Thursday, May 29, 2014

India 2014: Assessing India's Opportunity

Hope has made a comeback in India. The grand yet sombre swearing in of the new Prime Minister yesterday made an impression; at least one Western commentator, John Eliot, wondered whether Mr Modi will become a transformational leader like Nehru (see here). The assemblage of South Asian leaders, specially invited for the occasion, also ignited hope of peace, stability and freedom of movement in South Asia, which will, in turn, make India's prosperity stronger and sustainable. Besides, the spectacle itself, that a new Prime Minister from outside the ruling elite is being sworn in, is a sign of how strongly embedded democracy has become in India (though as I argued elsewhere, it should never be taken for granted).

The hope for India's prospects rests primarily upon the electoral fact that first time in thirty years, India has a majority government. The successive coalition governments, held at ransom by India's regional parties, struggled to move forward and respond to a rapidly changing world. Mr Modi will be able to govern without such constraints. If he respects his mandate and focuses his energies on economic development - as he said he would - this is indeed India's best chance to 'unleash' its economy (as The Economist sees it).

One important factor that works in favour of the new government is that India's demographic window of opportunity, when most of its population will be between 15 and 65 years of age, is just opening. US National Intelligence Committee gives India the next 35 years to capitalise on this (2015 - 2050). This is a moment in history like no other, an unique opportunity to achieve leapfrog development, and may even catch up with developed world on some parameters. (For more discussion, see here)

Indeed, demography is not destiny, but just the raw material national destinies are built with. To make good of this demographic opportunity, one would need deep 'reforms'. Mr Modi has shown intent and decisiveness to facilitate labour market reforms, a sticky issue in India, and a cure-all as seen by the neo-liberal types. But taking advantage of the Demographic Window of Opportunity will take more than just the labour market reform.

For a start, this will need a deep education 'revolution' at all levels, a renewed commitment to environment (particularly, Water) and regional peace. This will also need unlocking the new sources of economic growth and prosperity, most of which may lie hidden in the politically and economically neglected 'resource economies' of India's Eastern and North Eastern states. It would also require India to achieve a technology catch-up in all aspects of life, and yet ensure employment or productive engagement for the 10 million young people who will join its workforce every year. And, all along, India has to modernise its agriculture to spread its Green Revolution across the country.

There are mixed signals that Mr Modi has understood this opportunity. The opening gambit of regional peace is promising, as is his message that he wants to take everyone along. North-East has been talked about, and there is a special ministerial role allocated to it. The Water Resources Minister has a special portfolio for the Ganges, a river that is Northern (and Eastern) India's lifeline.

However, educational reform and development is yet to feature prominently anywhere in the plan, and complete silence about the subject and relatively lightweight Ministerial appointment for Education (Ministry of Human Resource Development, as it is called in India) do not bode very well. There is also a disquieting resurgence of a social agenda, including early talk of constitutional changes such as repeal of the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and introduction of an uniform civil code, both long-standing issues of the current ruling party, which can have an incendiary effect on the communal make-up on India, and potentially destablise the whole region. Mr Modi's record on environment in his home state of Gujrat isn't good: He preferred tycoon-driven growth over environmental preservation.

In summary, this is indeed India's moment, but this is about more than efficient governance. This is also a moment when imagination is needed. Having a business friendly government can take a country forward only to a point; the key issues of education, environment and stability need to be addressed and attended to if India is to be able to deliver on its promise. The glorious prospect of demographic window of opportunity has a stark downside: It can go wrong quickly if it is not attended to with intent and imagination.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Indian Higher Education: A Map to El Dorado

India is the world's most exciting Higher Education market. One may receive this with a tinge of skepticism, simply because one has heard this before. But it would be wrong to think that India was always the world's most exciting Higher Education market. That would have been China in the past, and America before that: India's moment is coming now.

Part of it is simple demography: National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2030 (see here) highlights some of the fundamentals. In terms of what it calls the Demographic Window of Opportunity - the years when the proportion of Children (0 - 15 years) is less than 30% and the proportion of the seniors (65 years and above) is less than 15% - India arrives now: Its DWO stretches from 2015 to 2050 (see page 24). This closes in Russia and the United States in 2015, and China, which remains a relatively youthful country, has only 10 years left (till 2025). The other exciting demographic opportunities may be much smaller (notably, Brazil or Iran, from the same chart) or disrupted for other reasons (Sub-Saharan Africa, which has a relatively youthful population, but will face a food production challenge to maintain the same, apart from political turmoil).

However, India's demographic opportunity was always rather well known. Other challenges, regulation and complexity, were always daunting. This is where the elections of 2014 may be put in context. Whether or not the current Prime Minister is acceptable to everyone, the electoral mandate is mostly towards an unified, national idea of India. The country is united in aspiration, and is driven by a strong middle class participation (66% of the eligible voters voted). The electoral platform they voted for is one of reducing regulation and government interference, and this may actually happen. The administration has a clear mandate - the first administration to have that since 1984 - and can impose its will. Whether such powers will be used for productive purposes, or will be frittered away instead in pushing an obsessive social agenda of creating a majoritarian state, remains to be seen. But, if the new administration stick to the message of the mandate rather than succumbing to the hubris (and, as pragmatic politicians, they may as well make the most of this once in a lifetime opportunity rather than indulging in megalomania), the new administration will do just as it was told - step aside and reduce complexity. 

Higher Education will be a key battleground. It is currently inefficient, ill-equipped, understaffed and lack technology and innovation. Not just it matters that the neighbour and competitor China is making huge strides in Higher Education, the Indian government's immediate challenge - the downside of demographic opportunity - is to be able to absorb an additional 10 million people who will arrive in the workforce every year. Since all this will happen within the context of a changing workplace, economic and technological shifts, this is a hugely complex issue, and will require the state to go beyond the simple prescriptions of either more state investment or complete abdication to private interests. As the new government starts building roads, ports, airports and energy infrastructure, it would need to give equal importance to building India's education infrastructure all over again. This will mean both an opportunity to build new, private education provisions, as well as opportunities for innovation, of public-private partnerships, of innovation, of introduction of technology, for enterprise in education.

The conversation in the West about India's Higher Education opportunity often centers around a piece of legislation called the Foreign Education Providers' Bill. This legislation has been languishing in the Indian parliament for more than a decade, and despite the Cabinet approving it and the bill going through several modifications, it has failed to pass. Despite all the euphoria about the business-friendliness of the incoming government, this is one piece of legislation they are unlikely to do anything about. This is not just because that the current mood in India is social conservatism, but also because of implicit anti-globalising electoral mandate. The policy climate in India is likely to be dominated by preference for Indian businesses and institutions taking the lead, rather than a preference for open to all liberalisation which the previous regime preferred (but failed to deliver). 

This patterns actually create advantage for private sector investors in education over the publicly funded institutions in the West. So, the canvass for the British universities will remain mostly unchanged, but exciting opportunities may open up for Laureates of the world, who are looking to put money and expertise in Indian institutions for a decent return. They will surely cash in as India will become friendlier to foreign investors, but will keep the education sector firmly in Indian hands. So, the much rumoured campuses of foreign universities are unlikely to happen in India anytime soon, but we can expect an uptick of foreign investment going into Indian education.

If I said India is education's El Dorado - a place where everyone wants to go but no one knows how - I was correct. But a map to El Dorado may just be emerging for education investors, which seems full of allure and promise.


UKIP: Figuring Out Britain

The earthquake in British Politics is here and UKIP has indeed become the lion that roared, at least once. 

Though the party spokeswoman, Suzanne Evans, tried hard to distance UKIP from the 'extremist' parties, such as National Front of Marine Le Pen in France, their anti-immigration rhetoric did it for them. This may be either be about plain nastiness or calculated cynicism, but UKIP's earthquake is all about shifting the political tectonic plate to an extreme position, or soon will be.

