Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Universities India Needs : An Opinion

If India is to build up its Higher Education sector, it needs imagination rather than imitation. Its new universities are unlikely to be built in Ivy League model. The success of these new institutions will not depend upon the partnerships they build with the great and the good abroad, but its own vision, strategy, and most importantly, will to do it well. These universities will need less of the shiny buildings and acres of land, and more of an idea what an Indian university should be like. We should be talking less about the valuation and more about values. In one way, these universities must go back in time and embrace the basics: In another way, they must leapfrog into the future.

Even the best university projects in India, those sponsored by large business groups, partnered with the best universities in the world, suffer from the glamour trap. The idea is to attract the students somehow through the lure of the facilities or the plaques on the wall: These come at a cost, that of an own, consistent view of what this university for and what kind of future it envisions. Like many other things in India, at their heart, they are built around a Jugaad strategy: Offering courses that may happen to be available through a partner, pulling partners who may happen to be looking for a foothold in India, pulling students who may be looking for a degree.

In a way, Indian universities reflect the attitude Indian IT Companies have so well demonstrated in building service businesses but failing to make the transition to the product stage. One needs entrepreneurial opportunism, grabbing what is most obvious; the other needs a view of the future. Indian universities are built around the first, but offers no idea of the future. However, universities are different kind of organisations than IT Service businesses: They build brands, create impact and make money much more slowly than IT businesses. Their strategic horizons should be essentially long term, for them to be notable. None of these are on offer from the current breed of universities.

Which is a shame, because Indian education should be about the future. India's demographic window of opportunity is just opening. Here is a country with abundant people and limited capital, and an awaited miracle that, if it happened, would become a model for all other developing nations to follow. India is unlikely to follow the same trajectory as any of the industrialised nations, because it has such a starkly different reality: Its development, if it has to happen, will happen through unleashing the talents of people in a way that builds an unique model of development among nations. This would not happen by copy-and-catch-up. This, if anything, needs a new playbook, which must come from its burgeoning universities.

India policymakers are indeed sleepwalking. Unlike the Chinese, who seem to have committed themselves to a particular vision of the future, however long term, Indian policy-making was about tinkering at the edges and letting friendly business people have licenses to build universities, without any substantial debate about what kind of universities India needs. Like many other policy areas, the university making was left to natural selection, or God's will, depending on which version of government is in power. And, as one would expect when essentially future-oriented institutions like universities are built with sole dependence on the here-and-now wisdom of the markets, India is building an education sector that is already passe. 

This is so because of two factors: One, the confluence of IT and Globalisation, aided by a technological tipping point; and, two, because of India's changing role and economic requirement in a sharp break with its recent history and a renewed confidence about its own culture and a requirement for a more grounded identity.

First, because of the new technologies of work and collaboration, the existing models of learning, careers and production are fast becoming obsolete in the West. One may argue that India needs washing machines first, but when Indian homes get them, they would not go backwards in time and start with dumb washing machines: By the time it arrives in India en masse, washing machines will appear in their smart avatar. In fact, as seen in mobile phones, technology curves in developing economies can be drastically different from the developed ones: It may actually be FASTER. All those Indian businesses suffering from the lack of professional talent may adopt the programmes which could write, prepare powerpoint and translate, much faster than the Western businesses which may already have people doing them. Indian education sector has not woken up to this reality yet.

At the same time, India is being transformed through an economic revolution. Indian companies are competing globally - and this creates unique needs for capabilities and expertise - and millions of Indians from Inside India are joining the modern economy. This creates an unique challenge of finding an Indian way, a requirement to reconcile modern economy with Indian values, as well as developing a more grounded sense of identity. In essence, this is about escaping the post-colonial mindset which draw upon a certain master culture and fails to imagine its own. Surely, this is not about a 'saffron' curriculum of the kind the current Indian government may want to impose - that would be going back to the past - but rather thinking in terms of what an Indian future may look like, democratic, multicultural (in which Europe has tried and failed), based on harmony with nature rather than in opposition with it. 

One may argue that the technological futurism and Indian values can not be reconciled, but this is precisely the challenge university makers must take up. There is no easy way out: This is why imagination is needed than a borrowed formula. This is why making universities are different - and the task of such examination and reconciliation must fall upon those who make it - and needs more effort than building a business to exploit a present market opportunity. Indeed, there may be more than one answer, and a conscious exploration will give India the diverse sector it needs. That will be a welcome break from the current conversation which is mostly about implanting alien models which are well past their prime.   

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Student Experience in Higher Ed: Exit and Voice

I have written about Exit and Voice before (See here) but not in the specific context of Higher Ed. I believe this merits special mention as Higher Education becomes more business-like. As Businesses try to become more like Knowledge Communities (and build campuses, among other things), the talk in Higher Ed is to turn students into 'customers' and of reigning in costs and instilling 'accountability': This may indeed have an impact on how the students engage with the institutions, and Hirschman's mechanics of Exit and Voice may become as relevant in the classroom.

Hirschman's key point is that the organisations can exist and function at a sub-optimal level, something that is an impossibility in classical economics with its obsession with equilibrium and efficiency.  So, if a firm misbehaves or does not deliver, its customers will leave them and the firm will disappear, is the assumption which led mainstream economics to devote so little attention to sub-optimal situations. However, as we know now, markets are not perfect and inefficiencies and dishonesty can exist and thrive in the world of business: The customers often stay where they are, because they don't know, they feel powerless or the cost of switching is too great. Now this happens in Higher Education as often as it happens in business: In fact, the problem of information is ever so great, the students may actually yield very little power and switching remains almost impossible without a great loss of time and money. Sub-optimal Higher Ed is not only possible, it is indeed very common.

In fact, it is rather easy for a Higher Education institution to exist at the sub-optimal level, because the students can't really exit and they are less exposed to unforgiving market forces because of the regulatory barriers. Hirschman's point was that in cases like these, as Exit is difficult, the students would resort to Voice (just as Citizens do); and they indeed did so in the past. Apart from the negative reason (that Exit is difficult), this participation was governed by the nature of the Higher Education institution, a community: It mattered to the students if the community supported a supposedly immoral act, or repressed freedom, and the political engagement reflected a concern about the nature of the community that one belonged to.

Businesses crave for this kind of engagement. They don't want customers to leave silently, because exit is costly, but rather protest, which is costly too but perhaps cheaper in comparison to exit. Facebook would rather have customer outrages (which bring good media coverage) than silent inactivity of the accounts that killed MySpace or Friendster.  But I would still rather not waste my time giving feedback when I am overcharged at the Iceland Foods till, and not shop in the erring store instead. Because one does not really care about the moral health of a shop where one goes for convenience and economy: There are always other shops to go to if a particular one fails to behave properly.

Yet universities want to become their students customers, and themselves, providers of Higher Education. The fashionable discussion in Higher Ed is how to make exit easier - let's make credits portable and transferable and courses modular - and the relationship based on transactional, ensuring the student gets value for money. The universities are falling over themselves to outrank each other in various rankings, which dissect the educational experience in various component parts and using some opaque, opinion-laden calculus, come up with a score, which, being a number, looks closer to universal truth than the 'touchy-feely' notions of educational excellence. There is talk of 'deliverables' and 'performance', assuring students of 'value for money': And, indeed, the implicit invitations to spurn other offers.

Does this new engagement highlight the possibility of 'exit' more potent in Higher Education?

I think it does, in two important ways:

First, the incident of students exiting has become far more of a serious problem. It is yet to be established whether this is because of the expanding access to Higher Ed, changing demographic, poor schooling or the changing relationships in Higher Ed. 'Exit' is still treated as an aberration in Higher Ed, and therefore, linked to failure of educational attainment rather than a common response to a commercial transaction. While no one blames the customer for leaving a truant store, it is the students who become truant when they leave education. One could possibly analyse the incidences of exit with a perspective of the students' journey, though admittedly, this is a difficult kind of research almost no one has any incentive to do.

