Wednesday, February 26, 2014

India 2020: The Problem of Democracy

There is a saying - whatever can be said about India, the opposite would also be true. However, this epithet of being the land of the opposites is a benign one, almost affectionate. It is more a proclamation of India's diversity than an excuse for any hypocrisy. However, on the issue of whether Indians hate or love democracy, the opposites rule explain very little: The Indian attitude can rather be called, yes, hypocritical.

Consider what Indians say about China and one gets the sense. On one hand, Indians proclaim that India's future is more sustainable than China, because, of course, India is a democracy. India's path may be torturous and full of surprises, but India is still moving ahead with its billion people not by government design but collective will. For this and this alone, Indians proudly claim, the world should recognise India as a great power, on the same pedestal with the other great powers.

However, at the same time, when a visitor would point to the contrast of India's crowded and almost failing railways with China's superfast one, or its roads and bridges and universities with the decisive progress of its northern neighbour, Indians are quick to admit that India's biggest problem is its democracy. Too much of democracy, where anyone can obstruct anything, some observers claim, is pulling India behind. The panacea, they suggest, is a 'strong leader', who can override all this and prioritise on infrastructure, and move the country forward.

How can Indians be simultaneously proud and ashamed about its democracy? How can they claim the world's recognition for being a great example of a poor country maintaining, above everything, a democratic will, and yet not recognise the value of democracy themselves? Indeed, the common sense solution to India's democratic deadlock, when it is projected as such, appears to be in reforming not its electoral system but legal system. One would see that the courts are too slow, burdened and often abused, and the judiciary is somewhat unaccountable. If one wanted to speed up development, they won't be talking about scrapping democracy, but a war-like investment and reform of the judiciary. 

But no one is talking about this. Because this is not what the most vocal section of the Indian voters want. They want, as Political parties promise to fulfill: 'development' by making land acquisitions easier. And, in this, perhaps, one can find an answer to the apparent puzzle.

India's middle class is not really at war against democracy or they are not seeking a functioning judiciary. The label of democracy suits them not just to flaunt it at the world stage and help project India as a mature country, but also to push forth their agenda and their concerns. However, what's inconvenient is the rule of law, which comes on the way of the land grab they are intent upon. The way to think about 'development' in India is not to say this is the kind of society India is and how we make life better for everyone, but rather, how do I get rich fast. And, one lesson Indians learnt over the last two decades is that the fastest and least troublesome way to do it is find 'agricultural land' and pay some officials to 'de-notify' it, allowing real estate developments on it, which makes the value of the land go up almost overnight. The only problem is that the lawful owners of the land may object and they may have some inconvenient rights because, as in some cases, they have been living on the land for centuries. It is things like this that comes in the way of development: It is these rights that the Indian middle classes are fighting against.

Indeed, we have been here before: It is easy to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin to say that those who want prosperity at the cost of liberty, may deserve neither. Indeed, this whole rhetoric against 'too much democracy' is really about keeping the facade of electoral system but suspending the rights of the poor and of the minorities. Even for those who are rooting for this, there is one uncomfortable thought: In a country like India, almost everyone is a minority. And, when time comes, when we got what we want, when we have given up all those rights which our constitution guarantees, we may just end up finding our individual selves in the minority of one: If we learn from history, and in this case we don't seem to, we will see that the fights against democracy and rule of law almost always end this way.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Creative Education Imperative

Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp for $19 Billion has set off an unlikely debate: With 55 employees of WhatsApp getting very rich, the jobs versus growth debate has been rekindled again. Just like the Instagram deal, where the company was sold for $1 billion but had just 13 employees (in comparison with industrial era Kodak, which employed upwards of 250,000 at its peak), this is another reminder that we are into a different economy where output and jobs are completely de-linked. And, it is not just about a few people getting a lot more and a lot of people getting a lot less, it is about some people in some professions getting everything. 

This creates a completely different set of problems than we faced before. It is not just about social unrest that may follow, and even the lack of demand that many Western economies are struggling with and Bob Reich is warning against (see his take on the WhatsApp deal), but even more fundamentally, it is about disappearance of hope for most people. Big winnings may warm hearts for the moment, but as the economy goes virtual, there may be professions abandoned and people losing not their jobs but optimism. The spectre that hunts us now is not one of revolution as Marx would have seen centuries ago, but one of disengagement and disenfranchisement - and, this, I shall argue, is the biggest problem for Higher Education.

My current obsession is to study how Higher Education is coping with the changes in jobs and careers, and from what I see, it is not coping very well. Its response to the rapidly changing job market has been ambivalent at best, and mostly defensive - with a spirit of denouement of this worldwide shift in the shape and scope of work. But this political point may not completely absolve it from its own responsibility - more so as Higher Education sector has heaped upon itself the epithet of the driver of the knowledge economy - and, in fact, Higher Ed may yet find itself at the eye of this coming storm.

This is because it is hope that sustains Higher Education and loss of hope and opportunity will make the sector redundant. The High Achievers, the heroes of the information revolution, the geniuses, need Higher Education less and less to be merely successful: If you have the smarts, the tools of the riches are all available to you. We may not need a Higher Education sector to push forward the information revolution - and certainly don't need it in its current size and scope. And, with information revolution undermining several 'professions', the professional society Higher Education helped to build, and in turn, got benefited from, its continuing survival looks extremely shaky unless it manages to change itself and help create the new 'professionals'.

I use the term 'Professionals' but by definition, these new class of people may be quite different from their predecessors. They may no longer have a guaranteed social contract for the monopoly over their trade - after all, information revolution unleashes a 'cult of the amateur' - against the commitment to serve professionally and ethically and well. Rather, these new 'professionals' will be those who would keep pushing the boundaries of thought and practice all the time - something that old professionals, keepers of their respective orders, did only sparingly - and in more sense than one, will be the vanguards of entrepreneuralism and new thinking in the society. 

Indeed, this is not what Higher Education does. Despite the efforts of a few educators, the institutional culture of Higher Education is deeply antagonistic to such creative anarchy. Most Higher Education institutions I study are either too deeply entrenched in their state-mandated role to maintain the social order, despite the realisation that this is a losing game, or in a desperate game to be business-like, emulating the same industrial-era principles of order and linearity which are challenged in their own domain. Walking through the corridors of Higher Education institutions and listening to the leaders of Higher Education, one usually gets the sinking feeling of experiencing denial first-hand.

For all the talk of a 'Creative Education', by definition, this remains limited to disciplines that are labelled as 'creative'. Despite the fact that creativity may become central to Higher Education proposition in the changed economic reality, the game of labels that educators are so used to playing are so hard to overcome. It is hard for educators, it seems, to accept creativity as a value rather than a skill, to be indulged upon in the context of certain kinds of work. However, without it, Higher Education will be sleepwalking into oblivion. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Education and The Market: Clarifying The Stand

Education produces social good, goes the argument, and therefore, the society should pay for it, argues the advocates of public education. On the other side are the policy wonks who sees education as a tool to build private capabilities, leading to private wealth. Between these two positions, there are lots of people, who apparently hold contradictory positions. For example, the For-Profit entrepreneurs and the Private Equity that sees a great money-making opportunity in education believe that education should be for private wealth but the state should pay for it (so that the market remains big enough for them to invest), and those professors in different schools who would continue to think that the students should care for social good above all despite having to shoulder all their debts.

One such position is to see education as a social good even if it creates individual capability and prosperity. We have now come to see that inclusive political and economic institutions as the only sustainable basis of a society's prosperity, and education helps us build that. The previous theories about prosperity, which was subscribed to by both the right and left, is that prosperity is built on extractive accumulation. The key idea behind imperialism, and for the Soviet theorists like Bukharin, was that surplus of value must be extracted and accumulated by careful design of power and terms of exchange to create prosperity. However, this is a somewhat zero-sum view of life which we have come to reject (though this is one of the central tenets of Marxist theory), and come to subscribe, en masse, to the view that prosperity is a result of technological progress. And, this technological progress hardly happens without social progress, the ability for the common person to hold their elite accountable and the ability for anyone with a good idea to challenge the incumbents and start an enterprise. Therefore, inclusion, not accumulation, has come to be regarded as the central driver of progress and prosperity.

Education remains at the core of this formulation: The inclusive political and economic institutions can't happen without people being educated, both to participate in politics and to be economically productive. In this sense, the supposed dichotomy of the education isn't a dichotomy at all. And, for those advocates of public education battling the market, the fact remains one needs education for the functioning of the market.