This is a point worth pondering about. UKIP isn't the same as the English Defence League, and it has no record of violence. Led by its showman leader, who employs the typical city bluster to make mountains out of everything, it is perhaps even slightly comical, but an usual political party. But its opportunistic rhetoric, shaped by suave thoughts about political positioning, tries to play on people's fears, their aversion of globalisation, their discomfort of breaking of communities. Their political ideologies, against Europe but not against globalisation (they seem to have a more open view about immigration from outside the EU than the three major political parties), seem to have worked - though the inconsistencies of the position, based on an assumption of Britain's advantageous position over the other nations of the world (an imperial hangover), would have to show itself given time. At that point, the showmanship has to give way to stunts, stunts have to lead to street action, street action has to lead to violence and extremism, as history has shown. There is no middle of the road position in extremism.

The retort of the UKIP is likely to be that they want to be the party of little Britain, one that wants to be left alone. However, being left alone is perhaps the extreme luxury to be afforded in this day and age. That choice does not exist for most of the humanity: It is one position that can only be maintained with unbridled supremacy. Mr Farage and others in his party either foolhardily believe that Britain has that power and can afford that luxury, or they are cynically playing on people's fears and promising them the earth knowing that they don't have to deliver it. If so, they have as much to fear from these earthquakes and pole positions than anyone else, lest they be asked to do something about what they say.

But, then, Britain may actually have an advantage that one has lost sight of. Britain may have a national characteristic of pragmatism, doing what's needed, rather than being foolhardily ideological, throughout its history. Its global supremacy came on the back of unleashing some of its pirate-entrepreneurs and building a light-touch empire (I am fully conscious of the horrors of the empire, having come from India myself - but still this was a franchise-based empire rather than a top-down centralised rule), and its best moments came not from supremacy but from admirable abilities to remain an underdog. I would argue that Britain has started losing its way from the point it started taking itself seriously - taking its position in the world as granted and falling in love with its own rhetoric. UKIP may be just being pragmatic and exploiting a gap in the politics, but they are now in serious danger of believing their own words and falling in love with itself. And, in that position, remains the possibility of an ultimately self-defeating nasty turn!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Reflections and Interests: The New Classroom

I am trying to build a new kind of classroom. This should look like a start-up company. In fact, I am trying to make it a start-up company.

So, here is the idea: I build something where studying means working in a start-up. 

I have been exploring competence-based education for a while, and one thing I learnt that there is a lot of difference between the rhetoric and the practice. The competence based courses become, all too often, about studying the marketing of the local deli or creating strategies for the cash-and-carry, the problem being that none of these businesses are interested in what the student is doing. They see no value, and for the student, it becomes an uninteresting paperwork to complete. In this form, it is worse than mass-manufactured degrees, because the student does not feel so bad.

But, then, there is little point in mass-manufactured degrees. They are so disconnected from everything else that goes on in the world. They are hardly about anything recent. Besides, they do more harm than good: If your degree is about obsolete things, one thing you learn is that there is no point having a curiousity about what's going on. That's the most pathetic education you can get out of college.

So, here is my idea: What about building an education in start-ups, for start-ups, by start-ups? I am not talking about the street-smart stuff that entrepreneurs are supposed to be made of. I am not sure that really works for the normals. I have never understood the reasoning why we say that the entrepreneurs don't have to learn when we are supposed to be in the knowledge economy and everyone else has to have so much more education. Yes, too much bookish education may kill off the spirit of hustle, but that's a reason for changing the method of education - not to get rid of it. 

I am trying to create a real college education through the projects of start-ups. The idea is that I create a global co-working space, bringing in different kinds of businesses with a common aim of trading globally, and enable them with a set of globally minded students, working on research, administration, supply chain, sales and fulfillment. The projects that the students do earn them credits towards their diploma; they also learn language, ethics, cultures, and the usual disciplines alongside. It is like working on projects and attending streams of seminars, all with an unified purpose and constant stream of reflection, alongside a global community of most exciting people you will ever meet.

Right, this thing can't be done on massive scale, but I don't want to do this on a massive scale. I just want to build a small community here in London, which is what I am working towards. If my plans work, I may get a few identical communities set up in China. I am also trying to work with a friend of mine to do an identical community in India. But once I get this going, this is a replicable model. So, scale comes from replicating the idea rather than creating those huge education factories that people talk about.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Developing Global Societies

The essential tension of our age is turning out to be between Democracy and Globalisation. Globalisation is winning, riding over the powerful technologies and ideas feeding its energies. Democracy, after a century of being the harbinger of good life, is suddenly like the old Uncle with irrelevant stories, sweet but slightly annoying. 

This is not the way we thought it would turn out. The principal dialectic could have been between globalisation and the nation states: The global forces of technology and trade could have undone the nation state boundaries and reconfigured our world. It was a clear prognosis which so many people signed up to. Instead, it turned out to be the other way around: Nation states turned out to be stronger, not weaker. Democracy is the one which degenerated into 'drama-cracy', the politics of talking but not listening, of considered positions without consideration, of blaming the others without knowing the other. This senile democracy is indeed now cherished in the muscle-flexing nation states with silky routes to globalisation.

Turns like this give a new meaning to global societies as we conceived it. It is no longer about being open, to cultures and ideas, but about being closed, of being proud and self-promoting. It is not about throwing out traditional hierarchies, but reinforcing them. It is about creating national elites, who all own identical houses side by side in Mayfair (or in other global metropolises such as New York, LA, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai), but turn up at different local variety shops, mosques and therapy sessions. The conflict of the elite that marked the last century has now been replaced by the unity of them, and conflicts of various hues within the national boundaries. 

The current vision of developing global societies, therefore, is driven by the development of uniform ideals of consumption and desire, alongside the contests on what stands for 'national' values. This is not just about a change in what global means, but also what a nation stands for. The earlier notions of a political or cultural identities are less tenable when the project is to assimilate everyone on a platform of global money: Rather, the concepts of a nation is rather backed by market identities, foods, costumes, music, which can all be assigned a commercial value and packaged and consumed: Even religion neatly fits into this packaged nation idea. These market identities need to be diverse in manifestation and unified in monetisation: Nations that are like shopping malls with barbed wires, social 'floors' and segregation. 

Indeed, if there is change, there will be resistance. This resistance so far directed its energy towards globalisation, and tried to protect the nation state and its cultural uniqueness. But this resistance is meaningless, as nation state is never in trouble and cultural identities are more unique than ever (it is more 'differentiated' that way!).  In this, the left, embracing the workers of the world, and the cultural right, in love of the pre-national divine, were unified. Little did they see that their own weapons are turned on themselves.

Still, the new global societies have to be built onto something more than nations equal to markets formulation. The poverty of this idea is plain when we try to apply markets to the things that nations do, particularly when we look at the poor and can't come up with a better idea than shackling themselves with more debt. At some point, the mountains of debt at the bottom of the pyramid strategy gives way to the strategies that involve burying the skeletons, as we have seen over and over. The preservation of nations, as societies, involve rediscovering the nations as societies, where members of it care for each other. Such discovery, ironically, requires rediscovery of democracy and abjuring the nation idea as it stands now. This is indeed a strange thing to say days ahead when the xenophobic right will perhaps dominate the European project, but the next stage in organising our societies is perhaps to organise them as federations of nations tied together with democracy, somewhat like the European project. This may mean revisiting some of the old liberal ideas, which embraced internationalism, but wished to organise the society on the basis of universal humanism rather than nationalism. Developing sustainable global societies will involve revisiting those old new ideas. The moment of truth in Europe will perhaps be the perfect trigger for such an endeavour. 

Living With Democratic Deficit

Just as we seem to have agreed that democracy is the panacea to all of our problems, democracy seems to be losing popularity. From the modest claim of Winston Churchill, that democracy is the worst form of government except all others have been tried, we have come a long way with George W Bush's "Jihad for Democracy". And, duly, it seems, it is backfiring.