Second, it also changes the nature of the 'voice', with students protesting more to obtain better grades and easier curriculum, rather than the political stances of the community as a whole. Arthur Levine's trilogy on student life ('When Dreams and Heroes Died', 'When Hope and Fear Collide' and 'Generation On A Tightrope') help put things in perspective, as does the excellent enthnographic study done by Rebekah Nathan (not her real name) in 'My Freshman Year'. Indeed, this is reflected on the discussions on the student portals, where current students advise others to avoid one school or other like a plague, but rather remain anonymous and would carry on being a conforming student in her day to day life. The quality assurance systems in different countries want student participation, but frames this participation in the market-friendly terms of 'quality improvement': They would rather hear students advising that there should be extra copies of textbooks in the library than suggesting about opening a new LGBT section.

Finally, what does it mean for educational practice?

Indeed, the communities are rather unforgiving to those who leave them, but as universities recast themselves as businesses, they may need to have a different approach to exit. They are trying to emulate the businesses by putting processes in place: The consultants and software makers, who claimed to have provided the panacea for the problem of exit for the businesses but failed, are delighted to find this 'new market'. However, if the universities want to learn from businesses, they would be better off looking around not for past practices which apparently have failed, but emergent ones with promise: Because if they do, they would see that successful businesses are trying to discover the community which the universities are so readily trying to abandon. Just as these businesses try to create the emotional bonds, the universities are framing their relationships as transactions. Just as these businesses are trying to be part of the customers' identity, the universities are busying themselves with being a 'value for money' commodity. Businesses have learnt from universities because they were so successful in the last half century; universities are failing to learn from businesses, because despite what they do, they are so averse to learn anything.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Conversations 8: Searching for A Model for New Education

If there is a purpose in what I am doing in Education, it is to develop and implement a model of education fit for the modern economy. This is not just rhetoric, but an article of faith: Despite most of my day-to-day work sorely concerning itself with the industrial era Higher Ed formula, packing students in a classroom studying a pre-defined curriculum, I believe firmly that the days of this kind of education is over. The model is living on borrowed time, sustained by a collective lack of imagination, vested interests and government largesse.
In fact, this model of education may already be past their sell-by dates because its inherent rationale, that one could prepare students for middle class careers through education, is now suspect. The sole reason this lives on is because it is so difficult and uncomfortable to change anything in education: So it must come crumbling down rather than being systematically reformed.

The object of my work is to explore what could replace it.

That is a bold claim, but I have some qualifications. I have lived and worked in different countries, seen and explored different forms of education, taught at different levels, designed courses, deployed large projects with learning technologies, debated the politics of education and seen first hand how education could change lives. I have also been a student in different kinds of universities in different countries. And, all these besides, I watched and observed, and chronicled some of the conversations and experiences I was having on this blog, and looked out for a better model of education over a long period of time.

I also saw the effects of technology from close quarters. My software training and a promising career in an Email service company were rendered redundant by Internet: I survived as I switched and became a Netizen early (before the World Wide Web, I love to say). Then onwards, I learnt to anticipate the waves and move early: This meant some painful early adventures, but never one to be crushed by obsolescence and pointlessness. This is exactly as I feel now: The time for education as usual is over.

What comes next is anybody's guess. Most solid middle class careers are on their way out. I get silent apprehension when I talk about an impending technology revolution making obsolete most of our assumptions about work and career, but that is hardly surprising: I used to get similar responses when I talked about emails in the early Nineties, then about the Internet in the mid-Nineties, and then about E-Commerce even in the early years of the new millennium (a dear friend challenged me that Potatoes can never be sold on the Internet). Just as it happened before, people sleepwalk into technology revolutions, more like a frog in warming water. This time around, though, I believe this transformation will have more acute consequences than the other changes, and this would perhaps be a civilisational tipping point rather than just a better way of doing things. This is because the technological change comes with the brute force of globalisation. Imagine all those young middle class students who are joining the world's universities in millions, preparing for the careers which are already being made obsolete: By the time they graduate, they would suddenly face the impact of such technological change, and nothing in their educational experience would have prepared them to deal with it.

However esoteric it may sound at this time, I have focused my work in joining the search for a model of education for this challenge, creation of able individuals for a world where globalisation, technology and a dynamic and unpredictable configuration of work, life and society all come together. There are many interesting experiments are being done all over the world, but they sit firmly outside the mainstream and mostly ignored. I wish to explore these, write about these and talk to the proponents of these experiments, because they are, in my mind, are like those early Internet pioneers, whose work will have enormous impact on what happens next.

The problem in this search is less than obvious. Most educational institutions and people who work in them are so consumed by the 'system' that it is hardly possible to have a meaningful conversation with them on how education may indeed change: They don't want to know. On the other hand, the technologists' zeal of changing the world is mostly blown up rhetoric, and so is the Education Businessmen's: They have no time for education, and would rather squeeze the dollars out of the industrial model till it falls apart. The meaningful conversations about the new education is happening inside the education sector, by the educators, but not its most visible, successful, established ones: These are happening in the margin - indeed that's where creativity always happens - and they are being carried out by educators who are upsetting the other educators. The ideas how education can change are hardly evident in the glossy research reports handed out in private equity circles, but rather in new experiments done with old ideas, coming out of the playbook of Ivan Illich, A S Neill and others: It is about setting the students free, creating a safe environment around them to explore and to learn, and for facilitating a nurturing creative space where the possibilities of life could be examined. These radical departures from the industrial model of education have come alive now that the rationale for the big school looks bunk.

In my work, I have set in motion a pivot for my original business plans: Instead of setting up a 'college' as I initially tried to do, I am trying to transform the business into a platform for nurturing disruptive ideas for education. This will no longer be about developing and delivering courses, but more of facilitating entrepreneurial ideas and projects among the students, and making them aware of this impending 'climate change' in careers. In my day job, I am giving up teaching and taking up a business role which will focus me back on India: Not that this is what I want to do long term, but this is possibly my most apparently marketable skill. However, there are some benefits of taking on such an assignment: Engaging into the world's most challenging education market and seeing the action first hand would enormously help my quest to chronicle the search for alternative models. This will also help me to find my way back to India, which I am committed to doing, and to participate in the country's education, which remains my ambition.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Defying The 'Hindu' Rate of Education

India used to be known as a sickly economy, known for its 'Hindu Rate of Growth'. A term originally coined by Economist Raj Krishna, to explain India's lowly rate of growth of 3.5% annually between 1950s and 1980s, the 'Hindu Rate of Growth' was to mean what the Economists call the Secular Rate of Growth, which means just the trend level of growth - the rate at which nothing really changes. India somewhat escaped the Hindu rate of Growth starting 1990s, when freeing up of the entrepreneurial energies of Indians allowed the economy to progress, and some changes did indeed happen, particularly in the Middle Class life and in the Cities. However, lately, this faltered and India returned to an anorexic growth rate. 

So, the primary job of the newly elected Hindu Nationalist government in New Delhi is to prevent India going back to its 'Hindu rate of Growth'.

But we can introduce another term in the same vain, the 'Hindu Rate of Education', which may be used for a similar meaning - the rate of education which keeps society as it is - to represent a similarly daunting challenge for the new government. There is some growth to be squeezed out of structural inefficiencies, but if an Indian miracle has to happen, it will happen only by transforming the Indian education model.

Post-Independence, India built a top-down state, very much around the British bureaucratic model. The Indian education system was built to support this model, to create bureaucrats who can control everything from the commanding heights of the state machinery and large corporations and banks. While this principle of statecraft may have been abandoned in the nineties, the attendant idea of education have now survived five decades: Education is still for social privilege in India, a good job, dowry etc. This is for the select few who will rule, manage or lead the others. This idea refuses to die: The previous government made bold noises about vocational education - education for the less able as if it is their fault - and wasted a lot of money on it. Underlying this, however, was the same Elite-Commoner divide that I am complaining about.