We need to reframe this debate, therefore. Markets, in their true, inclusive, sense can't function without an equitable, accessible system of education. This is not about a market to deliver education, but an education system underlying the efficient functioning of the market, which should be publicly provided. Public providers have, however, the responsibility to see that the students can participate in the market effectively - and should therefore be thinking about economic productivity rather than leading a crusade against it - and this should lead to a new debate about the shape of public education.

This leaves us with the argument of introducing the market in education as a way of generating efficiency. While this is being tried in several countries, in many ways, education remains pre-market. The accessibility principle is often violated by introduction of markets, and instead of creating efficiency, market competition brings unnecessary corruption in education in the form of misinformation, grade inflation and short-termism. The current regulatory approach, which sees market as a panacea and tries to introduce business-like operations even with non-market players, gets it wrong all too often: What one needs is a regulatory system which can introduce long term thinking even with the market operators, not the other way around.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

India and America: An Uncertain Friendship

America finds India an unreliable ally, to its surprise. 

George W Bush will be remembered for his many misadventures in Foreign Policy, but he claimed a legacy in this one important aspect - attempting to usher in a new American engagement in Asia through a deepening friendship with India. This hope was perhaps reciprocated at the time: India's outgoing Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, cites India's Nuclear Power cooperation with America as the biggest achievement of his ten years in power. At the time, the American engagement with India was hailed with an expectation to be as momentous as Nixon's engagement with China.

However, this shift was contentious in America as in India. For Americans, it was some sort of a balancing act after decades of Pro-Pakistan stance after the inevitable seeding of democracy and street politics in that country. It is rather ironic that it was democracy that was cited as the reason for favouring India ever so suddenly: For Indians were bewildered why Americans discovered Indian democracy so late in the day. 

For Indians, though the friendship with America is the most convenient thing to do in the post-Cold War era, America was not to be trusted. Indians knew America for its committed support to Pakistani foreign policy, particularly during particular events such as the Bangladesh Liberation War, which has shaped the psyche and society in India in a certain way. The late love of the Bush administration was immediately seen as what it was - an invitation to India to become America's foot soldier against China - and therefore, appeared quite unappetising.

Obama's Asia pivot - though it was not so much of a pivot after the Administration got so bogged down with the Arab Spring and everything else - came in this setting. Obama Administration's disengagement from the world affairs, or at least evident reversal of Bush Administration's activism, allowed some perspectives to emerge. And, the perspective is perhaps that how difficult it is for America to maintain the Cold War era client state structure into the emerging new reality of regional fragmentation of global politics: Obama's confusion may be due to the fact that the era of grand narratives in Foreign Policy, even one engaged into by the Bush administration, is well and truly over.

Which means that the presupposition of America as a benign and benevolent global empire, a global policeman for democracy and free markets, needs to be rethought in the context of emerging regional realities. And, instead of thinking in terms of grand rivalries between America and China caught in the inevitable Thucydides Trap, the ground reality may suggest a preeminence of economic and cultural cooperation and imperatives over and above the nation-state priorities, creating cross-cutting configurations that the strategists in the Oval Office or Pentagon may not necessarily visualise.

It is these sorts of forces and priorities that are going to shape India's foreign policy. India has been ruled by a narrow elite, mostly from its Northwestern regions, for years since Independence. This elite, which was formed through a coalition of several interests, was pandered by American policy-makers in the recent years. However, India's internal politics is increasingly challenging the hold of this elite in 'national matters', creating the necessity and fuelling the rise of various regional interests and parties. 

This reconfiguration of India's politics is likely to have impact on India's foreign policy as well. The elite that ruled India craved for global recognition. The alignment with 'non-aligned' nations, and eventual 'friendship' with USSR was forged on the basis of this quest for a global role. However, this came at a cost of disengagement with India's immediate neighbourhood: India did not become a global power, but it did manage to become a local bully, fixated with its 'big power' pretensions and oblivious of its local and cultural ties. Not only its foreign policy was defined by its animosity with Pakistan, but it managed to alienate even Bangladesh, the country it helped create, Nepal, its Hindu neighbour, and Sri Lanka, with age-old cultural bonds. However, the reconfiguration of India's politics, which was in the making for almost two decades now, and comes to a head in its election in 2014 more forcefully than ever, may lead a new realism in its foreign policy, a deeper regional engagement and a more realistic global aspiration. This may, in short, lead to India's own pivot to the East.

I shall argue that this realignment of India's foreign policy is inevitable, and beneficial for its people. The sort of inclusive economic prosperity that is needed to keep India a viable state will demand this new kind of politics, and this new kind of politics will eventually recognise the preeminent necessity of regional peace and cooperation. So, engagement with the democratic Pakistani administration, neutrality and commitment to Bangladesh's and Nepal's economic prosperity and democratic processes, re-engagement with Sri Lanka and help it overcome its authoritarian trajectory, etc., will become matters of greater importance of India's foreign policy than winning a permanent seat at the United Nations: Forging a wide-ranging free trade area with ASEAN and China would eventually become the objective of Indian world view.

America, which eventually carried on the British imperial design of dominance through conflict in Asia, also needs to readjust its priorities, at least by acknowledging the limitations of American power. Such limitation is not one of Military power: America will remain World's foremost military power for several decades to come. However, the limit of military power is that it only guarantees American dominance over dead people, which may amount to nothing. If the American world-view is shaped by its need to guarantee continuing prosperity of its people in the face of climatic constraints and localisation of global terror, it must adjust to this new regional globality, adjusting to a benign role not just in words but in deeds. India may find itself to be a natural ally to such an America: But otherwise, it will remain only a friend of convenience of the United States, as United States will remain one of India.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Global Citizenship: A Viable Concept?

Global Citizenship has a problem. Despite being a suitably high sounding thing often appearing in management literature, it has no apparent meaning: In an age citizenship has come to mean where one pays one's taxes, Global Citizenship is an empty term to be used as a feel-good, like Rotary membership in some countries. 

However, global citizenship is more than just that: There are people who believe Global Citizenship is possible. They live in a neoliberal bubble that the world is going through a transformation - being homogenous, using Internet, drinking Coke, speaking English and living the local version of the American dream and even watching MTV - and therefore, whatever is the politics, we are all global now by our consumption. 'Democratisation of Commerce' is what underlies global citizenship: Global citizens don't vote, they buy.

But, if Global Citizenship is to be defined this way, the concept is divisive and hierarchical, rather than being integrative and democratic. This is because underlying the expansion of commerce is the unspoken assumptions of culture power and dominance. It is only the opportunity to consume that should be global in this view of things, not to participate, disseminate or earn. The celebration of global consumption is accompanied with anxieties about immigration; leaders indulging in global rhetoric entertain, at the same time, ambitions of cultural purity and dominance. The limitation of the current ideas about global citizenship is thus, this - it is unfree and based on membership of a consumer community, which is deeply constraining and even dehumanising.

However, does the expropriation of the term, global citizenship, for global consumption, make the idea dead or invalid? It possibly does, as the battle for freedom to live one's life sometimes become a pitched battle against globalisation, when the local cultures which may have formed a part of our identity crumbles in the face of 9pm soap opera, and the concept of downwardly-mobile neighbourhoods enter our lexicon and our consciousness, and when globalisation means an end to all things, such as empowerment and rights, that we associate with citizenship. When globalisation and citizenship are at war with each other, global citizenship understandably appears an oxymoron.

Yet, no better time to revive the concept: As the power and dominance have become global, one can hardly be free by burying their head in the sand and trying to remain local. The same tools of power that bind us in the cycle of consumption and alter our senses of identity, can be the tools of freedom, expression and an alternate identity. The local citizenship has become meaningless with the emergence of a globally integrated elite, and the only meaningful resistance can be through global citizenship and participation. Our time may have seen a reversal of roles, when elite is global and poor is local, but effective resistance should seek to change this. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Laureate in India: Interrogating The Model

Should Laureate International University's recent engagement with Pearl Academy of Fashion in India be considered a pointer for things to come?

Laureate International Universities is one of the biggest For-Profit education companies worldwide, and it is one of the first among its peers to get into India. Given that India has not yet finalised its Foreign Education Providers' Bill, and does not technically allow For-Profit involvement in Higher Education, Laureate's involvement is something of a coup de grace for Indian education policy-making. Though this engagement seems to be fairly low key - there is not much Internet noise on this 'partnership' yet - it clearly shows how the Indian Higher Education policy is easier to negotiate with than it seems.

Given that we see so many British colleges and universities fret about legislation in India, this is one example of quick decisive action by a For-Profit entity. But this move has other attributes worth considering. 

First, Laureate got involved in the super-premium segment of the Indian education sector, in line with their global strategy. So, this flies in the face of "India = Cheap" conundrum, which afflict many universities looking to expand in India.