It is not just about the Generals quietly taking over Thailand, where democracy has roundly failed. It is also not about the statistic of how democracy is doing, which seems dire at this time. More sinister perhaps is the death of centrism, the gentle art of debate and dialogue, of flexible views and pragmatic politics that stood for democracy: Rather, we have seen the rise of 'dramacracy', the art of demagogy and damnation, of extreme positions and intolerance, the politics of blaming the others and promising the earth. This, ominously, not confronts but subverts the democracy; the latter's own life-force of talk is turned onto itself, the bluster undermining the idea of listening and the values of tolerance.

I argued that this is the broadcast media's last great stand. In its deathbed, its enemy now is moderation, the elaborate excitement and extreme positions are its get-out-of-jail cards. But this may be too optimistic a prognosis. The real position, though, may be that democracy is now perhaps fatally wounded. Media has its role, but this is perhaps the manifestation rather than the cause of a fundamental shift in attitude. 

Dani Rodrik of Harvard argued that one can't get democracy, nation states and global markets together. Two out of three is possible, but not all three. This is what we see happening from India to Europe. The globalisation has brought aspirations and fears, so immediate and so pervasive that it can't be contained within the usual nation-state rhetoric. The winners of globalisation, for example, the Indian middle class, do not want democratic deliberation to impede its scramble to join the global elite; the losers, British working class, are succumbing to the fears of the Romanian working classes taking their jobs and don't want due process to muddle the water. Dambisa Moyo (see below) makes a case why China model, and not the usual democratic panacea, is the way out for Africa: Her message will resonate with many across the world.

So, this may be globalisation eating democracy, leaving the nation state safe and sound. This makes the current wave of nationalism, from UKIP to Modi, different from the last wave of national fundamentalism that got the world into a war. Whether this will turn out differently also lies in history, however. AJP Taylor argued that Hitler's projects did not stem from extreme nationalism but a gamble, a desperate bid to hold onto power when the lofty promises failed to materialise. Even if what we see currently is just the unimpeded march of globalism, the nation state may be untenable in the long run: The champions of national identity will have to gamble it all sooner or later to keep going. And, that may be the moment of a more frightening apocalypse.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Education Innovation in India: A Conversation

I am scheduled to speak in an event on Innovation in India in a couple of weeks time. The subject I am supposed to speak on is whether Indian Higher Education system is sufficiently equipped to spur innovative mindset. In a way, this is an interesting topic to speak on, given my own work on what kind of education system we may need as the labour markets change drastically. And, for me, innovation is not a subject to be taught in a classroom, but a practice one needs to be embedded into, so there is no 'Innovation Education' without 'Education Innovation' at the same time. India does badly in terms of Education Innovation, even considering the various crown jewels of Indian Education System, like the IITs. In the past, I have described the Indian Education providers as 'sleepwalkers', as they are mostly preparing for a future that does not exist: Despite this sounding rather extreme - and I admit there are exceptions - this description perhaps sums up best what is happening in Indian Education right now.

But, before we get to that, let's talk about the best institutions in India. One can't deny that the best institutions in India, the IIT system, the best universities, are amazingly creative and innovative. If I dare say that the Indian Education system is not preparing its students to be innovative, the first thing I shall get back is the amazing number of the entrepreneurs and executives that IITs produce for the Silicon Valley. There will be all those anecdotal evidence that Indian Education is doing very well, and there is no denying of this fact. However, they remain an exception rather than the rule. They produce, in total, 2000 graduates a year even after expansion, out of the more than 20 million students that goes to college in India every year. When we talk about the Indian Education system, it is a misrepresentation if we talk in terms of the IIT system. But even if we do, IITs are not the place to see Education Innovation - because innovation mostly happen on the fringe, not at the heart of any system.

So, how does the rest of the education system do in terms of spurring creativity and innovation? Very badly, will be my judgement, given my various conversations and visits to several universities, colleges and business schools. Being innovative and creative are not the key values most of the institutions are trying to imbibe, because the Indian Education system exists for a different purpose.

This gets political at this point, but this is my favourite thesis: That different countries have education systems built on different rationale. The Indian system, like the British, have been built to preserve and maintain social hierarchy. You go to school to advance your life's prospects, to get the privileges and perhaps to earn a better dowry. There may be other systems, like the American and the Chinese, which was built around productivity and economic participation, but India's is not one of them. And, in this structure, preservation of the order, rather than disruption, is the key value. Indian Education System is, therefore, all about being anti-innovation.

If we choose to ignore this political context, one could simply explain the anti-innovation nature of Indian Education as most Indian Educators do: That the students want it. This 'demand-side' explanation for lack of innovation (which Amar Bhide will call 'venturesome consumption') is also very valid, but it is merely the expression of the political point made above. Otherwise, why would a 'restless generation' (as New York Times calls it) with huge aspirations and an 'Indian Dream' (as Times of India calls it)  not want to be creative and innovative? Why would the sons and daughters of Dalits and the Minorities, who are increasingly find their path to Higher Education after the decade of prosperity, not want a different kind of Higher Ed? The reason, of course, is that we are yet to seriously challenge the mindsets inherited from the colonial times: Education for privileges is still the norm.

I am conscious that I am using 'Innovation Education' and 'Education Innovation' interchangeably, but they are at least parallel, if not the same, things. Innovation as a mindset is a precondition for 'Innovation Education' and that mindset is seriously hampered when the education system revolves around what social privileges a particular education will give. Indian education needs new kinds of colleges and approaches, and the groundswell of aspiration that we are experiencing now should provide the ideal seeding ground for the same. For that, the conversations about education needs to turn first: So far, however, we have made no attempts towards this.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Does Private Higher Ed solve Development Problem?

The conventional wisdom is that developing societies must tap private capital to build their Higher Education capacity. 

The reasons are pretty clear. First, the governments may be indebted and have the money to build universities. Second, the developed countries are increasingly allowing private Higher Education, and therefore, this must be a good model. Third, private Higher Ed is supposed to be more focused on practical and employment orientated education, so must be good for countries struggling with skills and employment. 

But, in this discussion, several other issues remain unsaid. For example, in a developing country, the government's job is development. Not subsidies, not fighting wars, development first and foremost! And, the reality of these countries will tell any observer that the first two things that the governments need to do for development is health and education. Indeed, the business friendly rhetoric that the governments are just needed to build the roads, and business will take care of the rest, dominates the agenda, but private capital is much more successful at building roads than doing education. 

One is not sure that allowing private sector in education has worked out well for developed nations. The fascinating example is Britain's new student funding system, which was opened up to private sector only a couple of years ago. The result is a complete subversion of the system, over-recruitment of students who have no desire or reason to be in Higher Education and high rates of default, and the poor education that goes with it. The US experience is also well known. So, at the least, there is no proven model of making private higher education work towards a development agenda.

Indeed, one needs to differentiate between Private For-Profit and Not-for-Profit at this point and highlight that the scandals primarily, though not exclusively, pertain to For-Profit sector. However, the options open to developing countries primarily come in the shape of For-Profits. The opportunity to tap private capital markets is limited with the Not-for-Profit form, though some countries have effectively developed a pseudo non-profit format for Higher Education: Because the legislation does not allow For-Profit operations, they have created Not-for-Profit operations which offer education but gets charged, overcharged in most cases, by a For-Profit arm, which supply them with 'services'. However, the point remains that For-Profit so far has fallen short, and there is no reason to treat this as a panacea for a country's education capacity shortfall.

Finally, does private Higher Education offer a more relevant education? Evidence does not support what seems to be common sense. They indeed make the claim that they are doing employment orientated education, but this is more to change the conversation about education than to offer something substantive. Where is a conversation what employment-orientated education looks like? L K Advani, a senior leader in India, complained about educating a nation of sales boys and sales girls; his observations are not too far out from William Galston's, though the latter blames it on the shifting job market in the US (read here). There is no evidence that For-Profits can do anything to adopt to the shift of the job market, and the reality that corporate employment will not be the predominant form of economic activity of the urban labour in the coming years. Add this to the fact that For-Profits tend to maximise recruitment but do quite poorly in retaining them or actually making them successful, and one knows that For-Profit education may rarely solve the education problem.

