities of existence and form social bonds. And, finally, agitate, because liberal education, at its core, is a big Utopian project, predicated on making a world a better place, bringing forth change: It is the discontent with status quo, the unease with conventional wisdom and hand-me-downs, igniting the search of a better, fairer, way of doing things that define an educated mind.

Indeed, as noble as this may sound, this idea of liberal education has now been comprehensively discarded. The idea of employability, an agenda that governments in different countries have now passed onto colleges and universities, is centred around 'education for a job', the object of education solely being that of making the students fit to serve. Indeed, one may argue that 'to serve' does not equate enslavement and sure it is not the same: However, the lofty aims of being 'unfit to be a slave' are no longer important. At the same time, discovering beauty by engaging with the world seem to be an esoteric goal, reserved, it seems, for only the well-endowed. The consumer ethic essentially precludes such a search, but rather concentrated on accepting and, indeed, consuming what has been handed down. One does not have to search for beauty beyond one's drawing room and watching soap operas at an appointed time of the day should be enough to satisfy any aesthetic longing that one might have had, goes the formulation. Cooperation is also a feminine value, and has little space in the world of masculine competitiveness: A woman being a CEO, not a man connecting with others, is the story we want to tell. And, finally, a technical education, of the variety that is popular, is not about change but based on a certain unchanging view of the world. Despite the change the world rhetoric, of the kind one now sees in the business and engineering schools, the underlying motto of these proclamations is domination: It is either about finance eating the world or the software. We have had domination of one or another thing for far too long: It is freedom, variety and individuality that may represent a true change rather than domineering everything with one tool or the other.

So, liberal education, despite its lofty and beautiful rhetoric, is somewhat out of favour: In the nations with a colonial past, the term 'liberal' in Liberal Education evokes domination, and reminds one of the doctrine and methods of imperial education (which did just the opposite of the ideals enumerated above). It is seen by the conservatives as a libertine confusion and by the revolutionaries, a worldwide conspiracy to keep enslaved people enslaved. And, indeed, the whole liberal education project seems like a luxury thing meant for rich kids, who can afford not to think about a job and pursue beauty and the like instead.

However, in liberal education, I shall argue, lies our great hope - that education can help create better societies. Over the last two decades, the technical education provision there was expanded rapidly, with most people studying business or engineering because that was deemed to be needed by a rapidly industrialising society. But, as it transpires, this has left the society impoverished, lacking not just responsible citizens, but also impaired the students from anticipating the rapidly changing job market and be able to lead and participate in the opportunities as they appear. Indeed, this is not an argument to reverse provision of vocational education: That would be problematic. However, the point is that even the vocational education itself should be informed by the project of liberal education: Rather than being a preserve of the rich, creativity and imagination must now be democratised.

The idea will be to create good undergraduate vocationally focused programmes, on business, technology and the like, which is grounded in liberal education thinking and training. One can draw its inspiration from the Carnegie Foundation's work on Undergraduate Business curriculum, which argues that this shouldn't be seen as a Mini-MBA, but should be thought of and constructed with a liberal education base, preparing the students to prepare for a changing world with diverse constituents and demands. The right education for our age should marry competency based education alongside a liberal education core, demolishing the artificially constructed differences between vocational and 'Higher' education: To be successful in our societies, one must be able to do things as well as imagine, unlike in earlier ages.

So, the project of liberal education must be liberalised. It is time to shed the label, liberal, and make it the core of all education projects: Indeed, we can't afford an illiberal education anymore.

Friday, October 18, 2013

On Technology and Higher Education

I have been going through a Conference Season, attending different conferences discussing the future of Higher Education with the most inevitable discussion on Technology in Higher Education. It is somewhat amusing to hear so many different views somewhat converging on the same answer: That it would change education, but contrary to what some of its most radical proponents say, it won't make the traditional structures of Higher Education obsolete. So whether a speaker launches into a revolutionary manifesto or a conservative soul-searching while speaking about technology, in the end, it is always the establishment message that returns - that Higher Ed isn't going to wither away.