Second, Laureate got involved in a company, which is not, technically speaking, an university in India. Pearl Academy is not even recognised by AICTE, India's Technical Education regulator. On their website, they claim they don't have to be, given what they do. But this shows the chasm in India's education policy - they teach Business Management alongside other things and offer Foreign degrees - so it is hard to see why they fall outside AICTE's remit. However, whatever it is, AICTE is actually less of an issue than it is commonly seen to be. Again, Laureate's disregard for AICTE accreditation is not merely For-Profit adventurism, but the sort of realism that is needed to do anything in India.

Third, Laureate got involved Fashion and Design, though this may not be the immediate starting point for anyone thinking about Indian Education. But this is surely a very clever decision. The rationale for this can be found in a piece of research Parthenon has done evaluating the worth of 'foreign' degrees in the job market. Their conclusion was that while a foreign degree may help a candidate to be preferred over others who don't have them, there is not much salary premium for getting foreign degree, except in some professions. The professions where a foreign education counts for a salary premium - thus justifying higher fees - include Design and Digital Media (and Hospitality and few other things).

These three strategic dimensions of the Laureate operation - the premium segment, focus on brand and quality of education rather than regulatory compliance, and emerging disciplines rather than traditional ones - may serve as a model for others when they think of getting into India. Laureate has done other acquisitions in India, the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in Dehradun and University of Technology and Management in Shillong, which indicates that they have gone beyond the traditional comfort zones of the big cities and are comfortable in making big bets in rather unusual places, tapping into the regions of India which foreign operators usually shun.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Sleepwalkers: Higher Education in Developing Countries

Higher Education in Asia and Africa has a good problem: It has excess demand. There are just too many people wanting to go to college, oversubscribing any place that there may be. But the number of institutions offering high quality Higher Education are hardly growing: in China, even with 9 new universities joining global top charts between the years 2006 and 2012, this meant high quality provision for only 16% of the additional 385,000 students coming to Higher Ed every year. For Nigeria's 108,000 additional students getting into Higher Ed every year, there will be no expansion of high quality provision.

But this does not matter for poor quality institutions because no one is really saying 'high quality or bust'. The whole rhetoric around Higher Education is really 'graduate or bust', though poorly educated usually joins the ranks of unemployed straight afterwards. And, poor education is also good business: Because education is afflicted with assymetric information problem, students don't know and students often don't ask, poor education, which is profitable under those conditions, often elbow out good education. 

The governments in these countries also take a rather strange stance. They pay lip service to the importance of Higher Education, which creates more middle class demand for Higher Ed, but mostly don't want to pay for it: They are usually content handing out licenses to their cronies to make money out of education. And, lately, they have caught onto the vocational education game, perhaps persuaded by some bright light in IMF or World Bank: But this is a beast yet to be tamed, indeed, as they are defined, designed and executed as poor man's education without anyone seriously considering what goes on there. It is sneered at, not just by those officials who are supposed to be dealing with it, but everyone else, including those who are supposed to be trained. The model may be of Bismarck's Germany, but there is no social compact underlying the efforts, just the vanity of social engineering, so it fails - reaffirming the continuous stream of demand for even poor Higher Ed.

However, despite all this, Higher Education in developing countries also has a bad problem. The sector is somewhat structured on the basis of a hierarchy of global economy that is no longer true. I wouldn't forget the moment when I was challenged, in the middle of a lecture that I was delivering in a Business School in India, when I was making the point about the changing labour market: An irate professor told me that since the world is outsourcing their jobs to India, India has no skills problem. It was an awkward moment, particularly because of my Indian origins which made my talk sound patronising perhaps, but this reflects the general attitude in the developing countries - outsourced jobs and ensuing controversy in the West as a sure proof of decline of the West and a gradual restructuring the world economy. 

Yet, technology is changing everything. Most jobs that are being outsourced today are also being automated. All the talk about near-shoring in the recent years actually mask the automation incident. Besides, the jobs which are still being outsourced are being paid less and less in real terms. World economy is indeed restructuring, but as Tyler Cowen puts it, this means the demise of the average. And, most Higher Ed in developing countries are aspiring to be mediocre, and sleepwalking into disaster.

The big problem is that this is hard to change. The governments don't want to shake it up: They don't have the money, except perhaps in China, to build high quality universities. The education entrepreneurs are happy: The students are coming anyway. The media is happy, immersed as they are in the dream of being world's back-office. The rhetoric about higher education and better life chances of graduates filter into the developing country chattering classes and often accepted uncritically. 

If anyone wanted to see how it felt like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, they would be well served to follow the trajectories of Higher Ed in developing countries.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Man Who Loved China

I have just finished reading Simon Winchester's magnificent The Man Who Loved China, a biography of Joseph Needham and the story of his magnum opus, The Science and Civilisation in China. I came across this book originally through the recommendation of Fareed Zakaria on his Fareed Zakaria GPS, several years ago, and it was only now I managed to read the book from cover to cover.

This is a fascinating tale which presents three entwined narratives: One of a Cambridge Academic, who lived and died in Gonville and Caius College, surrounded by an environ befitting such a person; but parallel to this runs a very unorthodox narrative of a man, his love and his interests, of Dorothy his wife and of Lu his muse, and of Socialism, Internationalism and of innumerable friendships and collaborations that made this project possible; and finally, one of international politics, intrigue and power, of imperial trickery and pretension, of the horrors of the modern war and the glory of the ancient, challenging our easily-held assumption that we have reached the zenith of the civilisation. And, above all, this is a story of China, if slightly melancholy, which appears contained in itself, reaching the heights of civilisation within itself, and then turning its back to the rest of the world. 'We don't need your wares.. we have everything',  the Chinese empress told the British envoy, quoted in the book.

The search of Joseph Needham is a fascinating one. An established bio-chemist in his own rights, his life follows the familiar academic trajectory, but then it does not. He crosses over the disciplinary boundaries to produce a book of unparallelled historical scholarship, a work more fit for a historian thought than a professional biochemist. This is one of the book's central story, but one of its failings too: A more journalistic narrative, the central question of Needham's transformation from one to the other is merely accounted for as one of affection to his Chinese mistress. One would, however, anticipate deep challenges in this transformation, or at least try to gain a profound understanding of the Renaissance mind that seems so alien to us, as we mire ourselves in the narrow disciplinary specialities. This is a question the book almost evades, and gets into many details of Needham's character, life and his travels, but not this.

There is another limitation of the narrative - the book's rather conventional answers to why, despite all these progresses, China 'failed' as Europe 'won': I tend to see historical narratives as cyclical affairs, not in a deterministic way, but also not having an 'end', so that winners and losers can be effectively decided. I would tend to China's decline, and Europe's rise, as rather insignificant role-reversals in the broad sweep of human history, which could be due to many factors difficult to pin down. I always find the traditional attempts to explain past events with hindsight happening due to one or the other factor slightly jarring, overtly deterministic, a pretension best avoided.

But, regardless of these, the book is an inspiring read: It comes at a good time for me just as I am thinking about global citizenship (whether or not this is a meaningless concept) and global scholarship. Needham personified both, he stood for what it means a serious attempt to cut through stereotypes and reach out to our common human heritage. Needham was one of those going beyond the usual bounds of realpolitik, both in his scholarship and in his naivete, doing what the scholars do best - reaching out, understanding and explaining, challenging the conventional wisdom and creating new knowledge. This is an uplifting story of hope, of soul-reaffirming human endeavour at its best.

Contribution, Not Performance

A culture of contribution, which most of our organisations need to thrive, is antithetical to the culture of performance that we usually have.

The culture of performance is deeply flawed for two reasons. First, because it operates with the assumption that individuals make all the difference. But as computers take over our process jobs, we only employ people to do things that require social and creative activities, requiring what we call collaborative work. Teams, so to say, make difference, not just individuals. When you can't perform, perform alone that is, the idea of performance is not just misdirected but deeply harmful.

Second, because the idea of performance creates wrong incentives. The 'me first' culture is deeply embedded in performance, and turns everything into a competitive solo sport. While this is linked to our social attitude towards work and success, the social attitudes are not a given, but just a product of a certain age. In a sense, the failings of 'me first' ideas are all around us to realise that we need a new mantra.

Josh Bersin points out several problems that underlie our ideas about performance in this essay. The most hurtful is indeed the reductionist credo that all work can be reduced to parameters that we, as owners or managers, can define. This was perhaps fine in an industrial era when meaning at work was less important and we could measure everything with the volume or value of output. Whatever we may think, that's more difficult with most of today's work: Most human work can't be measured by volume (because there isn't any), and often value of work lie in the future or only indirectly manifested. We, as owners and managers, don't even know, most of the time, what to measure: Besides, we want people to have serendipity, those unexpected deja vu that produce sparks of insights, ideas and breakthroughs, at work. How on earth do we write that on job description?