This is not about saying that the state institutions are doing alright. But the urgent task is to reform them, rather than the state abdicating the responsibility of education altogether. We need a serious conversation about values, processes and role of higher education in the society, rather than trying to sweep all of it down under the privatisation carpet.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Reflections and Interests: Old Priorities, New Commitments

No particular reasons, but I am feeling confident and happy: As they say, a good summer may have lifted my mood. 

Or, may be this is something more substantial. It would perhaps be right to admit that I drifted along a bit, particularly through the last few months of the last year, when I was hard put to see how I can move my life forward. I staked it all to get the business going, but the progress was, as with most start-ups with limited capital, slow and often dependent on other people. I had this feeling of powerlessness, not being able to do anything myself - not a nice place to be!

Something has changed since then. Actually, several things! I took on more training work, primarily because of economic necessity, though I hated it and wanted to get out of the routine commitments as soon as I can. But this, counting the flights of stairs every day as I climbed them, promising to myself that I won't be doing it indefinitely (truth be told, I wanted to do this till June, and no longer), pushed me harder to think about my own goals. 

There were some lucky breaks. A friend came along and offered me a piece of work, of writing, of the kind I always wanted to do; he was paying for it, which was great. My ideas about what my business should be crystallised further, which was a function of all the conversations we have been having for so long. I wanted to reduce the dependencies and do more ourselves, and this made me think in a much more focused way than I thought about the business before. The woolly ideas (I admit!) I had about global learning communities before were transformed into something more realistic, a creative community in London which can serve as a model first. As far as lucky breaks go, a Chinese friend also came along to talk about an Educational Institution in London, and we ended up on the same ground about creating a Creative Enterprise School.

Therefore, my life will hopefully morph into something more desirable soon, and I am now ready to commit to some goals publicly:

First, I shall build a school of Creative Enterprise in London, an e-School as I call it, based on the work we have done at U-Aspire. This will allow me to be hands on, and put my ideas in action. This will also allow me to work on my ideas of a new kind of education to fit the 'Second Machine Age', something I so often talk about.

Second, I am in the look out for an international development engagement, to leverage my skills and experience on International development and follow the conversation on International Education closely. There is one I am doing already: A research project on Corporate Social Responsibility engagements in Education, which will continue till July. But I would look to make this a more permanent stream of engagements, and would approach the people I know who may have this kind of work.

Third, I shall start a piece of research work I always wanted to do, looking into the dynamics of Higher Education in India. This is towards my long long term ambition to set up an Liberal Learning institution in India, which, admittedly, lies several years into the future. This will also mean connecting up with fellow travellers all over the world, a re-engagement into conversations about higher education and perhaps formal research commitments.

As I think about these goals and objectives, I sense a kind of unity of what I ought to do, rather than the fragmented follow-the-opportunity life I am currently living. These goals help me prioritise what I should be doing in the immediate term, which conversations are most important and even allow me to say no. This is precisely why I feel happy and light - the vision of these goals lifts my boat - and this is why I publicly commit to stay the course and make this happen. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

India 2014: The Post-Independence Amnesia

Narendra Modi made a big point when speaking in Varanasi after his election win: That his administration will represent the first in India's history to be led by someone born after India's independence in 1947. Voted in by voters mostly born after independence, this is an unsurprising claim. What goes unsaid is that one factor that helped him most also comes from the post-Independence mentality: That his voters have taken India, and its democracy, for granted.

Narendra Modi's elevation as India's Prime Minister shows how well we have managed to wipe any historical memory. Indeed, BJP talked a lot about the historic injustice done by the Mughal Emperors, particularly Babar, whose eponymous Masjid was the party's rallying point, but it choose to be silent about India's struggle for Independence: This goes well with a generation which will rather read the fictionalised accounts of the exploits of the mythical Shiva, rather than spending time reading about the torturous imprisonments that Indian nationalists had to go through. As someone explained the approach succinctly, such tales of hardship upsets the mood. 

That India had to be imagined as recently as 1947, that democracy was not just the natural choice but a heroic feat of imagination and implementation, that people died for what we have today, are all moot points that may upset the mood. Only history could perhaps inform that democracy is always vulnerable, and needs to be protected. The fact that modern India, a complex, multicultural construct, is based on, and therefore maintained as such, the Madisonian idea of deliberation and diversity, has now been forgotten. The lack of historical memory has now prodded this generation to fall into the trap of 'safety in purity of communities' that Madison warned against.

Narendra Modi is a big beneficiary of such amnesia. He would rather build the world's tallest statue of Sardar Patel rather than reminding people that the Sardar thought that the RSS, Modi's political sponsors, are the biggest threat to Modern India. He would rather conveniently own up Gandhi as a fellow Gujrati, rather than talking about his assassination, masterminded by RSS and carried out by one of their operatives (we would like to believe all terrorists are Muslims and came from Pakistan). He would own up Vivekananda, an enlightenment figure, but erase out any memories of Bengali enlightenment, with its dangerous virtues of Western science and liberal thinking. He would even attempt to make an icon out of Rabindranath Tagore, the poet who wrote India's national anthem, but who spent a lifetime warning against militant nationalism of the kind of Mr Modi represents.

But, above all, he would enjoy this collective belief that India's democracy is a given, and this will mend his authoritarianism. Mr Modi managed to subvert the whole legal scrutiny of his role in Gujrat riots, despite most of it being common knowledge. He managed to completely ignore the legislative process, reducing the appearance in the assembly to a minimum and making it virtually non-functional. He has also just managed a huge majority spending a huge amount of money and trouncing rivals almost everywhere, except a few states in the East and South of India. Yet, the post-Independence Indians think that the institutions of democracy are so strong that it would tame him and make him function like any normal Prime Minister. The loss of recent memory, of the Emergency, of the indiscriminate use of President's Rule to trounce democratically elected state governments, a regular affair in the days when Congress used to have the majority, has led to the belief that those subversion were only temporary, mostly inconsequential. Surely that represents a big opportunity for Mr Modi, and for RSS, who has a chance of a lifetime to subvert the republic. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

India 2014: Endings and Beginnings

There are many remarkable things about the Indian Elections 2014. Many in the country believe that this will mark an end and a beginning: Which end and which beginning are being contested, though. It may be the end of the unipolar politics of Congress versus the others, but then only to be replaced by Hindu Nationalists versus the other politics. It may be the decline of India's most prominent political family, the Gandhis, which is drawing most attention: The family scion, Rahul Gandhi, has been comprehensively rejected by the Indian voters. This may also be the end of the Indian Republic as conceived by its founding fathers, and what comes next can be reasonably called the Second Republic. 

That may mark a new beginning. Indian Second Republic may not have any of the indecisiveness of the French. Duke of Wellington mused during the Second Republic "France needs a Napoleon and I can't yet see him", but India has its Bonaparte now.  This election marks a firm choice about what kind of India one wants, and by handing the victory to RSS, a body which sponsored the assassination of Gandhi on 30th January 1948 because they disapproved the kind of India he helped bring about, that choice represents a decisive break from the idea of India originally conceived. In many ways, this may be the start of a new nation building - an equivalent of Cultural Revolution - and an attempt to build an India with a  more unified culture, if not around the majority religion, may be made. The original cosmopolitan conception of India may now be decisively discarded, and a new beginning can be made modeled after the European 'pure' nations of the Nineteenth century.

In this breaking point of a nation, one ending seems rather unremarkable, one that is marked by a whimper and not necessarily succeeded by a new beginning: That of the Democratic Left. This election reduced the once mighty Communist Parties of India (of various hues) to a rump. Once the kingmakers during the multi-polar world of India's politics of the Nineties, they are now decisively overcome by various regional interests and chieftains. And, this is not just a temporal reversal of fortune, submerged by a tidal wave of public fancy, but a continuous and seemingly irreversible decline, the onset of senility that must affect in the absence of any conscious efforts of regeneration or engagement. The leaders of the Democratic Left no longer offer any ideas about what kind of India they may want, and instead offer opportunistic rhetoric borrowed from the antiquated world of the pre-globalisation politics. This end is a perfect demise, even a peaceful one perhaps, a slow obsolescence that invariably follow lack of debate and dissent.