Seen this way, India's rather pathetic enrolment ratio of 15% - only 1 in 8 eligible young people go into Higher Education - sounds about right. This is not about citizenship; this is not about economic possibility; this is not about knowing India and contributing to society. This rate - this is The Hindu Rate of Education - is reflective of how India saw education.

The attempts to change it by expanding capacity has failed. Even if the capacity was expanded manifold - more than half of India's higher education capacity has been created in the last six years - the enrolment rate declined to budge. Part of this is India's growing young population; but the other part is the pointlessness of the whole education business in India.

There may be new colleges with shiny infrastructure, but no new ideas: The best Indian colleges could do is try to borrow curriculum and ideas from their old colonial masters, Britain, and some from America. For all the expansion, there is not a single coherent discussion about how education should be in India. Rather, Higher Ed is the playground for political privileges; donations to a local politician is the best way to set up an university there. And, indeed, India has some really frightening universities therefore, with no efforts to do anything meaningful. No one can blame the students shying away from these places, and in fact, that they do is good for the nation: There is nothing worse than bad education, and citizens who think they are educated when they are not. (Or, more practically, when incompetent Engineers build bridges, Doctors who bought their certificates perform operations, or, on a personal note, you submit to an untrained dentist's chair)

The new Indian government has made its intent clear: That they want a Hindu system of Education. Though this has no connection with what we imply with the 'Hindu rate of Education', the former is likely to reinforce the latter. Hindu education, which is basically the education of the classics and the arts for a select few (in fact, most castes are prohibited from learning): This is the problem that underlie the 'Hindu Rate of Education', or the British-imposed Education to Govern (just read English rather than the Vedas).

The argument I am pursuing is that to avoid going back to Hindu Rate of Growth, the Hindu Nationalist Government in Delhi has to break the trap of Hindu Rate of Education: While their minds are set upon a Hindu System, an exclusive, privilege-based idea which aims to produce a governing elite, this is not going to happen. The root-and-branch reform of Indian Higher Ed is not about throwing away English (far from that: I actually believe that India should look at ways of accepting and integrating English without its inherent colonial rhetoric and ideas: See Contra Macaulay)  but throwing away the colonial idea of education for a special social privilege and to create a governing elite.

Indeed, even a rose-eyed optimist knows that it is not going to happen. The people who run the new Higher Education institutions are in the game not to rock the boat but to make money from it. And, the Public Higher Education system is too politicised, too distracted, and too elitist anyway to do anything for anything.

Therefore, a self-perpetuating Hindu Rate of Education will persist. The only hope is that some business person somewhere will realise how fragile all this is, and will change everything. Yes, to make money, but India is one place where one can make a lot of money in Education and build the Google or Facebook of education, rather than making small money to hide under the carpet. All one needs to build is a smart education that works; teachers who teach, courses which make sense, a system that respect and encourage the student rather than demean and intimidate them. All the government has to do, when such a business emerge, is to stay out of its path. This is unlikely (as such an winning idea would upset a lot of powerful people) but the urgency for growth may just allow them to act sensibly.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Innovation in India: Time To Start Thinking

The Global Innovation Index, produced by INSEAD and others, is built around seven factors - Institutions, Human capital and research, Infrastructure, Market sophistication, Business sophistication, Knowledge and technology outputs and Creative outputs - and measures an economy's ability to innovate. India has continually slipped in the rankings, from 62nd in 2011 to 64th in 2012, to 66th in 2013 and now at 76th in 2014. Indeed, it is useful to contrast India with China, acknowledging the coveted hyphenation that many Indians desire: China has remained on the 29th position during this time, losing and recovering the lost ground during the in-between years (though China includes the territory of Hong Kong, which is treated separately and is a top 10 territory in these rankings).

Not that rankings matter much, but they are useful reminders of where one is going. India's decline tells a story in the context of the rest of the world. In the past rankings, India was ranked 2nd in terms of innovation efficiency in the previous years, underlining its ability to innovate despite institutional constraints, just behind China's 1st position, a celebration perhaps of India's famed Jugaad. However, in the latest rankings, India slips to 31st place even on this (China slips one place to 2nd, after Molodova), indicating somewhat the limits of Jugaad in a modernising economy (see my note on The Limits of Jugaad). 

A look at the detailed data is perhaps useful too. India's big problem predictably comes from its Institutions, though 'Government Effectiveness' contribute to India's lowly scores less than lack of political stability. One would expect that the recent formation of a single party majority government in Delhi in 2014 will fix this. India also suffers from its 'Regulatory Environment', though it outranks all its BRICs counterparts on the Rule of Law (though not Hong Kong); however, it scores the lowest among the peer group in 'Regulatory Quality', because of the lack of dynamism and widespread corruption among its regulators. India is also ranked 128th (among 143 nations) in Business Environment, only better than Brazil among its peer group, reflecting a poor environment for starting a business, resolving insolvencies and paying taxes. The big bet on the new government in Delhi is about resolving these issues: However, some of these expectations are likely to be dashed because India's various state governments, rather than the government in Delhi, control its regulatory and business environments.

India also performs badly in Human Capital and Research, being outranked by all its peer group countries and managing a lowly 96th position among all nations. Its problems come from Education, perhaps predictably, though it manages to outrank Brazil on Research and Development. India's universities (the QS ranking was used here) rank the lowest in its peer group, though the country gets a respectable 27th overall, leading to an Indian newspaper reporting 'Quality of its Universities' as a strength for the country. However, one must note that the rankings concern itself only with the relative rankings of Top 3 universities in the countries: India's top 3 universities, as these will be the IITs, still contribute more to California's economy than India's.

The picture on Infrastructure is mixed, India gets a lowly ranking both in terms of ICT Infrastructure and General Infrastructure. China, rather predictably, is on the 2nd place in the world in terms of General Infrastructure (after the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan), and this is where the gap between two countries are the most obvious even to a casual visitor (compare a journey on Indian Rail with one of China's trains). China also outperforms India in Ecological Sustainability, which is not saying much but may come as a surprise to those who suffered from the terrible air pollution in Shanghai. It also underlines the challenge India faces as it strives to rebuild its manufacturing sector, particularly around Delhi-Mumbai corridor (and later one between Mumbai and Bangalore perhaps).

India outperforms its peers on the Market Sophistication parameter, and particularly in terms of  Trade and Competition. The most interesting among many factors that make up this parameter is perhaps the intensity of local competition, where India ranks 22nd in the world, just behind Sweden, but ahead of France, Denmark, Malaysia and Canada. Western companies, looking at India's crumbling infrastructure, poor governance and bad unversities, all too often equate it with other markets, overlooking the fierceness of competition mostly to their peril.

India, however, does badly in Business Sophistication, though it outperforms its peer group in Innovation Linkages, doing rather well in areas such as Industry-University Partnerships. However, it slips on the 'Knowledge Workers' factor (Rank 110), a surprising result given all the boasting around India's IT services. There are many elements to consider here, but one comparison really jumps out: China ranks 1st in the world in terms of firms offering formal training to its employees, whereas India is 97th, managing to stay ahead of Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Yemen, barely. In fact, it is on this factor, the gap between India and all the other BRICS nations is the most pronounced, with China (1st), Brazil (20th), Russia (37th) and South Africa (44th) standing in stark contrast with India's 97th.

The above factors are combined make up the INPUT side of the innovation equation, in which India fares rather poorly overall, with an overall 93rd in the world and behind all the peer group countries. It does only slightly better on the OUTPUT side, coming 65th overall and behind all the peer group countries again. This, despite India having the top spot in ICT exports in the world and a respectable 13th spot for Creative Goods exports, somewhat undermines India's claims of ingenuity within a field of constraints. In fact, what's remarkable is that India does not do very well well in terms of its Feature Films and Entertainment Output, which will be the natural conclusion to jump into for India's strong showing in creative output (and excuse for some celebration of India's 'soft power' through Bollywood): Instead, its creative sector may be more invisible, made up of all those back-end work done for global entertainment and gaming industries, where India has indeed emerged as a powerhouse. 