Questioning the value of performance measures don't mean creating a free-for-all workplace. The point is that we need a new standard of accountability. I shall argue that this should be one of contribution. Contribution, because this acknowledges the essential social nature of work and puts an individual's work in broader perspective, and hopefully promotes the primacy of social living. For most of knowledge work today, as we work with people, this is a better measure to reflect our many-sided engagement.

As the lessons of businesses are adopted by non-business organisations, governments, charities etc., citing the dynamism of business environments, we are drawing the wrong lessons: We are mixing up the performance culture, which is an industrial era relic with limited use-value for other organisations, to the deep everyday accountability that drive business success. What we may need instead is marriage of the two cultures: A synthesis of the focus and accountability of businesses with the culture of service and contribution that come so easily to other forms of organisations, such as government and charities.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

India 2014: Towards A Redefinition

All signs are 2014 will be a defining year in India's history. It is only a freak accident that this year's calendar is identical to 1947's, the year India became independent of the British Rule. But more significantly, India's General Elections this year may mark a departure from its course so far, in more ways than one.

It is now all set for the elections in May. Battle lines are sharply drawn, protagonists, old and new, have taken up their positions and the rhetoric is reaching the fever pitch. But, the debate is more than about which party would eventually win, or even, despite being highly contentious, who becomes India's next Prime Minister, despite the countless Facebook-hours Indians are investing on these issues. This year's significance may lie in a re-definition of what India stands for.

For all the hoopla, the election means less than it is projected to be. The hand voters are dealt with is quite poor. Their effective choice is between a heir, who spectacularly saw his moment come and go (misunderstanding the nature of dynastic politics perhaps, where timing is everything) and a demagogue, who represents the corporatist idea of India as a huge capitalist Disneyland, but who is struggling to overcome an unsavoury record of presiding over a genocide (which he doesn't want to disown, because this strengthens, perversely, his claim of being a 'strong leader', nor he wants to own, for understandable reasons). The difference between the two parties may not be much, except which industrialists to favour and whether or not Valentine's Day should be celebrated in India. There is no effective debate about what India's course of the future will be, and even the Communist parties are merely trying to recover from their self-inflicted obsolesce, and various regional chieftains trying to hoard their votes in the hope of ministerial berths.

But, even without debate, India is hurtling towards a departure, a re-definition of what India is meant to be. At the time of Independence, India's leaders faced a dilemma and attempted to answer it in a particular way; this time around, we are trying to change that answer. And, in this, lies the chief tension of 2014, and its era-defining significance.

In 1947, the question before India's founders were in what way, India was a nation. At that moment of exuberance, at the time of a re-birth of a nation at the midnight hour of 15th August 1947 - to resurrect Nehru's poetic metaphor - India needed to be a nation in its contemporary, European sense. And, to do so, it had few instruments that European nations used: Its geographical identity was no longer defined as the land East of the Indus and South of the Himalaya's, because another nation had a similar claim. The idea of India was being formed as a challenge to the two-nation theory advanced by the Muslim League with the tacit support of the Imperial Administration. To be sure, India had to lay claim to its unified history to deny that 'it is no more a country than the equator', as Churchill famously said.

To do so, the founders of the Indian nation came up with the idea of a cosmopolitan nation. They wanted the cohesiveness of a modern nation, and thought in terms of grand narratives, such as a common destiny for all of its people. Yet this idea transcended the narrow definitions of race, religion, regions, languages and castes: India was to be a nation of all people's, open, welcoming, tolerant. Just as American Founders conceived a nation which was to be simultaneously exceptional and universal, the idea of India was unique, but universal. It was sophisticated, but, contrary to its detractors claims, not Western: It had more in common with the ideas of pan-Indian entities ruled by Ashoka and Akbar than Mazzini's Italy or Bismarck's Prussia. 

Despite the fact that this is now commonly portrayed as a bad dream, it was ambitious. India's plan to give votes to everyone predated other democratic nations, including United States. It needed a steely idealism to create the institutions of a modern democratic state, despite being a poor, illiterate country with many regional differences and strong vested interests. It was to be based on a meritocracy enabled by good education, it was to be governed through a carefully laid out balance of power between the institutions of the state, it was to work for its people through a delicate compromise between the local and the national. 

This post is not about being nostalgic about India's past, but rather the opposite - being critical of it. Contrary to the claim that this founding idea of India was wrong - because common Indians are not capable of handling the freedom afforded to them - I shall claim that its underachievement lay in one of its key assumption, that the newly empowered Middle Classes will advance the democratic agenda in their own enlightened self-interest. That assumption, widely held worldwide among political theorists (and popular even today), did not anticipate the vulgarity of dependent development of the Indian middle class: A class which was to be defined by its consumption but not by its intellect, by its interests but not by its contribution. Unlike the middle classes of the Western countries, which was presumed to be modern and ignited the imagination of Indian nation-builders, and who held their elite to account, Indian middle classes, formed in a vacuum (as the elite left for safer abode abroad), quickly bestowed upon themselves the behaviour of the elite: It was, indeed, their turn to eat.

The Indian polity of succeeding generations have been the story of the degeneration of its middle classes. The 66-year long  narrative is now broad enough to let us see beyond its twists and turns, megalomaniac leaders and sycophantic Babus, the suppression of dissent and promotion of mediocrity, embrace of global markets through fear-mongering rather than constructive deliberation, the breakdown of universality into regional patriarchy, and represent a pattern: A class of people in a hurry to secure everything for themselves, guaranteeing a comic strip of the tragedy of the commons. Even India's new-found confidence came not on the back of prosperity, but on arrogance that we can safely forget those who have been left out. Satyajit Ray was criticised in India because his films showed poverty: The same criticism resurfaced for Slumdog Millionnaire. It was alright to leave the poor to leave in abject poverty, it was wrong to talk about it. The same sentiment surfaces again and again: when Arundhati Roy talks about the dispossessed in the wake of land grabs by industrialists in Central India, she is accused of being anti-Indian. The same fate is shared by other lesser mortals who dare to ask why India needed to recall its Helicopter gunships from Central Africa to use against its own people. As Arundhati Roy says, the Indian state is now one with the elite.

So, 2014 is the anointment of this new vision of India, one very unlike the one conceived before. This is a state where all the minorities, religious, linguistic or otherwise, and the poor, are invisible, wished away. This is a true nation, more in the European mould, which is defined by prosperity, of those who run it. After 2014, land grab will become less of an issue because the Government wants to legislate to make it easy to take land for 'industrialisation'. After 2014, the rights of the majority and the minority will be sorted out once and for all: The majorities will get back their deserved power. This departure is already agreed upon, without debate, with near consensus.

One of the Prime Ministerial hopefuls, Narendra Modi, says, for him, India first! No one will ask him which India though, nor he will say. But the answer is understood by everyone, at least by every Middle Class person who are enjoined in the cause: This is a majoritarian India, of its elite, by its elite and for its elite. 2014 is supposed to be that great year when India would become a nation, and irretrievably lose itself.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Finding My Calling

As Steve Jobs said, you will know it when you will find it. True for love, true for a calling, and it is therefore the object of my search. 

I am one of those, despite the apparently well settled middle class life, who have to face 'what's wrong with you' question from well-wishers. They mean well, and slightly perplexed by my own refusal to do what's good for me. Really, how do I explain why I eschew a mortgage and even a long term commitment to live where I am? I used to say that I am yet to find my calling, but stopped doing this now, as more often than not people would confuse 'calling' for a 'job' and stop the conversation. I say - this is my nature.

Which is true, this is indeed my nature. This is why I lived in several countries and did different things. However hard I try to do the job at hand well - and I make a virtue of workmanship all the time - my goal is never to get subsumed by security of the middle class experience, but to find stimulation, the next goal, that idea which will keep me alive.

Some of my thinking may have been influenced by a story I read in school - in fact I had to read it as a part of our syllabus - but it was an odd story for a 15-year-old to read. This was a story by Rabindranath Tagore, a literary stalwart but slightly under-appreciated short story writer, titled 'Atithi', or 'The Guest'. This is a story of a boy, a feral character, who can't just settle. Even when he found a loving home, a welcoming host who wanted to marry him off with his daughter and take him into his family, he just had to leave: "Before the circles of affection-love-friendships could consume him....He escaped, one rainy evening, to return to the unemotional unattached Earth-mother".  It was one of those stories where we came to the end of it and turned over the page in a futile expectation of an usual happy ending, but found none. That shocked us, left us confused, wondering "what on earth".. and remained with me all my life. 