This is surprising: The globalised India, on its long road from Manmohan to Modi, created a vast social class of the dispossessed, disaffected, disadvantaged and disenchanted. Strangely, the rhetoric of hatred and reaction, as offered by the Hindu Nationalists, have won over the same people who it would eventually dispossess further. The left, their supposed champions, could neither leverage their fear nor inspire any hope. They could not counter the empty rhetoric of 'good times' because their ideas were equally empty and out-of-touch. They had nothing to offer: their demise is, therefore, unmourned.

This ending, however, is not without consequence. Does this not clear the space for revolutionary left, who were all but forgotten, primarily because they were pushed out of the margins by the appeal of the democratic left? India's dispossessed are already organised, are already in a battle and are outside the 'good times' parties being organised all over India by the Middle Classes. If anything, they are preparing themselves for an even more brutal assault of the government forces and the rapacious industrialists: The helicopter gunships must be coming. The absence of Democratic Left will surely shift the primary responsibility of opposition to the Revolutionary Left.

But the revolutionary possibilities are not just to be found in the jungles and battle fatigues of the dispossessed, but increasingly among those disquieted by the nature of globalised rigging of the rules: This is the 99%, self-organising, temporal but outraged, that has proved to be effective. Call it anarchism, but they offer an alternative at the time when state itself has become a degenerative mechanism. The democratic socialism has tied itself to the State and degenerated when the state degenerated into an apparatus of privileged accumulation; the revolutionary left remained outside the margins, too preoccupied by the struggles of existence to alter the course of politics, in the waiting for an 'objective condition' to arrive. The anarchic mechanics of the self-organising left, however, drew its lifeblood from the technologies of self-organisation and conversation, and were without the trappings of the state. They, therefore, offer an alternative after the decline of democratic left, to be the voice of the dispossessed, against the rule of the few, against the repressive state.

This may be the most interesting beginning wrapped around in the tidings of the Indian election. The work of resistance must necessarily begin. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Indian Election 2014: Seven Fragmented Thoughts

Rahul Gandhi must have read Lincoln, "I will study and get ready, and perhaps my chances will come".

Instead, he should have followed,

"Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle."

Lincoln, again!


There are three kinds of people in politics, Self-Made, Never-Made and Self-Destroyed.

Good that there is never a category called 'Born Into" in democratic politics.


Larry Summers had a brilliant idea in the 1980s. He suggested all the polluting industries should be relocated from the First World to the Third World because the life costs less in the latter.

They just did that with Organised Political Marketing.


I was reading about the world's luckiest man, Frano Selak. Prakash Karat will somewhat come near him if he still survives this election being at the helm of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). 

 Perhaps he knows how to do what this man in video is doing.


India will have a Great Leap Forward under Narendra Modi. It will surely turn out to be like the last one. (Read Tombstone)


There are no contradictions in Mamta Banerjee's attitude towards Bangladeshis. 

She does not want to give them water, so that their farming dies and they starve; that way, they ultimately have to become destitute, come to India illegally and vote for her against a ration card she would give because she is so humane.


May 16th 2014 is not like 15th August 1947. It feels like 30th January 1948 already.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Should Companies Accredit Education?

The trigger for this post is a comment on Twitter - "in the future, corporations will be better accreditation bodies for H Ed than governments". Would they?

At the face of it, it may make sense. Aren't we educating ourselves for a job? And do the employers know best what is needed to get a job? For a good part of my life running For-Profit education, how often did I make a claim that the education my company offered is 'industry accredited'. In the UK, Pearson College wants to create such a degree, as they believe a FTSE 100 accrediting a degree has more weight than even a mid-ranking university. Not in the future, this should already sound like a good idea.

It already happens too. We may debate about the semantic of training versus education, but as far as learning is concerned, IBM Global Services, Oracle Education, Microsoft would all be big names if we went just by numbers of students that pursue their certifications and the revenue they generate. Why have they not taken over education already?

Frank Levy and Richard Murnane in their seminal 'The New Division of Labour' looked at the innovations at IBM's Management Training programme, Basic Blue, and Cisco Networking Academies, and pointed out how motivations for corporate sponsored education work. No doubt such programmes become innovative and efficient, but innovation and efficiency are not the only things in education. They highlight how these programmes were motivated and designed driven by immediate requirements or challenges the companies faced, which they responded to very well, but how these training programmes were solely justified as they met the immediate corporate requirement, not any distant educational goal. Also, if we accept the very claim our calls for changing education is based on - that everything, driven by technology, is changing very fast - education curriculum must take a long view and be broad, flexible and creative. Now, is this reasonable to expect the corporations, which, for a very good reason, make a virtue of specifying every recruitment requirement to the minutest possible detail, to really indulge in a broad education, which may include teaching on their competitors' products and critiquing their own business practices? If it is true that, 'the business of business is business', does it not preclude education?

Just as the nature of education is changing - it is becoming more about preparing to deal with an uncertain world than about having a certain outcome and lifestyle expectation - the industrial age rhetoric, everything is business, is catching up. It is not just misguided, but dangerous. Such claims not only get the idea wrong by a couple of decades, by trying to create an education solely focused on jobs, it pushes for further de-professionalisation of education. The big lesson for our time, as distinct from the 70s, should be that the different domains of the society, like the government, family, charities, need different operating principles: Not everything is business. Ann Colby and others make this point strongly, and argue for resisting the 'everything is business' principle in, of all places, business education, in the Carnegie Foundation report "Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning For The Profession". The "industry-accredited" may still make better marketing copies, but we may have already seen the limits of the model.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

In Search of Progressive Politics

'Progressives' are supposed to be political dinosaurs, popular a century ago but wiped out of public memory since then. Indeed, there were great progressives on both sides of the Atlantic: Teddy Roosevelt was one of the original ones, though he chose to become mainstream before becoming President. One could count the late Nineteenth Century English Liberals as somewhat equivalent, perhaps best represented in the figure of Herbert Asquith, the longest serving Prime Minister of the UK (1908 - 1916) before Margaret Thatcher broke his record. Indeed, since Asquith's departure, progressivism has declined, not unsurprisingly given the formation of Soviet Union in 1919 and various extreme forms of politics thereafter. The power of the broadcast media divided the politics into pro-state and pro-market, and left little of the Progressive ideal of harmonious Public-Private world. 

I argued that the current rise of the illiberal politics, from India to the United States, is the result of the reign of the broadcast media, but also perhaps its last stand. (See the post here) There is a real danger now that we may be hurtling towards a global crisis, perhaps a global conflict, as confidently as Europe sleepwalked into it a hundred years ago. The connectedness of global capital didn't save us last time (though everyone expected it to, just as we do now), but the conflict went out of hand too quickly because of the illiberal politics. 

But one does not have to be pessimistic to believe in progressive politics; rather, one could be optimistic and feel that we can lift ourselves beyond all these divisiveness and get some humanity and compassion back into action. There is no quarrel with classical economics - Adam Smith's invisible hand indeed needed the guiding spirit of compassion and a moral state - and we can harness the creative destruction in the right way around, more creation and less destruction. 