This view, however, is more of a reflection of the people in the room than the possibilities of technology. The discussion about technology in education always start with the somewhat patronising and now cliched question about how many people have started a MOOC and how many have completed it. In the conferences I have been to, the proportion of the audience who ever signed up for a MOOC has been quite low, given that people in the room were usually college educated and considered themselves, in some capacity, to be qualified to participate in a discussion about innovation in education. However, the follow up question about completion rates, where only very few hands go up, expose the true nature of the discussion: Its predictable answer is used as the backdrop of the grand proclamation that the traditional Higher Ed is not going to go away.

My problem with this kind of reasoning is that this is somewhat circular. MOOCs are a highly conservative phenomenon, based on the prestige of the traditional Higher Ed. If there is no prestigious colleges, there will be no MOOCs, or at least, they will be very different. Positioning MOOCs as the Higher Ed killer, and then demonstrating their limited efficacy, is a game that serves the conferences well, but do not have much validity outside them. Because it is not the MOOCs that are rendering universities obsolete; and the alternatives to traditional Higher Ed may actually come from more unexpected sources.

Indeed, traditional Higher Ed has plenty to worry about. We talk endlessly about employability and that graduates don't get jobs, or worse, they are often unemployable, and present this being the biggest challenge to the legitimacy of Higher Education worldwide. However, the fact that growing employability is perhaps impossible, and graduate joblessness and uncertainties in career isn't about the economic cycle but a persistent economic reality that we may have to live with for a very long time, remain usually omitted. The employability proponents are usually playing a safe game, with the full knowledge that their prescriptions, that employers engage closely with educators in designing curricula and delivering education, may never actually be followed, because employers and educators live in two different worlds. However, even the educators feel it too daunting to challenge the proposition for the fear of being branded as an ivory tower resident: However, in private conversations, they usually complain that narrow skills, the type you get when you are driven by an utility/profit maximising employer helping define the curricula, is what creates the graduate jobs problem, and not the other way round.

Besides, the very fact that the Higher Ed has now been held to account for jobs provision, a task which they can't possibly achieve themselves (particularly when employment creation isn't seen as the employers' responsibility any more and most business organisations are completely divorced from community responsibility of any kind) is indicative that the traditional models are obsolete. The traditional model of Higher Ed, a system of preservation of social status quo and a mechanism to create and populate the institutions of state and commerce, adapts badly to the mass production of technical skills, which is what it is being asked to do. It is being asked to deliver, and being held to account, for the failed promise of the liberal politics, the trivial luxuries and securities of middle class life. They are out of sync even before technology entered into the equation.

See MOOCs in this context, and it may be clear that they are a defensive move rather than a revolutionary one. It is not about replacing Higher Ed, but about rephrasing the conversation: It is about exporting the inside life of the university to the outside world, supplementing the dreams of middle class life with a little more access to culture, about allowing a few moments of self-elevation within a stream of drudgery and boredom. It is an escape from the ever sinking feeling that accompanies life in a job, and it is an escape, or an attempt to, for the universities for their social mandate of producing graduates with jobs. It is technology enslaved, for preservation of status quo, rather than a technology revolution. 

However, a technology revolution is still under way, regardless: The fact that connectivity is easier, media is disrupted, collaboration is omnipresent and, most importantly, context, rather than content, is underpinning new knowledge, shifting the relationship between teaching and learning. The ability to learn without being taught is going up, at the same time the ability to making learning effective solely through teaching is going down. At the very moment the universities are being asked to produce the producers, both the nature of production and the motivation to produce are both changing: So the very unchanging idea of Higher Education that we have, and the one we tend to defend in the conferences, need to be interrogated and revalidated.