At a time when even tragedy is out of fashion in art, it is unusual to think that anyone talk about this story any more. I am not sure this makes it to the school syllabus anymore, but this is certainly not good instruction for would be Engineers and Doctors. I can't claim that the story's protagonist became my role model, given the very predictable path I followed after school, but the temptations of the wider world remained with me: My ambitions remained, as I have written earlier in this blog, to live the life of Robinson Crusoe, and indeed, I found myself in metaphorical ship-wrecks all too often.

There was a time in my career when I traveled frequently, spending more time in Dubai Airport Lounge than I did at home. I used to say then that my greatest career aspiration was to catch the 8:25 from East Croydon everyday. It did happen - I settled down into a life of predictability and routine - but only to discover that I didn't love it. Instead, I rediscovered my love of adventure, within the boring confines of my career, and my lost love, of history, of literature, of travel one more time.

So, as I get into U-Aspire, I feel I found my calling. Something Global, something to do with Education, something to do with aspirations and changing lives, all the elements that I wanted. It is still in its shaky, start-up phase, and what I do is far from what I would love to do. My bootstrap life is nothing about working with aspirational students in Africa and Asia, but rather catching 8:25 as I wished for, to earn just enough to pay my bills. But even then, this enterprise has liberated me because it has opened up that possibility for me, that I can live a different life and do things that I love. As I now talk about connecting the institutions in China, India, Vietnam, Nigeria and elsewhere to build a global community, I feel I found my calling. As I talk with philanthropic organisations to put a fund together to enable an Asian or African graduate's global dream, I feel all my trouble is worth it. Yes, even the life-destroying regularity of the morning commute!

Admittedly, it is too fragile, early stage thing to celebrate, but I celebrate not the achievement, but the possibility. I needed this feeling of getting out of bed to do something, and I have got it back now. I needed to find the energy to study again, engage again, write again, connect with people again, and I have got it back now. The next stage of my life should be more exciting: My one commitment to any investor in U-Aspire is that I shall go in the field and do it myself. So, for me, this is not about delivering from the cozy confines of suburban London, but to live in Africa or Middle East or Asia, wherever makes sense, working alongside partners and graduates to make this happen. Some people clearly don't believe I will do it: They would tell me that I don't realize that this would be life changing. They have no way of knowing that I really want to change my life.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Why Ban A Book?

Does anyone care about education in India? Shiksha Bachao Andolon ('Save Education Movement') has just managed to get a book pulped - a cultural history of the Hindus written by American academic Wendy Doniger - because it 'contained factual inaccuracies'. It does not indeed matter that this was on sale since 2009, and sold well. The education of India has just been saved.

Somehow, I have been preparing for book burnings in India soon and here is a good start. Indeed, there are lots of tweets mourning the passing of the book, and pointing to the fact that there are lots of people banning lots of different books in India. The most famous being Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, which was presumed to have injured Muslim sentiments. But so is V K Naipaul's An Area of Darkness, for its critical portrayal of Indians. Salman Rushdie's other book, The Moor's Last Sigh, was also briefly banned for alleged likeness of one of the characters with Shiv Sena supremo late Bal Thackeray, though Supreme Court overturned the ban. Besides, there are a number of books with cold war legacy, including Seymour Hersh's The Price of Power, which alleged that ex-Indian Premier, the late Morarji Desai, was a CIA informant. And, Da Vinci Code remains banned in Nagaland for its unsavoury portrayal of Jesus.

But then there are others, like The Hindus, which were not formally banned, but was challenged and put out of print. The most famous example is certainly The Polyester Prince, Dhirubhai Ambani's biography by Australian journalist Hamish McDonald which was never printed in the fear of the Ambani families. Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro's It's Five Past Midnight in Bhopal was gagged temporarily by Swaraj Puri, who was the then Police Commissioner of Bhopal, though the ban was overturned later. Akhil Bharat Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Hindu Chauvinist BJP, tried to ban The Collected Essays of A K Ramanujan, and eventually cowered the publisher into dropping the book, for including an essay in which the famous scholar chronicled various alternate versions of Ramayana, a Hindu epic. Add to the fact that business people, such as Arindam Chaudhuri, an Indian entrepreneur who owns Indian Institute of Planning and Management, an unaccredited business school charging top dollar but giving out degrees not recognised anywhere else, keep suing any journalist who dare to attempt any expose and mostly secure bans or injunctions on publications (See this news and the Article), one gets the sense of the censorship environment in the World's most populous democracy.

As with other things, this shows how touchy the Indians are. Also, the Internet is yet to disrupt the Indian reading habits fully and therefore, banning a book does not have the 'Streisand Effect' it would usually have in the West. But surely online reading habits are as common as anywhere among the Generation Y, those who went to school in the 90s and after, and the elite and the fundamentalists, suppressing opinions at will, may now need to wake up to the futility of it, at least for those who read things online.

And, that would be good. On subjects like this, the final word still goes to Milton (1644): "as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life."

So, let Truth and Falsehood grapple: Whoever knew the truth put to the war, in a free and open encounter. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

BBC Uncovers Student Visa Fraud: A Comment

It was a bit disconcerting watching the BBC Panorama programme yesterday (see here), showing, in great detail, the elaborate network of fraud behind student visas. Using undercover reporters, BBC was able to film an English Language examination, for TOEIC no less, where the answers are being read out to the candidates. A separate part of the examination, where the candidates' speaking and listening ability is tested, a native speaker was hired as a proxy and she appeared the test instead of the real candidate, who was asked to wait nearby during the test. And, this is not just about TOEIC: Perversely, the 'Visa Agents' were able to steal bank account details of people, presumably in collusion with employees of certain banks overseas as well as in Britain, to produce bank statements showing required balances to enable visa extension. 

The BBC was trying to prove that there is an extensive network of fraud gaming the UK visa system. This is not new, but the brazenness of the fraud and the apparent collusion of respectable organisations or their employees, large banks, testing organisations etc., may unsettle the viewers. When the Home Secretary was shown these footage, she claimed that this was exactly why the Government has implemented a punitive system constraining student visas. In fact, this may be exactly the wrong conclusion to draw.

Despite the much-needed focus it brings to an important issue, this documentary is telling in another regard: How easy it is for the fraud networks to dissolve in the air. In conclusion, the documentary reports that various players filmed committing the fraud have just moved on, claiming that it was individual employees committing the crime themselves. Some people may have been suspended etc., but surely new people will soon fill their boots. If anything, the only viable conclusion from this documentary is that the fraud is widespread and its perpetrators are operating with near immunity.

If one wondered why, the automaton like responses of the Home Secretary provide the clue: She kept claiming that the good work the government is doing curbing visa fraud by citing the fact that the student visa applications are down. Allowing for politician's natural fudge, it is still alarming because that was her only response: There is a possibility that she really believes what she says. Indeed, people familiar with the actual work of the Home Office were quite clearly saying that it is impossible for anyone to detect fraud of that nature - because at the point of delivery, the documents were all legit - and certainly the overworked agents are in no position to do sophisticated detective work needed to combat such fraud.

If anything, British Home Office has encouraged the fraud rather than suppressing it. The falling visa numbers reflect not the decreasing number of frauds, the open business on High Streets filmed by BBC prove otherwise, but the fact that the Home Office has successfully discouraged the genuine students from coming to Britain. But, on the other hand, it has effectively created significant incentives to commit fraud because there is money to be made here: Poor enforcement makes sure that everyone knows that it is easy to get away.

I remember two conversations from 2011, when the new government started talking tough on immigration. The first was with a Visa Attorney, who couldn't hide his glee that the visas were to become difficult to get: He explained to me how that would be good for business. The second was a presentation by the then Head of UK Border Agency's Student Visas, who spoke to a gathering of education institutions effectively rebuking them for their interest in recruiting international students. However, at the end of the presentation, he also admitted that the Home Office managed to deport less than 1% of those reported by the institutions for abusing their visas. 

These two conversations sum up the situation we have now. One, a penal visa system, which treats every student coming to Britain as a criminal effectively drives away anyone who was looking to study, sending them to other welcoming destinations such as Australia, Singapore, Canada and now United States. Two, the understaffed Home Office is unable to do due diligence even for the reduced number of applications, making it easy for fraudsters to slip in applications. Three, this makes great business for immigration attorneys of various hues, and create the possibility of a financial reward through arbitrage inherent in the system. Finally, as a classic failure of common sense, this system is predicated on limitations on supply, closure of fraudulent colleges etc., which increase the profitability of the trade for the savvy, but no penalties on demand, as the student faces very little threat of actually getting deported. 