Can this be a sound political strategy? One could point to the success of the campaigns based on fear, blame and hatred and say that this inclusive, compassionate rhetoric is only good on paper and of no use as a political message. But then, we are still following the broadcast paradigm, where, to be heard, one often has to be nasty. Indeed, we have carried the mindset to the Internet age and broadcast messages one-to-one fine-tuned to the fears of groups or even families, with great success. However, this is still not the talk-back politics, when leadership will be defined by listening and not talking to. One would hope this would give in to, in time, socio-structured politics of some kind, where granular one-to-one conversations will sum up into a many-to-many orchestra, forcing upon us a politics of listening. Such grassroots movements may already be emerging, though, so far, the mechanics of broadcast politics got better of it, forcing them into an illiberal, intolerant dynamic. But, as with everything, technology changes the game and it will change politics too. We can be optimistic and believe that this will eventually make progressivism, with its creed of tolerance and harmony, non-dialectical coexistence of markets and morals, fashionable again.

But why does it to have to necessarily go that way? I have an optimistic reason, and a pessimistic reason, for such hope. First, the optimistic one: Human beings always found a way out. As we enter the Second Machine Age, creativity and synthesis is our way out. However, we can't be creative while we are struggling: All the theories of adrenalin rush spurring creativity have been proved to be wrong. Rather, we need to feel safe, supported, among friends - to be at our most creative. And, therefore, the progressive world of hope and harmony will create the best atmosphere to be creative. Besides, synthetic worldview does not arise out of thinking in terms of conflict; and when we are doing synthesis, we can get harmony too. So, we just become more capable of progressive thinking, and it makes sense for all of us - that's the optimistic reason why progressive politics will be the next big thing.

The pessimistic reason is that we are still enthralled by the unparallelled growth and prosperity we have enjoyed for last seventy years and got used to it: But the next seventy may turn out to be very different. We may not return to the dark ages and may not have to fight world wars, but we have to get used to deceleration of growth. Our political ideals, including the current extreme rhetoric, are all built around the idea of economic growth: We need to think differently, perhaps more compassionately, to live with this new reality. As we may hit the limits of growth, perhaps imposed upon us by the climactic constraints, we have to come to accept that lack of growth is no one's fault, and we just have to live with a little less, constrain our desires a little more. For this, the progressives may indeed have the best answer.

Indeed, such a politics still remain without its manifesto, parties and leaders. But such a message is emerging: Read Steven Johnson's Future Perfect, Mariana Mazzucato's The Entrepreneurial State, Sudhakar Ram's The Connected Age or Marina Gorbis' The Nature of the Future, and you will see a doctrine emerging, a demand for a new kind of capitalism, which mixes the entrepreneurial energies with compassion, going beyond selfishness and consumerism, as well as grand schemes of social engineering. The politicians may not be listening to these voices, but it seems a matter of time that they enter the mainstream.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Inequality, Piketty and an Interesting Middle Ground

I haven't read Thomas Piketty's recent blockbuster, Capital in the Twentyfirst Century, because I am already so far behind on my reading intentions, but I intend to read it at some point of time. This 700 page economics tome has already sold 200,000 copies and caused quite a stir because of its popularity. One would hope that this will not become like its eponymous predecessor, Marx's Capital, a book popularly bought but seldom read. Like the latter, Piketty is trying to explore a great contemporary problem, inequality, and is doing so at the onset of another gilded age.

The immediate trigger of this post is another post by Sudhakar Ram, whose writings on New Constructs I closely follow (see here). Sudhakar's response to the critique of Piketty's work - that it is no good talking about a problem if you can't solve it - is right on the money: Should I not tell you that you have cancer even if I don't know the cure for that? Besides, he also picks up on the other critique that inequality does not matter if the conditions of the poor improves at the same time and points that an unequal playing field may not be good for anyone. 

From my past conversations with Sudhakar, I know about his deep insights about the 'connected age' (as he calls it), where he believes new values and ideas, 'constructs', will be needed for progress. Personally, I couldn't be more in agreement. However, we seemed to differ on what these 'constructs' should be, in our minds. Sudhakar has been a firm believer of the power of the markets, of the invisible hand in Classical economic tradition, in bringing forth the transformation we need. My own conviction has always been that the markets need regulating and moderating, hence there is a role for the state, to achieve progress. Though I am skeptical of the top-down schemes and grand programmes that the governments come up with, hence have a disagreement with the socialists, I am instinctively uncomfortable that markets have all the answers. To be fair, Sudhakar talks about 'pure markets' whereas I believe that markets are quite easily rigged.

It is interesting to see, therefore, that how completely I agree with Sudhakar's position on inequality. Central to Piketty's argument is that the wealth accumulates faster than economic growth and one must find a mechanism to spread the benefits of growth more equally. Sudhakar's position is that this is right as this is morally justified, and sustainable in the long run; failing to do so will break the social consensus that the modern society operates with. This is indeed an important basis why we must seek equality. I have, however, another additional reason to offer.

I believe progress usually comes from bottom up. My own interest is in stories of ideas and progress and how they come about, and I notice that they happened mostly instead of, and seldom because of, the rich and the powerful. It is indeed human nature that if you are successful in something, you want things to remain as it is, even if there was a better way to do it. Marx talked about this tension in terms of the dialectic between means of production and production relations; Schumpeter talked about this in terms of creative destruction. If we see this in the context of the convergence of economic power and political power, at a time when religions have declined and a democratic consensus has emerged, unlimited economic superiority results in unrestrained political power. Koch Brothers may have become a prime example of this in the United States, but there are local variants of them everywhere, and most developing economies are fast becoming Tycoon economies.

My point, therefore, is that inequality is not just a moral problem but a clear problem on the path of regeneration of our economic system. Indeed, anyone talking about these things are immediately labelled socialist, but that is not very helpful. It is important that we are able to debate about progress, prosperity and democracy without being labelled into something or the other. This is therefore so interesting to find myself on the common ground with Sudhakar, who is by no measure a socialist. But he is indeed right - this is an important issue with implications for different things we care about, our communities, our environment, the education we receive, the relationships we have, the values we nurture and pass on. Inequality does matter, and Piketty has done a great job (along with other authors of important recent works, such as Angus Deaton, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu) in bringing it back in conversation.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Five Reasons Government Vocational Training Initiatives Fail

My specialist interest area is how Vocational training programmes play out in developing countries. The experiences of these programmes, despite their growing popularity in policy talk, has been mixed. There are many implementation challenges that come in the way of success, which I have written about elsewhere. However, I shall argue, that there are conceptual problems in the way these programmes are usually conceived, and unless those issues are addressed, even well implemented programmes will fail (or, one would never be able to implement a programme well). Below, I have highlighted five such 'foundational issues', which I have put in a question form, because these mostly go unanswered.

1. Is Vocational Training Valuable?

The very idea that some people who are not academically capable need to be put through vocational training devalues the proposition almost immediately. It becomes second best, a route for those who are failures. The aspirational middle classes immediately disengage, anyone who may build a successful career through vocational training isn't still seen as a successful role model. The more the government rhetoric about vocational training, the worse its perception gets. 

2. Does the Government know what skills are needed?

Simple answer: They don't. They often read the same newspapers that we are reading, and they have an equally lay opinion about this as ourselves. They don't often ask or commission serious research, other than being presented with research by the likes of Pearson, who says the skills needed are exactly the ones they have books for. The Indian government announced that they want to train 500 million people, but even several years after the announcement, Ministers and bureaucrats had no answer what these people will be trained on. They finally got around to the idea of creating sector skills councils involving employers, just when Britain, on whose model this was conceived, was getting out of the model. In the meantime, several millions of dollars of Government money has been spent on training god-knows-what.

3. Does the Employer know what skills are needed?

An economy's skills requirement is slightly different from the HR Manager's recruitment requirements next month. In fact, the HR Managers' list should play almost no part in defining the economy's skills requirements in the developing nations (it may be fine for matured labour markets), when many trades remain unorganised or partially organised. Further, if an employer really feels a particular skills requirement urgent, would they not immediately try to fulfill that either by spending money to train people or even importing workers. Government spending on training needs of the employers, done for all the good reasons of fostering long term thinking, actually create a perverse incentive of channelling the money into reducing labour costs (as Morrison's, a supermarket chain in Britain, was caught doing) and reducing the employer involvement in and commitment to training (which I experience first hand doing various funded training in Britain).