Overall, it is time to start thinking about innovation in India, and whether the Knowledge Economy is still largely a rhetoric than a reality. The picture presented here reflects a fiercely competitive and growing market, riddled with poor infrastructure, institutional and regulatory constraints. The businesses are pushed to innovate to survive, but inefficiencies in regulation may allow cutting corners as viable survival strategy too. One would hope, justifiably, that the rise of a Single Party government in Delhi will solve some of the problems, but it is unlikely to transform India's education sector for better or kick-start the creative industries. In fact, one should study this index alongside other measures, such as Global Creativity Index published by Martin Prosperity Institute, which may underline some of the other issues with India's Innovation capability which have been blurred out here: The cultural factors, the city environments, tolerance, all of which contribute towards new ideas to flourish. As I quoted Kishore Mahbubani in an earlier post (see here), India remains an Open Society with a Closed Mind, in contrast to China's Closed Society with an Open Mind. Rankings such as this are occasions to start thinking, and dismissing all such discussion as a first world conspiracy to undermine India, as it will invariably be seen as, is perhaps proof that we got serious work to do.   

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Conversations 7:Three Mistakes of My Life

I allowed my life to drift quite a bit in the last six months and trying now to re-instill a purpose and take back control. It is an appropriate moment, then, to think what happened, which should tell me what not to repeat as I move forward.

In short, I am guilty of taking the easy path which leads to nowhere. This is such a common mistake, and I am amazed that I did it when I look at the time since New Year 2014. The story goes like this (almost improbably): I give up my globe-trotting job in 2010 to get into education, and then spend about two years working and building a network in the sector. I was working in a For-profit institution during the time, toiling to fix its operations and build the brand so that it could become the platform for the online education I wanted to get into. This effort came to nought, as the owner of the college decided not to pursue the ambitious goals and sold the business, leaving us to try the start-up route.

This is where I made the first mistake (which I see with hindsight): When we had to default onto the start-up option, we did not re-imagine the plan and went with the ideas and concepts that we already developed. Now, indeed, this showed that we were committed to our plan, but the reality had changed and we probably should have tried something radically different. In short, I went with the easier option.

Then, after working for twelve more months on the start-up, after all the accreditation were finalised (this is why education remains a difficult business to do in a start-up mode) when we raised some money but not enough to pay ourselves and do marketing aggressively, I decided to focus on a few key partners and somewhat reversed my earlier strategy to expanding the number of conversations I was having. Again, this made sense at the time: We just did not have the resources to keep traveling, and my finances were getting stretched living through the bootstrap period. But this committed us to a few partners, who were, as I shall understand with hindsight, not reciprocally committed to us. Instead, they were doing what Indian businesses typically do: Collecting the plaques on the wall, figuratively. This was my second mistake, keeping all my eggs in an Indian basket!

The third mistake I committed around the same time is to take on teaching work, which was the low hanging fruit for me - available, and which allowed me to cover my expenses and live in the hope that these partnerships will start paying off. This actually meant my ability to travel become quite limited, distancing me further from the projects I was trying to further. I did try to do Skype or Phone Calls to make up for my physical absence, but, as I knew already, this never works in India. Again, I tried to take the easy way out and live in hope, and ended up wasting six months and living quite miserably.

This ends now. I realise the mistakes I have made and decided to pivot. First, I decided to move away from the business plans we worked with and decided to pivot, something that takes us away from the dependence on business partners altogether. Second, we decided to strip away all the complexities of the business, that created such dependence in the first place, and focus instead on a few essentials which we can do well. Third, I decided to get rid of all my teaching commitments, which I was not enjoying anyway, and get back to international business which I know and enjoyed. 

There are lots of things I learnt from this, not least the requirement to focus on essentials rather than entertaining an expansive view. I have also understood what I like to do and what I don't: The detour was worth it, but now I am seeking to get back in track. I am now committed to developing some deep expertise - on a region, and of a trade - rather than trying to have a broad view of education in general and how it is evolving. The latter is my general interest, as is evident to anyone reading this blog with some regularity, but I have realised that conversation is outside the scope of For-Profit Education, where I still have to earn my bread. 

Hopefully, these lessons will stick: I am now recalibrating my engagements, enhancing my credentials as a marketer, and regaining my Asian market expertise by taking on projects that allow me to get back there. I have also decided to focus my various research and writing work on the subject that interest me most, that of the history of ideas, and hope that all of this will add up some day. I have set a goal for myself to get back to Asia within a three year timeframe. This rather 'frank' note, which is directed at myself, but also posted publicly for my friends, is the first step in this 'journey'. This is hopefully my return to real life.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

MOOCs in Developing Nations: Over-hyped But Under-appreciated

Institute of International Education's (IIE) Rajika Bhandari writes about the roles Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) can play in education of developing nations (see here) and highlights five key questions regarding infrastructure availability, relevance in the context of non-formal education, impact on gender gap, impact on the role of the teacher and local relevance.

I feel these questions are extremely relevant, but ones that the MOOC enthusiasts often lose sight of. In fact, the biggest danger for the MOOCs is not that it may not work, but rather one puts expectations on it that can't be satisfied, and this becomes another bubble that bursts in time. The questions, as raised here, can help focus the discussion and understand what the MOOCs can and can not do in the developing countries.

1. The Infrastructure Gap

Most MOOC advocates have a limited view of the developing country higher education infrastructure. The reason for such limited perspective is this: If you are a technologist and have not, for a long time, spent a minute without having adequate access to Internet (and perhaps never spent a minute without Internet in your life), it is extremely difficult for you to conceive that what is meant by 'broadband' in Nigeria or India is very different from what it is in the West. Broadband in many countries may not automatically mean seamless Skype calls or even viewing of video (and video downloads may take hours rather than minutes). I recall my own errors, perhaps one of the silliest in my working life, in planning an IT Training centre in Mawlamyine, Burma, without even realising that the town only got, back then in 2002, electricity for six hours a day: I never realised because I put up in a good hotel which maintained 24x7 electricity. Indeed, 'developing country' is not one homogeneous entity and there is wide variability in terms of infrastructure availability. However, if we expect MOOCs to impact those who don't have appropriate infrastructure access and democratize education further, that is unlikely to happen.

2. Non-Formal Education

Ms Bhandari points out that non-formal education is a culture issue as much as it is an issue of access. Without this perspective, one may end up over-hyping the possibilities of MOOCs and underappreciating what it is already doing. For many, mostly degree-educated, MOOCs have become a way of continuing education. In the work environments in the developing countries, where poor transport infrastructure and lack of urban planning often means many people spend a significant part of the day commuting from home to work, Lifelong Learning is only a rhetoric. Besides, most countries have very little provision for matured students, and culturally this is frowned up, and at least not encouraged. MOOCs are creating a private, flexible option for lifelong learning for many people caught up in life; for some, this is an opportunity to study something they wanted to, but didn't have the opportunity. However, MOOCs themselves are often structured to serve 'democratization' agenda and to serve students studying for credit (indeed, that's the business model for MOOCs), with rigid deadlines and demanding assessments, but this structure ill-suits the non-formal learners. They may not be studying for a certificate, but not being able to complete the work within set deadlines often discourage these learners, and in my experience (which is anecdotal), they often disengage after failing to meet the first deadline.