This revalidation may mean a number of different things. For example, one needs to revisit the calendar - of fixed term dates - aligned with the agrarian calendar of the past, and see whether this still remains valid. Second, one may need to balance all the different priorities, practical knowledge, critical engagement, development of character and enterprise, and therefore review the structure of the courses: Would we be looking at a competency based two year diplomas as the basic currency followed by one or two year of higher intellectual pursuit, rather than continuing the apartheid between the 'Higher Higher' and 'Mediocre Higher' education? Third, the learning communities, built around this lovely notion of 'university life', a preserve that the privileged certainly enjoys but may appear a luxury for the less endowed, may also need to be reinvented, not just to accommodate the masses, but also to create and disseminate the most appropriate type of knowledge in the current context. Also, the diploma, or the end of course awards, need to be thought through - the degree inflation may be changing the field completely and there must be better ways of doing this than just developing a fetish for university vintage.

So, by way of conclusions, let's not define the challenge to the university in terms of what MOOCs do, but in the context of the change of the role of and expectations from the university and the true 'disruptive' possibility of technology. There is education technology - of delivery and collaboration - which can enhance the learning experience within today's university and are already doing so; but there are technologies of learning, which encompass these and go beyond, enabling connections and conversations far beyond traditional university campuses are designed to facilitate. These are the technologies which will intensify the social pressures on the university as we know it. This is the challenge to watch out for.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Against 'Lazy' Internationalisation of Higher Education

The Times Higher Education League Tables are out, the usual self-congratulatory columns have duly appeared alongside a few long faces and the Conference Season have began in all earnestness. We just ran one ourselves, which was about Indian Higher Ed but the conversation primarily centered around how Brand Britain could help lift standards. Another is due next week - under the title 'Exporting Excellence'. The moment of Transnational Education has clearly arrived - and by common belief, UK Education institutions, primarily due to their 'quality', are expected to take the lead. It is timely therefore to ask how pertinent is this expectation, and whether UK Higher Education institutions will really be able to take advantage of the 'globalisation of education'.

The strengths should be obvious: The UK institutions dominate the league tables after the US ones. Some of the world's best known universities are in the UK. The UK researchers get a disproportionately large amount of citations (14%) compared to the overall research spending in global terms (less than 5%). Despite the government's rhetoric and fumbles around the immigration policy, UK remains the second most popular destination for mobile students. UK Higher Education, if considered an export industry, is the country's fifth or sixth largest foreign currency earner. With concerted efforts spanning many decades, the UK Higher Education and its associated 'industries' have a truly global reach, both in terms of brand and delivery prowess, and recognition among the employers. 

But, there is a reason for my discordant note: That all this may actually come to pass. I heard the term 'Lazy Internationalisation' first time from Nigel Healy, the current Pro Vice Chancellor at Nottingham Trent University's Business School: I believe this represents the attitude of UK institutions to transnational education quite succinctly. This 'Brand UK' thing is like a family heirloom, being mortgaged by the current generation of universities who wanted to live a lifetime of reflected glory. All the magisterial talk about global domination are closely borrowed from the rhetoric of the empire, and one could argue, I argue, most British universities are mostly insular institutions disconnected from the realities of international education. 

This is not just about the current configuration of the league tables, where, despite the pre-eminence of the UK institutions, the biggest story may be the rise of the rest - the Chinese, the South Korean and eventually other Asian institutions (and some Indian business schools, in business school league tables). This is not about the weakness of the school system in the UK, where excellence is often restricted at a tiny top, leaving most of the expanding university system exposed to indifferent students. While I believe that the changes in the government funding and the overall muddle in education funding will affect the standing of the British universities eventually, we may not need to worry about it yet (perhaps). I think there is a far more urgent problem - that of lack of understanding of the changing nature of Higher Education - and common sense though it may be, it may turn out to be the most difficult to tackle.