Besides, the developing country economies, the way they are connected to the world economy today, are supposed to be facing demand shocks, wild fluctuation in what work they do from one day to another, because they are often just following skills requirements of metropolitan economies, on which they have no control. Their labour market projections, therefore, should be based on close understanding of the nature of demand and work in the metropolitan economies, not just anecdotal observations of local employers. This is hardly understood or factored in defining the skills training programmes.

4. Is it possible to teach a skill with a short intervention?

Government mandated vocational skills training programmes, with its inevitable strings-attached structure, result in clear timelines and standardised structures, but do people learn skills like that? From when one could stand on a classroom for a certain number of hours and teach people Cooking? Isn't it intuitive to think when it comes to doing things like that, people will learn differently, at different paces, and with different degrees of intervention?

In fact, in many cases, government mandated training initiatives lower the economy's skills base than improving it. 

This happens for two reasons: One, because certification trumps competence. When the skills training programmes start, the government tries to organise the trade and pushes for everyone to have a certificate. This undermines the economy's traditional ways of developing competence, learning it the hard way through apprenticeships, and encourage new ways to gain the skills at a college. 

Two, because the programmes in the college are often time-bound and standardised, these create an artificial standard of competence - graduating class! The time spent in college and even the certification may be totally unrelated to actual competence. Often these create a short-cut to skills, and if we learnt anything about expertise, there is hardly any short-cut.

5. What incentives do the providers have?

The weakest link in the government mandated training programmes is indeed the 'providers', the commercial training companies who get paid to deliver the training. These are often chosen on the basis of commercial and financial criteria, so they are often established trading entities, and because of the financial benchmarks used in the selection process, often entities with large turnover but in interests other than education. So, when the governments are discovering their enthusiasm for vocational education, they are not trying to spawn a start-up network engaged in it, because that would be too risky, or sponsoring community networks, because seeing as the state does, that concept does not exist: Rather, they are trying to do this by giving the orders to people often engaged in other trades, as training, seen from the bureaucrats' desk, is a non-specialised activity. This indeed creates a certain set of incentives for the providers in turn: They effectively become middlemen rather than educators. The money is in securing orders, managing bids and project managing, rather than actually teaching anything to anyone: The unfortunate irony is that such top-level things are referred to as know-how of the trade.

That providers are not educators create a system which may be about everything else but education. I have met providers who has spent an enormous amount of money creating powerpoint in several languages but the idea of actually delivering training themselves never crossed their minds. They can't even see themselves training people so beneath them: The world of 'vocational training' is far removed from the airconditioned offices full of very educated people (with certification in quality control, project management and instructional design) but those who would never attempt, or be able to, change a lightbulb if it pops.

Richard Sennett explored the idea of 'skills' beautifully in his The Craftsman and I shall recommend this to all policy-makers before they start thinking about skills training. Skills is not a magic potion, but a habit acquired through engagement, commitment and practice, embedded in the values of the community one lives in: Hardly can one extract the skill outside its social context and build a package as if this is only a reality show. This idea gets missed when the governments proclaim their intent to do 'skills', cheered on by publishers who see rising sales and middlemen who count the commissions. One may soon need a different approach, a 'Life Start Voucher' perhaps for the young unemployed, who could use this to start a business, learn a skill or even settle in a new place, to be left at their choice. The colossal waste of time and money in the name of skills training will soon force such a rethink.

Contra Macaulay: 1

Macaulay, a dead English Lord, gets more credit than he deserves in India. Some people, uneasy about the English ideas and education in India, mocks 'Macaulay's Children', the English speaking Indians, and resent the country they have built. They point to the arrogance and corruption that English speaking class has brought upon India, as well as the division and distress this caused. However, they also fail to offer an alternative except going back on time and resurrecting a mythological ancient India which may not have ever existed.

The case contra Macaulay, therefore, has to be made. And, it can be made not in revivalist terms, that all truth comes from the Vedas and Indians had nothing to learn from anyone else. The case against Macaulay, and revivalism, stands simply on the premise that education needs to change when the society we live in, changes.

English, in India, has so far been the language of privilege. This is the code that the elite uses to connect to other elites. This was indeed in Macaulay's tradition, as he wanted a class of people who are 'Indian in colour, but English in taste', an interpreter class. However, it is perhaps a mistake, as the Hindu nationalists claim, that this English-speaking elite has no mind of their own. They have beaten Macaulay in his own game, and despite using English, they are no longer go-betweens. The Indian elite has created an idea of India, which is very European in conception but Indian in aspiration. So, one could claim that they have grown out of the role Macaulay wanted them to play and re-imagined the possibilities.

What they failed to do, however, is to make English the language of possibility. The Indian state excluded too many people, it remained too distant. There are some great achievements, indeed: The commitment to constitutionalism and democracy, and the steadfast ideal of secularism, allowed the Indian leaders to reshape an ancient nation in the space of a mere half decade, and create aspirations of a new kind. But as the aspirations developed, the polity degenerated. The prosperity was cornered by the few, the democracy subverted and the institutions politicized and tamed. What the makers of India built was merely the foundation: Today's India remains a bare-boned structure in the need of a purpose.

Set in this context, there could be a new national consensus to exclude English and adopt Hindi in everything. This was the direction of the constitution, but never really happened. One clear rationale for developing a national language, that is to create an even playing field for everyone, does not hold in India: Any language would leave a vast majority behind and in the need of learning a new language. So, in a way, creating a new Indian language that everyone can learn and speak across India, and making it mandatory in all communication, is perhaps one way to think about it.

However, the context has changed since the last time we debated about it in the Constituent Assembly. Globalisation has shaped our trade and commerce, and has now shaped our lives. While countries which strongly and unequivocally adopted local language and developed it, like Russia and China, are trying to catch up on English as the world's business language, it may be problematic to go back in time and develop an Indian language all over again (which will anyway leave more than half of Indians at a linguistic disadvantage). This, then, sets the case for making English a language of possibility in India.

The case contra Macaulay is not about abandoning English, but making English an Indian language. However counter-intuitive it may sound, one could clearly abandon "Queen's English" as a marker of privilege and exclusion, and develop instead an Indian English, based on a simplified grammar and mixed vocabulary drawing on common-use terms. This is not unlike what the Chinese has done with Mandarin, coming up with a simplified version in 1962, which has greatly boosted literacy. For India's national integration and literacy, the case for 'Inglish' remains strong.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Rabindranath Tagore and India's Education

As India's democracy reaches a critical juncture, with a very real danger of a authoritarian take-over, Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary is a perfect occasion to revisit the founding idea of India once again. There are many things in his politics that we may need to dust up and reconsider: Tagore's political ideas, because of his inherent aversion of popular nationalism and enthusiasm about Pan-Asianism and universalism, were outside the mainstream of the Indian National Movement, seen as impractical and effectively shunned. He was seen mostly as the Poet and the mystic, someone whose politics remains in the domain of the ideas rather than action. Tagore himself, after a brief passionate involvement in politics during the division of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905, withdrew from political action: He never belonged to the political class, despite his iconic status and itinerant interventions, such as returning the Knighthood after the massacre of Amritsar in 1919.

Instead, I shall argue, he concentrated in education reform and education activism, which was his way of re-establishing his politics. His idea of India was represented within the model of education he envisioned, and gave shape to, in his school and university in Bolpur. To him, India faced an existential crisis because of its education, and the Independent India needed to rise on the firm foundation of an Indian education system rather than what it inherited from the British. Like his political ideas, his educational ideas also fell outside the mainstream. Indian state, at the time of independence, was built around the European nation-state model, and educational ideals such as Tagore's fell well outside the mainstream. And, despite its marginalisation - it is seen today as one of those marginal experiments rather than something that shaped modern India - the existential problem that Indian democracy faces today may be traced to the broken education Tagore so passionately argued against.