3. Gender Gap

Again, MOOCs are creating a wonderful opportunity for women to self-educate and enabling a private, flexible option for this. There are many benefits, including the fact that these women are often not ready to go out to study. However, we are talking about a small segment still: Those who have enough internet access and leisure time (which is a big issue for women with Child Rearing and Home-related responsibilities than the men would like to think, given that an average Indian man will spend only 16 minutes a day doing any housework); and indeed, who are fluent in English, foreign language proficiency being a bigger challenge among women than men. Given all these pre-qualifications, it is unlikely that MOOCs will really bridge gender gap in Education, though it may help to raise women's level of education and have a generational effect over longer term (as educated mothers usually tend to have greater influence on the educational achievements of their sons and daughters than educated fathers).

4. The Role of the Teacher

MOOCs may be enabling the possibility of the teacher to be a curator, but there are enormous cultural influences to battle with before the transformation is significant in developing country classrooms. In most developing country (as indeed in developed world), Higher Education is an extension of the power structure of the society, indeed a mechanism to induct students into their proper social roles. The relationships - between teacher and the students, but also between the students and the institution, with knowledge and study - are shaped in the context. The teacher being a curator may need to play out in this context, and may not be appreciated by the learners at all. I have found my learners, often from developing countries, completely disengaged when I used a TED video or something similar, because they did not accept this as a part of the teaching activity. Besides, an English video or material sometimes heighten, rather than flatten, the power structure within the classroom, and I have watched teachers telling off students who did not follow the accent and presentation of the curated materials as a way of asserting their own position. The question of MOOCs transforming the teaching role, even where they are being adopted formally in the curricula, remains a more complex issue than what is being claimed.

5. Local Context

The institutional adaptation of MOOCs in developing countries are often done within the context of its existing curriculum, and in some cases, the contextualisation goes up to changing video materials (with or without appropriate permissions). In such contexts, quality and consistency may be bigger issues than the local perspective. I would tend to think that the local perspective is usually abundantly provided by classroom teaching in most cases, and the MOOCs should provide a welcome break and a window to the world. One may argue that such global perspective may come with the possibility of spreading neo-colonialism, but MOOCs can only do limited harm, being self-professedly Western in most cases. One would like to see more open education efforts from developing countries, but this is perhaps constrained, in equal measure, by financial constraints (an easy problem) and by cultural expectation of what education is about (as discussed in the previous section).

One would hope that a reflective discussion on such issues will temper the MOOC triumphalism but also help put MOOCs in proper context. Only such discussion may help us avoid the bubble and reap the enormous benefits that MOOCs can bring.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Benjamin Franklin: A Note to Myself

Earlier this year, I decided to postpone my ambitions to pursue Doctoral studies, primarily for financial reasons, and drew up instead a plan for self development which does not cost much. The plan included working diligently on this blog, with a certain number of posts every month and more meaningful ones, and reading a certain number of books every month: Six months on, I failed on both counts, though this made blog postings more frequent (but more diverse) and I am indeed reading more books cover to cover now than I did last year.

This commitment, however, is the reason why I ended up making the endeavour of reading Ben Franklin's biography, 500 pages and all. I love biographies, but haven't read one from cover to cover in a while, primarily owing to their usual lengths compared to a 200 page book otherwise. Franklin's biography was sitting on my bookshelf and my To-Read list for a while, and I am glad I finally made the effort and finished it within a reasonable time (one weekend, plus a great part of a Monday evening). Indeed, several things were 'favourable' for me to be able to do this: Brazil's poor performance in the World Cup saved me time from watching the final games, as well as my current state of withdrawal, somewhat due to my depressed mood, made me home-bound and free of social commitments that I would otherwise have.

However, the fact that I could manage to read this book even when I was not the happiest or most focused, and more, that just reading a book lifted my mood in the middle of depressing times, are testaments of Walter Isaacson's fine writing but also the fascinating life and apparent greatness of his subject.

I would like to say I considered Ben Franklin one of my heroes, but that appreciation grew from watching the National Treasure movies rather than any serious commitment to learn about him. This current effort remedies that, but also heightens my appreciation rather than taking away the appeal of magic (as in National Treasure). And, besides, this book was full of amusements too, and rather profound ones. Apart from Franklin's famous ('Early to bed and early to rise, Make a man healthy, wealthy and wise') and not so famous aphorisms, there are brilliant stories and observations (Franklin taking away the King in a Chess game, and after being told that one never takes the King out in Chess, he answers 'we do in America'); discussions about his enthralling social life (all the coffeeshouses, associations etc), inventions and experiments (with electricity, gulf stream, subscription public library, fire service) and the tale of his rather inconsistent personal life. This is full of brilliant men, though Joseph Priestley perhaps gets less than his fair share of ink, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, the various English lords and French aristocracy, the intellectuals of Paris salon (including Voltaire, Turgot, Concordet and even Du Pont) and reflections on practices and cultural lives of the time (My favourite happens to be the reflection on Franklin's style in Paris which John Adams found repulsive, but which the French appreciated, and a comment explaining the wisdom of such behaviour: 'To look idle in America is sinful, to look busy in France is vulgar').

In many ways, a tale of such a life is a feast, particularly for those who are in search of 'middling' (i.e., middle class) virtues. In fact, Franklin's tale is a reminder that one does not need to be a socialist to see that increasing concentration of wealth and the inheritance of social and financial privileges - a huge issue today - is not just anti-poor, but also against the entrepreneurialism of the middle classes, and in fact, against progress. While Franklin's observation that he finds the Chinese practice of honouring the parents when sons become distinguished so much more logical than hereditary peerage, he was making a point worth taking note today. Despite being a successful businessman and a lifelong advocate of thrift and hard work (he opposed 'benefits' because this would make the poor lazy), he argued that once someone acquired what he needed to live comfortably, all wealth beyond the point should be state property. He was ignored and such suggestion indeed may sound ludicrous in the context of modern economic dogma, but accumulation of wealth (and increasing concentration of it in the form of assets) is one of the biggest challenges to maintain a dynamic and innovation-centric society.

The pinnacle of Franklin's life is indeed at its end - no gentle degenerative old age retirement was there for him - when he played such a central role in the making of America. In fact, it is hard for me to avoid the comparison of this tale with that of the making of India. There are so many similarities to note, in terms of ideas, sentiments, values, compromises and formulas they came up with, but I also find Franklin's (and others) humility, realism and compromise, and the insistence of making a clear break with the British, quite divergent from the patrician approach of the Indian process. In fact, while America has grown out of these humble roots and assumed the imperial pretensions and practices over time, the making of the American constitution should still be studied closely by the students around the world, if simply for the deep realism and acceptance of fallibility that was inherent among its makers.

Such tales of idealism mixed with realism, of a 'pragmatic' life free of dogma, one of cosmopolitan engagements but yet deeply patriotic, are always appealing to me. One may surely say that this belongs to a lost world and these values are therefore outdated (I was brought up by my grandfather who subscribed to many of these values, including the 'early to rise' one, which, unlike Mark Twain, I did appreciate and still practice) - but one familiar with history of ideas will surely know the cyclical nature of them. We seem to believe in something, then overdo it, and then return to a previous maxim, perhaps with equal fervour. We have swung too far away from Franklin's world that it seems appropriate to plot a return to it.     

Monday, July 14, 2014

A New Kind of Education

The theme of my work is to explore the possibility of creating a new kind of educational institution. I have changed jobs and done many things in life, but among all those discreet projects, there has always been this continuous pursuit, an education for possibility.

Education is too often about privilege rather than possibility. In every country, though a suitable excuse of judging by merit is used, merit is often defined as all those things with social privilege; the rationale for education, therefore, has become providing social justification for continuation of inherited privileges. 

This flies in the face of the other claim - that education is all about social mobility. It used to be, because education is the engine which has created the modern middle classes, in every country, and helped create the current political and social consensus that we live by. Indeed, education used to be the bedrock of progress. And, that is precisely my point: That education as it is practised today, to rationalise privilege rather than create social mobility, is antithetical to the very concept of progress we stand on.