To illustrate what I mean, let me talk about this talk about 'quality' that UK institutions often talk about. Over last half decade or so, I have had many discussions about what is meant by 'quality' (because, for me, it was essentially a variable thing) with many students as well as providers. My understanding of 'quality' as it is seen by the British Higher Education institutions is roughly this: A lesson taught in English with an Anglo-Saxon person (usually overpaid for being Anglo-Saxon) delivering the same. The fact that I am not Anglo-Saxon myself may make it sound like a complaint, but it is not: I am just trying to make a statement, as neutral as possible, what quality has come to mean. Indeed, there is absolutely wrong with this conception of quality because generations of Asian and African students perceived this to be 'quality' and paid for it, understandably because of the colonial hangovers that these societies have had. The problem is that the UK institutions have got so used to this conception of quality that they have started substituting this imperial notion for their idea of 'quality'. 

This is where the insularity starts. When the global markets started changing in the last two decades, the conception of quality has started changing too: But, being in denial, and somewhat misled by the quick rise of English language in quantitative terms - more people are learning English than ever - the British HE has lived in denial for far too long that the conception of quality that has served them so well might actually be obsolete. All challenges to their self-centric view of the world, among which I shall count the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in the Middle East, has been dismissed as exceptional, handiwork of a few evil people rather than any broad social trend. But this would be undermining the true nature of global transformation that is all around us: More than the wars in Middle East and financial meltdown, the broader global trends such as the breaking of the middle class myth, the rise of illiberal democracies and the end of expansionary finance, define what happens in Higher Education. These trends, more obvious in the streets of Mumbai or Shanghai than the timeless environs of rural Yorkshire, have now overtaken the post-colonial dream and therefore, post-colonial conception of quality and merit that is steeped inside the internationalisation thinking of British HE.

The turning of tide in global finance, and attendant stagnation of middle class prosperity, may not spell the end of internationalisation of education, or a shift of power to the East, but this will most certainly challenge the current notions of Higher Education: A training for good life, which is defined in the context of a 'professional society', defined in the image of transformation of industrial societies. However, the gradual progression from industrial capacity building to service economies may not happen for newly industrial countries, as is commonly expected: Rather, they have to come to acknowledge the different developmental context that their trajectories may shape out, shaped, not just by secular and independent working of economic rationale, but also by the power politics of globalisation, the cultural context of post-colonialism and the environment of climatic austerity. As this awareness emerges, and this is indeed emerging in variable rates in different societies, the Higher Education must then be shaped accordingly. It must be able to accommodate the quickly changing conception of good life, rather than just supplanting the illusions of Western middle class living globally: The idea of the white professor teaching in English as the pinnacle of intellectualism will also be replaced with a new engagement with local contexts and rediscovery of culture.

I would argue that the British universities are quite unprepared for this new internationalisation (we can follow convention and call this 'internationalisation 2.0'). The whole talk surrounding 'Brand UK', the obsession with the colonial past and overwhelming influence of English language, which is an advantage but a baggage in turn, expose the poverty of their engagement with this changing context of Higher Education. The changing dynamic of Times Higher rankings (and indeed, other emergent rankings globally) should be less of an occasion for self-celebration and more an opportunity to explore and understand the nature of Higher Ed: It is not the top end of the Global 200, but the bottom of the 400 list where the gazes should rightfully fall. The rhetoric of power and prestige should at least be balanced with the ideas of possibility and preparation, the resplendent tradition could be extended only with effort to the changing context of aspiration among austerity. It is here the new global futures will be shaped: The British academe should now learn to be less of the chambermaid of the power and prestige and master the midwifery to bring about the new possibilities.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Interrogating For-Profit Higher Education

I have been studying Higher Education, especially For Profit Higher Education, for several years. In a way, I have an unique position to be an outsider as well as an insider in this: I own and run a private Higher Ed business and work with several others, while in my free time, I do my research and blogging on the subject. I shall claim that I am somewhat neutral on this very political issue - I see private enterprise as a force for good and public higher education, as it stands today, well in the need of a disruption, but also acknowledge that private owners and shareholders of Higher Ed companies haven't figured this out yet. Having worked with several For Profit Higher Ed companies, I have realised the logic of money has to sharpen itself if it has to create a winning Higher Education brand. In fact, my work keeps circling around this central question: How to create something really good with private capital?