Tagore's key idea perhaps was the rejection of Western education without rejecting the Western enlightenment. By definition, this was a complex position, neither favoured by the moderniser nor the traditionalists. However, Tagore maintained that India needs its own educational ideals consistent with its tradition and values, and yet, this was not about rejecting the world and the new knowledge coming from the West. This was consistent with his idea of India, manifest in his various writings and speeches, a land that accepts everything and rejects nothing, a land of harmony and humanity. His educational ideal, therefore, walked the fine line between the rejection of English language as a medium of instruction, which he thought would divide India and come in the way of creation of a common culture, and acceptance of enlightenment science, which he thought was a great advancement of human knowledge which ought to be shared by everyone.

This was a political position. This was built on the rejection of Lord Macaulay's vision of education to create an intermediate class, who are 'Indian in colour but English in tastes', firmly and unequivocally. In a brilliant satirical skit called 'The Fable of A Parrot', where the tarot gets educated but his soul departs, he laid out his case. He correctly saw the problem that English education created in India.

First, it was education for clerkship: People were getting educated for the jobs in the British administration, but they were being excluded from the latest advances of science and thinking in the Western world. So, it was education in English without the benefits of an English education.

Second, it was dividing India. Education in English was alienating those people who had it from those who did not. It was coming in the way of a common culture, which the traditional education fostered. The English educated felt more at ease with the British, who indeed never treated those Indian Babus as one of their own, than their own.

Third, it was in direct conflict of what Tagore saw as Indian values of 'non-duality in the field of knowledge (seeing not the dialectical relationship of man and nature and man and man, but the harmony), friendship for all the field of feeling and fulfilment of one's duties without the obsession about the results'. Instead, he saw the English education creating division and conflict, a sense of entitlement among the elite and resentment among all others, and a culture of self-advancement without regard to the means.

Despite such well-articulated arguments against the British education, Tagore, however, never championed the Hindu science cult that is in ascendancy in India today. The view that everything was always written in Vedas was an anathema to him. His model of education was open and all embracing. In a memorable statement of Gandhi, who, at the time, was opposed to all things English, he would argue that if any light of knowledge was lit anywhere in the world, Indians ought to benefit from the same. His rejection of English education was neither traditionalist nor nationalist, but rather progressive and universalist.

In the black-and-white world of pre-Independence India, this position might have appeared too nuanced; even after the Independence, his fore-warning was forgotten and Indian policy-makers rushed to build a modern education system around the same English ideals handed down by the colonial administrators. Their vision of a modern India rested on a chain of world class institutions, embodied in the IITs, which was designed to create an elite technocratic class to move India forward. Elsewhere, English was seen as the tool of modernity, and promoted throughout the education system.

In the light of our recent experiences, we know the limits of this system and Tagore's warnings seem prescient. We saw India being divided in the middle, with the English-speaking India leaving the vast majority in deep despair. We saw the naked self-interest manifest eating away all values, and callousness even towards human life and dignity. We are now indifferent to rapes and riots, and more concerned about Sensex than sanity of people around us. This 'crisis of Indian civilisation' may be duly attributed to a failing of the education we built. And, indeed, that makes the case of rediscovering Tagore all over again.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

What Skills Count?

Frank Levy and Richard Murnane wrote a book called The New Division of Labor in 2004: I only caught up with it last week. But it is one of those which gets better with time: It did not appear outdated, but rather more relevant, because the changes Levy and Murnane were predicting are already here and are driving the public debate.

One could treat this book as a treatise in Labour Economics and perhaps it does get treated like that. This is a tragedy, because this seems very much a book about education too. Surely, educators are somewhat weary of being lectured by the economists about education, and usually treat all the economic treatise about education with suspicion. And, as I figured out over the last year or so, this is not merely about the disciplinary difference: The disdain is political - economists are expected to focus on the 'wrong outcome', indeed economic value - and most educators tend to see this not just as an unwelcome encroachment of their territory, but a wholly subversive attempt to change the conversation.

However, this book concerns itself with a question that may be of interest to even the die-hard purists: Which jobs humans do better than computers? Even though the book was written a decade ago, Levy and Murnane were prescient, and the revolutionary changes in computing power have not made their observations outdated: The skills they highlighted, Expert Thinking and Complex Communication, still remain in human domain and are likely to remain there. Looking closely, this should warm the educators' hearts: Levy and Murnane were arguing about those 'woolly' things that we try to teach in 'Liberal Arts' (which is humanities and pure sciences) are the ones which count more than all those 'applied' skills we get so hung up about these days.

Expert Thinking, argues the authors, that goes beyond mere pattern recognition is extremely difficult for computers. Computers can possibly generate useful output given a clear input. But if the input is not clear, which is often the case in dealing with complex human problems, where people tend to 'forget', 'hold back', or 'make mistakes', input is never clear.  And, besides, computers may find it extremely difficult to improvise, particularly when a problem is encountered for the first time: They can indeed come up with millions of alternatives within a matter of a second, something clearly beyond the capability of a human brain, but it would take an expert in most cases to make a judgement call. 

Complex communication deals with similar problem sets, but in a different way. This time, humans are also the recipients of the output, which they will process as inputs for their behaviour. Indeed, the standard outputs of the computerised process may generate extremely variable behaviour among the recipients. And, this is not just about body language and tone of voice, which the computers are catching up on: This is rather about the context and culture, and above all, about trust and empathy. Communication is indeed a two-way process and there could be few rules to show empathy and becoming trustworthy, other than doing those things sincerely. It remains difficult to write a code to teach a computer sincerity.

Indeed, these observations, as I said before, sound even more valid today than they were in 2004. We now have Google Cars driving around in California and Warren Buffett seriously discussing that they may destroy the auto insurance industry in the next decade. There are more voice-activated systems dealing with customer service and bots doing sales chats online than ever. Kasparov's defeat by Deep Blue in 1997 has now been bested by Watson winning Jeopardy, but not just that: Last week, we learnt that Watson can now present an argument (read here). In summary, the developments the authors were talking about in 2004, are now getting to the capability levels that may start replacing human labour.

We can treat these developments with alarm, noting the shrinkage of the human domain, or with celebration of human ingenuity, as these things may be seen as a realisation of human imagination: Someone wrote these events down as Science Fiction first. And, indeed, Sci-Fi, the blend of expert thinking about what's possible, and complex communication, making it understandable and desirable, remains firmly in human territory. In fact, Sci-Fi demonstrates the third ability where humans may trump computers: Meta-cognition, or thinking about how to think. Imagining what might be comes with breaking down the barriers, which starts with why it is this way: Computerisation has gone from the level of the thermostats which turning down the heaters when the room reaches a certain temperature to asking why the heater should be turned down at all and adjusting itself with the outside temperature and number of people in the room, but it may still remain limited to turning the heater down rather than opening the window, even it had the capacity to do so, because that will involve judgements and 'mood', the domain of meta-cognition.

If the educators ignore this book as yet another economics treatise, it will be a tragedy for another reason: In this, they could find some of the strongest arguments against the current thinking about For-Profit driven educational expansion. The authors closely examine two very successful corporate learning programmes, Basic Blue for IBM Managers and CISCO Networking Academies for schools, and how a human-computer combination is driving the agenda. However, they also explore why these companies are doing what they are doing, and come to the expected conclusion that private money will almost always be directed to the areas of immediate pay-off. This, the authors argue, is limiting at a time when we need to change our education systems to create capabilities for the future (which is almost present now), and argues for a public role in this new kind of education. 

Since 2004, however, it is the opposite argument which has gained ground. The educators have been told to tie themselves down ever more closely with the employers. Governments all over the world saw private investment as the panacea for education problem, and more or less started giving a free hand to For-Profit operators both in schools and in higher education. The role of the community is shrinking, partly because the educators have responded the challenge posed by technology with denial and disdain. And, more and more money has been poured into training for skills and abilities which will be redundant sooner. Given this, this 2004 book has become more and more relevant. 

Popular Posts

How To Live

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

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

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

- T S Eliot

Creative Commons License