The opposite of this is not an open doors policy, but a smart system which provides incentives for compliance and puts emphasis on execution rather than policy tinkering. However, this has been the folly of Right-wing Governance everywhere: While they preach small government, Right-wingers have this illusion that the Government can impact everything, including people's sexual behaviour. This tends to lead to the catastrophic combination of more policy and feeble execution due to anorexic government machinery. The UK Visa system's comical travails should be seen in this broader perspective.


This continues to be a serious debate. The government suspended one university, Glyndwr University, and took further action on Bedfordshire University and University of West London (formerly Thames Valley University), as well as many private colleges. [See the story here]  However, being reliant on top down and a scatter gun approach, it is still not getting a grip on the situation.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Innovation in Higher Education: A Difficult Business

Datuk Dr Paul Chan, President of Help University in KL, is a remarkable man. As someone who has built a successful university from ground up in what some of my English academic colleagues call as the Silicon Valley of Higher Education, he has a close first hand view of what innovation in Higher Education looks like. Yet, when the real Silicon Valley is waking up to Higher Education, President Chan remains remarkably anti-hype: No one wants innovation in Higher Education, because everyone is after standards and prestige, he said.

Just before I met Datuk Chan last November, Help University caused a flutter in Western media, and with their partners in Southern New Hampshire University, by giving out an Honorary Doctorate to Kim Jong Un. Going by this, they are certainly not orthodox, nor a stickler of other people's standards. In fact, a part of our conversation was about the standards: In what seemed a continuation of views aired by Dr Mahathir Mohamad decades earlier, Datuk Chan talked about how Western standards continue to define all thinking and all institutions, making the claims of the rise of the East a bit of an illusion.

Indeed, I did find Help University somewhat different from the standard Private universities that I have seen elsewhere in Asia. There was the customary focus on vocational subjects - I visited their enormous Culinary schools and talked about Accounting degrees closely mapped to Western Professional Qualifications - but a poster on the arrival hall boasted the new additions to their library, among them English language biographies of political leaders such as Lenin. It would turn out to have a much broader list of subjects than the narrow Engineering and Business focus that one sees in the universities in South Asia, for example. The list of their Western partners were impressive, including an online programme from University of Derby, University of London International Programmes,  as well as the SNHU, which is some sort of a vanguard of innovation in Higher Ed in the US. As an university which built its name serving the ethnic Chinese community in Malaysia, just as the others served variably the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities when Malaysian public institutions almost exclusively served the 'Bhumiputra', such attempts at trying different formats were also remarkable.

Someone familiar with the affairs of Help University told me that they had tried many partnerships in the past, and not all the partnerships worked as well. But this, in fact, confirmed my impression of an university constantly on the move, contrary to most others that I usually see. My conversations with Indian universities and business schools are often intensely frustrating because one could see that they don't really want to try anything new. Some of the bigger Indian universities have as many foreign partners as Help would have, but they are collecting MoUs in the bid to stop anything new happening in their market rather than the other way around. Most such institutions serve a narrow local market and quite happy with that: Unlike Help, they have few ambitions and fewer attempts to break new grounds.

When Karan Khemka and Parag Khanna proclaimed that unleashing For-Profit Universities in Higher Education in the developing countries would bring about a productivity revolution (see the HBR article here), their views were based on a mistaken assumption of how For-Profit, and indeed, Private, Higher Education works. The liberal rhetoric of Critical Thinking and Creativity may be well-meaning, but the most important function of Privately funded Higher Education institutions by far is preservation of status quo. The dynamic of Private institutions has so far been to fight out for their own little corner of the market won through regulatory processes. The innovation they have brought in focused far more on the costs, stripping out whatever was deemed inessential for the grant of a degree, than in creating better learning. By the logic of the stock-market, the For-Profit education embraced the cheap-and-cheerful demand-absorbing end of Higher Education rather than attempting to bring in any productivity revolution.

Universities such as Help notwithstanding (its constant search may be powered by an atypical visionary such as Datuk Chan), innovation has not been a mainstream function of any Educational institution. One must not undermine the various innovations in curriculum, teaching and student interaction by individual educators, but the institutional structure of Private Higher Education has so far been more factory-like than even the modern factories. Despite their 'challenger' positions, with Higher Education in most countries dominated by large, high prestige, publicly funded institutions, not many Private institutions will have anything akin to a Research and Development function; the closest equivalent, a department for External Relations in some universities, is overtly concerned with getting more clients for existing programmes rather than exploring new ideas.

I could have taken Datuk Chan's skepticism about Educational Innovation as a criticism of my own attempts to create a new model of education, but I chose not to; he is indeed a pioneer of sorts who understands the trade better than anyone around. Besides, the fact that Help University itself is now in the middle of an ambitious international education project themselves told me that it is trying to push the boundaries, despite the fact that they are coming up a brand new campus shortly which will commit them even more closely to the traditional model of Higher Education. My lessons from this interaction was the need to think about the balances - between core customers and global aspiration, between tradition and innovation, of the interplay of standards and local demands - that must underpin any innovation in Higher Education.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Twilight of The Business Schools

Those who can't, teach - says The Economist (See the story). The business schools indeed don't like the disruptive innovation business. Despite the impressive sway they hold particularly in the emerging countries, they are eager to hold on to the fragile foundational logic that MBA is necessary to lead a business, despite mounting evidence on the contrary. So, anything, like the company-run Mini-MBAs, that undermine the value of the business school business, is shunned. This is, however, head in the sand behaviour than anything strategic.

The Economist sees the business schools suffering from two problems. One is about becoming too academic, with professors more obsessed with publication and academic prestige than teaching. This is a standard criticism of academic practice today, one that is easily countered. Teaching without research and practice is hardly the thing to do in a discipline like business. The Economist indeed concerned itself with the top-flight B-Schools, but if they cared to look around a bit, they would see the Mid- to Low-Tier schools stuck in the Eighties, where Professors more concerned with teaching stick to the syllabus and have little outside engagement. With horrifying result, as expected!

The second problem is the herd mentality, and this is understandable. The world of B-Schools is a rather small one, and even the global community of B-Schools work closer than the broader Higher Ed community. They subscribe to somewhat common values and ideas, they are all threatened by the dwindling perception of the MBAs, they are all looking at the same rankings and their students suffer from the same sense of entitlement everywhere. So, it is a more difficult environment to break the ranks than even the ossified enclosures of the traditional universities.

But there are more problems than these two, I shall contend. The first is that Business School is one segment of Higher Education which has designed itself, irreversibly, for the select few, putting emphasis on social capital over anything else. In short, the B-Schools are designed to be entitlement factories, built around giving their students a sense of being special. This causes a problem when the businesses that employ them, particularly banks, are facing some existential problems and have woken up, belatedly, reluctantly and only partially, to the need of humility and flexibility. The discipline of the B-Schools are designed to exclude such abilities, almost treating them as weaknesses.

More, being fixated on being masters of the universe, the Business Schools often produce graduates who would love to keep the world as is, rather than create tomorrow's businesses. I am arguing that not only business schools have a herd mentality, at its core, they are often anti-entrepreneurial. This is having devastating effect on those economies which rely too much on B-Schools to produce their decision makers: The B-School graduates running Venture Capital firms turn them into Mini-Banks, B-School graduates running Government Departments forget the citizenry and the essential purpose of their jobs. No wonder entrepreneurial businesses have come to distrust the B-Schools and would rather do with Engineers and other oddballs.

And, finally, as a result of all this, value of an MBA is seriously being questioned. One could sense some desperation in Rakesh Khuarana's argument that Business should be treated as a profession and MBA should become a license to get into business. B-Schools would surely love that, but one can see how this would easily kill off an economy: Imagine telling Steve Jobs (among others) that he needs to get an MBA to start Apple. While Professor Khuarana is a brilliant academic, this suggestion also reflects the existential dysfunction at the heart of B-Schools: They don't seem to know how to adjust to the post-industrial Business landscape of today. 

Indeed, all this criticism looks phony because a B-School degree is still the surest way to become the Master of the Universe. Despite the beating they have taken off late, the Bankers remain movers and shakers, making the national governments bow down to themselves with the doctrine of too big to fail. Indeed, all else is theoretical and it is best to recognise, with intended irony, that the criticism of B-Schools is merely academic. At least the few at the top remains, as they intend to be, factories of power and prestige, and it is unlikely to change. Unless, of course, the whole economic edifice becomes unsustainable.