I claim that I have glimpsed this prospect in my years in NIIT, where, at least initially, we, I, believed in what we did. I was not just an employee, but also one of its early students: I enjoyed my time in NIIT, learnt new skills and successfully turned it into a profession, before I came to work for them. One could argue that this was 'mere training', which private sector does well. However, I think that there was nothing wrong with my 'education' in NIIT: It was a highly structured curricula with clear milestones and ample practice, but it also created a general enthusiasm for all things computing for me, connecting up with other people and ideas, allowing an engaged social life too. In my later career with them, I met a lot of students who spent a lot of time at NIIT and was quite proud to belong, calling themselves NIITian and using the merchandise issued/ sold by the company. I would accept that the company lost its way, primarily because it was For Profit and submitted to the vagaries of the stock market: I would pin down the turning point somewhere around 1997/8 when the company tried to implement EVA (economic value add) as a measure of productivity. This somewhat made the managers see everything with a financial prism than anything else: Any extra space left unused not to be seen as a gathering place for 'NIIT Club' but, if possible, to be let out; the more experienced tutors, who were costly because they have been around for a while but had 'limited productivity' because the students paid the same for their class, were either to be kicked upwards as managers (mostly, they made bad managers) or to be eased out of the company. Besides, EVA made company value its franchisees: When I joined, being a teacher in NIIT was the best job around - it came with better pay grades, perks and career paths; soon after EVA, it was about becoming the salesmen, selling franchises or books to franchisees. Whatever the rationale of this model, this failed: NIIT was somewhat left out when the education expansion really happened in India after 2004/5. One could say that the interest of the promoters by then shifted to software, which was growing fast, but NIIT only became a second-rate software player and a second-rate education company. The prospect of being a world leading education company, which was a realistic goal for everyone in the company in the mid-90s, did not materialise. One could say that the Management Team of NIIT lost its way, but, from my experience, this is common in the For Profit play: NIIT did almost everything by the book - and indeed, it had hired very expensive management consultants and managers for this - but still it failed.

In a conference I attended last week, a prominent investor who invests in Education made a point about successful education entrepreneurs: They tend to become better if they have come from Not-for-Profit background, he said. I am not sure whether such a generalisation can be made, particularly as Not-for-Profit is quite a nebulous category and this categorisation hides more than it says. My own benchmark is somewhat different and no doubt informed by my formative experiences: A successful education organisation tend to value its tutors above everything else. So far, it is not strategy but quality of teaching that made education brands, and in fact, opposite examples, where bad teaching undermined great strategic moves, are abundant. To judge whether a company is good or bad, whether it has any potential to be a good education brand, it is best to start with tutors: Who they are, where are they in the hierarchy (are they seen as factory hands or at the top table), and how involved are they in day to day running of the organisation. In fact, many public institutions will violate this 'teacher first' principle that I mention here. Most of them tend to be full of managers and administrators, who keep adding layers of bureaucracies and processes to justify their existence, and these institutions tend to run on adjunct tutors who are paid by the hour and have very limited commitment beyond just keeping their contracts going. Whichever financial genius discovered and pushed through the casualisation of teaching workforce, must have completely misunderstood the nature of education: They saw teachers as delivery people, factory hands, and employed the simple industrial era principle to casualise them. However, the teachers are not 'delivery' people in most good education organisation, but designers and owners of student experience, and they are what the organisation is: Their function is as core as it can be. Casualising them is like running nuclear laboratories with tenured security people but adjunct nuclear scientists.