True, ours is an age of compulsory schooling and mass Higher Education. But then, one can see that claim as the great con of our time, because it is fails all too often. The mass Higher Education fails to educate. Education means debt and desire more than confidence and freedom. Most countries have this two-tier, even multi-tier systems, where students are relegated to mediocrity even before they had a decent shot at life. 

This is the frontier I have worked on. My work is not about great and the good, about crusty privileges and art of genteel conversation; if I have done anything, I have worked with pupils who were outside those elite institutions and yet wanted to get ahead in life. My work, therefore, was filled less with scholastic conversations and more with nuts-and-bolts of real work, playing out in the Small town India, Bangladesh or Philippines or within immigrant communities of Britain. My work was all about nurturing aspirations.

I know this space, and I do it well. Even after twenty years of doing this, I am still passionate about what I do: I find meaning in this work. However, lately, I am increasingly queasy that this whole business is changing - and my quest is to find the answers to the issues that bother me. It is this: That the future work looks different, and social mobility can not any longer be taken for granted.

This rather sour outlook may be a function of my age, but this looks real. I am not just afraid of the self-driving cars making taxi drivers redundant (or, tablet computers transforming restaurants), but also see the change coming to accounting, report writing, editing, cold calling and all that. I see the entire generations of people across the developing world getting ready for jobs which will disappear within 5 to 10 years. I see the confluence of IT and Globalisation creating a different kind of reality, which leaves out a lot of people who are aspiring for the middle. 

Even the self-touted education innovation today does not take care of this emerging reality. The talk of education innovation is mostly merely how to integrate technology into education, not the post-technology future of education. The few thinkers who are looking at the horizons, comparing this oncoming wave of change with the transformation wrought by industrial revolution and ensuing educational expansion, are still at a loss how the financial globalisation and inclusion of millions of people from India and China (and all the others) will play out. And, indeed, the labour replacing technologies of today are very different from those of the Industrial era; these replace work which we assumed to be essentially human, and they are destroying the middle classes. This is a whole new ball game.

The educational playbook may look simple but it is not. One may say that simply shifting to a more entrepreneurial educational model will prepare us for the future, but really? The institutions we have built, all their culture, protocols and norms, have not yet reached the industrial age: In fact, the factory age of university education is only just arriving and surely it looks outdated just as it started. The whole structure has to be reimagined, and the changes may happen outside the established institutional structures than outside: The manifesto for such a revolution is yet to be written. 

This is the issue that bugs me and this is the object of my current work: A new kind of education. I stop teaching - I was spending too much time within the bounds of a traditional institution - and will take on a peripatetic role, which will take me back to India and other Asian countries, in three weeks time. I am also working on the idea of a conference to discuss some of these issues, to be held in London in January: I have got two institutional endorsements already and believe that it will be the right platform to start talking about some of these ideas. I am also transforming my current business into an experiment to train on entrepreneurial thinking and activities, and unexpectedly, receiving some help from a Chinese city government making it a reality. And, indeed, all this should provide the context of the thing I love most - to connect with people worldwide who are working on the same issues and facing the same challenges, and those who have spent their lives democratising educational access. In that way, the theme of my work remains the same, even if I concern myself with a new kind of education at this time. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Escaping The Age of Copy-and-Catch-Up

Tyler Cowen has a point when he proclaims that 'innovation is over' and that we live in an age of 'copy and catch up'. Indeed, one can take issues with this and show that 'innovation', as it is meant, is not about big ideas but more about finding better ways of doing things and making lives better. But that would be missing the real point: That despite all our claims of breakthrough progress, we are often mere tinkerers, satisfying ourselves being recipients of lost property and creating the illusions of progress. Rather provocatively, Dr Cowen takes the point further that claims that middle class life has got worse, despite the zillions of apps, smartphones and ubiquitous Internet, with failing education, uncertain jobs, fragile health and worsening security, and only more and more debt kept us afloat. He is somewhat dismissive about all the emergence of the emerging economies, which are playing the 'copy and catch up' game, he says, merely throwing their cheap labour at yesterday's problems.

Even the optimists who scoff at our habit to conjure up bleak futures usually base their arguments on our collective ability to come up with ideas and solve problems, but this is exactly where this hits home. My favourite example is the 1898 International Conference in New York for Urban Planning, which deliberated seriously on the terrible pollution problem of the cities due to transport - it was horse manure then - and failed to come up with a solution; the solution appeared within a few years in the form of electric cars and automobile and the problem completely vanished. What Dr Cowen is saying, though, is that there are no big ideas like automobiles (in this case) in sight right now, and while we may be being good at making improvements, we may be failing behind in creating breakthroughs.

There may not be anything to worry about, because big ideas happen over a large period of time, while looking back at them, we take a compressed view of history and they appear entirely magical. We may complain that we don't have a Socrates, or a Jesus, or a Budhdha, among us, but then we only have one each of those great thinkers in the thousands of years of human history. So the lack of breakthrough progress does not automatically mean that we are not going anywhere, but this may just be one of those gap-years in history, entirely trivial periods of time given the span of time, and this may be all leading to another great flowering of human ideas.

However, this view, that we are in a gestation and great ideas will again appear, is just as speculative as the assertion that we are in a great decline; this makes it a pointless debate. It is better to engage in the debate exploring what, in our contemporary culture and the institutions we built, comes on the way of big ideas. Dr Cowen, provocative as usual, is really trying to draw attention to this point.

First, one may argue that there is a lack of ambition in popular imagination. The talk of changing the world has become cheap: These days, one talks about changing the world by making indecent photos self-destruct in a few seconds. The brightest individuals from finest colleges dream of making millions selling start-ups producing apps, or even worse, designing derivatives which no one can decipher, rather than spending their lives in seeking the cure for cancer. The Higher Education industry below the top-tier colleges churn out graduates in love with themselves and their degree certificates, but otherwise without a clue what to do in the world. Blame it on post-modernism if you will, but the ambition that one can do something significant is really gone.

Second, this may also be connected with the withdrawal of the state from various social functions, including education and research, and handing these over to private capital. With their typically short time span of expectations, this has resulted in the quest of tinkering and copy-and-catch-up culture that Dr Cowen bemoans. Add to this the disappearance of monopoly positions and the cut-throat world of public capital markets, and the nature of things that we could think up has changed. Google's 20% time is gone because it is not consistent with the culture of capital markets, not because it was not productive. Increasingly, the universities are trying to make them 'result orientated' without necessarily reconciling this with the idea of 'research'. 

Third, the rhetoric in public life, the advent of the art of saying more than doing, undermine the big ideas: Leadership is now less about making a difference than making people feel that there is a difference. In this world of nudge and fudge, the big ideas are really at a disadvantage. Even if one may claim that there is greater public scrutiny now than ever before, the long tail world of the media puts cult practices ahead of hit shows, as the ownership gets increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, subject to the same dynamics of the public capital markets which prize returns overs revolutions.

So, in summary, the Copy-and-Catch-Up world is perhaps one unintended consequence of how we have structured our society: With the monochrome incentive of more money, we are increasingly focused on incremental tinkering rather than risky departures. With an education tailored to maintain social status quo, and with a polity that eschew any possibilities of change, our world is relegated to become a hyphenated period in human history, the invisible time between big ideas. 

But standing still is also decline. The essential life force of all the progress we celebrate today came from the ordinary folks being able to challenge the orthodoxies of the establishment, rather than being suppressed by the establishment. That is indeed the lesson from the divergence of history of the East and the West, of Argentina from the United States. If we comply, we decline. But this age of copy-and-catch-up is an inexorable journey in the status quo, we go round and round, with the power elite accumulating wealth and even controlling our minds and our rhetoric, getting to the point of breakdown.