The problem is that this may indeed be the case. The aspirations of the emerging countries are the monsters of Frankenstein of the modern world economy: We need those consumers but we need to limit their aspiration. As the search for good life becomes irreversible, it will become incompatible with the mechanics of power and prestige that our societies run on. Add to that the pressures of environment, and the disenfranchisement that smarter machines will bring to our own working classes, and one should get the urgency with which we need to look at new formulas of running our affairs. But, for any innovation of the kind, which needs flexibility, new thinking, innovation, compassion, our education system needs to be redesigned first, and as argued here, such an attempt would necessarily need to start at changing our B-Schools.  

Friday, February 07, 2014

Two Globalisations

There are two ways of looking at globalisation. 

One is an imperial way, which is more common: This is about some country or the other ruling the world, one culture or the other being in ascendency, one way of doing things being better than another way of doing things. This is indeed the predominant way of thinking about globalisation, which we can call globalisation-as-dominance. This is the way most people think, even the ardent globalisers. True, they are slightly embarrassed by their own views, and therefore, they would usually highlight the impermanence of such dominance, pointing to the ongoing dynamics of the global equation, but accept dominance nonetheless as the way of things, as it always have been.

But, then, there is another way of looking at things. This, perhaps less articulated, view of globalisation is less about dominance and more about connection. This is based on a more optimistic view of human beings, perhaps something which we lost touch with. This view may be obscured by the way we read history, which is almost always celebratory of the powers of the victors. This view of globalisation is from the vantage point of the subjects of globalisation, from those people at the frontiers of globalisation, not necessarily the vanquished, but its actors. It is about those merchants who sailed, the executives who came to another country to work, the writers who sought ideas and stimulation in a different locale, or perhaps more mundanely, the tourist who fell in love on the way. This is the human view of globalisation, which centres around our wonder that there may be people in another part of the world with a different culture but a similar sort of disposition and emotions as us. This is not an anti-global view, because none of us need to fear connection as we do of dominance.

But this second way of thinking about globalisation makes globalisation different. Because this is not about imposing any one correct view, this allows for the diverse. And, if one is to think that this is a touchy-feely nonsense, and the globalisation as view around dominance looks right in theory, one must open their eyes and see that globalisation as connection and interaction looks more real in practise. Despite some people thinking that the world speaks in English, shops in Amazon and keeps in touch on Facebook, this is hardly true. If anything,  the world still resembles the tower of Babel, with local prestige and sensibilities ascendent with a new sense of perspective and confidence. The locally responsive services are springing up everywhere, where consumers take pride in buying from them. The local has become universal and not the other way round.

The anti-globalisers may not agree, but the globalisation is not apocalyptic. In fact, it is one thing that pro-globalisers and anti-globalisers seem to be in agreement on, but both are equally wrong: Despite the spectre of uni-polar world, no one seemed to have won hands down and the world has not become a drab monoculture. The globalisation that we see are diverse and resplendent with conversations and connections, a delicate game of negotiation and assimilation, rather than dominance and dependence.

Seen from drawing rooms of the Rich, lobbies of the five star hotels and through the prism of European language media, this diversity may appear much reduced, but that does not make it any less real. And, besides, this is what makes globalisation exciting, worth engaging into: If our brains are built for culture and connections, this is exactly the sort of stimulation it must crave for. But even if this sort globalisation is about harmony, and peace and connections, this is still deeply disruptive. Because the doctrine of dominance and fear of the others is central to the way our societies are structured, giving our elites the sole rights to negotiate with the unknown and profit from it. This grown-up view of globalisation, one that is based on shared humanity and possibilities that prosperity can be built together, remains excluded from common imagination to maintain the power plays that keep us in our place.

However, increasingly, the frontiers of value creation is shifting from local to global domain. The less we do with hands, turning our natural resources into usable commodities, and the more we do with minds, turning our ideas into valuable something, it is that connection with others, the ability to transcend the parochial and being able to engage locally many places at a time, become ever more important. Partnership, not dominance, remain at the core of this new agenda. This is not about government mandated ways of doing things, not designed by the power elite, but this is about tapping into the possibilities of human networks and to find purpose in making the relationships work. 

Unfortunately, as globalisation changed, the elite enjoying its benefits, everyone else abandoned it: The internationalist heritage of the workers subsided and and instead, work became parochial. This is a mistake. This is not just a failing attempt to go back in time, but indulging in fratricide among the working classes by turning against the humanist globalisation that made their politics possible in the first place. It is about giving in to the agenda of the power elite and its theory of domination, rather than freedom. It is against the grain of the change, against the power of the technologies and against human nature: It is one way to exclude the the working classes from everything of import today. It is just too critical for their view to be on table to drive responsible discussions on environment, work, capital and human dignity, to solve the big problems of poverty, disease and fanaticism which can hardly be solved locally. By turning anti-globalisation, the working classes handed over all the crucial policy issues to the 1%. It is time to discover the other, human, globalisation for the sake of the other 99%.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Private Colleges, Public Funding and A Coming Scandal

Times Higher Education reports that two private colleges in London has received more money in public funding than the London School of Economics and School of Oriental and African Studies. (See story here) While we may argue on the merits of giving public money to private providers, as is the case in myriad public services, even the staunchest free market advocate may accept that this is perverse. One can't even argue that this is market forces at work: There is no way to explain why British students will prefer almost unknown institutions over the better known universities, except that we have managed to craft a system which has created all sorts of wrong incentives for over-recruitment. It seems that despite all the warning signals of the student loans scandals from the US, the government in England has managed to create a system and break it within barely two years.

Indeed, one would argue that stories such as these is a mere case of jealousy of the public sector. But that obscures the point that there is no market explanation for such a skewed student preference. Except, of course, the explanation that since the government left the student recruitment by private providers uncapped, and made the silly declaration that the student numbers will be capped from next year on at this year's recruitment levels, they created a perverse incentive for all private providers to over-recruit. 

As we already know, most of these recruitment is in Higher National Diploma courses (rather than university degrees), which essentially means that the students did not need to satisfy any entry criteria to get into the colleges. Add to this the fact that the 'students' were entitled to some funding towards accommodation etc., one can understand why we saw education advisors setting up stalls in shopping malls last summer: They were selling easy access to loans which one does not really have to pay back rather than education.

Indeed, it would be unfair to paint all private providers with the same brush, but one can see that the callous policy design has broken the system before it was even in place. The Chancellor's announcement of removing recruitment caps from the public universities may placate the Vice-Chancellors, but this is unlikely to solve the coming problem of non-completion that the sector will see in the coming months. Indeed, the impact may not be immediately visible as the number of students may still be relatively small in private sector (despite massive growth, it is less than 2% of approximately 2 million undergraduates in the system) and the fact that the HND courses have an open-ended end date and a student may not be considered as a drop-out for a very long time. However, it may be fair to assume, given the recruitment dynamic, that the private sector has already set itself up to be a disproportionately big contributor to the student loan defaults. Despite all the market-friendliness of Britain's current government, they seemed to have missed all the lessons about economic incentives and misunderstood how private businesses operate.

The fact that the government is completely blind how private institutions are operating is also clear from the tale of one private institution, which seems to feature prominently in the list of student loan recipients. This has effectively created a franchise across London, despite the fact it is clearly illegal to do so, by providing access to student loans to private colleges which were suffering badly after the government clamped down on international students. This enterprising private institution now has branches all over London, which are basically independent recruitment operations, getting local students on the promise of cheap loans and putting them under loans provided through this umbrella college. The Student Loan Company's purely paper-based vetting processes are somewhat blind to such practices: This operation has therefore flourished and had manifold growth.

The access to student loans for many of these private providers remain frozen, and I am certain that the Student Loan Company will be far more careful in expanding the system than they have been so far. However, it is important for the Government to crack down on abuse early in the day, and withdraw the loans from some of the 'students' who may have little incentive to study other than access to loans.  This is also in the interest of the credibility of the private education sector, and of its more responsible providers, that such abuses are reported and controlled, because otherwise the sector will remain blighted just as it did in the wake of foreign students' issue. And, for the wider education community, this is yet another reason to engage in the debate of what's the best way to develop a responsible private sector, rather than taking this as yet another excuse to disengage.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

U-Aspire: Towards A New Model

Vocational Education is designed to be a poor man's thing. It is for those kids who faltered through the school and didn't do okay in the things that matter. Those who couldn't get the right GPA or work out the system of examinations to get a good college. Those whose parents never went to university and didn't know what counts in the game to get to good college. Those who perhaps couldn't pay the tuition for the private school. You get it - those who are not smart enough, not connected enough, didn't know enough.

I see this as an opportunity. Because the whole system of exams and colleges are so misdirected. They are almost always preparing people with wrong skills and abilities, for professions that may cease to exist soon. I could see a model of vocational education that could be constructed on the back of various government attempts, vain and pointless as they may be, and provide a disruptive force in the education sector of the developing countries. 