I know for most For Profit Higher Ed investors and college owners, there is something intuitively problematic about this argument: They often see the teachers as pampered, overpaid and lazy. Some of it is actually true: Many people working in these colleges make academic sounding excuses while behaving in a mercenary manner. I am not sure what leads to what - whether the approach the employers take make such behaviour necessary or the other way round - but I am sure the truth will be somewhere in between, with some responsibility from both sides. But it is amazing to see how most tutors will have no institutional affiliation and will be expected to have none. This is one of the key problems that private higher education has not addressed yet.

This is somewhat central to my studies in the For Profit Higher Education, not because I am sympathetic to teacher unions, but because I think the private higher education has come to the point where they have to address the brand problem. There are many good things in For Profit Higher Education, and some of the governance practices and efficiencies can inform practices in public higher education. But, because of the issues mentioned above and more, For Profit higher education fails to crack the key requirement in higher education - that of brand, credibility and trust. While they claim to be innovative, this innovation is disproportionately about efficiency and less about brand. In fact, brand thinking in private higher education is to ape the practices of public ones, elaborate graduation ceremonies, lavish premises, titled professors etc., and one would think that it is yet to find ways to respect themselves what they do. [I am surely making generalisations, and some institutions are good at branding themselves, but the lack of confidence in branding mostly holds true].

Now, there is a line of reasoning that For-profit Education is not about creating Harvard or Stanford, but good education at a different level. However, the 'good' bit is central to the proposition, and not just about rhetoric. If MOOCs actually pose a challenge to anything, that will be to the run of the mill For-profits, which are surviving on issuing credentials which are worth nothing. The moment MOOC credits start gaining ground - there is evidence it already is - and get into areas like business and law, it will first take away a significant chunk of business away from For-profit (or at least reduce the profit for For-profit, which is already reeling under the various regulations in different countries). So, it would come down to brands, trust and good service, as competition and scrutiny finally arrive in For-Profit sector.

This is why I study the sector: Not because of the money that is being made, but rather for this is a sector in transition and interesting answers are to be found for challenging questions.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Employability: What it means in Practise?

One of the colleagues asked during the Education Investment Conclave, which took place last week, what it means in practise. The question was directed to me, and my answer something to the effect that it means preparing the students so that they can be employable all their lives, not just get the first job. What I was thinking is that what goes on in the name of employability is so very lame, the writing of CV or preparing for interviews, all directed to somehow crossing the initial barrier into work, based on the implicit assumption that getting started is the most difficult thing.

There may be some truth about the difficulty of getting started, but that's only half the story, if that.

Employability isn't about just crossing the threshold into employment; in fact, in most cases, the employability problems start thereafter. The candidates don't get why it is so important to turn up for work at time, why you can't afford to lose temper, why you have to work in a team, so on and so forth. It is easy to blame the work ethic of a student and even ascribe the failure to the university, but that underestimates the impact of various changes impacting the person's life all at the same time: From family being the provider of sustenance (in most cases) to self responsibility, from the relative inviduality of classroom to the anonymity of the workplace, and other such issues. And, it is always an one way street: It is the candidate who needs to fit in and not the employer who needs to accept and adapt. 

One person I know says that the only way to make a person employable is to make him think like an employer, of himself. This is a somewhat elevated approach: Instead of thinking themselves as a product, which is a deeply dis-empowering concept at one level, you are trying to be whatever the interviewer on the other side of the table wants, the students should be taught to think of themselves as owners of their skills, with a specific goal to achieve, just as a business owner would. This also puts 'skills' somewhat in perspective: They are not inherent attributes but something to be pursued and earned. I do believe that this approach is far more powerful than the conventional approach of making students think of themselves as 'products' and working on the representation of themselves, dress sense, presentation skills, CVs and interview skills: What gets taken away here is the sense of self, confidence, ability to judge, being oneself, qualities at least as crucial as the 'first impression' on which so much work goes in.