Globalisation also makes it worse. In fact, it suppresses rather than generates ideas. Emerging countries accept meekly that there is only one way to develop - the sequential path traversed by the rich nations of the West - and fashion their policies faithfully to commit to copy-and-catch-up. In India, all capital gets diverted to provide cheap backoffice services; in China, people focus on getting things made. Bangladesh revels on its garments economy, though this may lead to accentuating the rich and poor differences even further. Africa, late in the game, gratefully accepts the Chinese colonies, trying to kickstart a mining economy to the benefit of the Dictators' Swiss Bank accounts. And, students in the universities in these countries merely aspire to be the cannon fodder of this globalised economy, and would rather leave their creative selves at home because there is no money in creativity.

While Dr Cowen warns about the despondency of being average in these desperate times, this is what it is exactly about: Everyone, countries, societies, institutions, families are in a desperate run to become average. The escape, I shall argue, is defying this lure of the average and trying to reimagine the future. The route runs through education, indeed, and a new kind of imaginative action, based on cooperation and volunteerism. The age of average has not completely swamped the human spirit yet, and there remains the hope that the big ideas will come from undying idealism. In this, lies our great hope, and the end of the era that we got used to.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Will the 'University' Survive the 21st Century?

Darwin changed the way we think about the world. Before Darwin, there was God who created the world and the Man in his own image; everything existed with a purpose, and for that end alone. Darwin, almost boringly, offered us another vision: Of a complex, natural process, grinding on for million years, producing a great variety of life forms without a knowable purpose. The Man was no longer special after that, just an evolved animal with greater mental ability. However, the most profound impact of Darwin is perhaps in debunking 'teleological' reasoning, that species existed for a preordained purpose, and replacing this with less grandiose, almost boring, and perhaps even frightening, logic of evolution.

However, most conversations about universities (particularly in the West) are defined by a teleological reasoning, that the universities exist for a preordained purpose, quite outside the social requirements of the day. Rooted perhaps in the defining treatise about the universities, Newman's The Idea of A University, there is a sense of the lofty and timeless purpose, at least inside the universities.

This idea of things exist for a reason is grounded in the assumption that everything in nature has a purpose, which is no longer the god-given truth (the irony is intended) after Darwin. In fact, the talk of purpose is usually an argument to deny all other possibilities of change and keep the status-quo, though today's bureaucratic, government funded institutions have almost nothing in common with the Newman's ideals. Instead, the talk of purpose after Darwin is no longer an innocent appeal to natural tendencies, but an intentional rhetorical expression of power - and it should be recognised as such.

Indeed, an institution may not have any inherent, god-given purpose does not automatically lead to the conclusion that it should not have one. In fact, if we accept that the university does not have some kind of timeless purpose and identity, but rather a socially evolved institution that survived when the popularity of Church dwindled and Kingdoms fallen, it allows us to see what gives the university a role in the making of modern societies. But the post-modern abandonment of a search for purpose and instead living with the preoccupation of day-to-day business, the reality in many universities, may be a sure route to the vacuous rhetoric of 'quality' (as Bill Readings point out) and to eventual obsolesce that follows, with the university label is slapped on to an increasingly variable institutional forms, making, in turn, any talk of purpose completely unsuitable. In this context, whether the 'University' will survive the 21st century remains an entirely valid question.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

In Search of 'Academic Potential'

Les Ebdon, the Head of the Government's Office of Fair Access (OFFA), called for Universities to look beyond the grades and admit pupils based on 'academic potential'. (See story) But would that solve the problem?

The problem he is trying to address is a usual aspect of British life, students from 20% of the 'affluent' postcode areas are 8 times more likely to go to one of the top 24 universities in Britain than others from plainer areas; and, when everyone takes into account all universities, the lucky winners of 'postcode lottery' are still 2.5 times more likely to get an university offer. What follows is that in most of these 'good' postcodes, house prices and rent have grown significantly over the last decade (and remained sturdy through the recession) and only people with a certain wealth and income could afford to live there. Add to this the fact that almost all white collar jobs, not just the elite ones, where you went to university matters a lot, which means the social stratification is institutionalised in Britain. Stefan Collini may proudly claim that the University places is one thing that one can not buy in the modern day UK, but seen from this perspective, it is more about the family heritage than a merit thing as Professor Collini sees it.

But is this a problem? Apart from the vantage point of Professor Ebdon, whose job is to ensure fair access, the commonly held view in Britain is not everyone has to go to university. The government's retort, when they are accused of letting the university fees rise three fold, is often how much money they are spending on apprenticeships and other vocational provisions. There is a thriving industry around vocational finding from the government, including a popular website called Indeed, university going was never as popular in Britain as in America, and after years of expansion of university education in line with the rest of the world, the pendulum of policy preference may now have swung back to a multi-tier education system (which always existed in Britain in practice), where some pupils are preselected for a broad university education (by less offensive means than their postcodes) and the others are taken through a vocational education system for the varied requirements of an industrial economy.
Except that there is no industrial economy. This view is fundamentally mistaken for two reasons. First, because the nature of jobs are changing, many vocational trades as they stand today will be extinct in ten to twenty years time (except for those requiring extreme finger dexterity, perhaps). Second, many of the new jobs that will appear, even in shop floor front, may require skills that are considered to be in the domain of higher education, and certainly outside the factory-setting of further education. The Chemical Engineer who ended up being a Barista may be an anomaly at the current time (in an earlier age, we would have marvelled at a Barista who happened to be a Chemical Engineer) but some of his skills may actually be needed for the few remaining Barista jobs in twenty years' time. And, yes, that exaggeration is intentional: Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University (cited by Michael Roth in his brilliant 'Beyond the University') estimates that 63% of the jobs by 2018 will require university level skills, a huge change from the 1970s (where our thinking is still stuck) when only 30% of the jobs required the same. So, leaving out a large chunk of the population from university education, and we should add, good university education, as most of the alternative provisions through For-Profit colleges is dire, is a sure recipe for decline and disaster.
But can one assess 'academic potential'? While it is easier to be sympathetic to Professor Ebdon's cause, his solution is indeed a fudge. The universities can indeed claim that the grades reflect 'academic potential', if not fully but better than any other indicator available; and that to ask them to correct inherent limitations of a school education corrupted by standardised testing is asking too much of them. They may widen their admission criteria if they have to, but seeking 'academic potential' may mean adding up the Parental legacy alongside, which will surely make Professor Ebdon even more unhappy. The seemingly endless debate about the universities going out to recruit more from state schools flies in the face of the wisdom of standardised testing, and one can get one or the other, but perhaps not both, not both in a sustainable manner anyway. 

Surely Professor Ebdon is well aware of all this, and so is everyone reading the report. But the fact we still feel the urge to invent empty concepts such as 'Academic Potential' perhaps tell a story of the potential of the academic. The university sector is desperately seeking legitimacy with the public, but at the very moment, the kind of education they are supposed to provide have become more relevant than ever,  they are ever more disconnected from the changes in the society around them and ever more occupied with maintaining the status quo, perhaps solely occupied with art of 'how to enter the room genteely' (to quote Ben Franklin). Unless there is a re-examination of how the universities should go about doing their business (including such radical proposals for technical degrees, as Ed Miliband is talking about), these reports and the claims of fair access will continue to remain empty proclamations. And, yes, it matters.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Private Higher Ed in the UK: Time for a New Approach?

The recent comments by Dr Stephen Jackson, the Head of UK's Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), making the case for a different kind of regulatory power to oversee private sector Higher Education in the UK, is significant (Read the interview here). Apart from the basic point about the visa fraud and criminality in the education sector, it is important to recognise that the Private Sector Higher Ed is really a different 'beast', and needs special attention. Besides, the Private Sector Higher Ed in the UK is really very different from most other comparable countries, and has so far been regulated quite badly using borrowed frameworks and out of date ideas. The comments made here point to some fresh thinking, though the proposed scheme may remain extremely difficult to legislate and implement.