The reason for being so optimistic about vocational education is because the opportunity to innovate in vocational education is quite wide. Because it is a poor man's thing, no one gives much attention to it, and therefore, regulators, who keep all kinds of education innovation beholden to vested interests in these countries, are less fussed about what happens in vocational space. The current outpouring of money in vocational education has already been mostly pocketed by big companies under useless projects, but there is still a smattering of it available for small companies for the sake of legitimacy of the whole thing. And, besides, a bit of Jugaad, despite my deep aversion to the spirit of shortcuts that this means, goes a long way in vocational education, but does not help in highly regulated Higher Education space.

So, this is what I want to do: I want to create a network of vocational education training centres for vocations of the future. And, I want to create a model by which the learners get self-esteem at the same time, and not just feel like a failure as they usually do when they arrive in vocational education. This is against all cultural stereotypes in these developing country settings, but I want to create an opportunity for people to say that they did not go to college and they are proud about it.

This, I hope, will result in better education. For a start, the students we train will be able to do something, will be good at something. They will have none of these middle class confusion and aversion of doing anything by hand. This may sound idealistic, but the only idealistic assumption there is in this plan is that with the right stimulus, everyone can think. And, once unleashed from the stranglehold of education regulation which are mainly designed to ensure that social privileges don't spread out too much, vocational education of this type can be the change agent these societies need.

I am thinking in these terms because mentally, after labouring with U-Aspire for more than a year, I now seem to know what I don't want to do. I have come beyond the initial proposition of U-Aspire being the conduit of British education abroad: While we still offer British courses, we do so for its merit and design advantages, not because of its Britishness. This allows us to think about costs and designs that are appropriate to countries it is offered in. The second change, which I am getting at as our first course cohort in India come together, is that I have given up on the goals of pleasing investors, and focused instead on making it worthwhile for our learners. This means small groups, focused offerings and less time spent on thinking how to scale or what our margins are. I think it was a huge mistake that we spent so much time thinking about these issues, alongside the customary business plan, initially. I am at a point when I have realised what a wonderful opportunity there is to create a worthwhile model for vocational education by being responsive to the markets we operate in, once we are ready to play the long term game.

Therefore, this new plan: To create U-Aspire Academies to offer a range of courses in Entrepreneurship, Digital Media, Creative Professions, and Business, a space for people to learn skills really well at a global standard and start their micro-enterprises. My starting point is India, where we are planning to leverage our partnership into a Joint Venture and create the centres on our own. These ideas, that we need our own centres and that we would rather establish a model on the basis of vocational education, are new, but I have a deja vu feeling once I got to it. At the core of it remains our original ideas of global-local education, competence-based learning and deep engagement with companies and start-up ecosystems; but the additional element is to manage the environment and pedagogy that we initially planned for. This somewhat reflects a reversion of importance of scale, and the fact that we are less focused on Higher Education, though all our courses will have a Higher Ed pathway. The learning is immersing, delivered with deep engagement; it is funded through the existing arrangements of funding vocational education. The courses will be delivered in English, and learning the language will be one key part of the overall learning experience.

This is indeed not a big change from the original model. But there are important differences: We thought we would deliver courses using partner facilities and personnel, but now looking for greater involvement and control. Though we do the same courses, our proposition is pivoting to the 'vocational training' space rather than playing the Higher Ed game, which means a change of target audience and the value proposition. This is now less about doing a British qualification, but more about doing a flexible qualification which allows competence-based credits to be counted towards an educational qualification. And, finally, this will be about entrepreneurship at the core - an idea I always carried with me - rather than jobs and employment, as Higher Education is deemed to be.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Beyond China: Opening of Indian Mind

I recently spoke in an event discussing world economies 'beyond China': My topic was Africa and I reported what I spoke about in an earlier post on this blog (Read Beyond China: Why Africa Matters). I was, however, not speaking about India's prospects in this changed world. It is only fitting for me to supplement my earlier post with what I think of India's prospects.

China's prosperity and ascendancy present both a great opportunity and a grim challenge to India. China's economic growth, and consequent rise in Military Power, dwarf India's position in its immediate neighbourhood, where it faces many challenges anyway. Its relative loss of significance will both impact its domestic polity, where a particular firebrand nationalism is on the rise, and its resource economies, which is far more interdependent with its neighbouring countries than Indians will like to believe. At the time when the United States and China are particularly prone to falling into a 'Thucydides Trap', pitting the ruling power against a rising one (read more about Thucydides Trap here), a defensively minded insecure India is great danger of becoming America's foot-soldier in Asia, embarking in pointless challenges to China's hegemony. At the same time, however, a rising China presents an unparallelled opportunity for India for partnership and shared growth, because the economies and societies of these two nations can be seen as interdependent and complementary. India's skills can be useful to China's vast material economy, and China can dramatically expand the market for Indian goods, services and people. China is, in more ways than one, India's big opportunity.

However, such economic common sense is likely to be trumped by binary, antagonistic views of the world, coming out of politically motivated constructions of India's history. What makes such partnership even more difficult is because India, so far, has displayed what one would call a 'closed mind'. Pratap Bhanu Mehta came up with this wonderful comparison between China and India, which, for anyone even vaguely familiar with both countries, will find intuitively appealing: China, he says, is a closed society, but has an open mind. India, in contrast, has an open society, but as a nation, a closed mind. This description seems apt: Despite India's vibrant democracy, young population and wonderful entrepreneurs, the limits of its own imagination holds India back. While Indian professionals earn plaudits for their intelligence, knowledge and work ethic from all over the world, India collectively seems to be caught up in an interminable adolescence, viewing itself as a perennial victim and constructing an introverted world view around the same.

While there are sociological and historical explanations of this phenomenon which make it look deeply rooted and difficult to change, this is a massive tragedy. India's attempts to bracket itself with its bigger neighbour increasingly looks vain; despite its cacophonous democracy, its claim to a premier role in the world community is rendered fragile by its inability to engage. Its callous disregard for its own poor citizens, almost comical corruption of its 'Babu' class, the persistent and self-defeating moral relativism of its public life, put a serious dent to its claim to economic dynamism. And, this is not just about competing with China or impressing the bond market: The demographic 'dividend' that the Indians make so much about can very easily turn into a demographic disaster, if India fails to deliver its promise.

In their perceptive book 'Why Nations Fail', Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson make a point that may be valid for India: Contrasting economies such as Mexico and the United States, they show countries prosper when its citizens limit the power of its elite. And this works even in the old economies: Their point is that the English Industrial Revolution owes a lot to its revolutions in the Seventeenth century, which limited the powers of its aristocracy and the Church and opened up spaces for its scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs. On the other hand, in countries like Mexico, the ruling classes and their cronies accumulated unchallenged power, and this went beyond politics and invaded all walks of life. One needed to be 'connected' to do anything in these economies, hindering social mobility and economic dynamism. This was also the case made by Alan Beattie in his False Economy, in the narrative why Argentina could not become United States, despite having similar starting points. The case currently being made for a 'strong leader' in India is the case for leaving it to the elites, its upper classes, to take care of the country through unchecked capitalist development. This has failed before, and except in economics fantasy, this has never worked anywhere else.

Given the experience so far, India may follow the path of Argentina, succumbing into a fragile economy, rather than developing robust institutions and making good of its implicit promise of the rule of law for all its citizens. To do so, however, it has to approach its own problems with an open mind. At a time when the Indian heartland is teeming with insurgency and the Indian government is having to pull back the Helicopter Gunships that it sent to the UN Peacekeeping missions in Central Africa for use on its own people, India is uneasy talking about its model of development: Any idea that is remotely foreign is usually rejected out of hand, though this idea of an India based on shared history itself is directly imported from Europe. Anything short of a rosy portrayal of India, is immediately jumped upon, with the claim that such discussion is not patriotic and worse, an evidence of worldwide conspiracy to undermine India. Anyone bothering to talk about the 'other' India, the one which is being systematically robbed by corporate interests, are heckled into silence; sadly, most Indian middle class professionals, sensible in other walks of life, join the Social Media gangs employed by Prime Ministerial hopefuls in suppressing any discussion.

India's opportunity, I shall argue, is not in building a capitalist Disneyland or submitting to a strong leader, but in building a strong citizenry and respecting rights and promoting opportunities. Instead of living in denial of its own problems, its future lies in opening up to the world and engaging with it. At this very moment, India's path is a choice between a path of adversity and confrontation with the inevitable self-destruction at its wake, or the prospect of cultivation of a common Asian future alongside China. Such economic common-sense is usually trumped by historical memory and self-serving elites; India can, and should, do more to be introspective and reinvent itself to be ready for a world of Chinese preeminence.

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