Following the experiences of the students, it seems that this focus on making themselves 'the product' is not just a distraction, but also counter-productive. The first problem is that the proposition comes from the paradigm of lifetime employment, somewhat a reality in the 'golden age' of industrial civilisation (at least for the middle classes), but true no longer. With this, getting in was the most difficult part, and once you have managed that, there was an automatic progression through the stages, ending up in retirement. But, now, not just getting in isn't enough, you actually never get in unless you have crossed several pre-stages, small employment and projects, successfully. So, getting the expectations right, choosing interesting internships, making connections, turning up at right networks, learning things while doing work, and being consciously pushing for progress - are really important. But, all this gets obscured when one believes that it is really about writing the CV properly.

In the Conclave, I made an observation, somewhat in jest, that the only skill that seemed to matter in India is English language. This may be just an anecdotal observation, but, I shall claim, there may be a deeper truth in it. The route to employability in India is in learning the language of the business, i.e., English. This may have slightly different connotation, but holds true for other countries too: To be employable, what's most important is to pick up the language of the game (Wittgenstein will approve). This is why the 'practical' learning is so coveted by the employers, not because it teaches more but it makes the learner talk the language. So, the original question - what does 'employability' means in practise - can be answered with 'teaching the appropriate language'.

The problem is that each type of business, each organisational form, may have a distinct language. Focusing on teaching a specific language carries the risk of making the students' abilities completely redundant, without the crystal ball gazing into where they would end up. This is the mistake lots of vocational providers do: They focus almost solely on the language of the business, particularly as they are often guided by 'Sector Skills Councils'. In a society where most of the rewarding professions have been created in the last two decades, being guided by an expert with thirty years previous experience in the trade is no guarantee that that trade will actually exist or be able to absorb the student in question, thirty years hence.

So, the sustained employability of the kind I spoke about in my answer can come from only two things: Knowing the language of the business from inside but also from outside, a kind of consciousness why what is said is said. This is common sense, but does not happen, because these two things stay in two different boxes as far as education systems are concerned. Language of the trade sits in the 'vocational' category, and the thinking about the language of the trade, the so-called critical consciousness, in the realm of 'Higher Education'. And, these categories are strongly separated: The vocational teachers treat any questioning of the language of business as unnecessary philosophising, and the Higher Education teachers believe that this language of business is somewhat low stuff, worth criticising but not worth studying with any seriousness.

The problem of employability, then, is somewhat connected to how our education systems are constructed. The artificial barriers of vocational and higher education systems, created primarily for the sake of state control and funding, comes in the way of aligning what is taught with what a rapidly changing society may need. Inside the institutions, a different game is played in turn: Inside Higher Ed, a language develops to play the game of research citation and funding, and within the vocational realm, everyone rushes to conform to various ministerial agendas. The language of education, therefore, diverges from the language of work, because business enterprises, social organisations and even public sector bodies hardly speak the language that the students and their tutors have to speak inside the colleges and universities. All the additional employability courses, based on false paradigms, flawed designs and failed prescriptions, are offered as palliative measures, but do more harm than good. The only practical measure to make students 'employable' will be to challenge the paradigm of education in the first place, and start building a new conversation within the classroom.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Changing Indian Higher Education System


The modern Higher Education system in India was built on the promise of Government Jobs and Social Prestige. A very colonial construct, this was sustained even after independence, and to this day, the students and their parents often approach Higher Education similarly. On the other hand, Indian economy is changing rapidly, with the expansion of the inner market, a result of a deliberate fiscal shift over the last decade towards the creation of rural demand: The Indian Higher Education, as it stands today, may not be fit for purpose in context of these rapid changes.
The discussions about ‘demographic dividend’, and the millions that must enter Higher Education, are omnipresent in policy-making. However, any serious discussion about Indian Higher Education must go beyond the headline numbers and take into account the complex realities of regional variations. The fact that Indian states are very different from one another, demographically, socially, economically, and that Higher Education has primarily been a state subject, funded and legislated on by different states differently, shaped the Higher Education system very differently in different parts of India. The expansion of the inner market, the rise in purchasing power of a large number of people without the necessary ‘social capital’ needed for mobility, brings these regional differences in rather sharp relief.
In the recent months, the structural difficulties of the Indian economy have been apparent. The fiscally supported expansion of rural demand has resulted in spiraling inflation because of the infrastructure bottlenecks and flailing productivity growth. The urban job creation has slowed or stagnated, salaries have decreased in real terms and middle class consumption has been squeezed by the rapidly rising interest rates. The rapid growth of urban prosperity that marked the first half of the new millennium has stalled, leaving a large and growing urban population in a limbo.  
Higher Education reform assumes a renewed significance in the face of these changes. It appears to be key to driving the productivity growth that the Indian economy, and its manufacturing and service industries, so sorely need. At the time when differences in regional attainment become so prominent, a regionally focused Higher Education strategy would help ease social and geographical mobility. A responsive and flexible system of education is needed to reverse the middle class disenfranchisement, and with it, one hopes, stem the political decline and the threat of abandonment of secular and democratic ideals of modern India.
The regulatory system in India has been the biggest stumbling block towards any meaningful change. Constructed as an arm of a paternalist State, it was designed to maintain continuity and discourage experimentation. Based on bureaucratic rather than any academic culture, fragmented and overlapping, its penal culture and static outlook have rendered it obsolete in the face of rapid changes within the Indian economy and society and outside. No observer of Indian Higher Education fails to notice that the more extensive regulatory guidelines tend to become, the more ineffective they tend to appear. Some of the Indian regulators publish lists of not just the institutions they accredit, but those which they don’t: This un-accredited list contains some of the more successful and respected institutions in the country, calling in question the validity of the regulatory system very publicly.
However, the overarching focus on human capital, the urgency of realizing the demographic dividend, and the emergence of modern consumer culture in the wider society, make the direction of policy more significant than the regulatory structure as it exists. The stated policy intentions of creating a single coordinating body of all forms of Higher Education, overseeing all state and professional agencies, may be limited in ambition but based on an welcome recognition of the limitations of the current system. The increasing openness to private investment, the discussions about foreign institutions (the two are somewhat connected – as all foreign institutions will be ‘private’ once they enter India) signal a change of heart, haltingly may be, but irreversibly.
However, the biggest change in Indian Higher Education may be happening outside the ‘sector’. A number of innovative models are emerging, mainly through public-private coalition: These entrepreneurial models (see Appendix 3) are bringing deep changes while being outside the regulatory structure. Besides, the students themselves are disrupting the structure. One of the most enduring myths of Indian Higher Education is that the students don’t want to study themselves are being spectacularly broken by the students in distance education (a quarter of the total), the large numbers self-studying towards IT certifications and the thousands flocking to MOOCs (13% of 1.2 million EdX students are from India, second only to 30% from the US*). Use of Education Technology is reaching a fever-pitch, with Engineering Colleges setting up virtual classrooms to offset the limitations imposed by local availability of teaching staff. From this vantage point, Indian Higher Education seems very much to be a case of the ‘System’ catching up with ‘Education’ that is already happening on the ground.
Therefore, it would be fitting to conclude this report with an optimistic note. India needs to re-imagine its Higher Education system to suit the requirements of a modern economy, a system that would be intellectually open and locally grounded. The policy intentions are already there, the recent pronouncements in RUSA being a clear example (see Appendix 4). The change at the top may appear lethargic, given the immediacy of the requirement; but, at the same time, the innovative energy on the ground, within new start-ups, innovative educators and aspiring students, is abundantly in evidence. However, in India, top-down change may always come as a catch-up:  The starting point of thinking about Indian Higher Education may therefore be the thousands of Indian students studying abroad, the businesses that compete and invest globally, and the worldwide academic community of Indians. These communities, its dynamic of aspiration, and that of millions of Indian students trying to achieve a life better than their parents, may define how Indian Higher Education is shaped in the coming years. 

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* Financial Express, September 23, 2013.
  

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