In context, it is rather unfortunate that this conversation is happening in the context of visa fraud (see the back story here, and here), which will focus hearts and minds along the usual partisan lines, rather than recognising the challenge of Private Sector Higher Ed in its entirety. That the Private Higher Ed institutions try to bend the rules and do all they can to maximise profits shouldn't surprise anyone: I wrote an essay looking back to the history of For-Profit schools and it does read like deja-vu in an infinite loop! (Read 'An Incomplete Global History of For-Profit Education') The regulators have almost always been talking about 'criminality' (which imply a few bad apples) but the recurring pattern of these abuses should have triggered a more serious introspection and better regulation in any other sector. However, it is the nature of the For-Profit debate, you are either for it or against it, has prevented any balanced thinking in this matter. This seems to be happening again here.

The starting point for any meaningful discussion about For-Profit institutions is to recognise that these are different institutions, which serve different kind of students and meet a different need. So far, the policy towards Private Higher Ed in the UK has been marked by a battle for entitlements, with the traditional publicly funded HE sector eager to hold onto their public funding privileges and dismissive of the phenomena of private Higher Education, and the policy-makers, enthralled with the healing power of the markets, committed to push for more private Higher Ed at the expense of public Higher Ed. The possibility that these two are different kind of things, and indeed that a variety of the kind of Higher Ed is possible, has no place in this debate. The historical fact that the private education has been around and in fact predates state-funded education, and many of the currently popular disciplines in public schools, business administration, information technology, law, accounting and medicine, originated from private schools (before public provisions expanded into these areas), was simply overlooked.

On their turn, the policy-makers are almost oblivious that the private Higher Ed has mostly fallen short of their stated goal of 'expanding access', if access is to be understood in terms of greater choices for individual students. While private Higher Ed has allowed new kinds of students (employed, single mothers, immigrants) to access Higher Education, they have restricted the options in terms of disciplines, focusing narrowly on the ones where 'pay-offs' are obvious. Due to this limited focus, private Higher Ed is unlikely to be the panacea that the Ministers are trying to find. Besides, despite the history of transgressions in private Higher Ed sector, policy-makers are still living with the naive expectation that the private institutions function better when they are publicly owned (or when private equity is at the helm), though this is disproved by all previous experience. Each time, the regulators scrambled in after a scandal erupted, but this after the fact actions remedied little. The inability to understand the nature and incentives of Private Higher Ed led to succession of scandals and transgressions: The knee-jerk reaction to student visa problems demonstrate the same problem, when all the hearts and minds focus on how private sector is handling immigrant students, but overlook the private sector approach to the 'Home and EU' students receiving student funding, which is indeed a bigger problem (given that students who have no intent to study and repay the income-contingent loans are being lured with the promise of maintenance grant payments, which they would never pay back because they would never work, some students being well past retirement age) and will have a much bigger impact on public exchequer eventually. 

For the policy-makers, perhaps, the best way to understand the dynamic of private Higher Education is to understand the growth-versus-compliance balance. By nature, non-market mechanisms favour compliance and planning, because of its inherent inability to pool resources as needed; markets open up the resources, and make the availability of resources almost infinite, but therefore, value growth over compliance. The evidence for this ranges from public - the more compliant DeVry lags behind the rough-and-ready University of Phoenix despite its succession of scandals in terms of stock market valuation (though this seemed to have caught up with Phoenix lately) - to anecdotal - Education Entrepreneurs' usual tales of daring the regulators are seen as heroic (read John Sperling's Rebel with a Cause for a flavour). The approach that one needs to regulate private Higher Ed therefore needs to be fundamentally different from the publicly funded one, but this has much more in it than just the issue of trust and the problem of criminality. The measures need to examine the fundamental issues of economic structure and risks, and it is worth asking whether a special corporate form, something perhaps in the lines of thinking of the Oxford Academic Colin Mayer (see the video below), should be made mandatory for companies engaged in Higher Education.

It is also important to recognise the type of students that private Higher Education generally attract - the people who have less money or lesser grades - and have a debate about how these students should be serviced. The debate in the UK is fascinating in this regard: On one hand, international students have been mostly criminalised, being painted with a broad brush by the government to project an image of thieving, cheating economic migrants with no interest in studies; on the other, they are seen as valuable sources of money by the public colleges and universities, a legacy of full-fee system for overseas students which has funded the universities' discretionary projects for so long. In the new landscape, there is very little UK would offer to a middle-income, middle-ability student, the 'growth segment' of the international student population, because of its high-brow attitude towards them, both inside and outside the public institutions.

Ministers so far have taken just the opposite position than what I am arguing here: They wanted traditional businesses running higher education and made it easy for them to access public funding and become universities (almost single discipline universities); on the other hand, they wanted to shut down the international students these institutions traditionally serviced and tried to give it over to the public universities in consolation of the lost monopoly over public purse. So, they get scandals of all variety heaped at their door - visa fraud, looming repayment crisis of student loans - along with a general decline of the international student market, and declining quality and choice for the Home students.

While Dr Jackson recognises the nature of the challenge, just giving QAA statutory powers over private Higher Ed is not the solution: This may result in stifling the quality of education at private Higher Ed even further, while doing no favours to the overall regulatory environment. Rather, it is time for another 'white paper' - perhaps I am optimistic in thinking that the government would admit its mistakes and institute a review of its approach towards international students and how the private sector could be made to play a constructive role - and at the same time, take a multi-agency approach to regulating private sector education (a body that incorporate powers from not just Home Office, but also from Higher Education Funding bodies, HMRC, and other agencies setting out governance norms). Private sector can play a useful role in the development of the sector if regulated appropriately, but this regulation will not happen unless one makes the effort to understand how it functions.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Conversations 6: Thinking About Models

I am re-reading Benjamin Franklin's biography. This is a habit that has grown on me: When I am making a transition, from one kind of life to another, I try to envisage the models to live by. By itself, this is a rather romantic exercise, building presuppositions about what would happen, but I have found this eminently handy, as this gives me a sense of purpose and allows me to plough through the difficulties that inevitably come along.

But there is also something sobering with Ben Franklin's biography. My idea of creative life is perhaps not the bohemian ideal of Parisian poets and artists; instead, my assortment of heroes would include Ben Franklin, Charles Darwin, Rabindranath Tagore and some people I knew personally, like  my own grandfather. I would guess what appeals to me is the fact that in these personalities, hard work, patience and commitment were not antithetical to imagination and creativity. However much may I admire the humanism and the passions of Rousseau and Marx, my middle class upbringing and values, deeply influenced by my entrepreneurial grandfather, tend to appreciate the patient, diligent, hardworking imagination of Darwin, the practical aspects of Tagore's life (he not only imagined a new kind of education, but created a school and an university to deliver it) and the practical, entrepreneurial life of Ben Franklin more than the revolutionaries. Indeed, this is what the bourgeois mindset is supposed to be, but I now have enough personal perspective of history to know that even those boring, hardworking scientists, poets and businessmen change the world too.

In fact, I believe that the ideals of Franklin and Darwin are perhaps more relevant in contrast of the flighty entrepreneurialism and rhetorical leadership that has gained so much prominence since the 1990s. It is no longer the loafing artist who stand in stark contrast with the solidity and commitment of a Darwin, but rather the entrepreneur who wants to create the next app and change in the world in 24 months. If Marx was wrong in proclaiming Capitalism's demise with every stock market crisis in his day (there were quite a few), we are also getting ahead of ourselves in predicting the end of history with every app. The credo of valuing ideas by the money it fetches in the Mergers and Acquisitions market stands in deep contrast with the ideas people developed and worked all their lives on: I would tend to believe that we are just cashing in on the hard work of the previous generations and not putting enough back into the mix for the party to continue. I am sure if my grandfather was alive, given that he patiently built a small business from ground up, I wouldn't be able to explain to him my occasional enthusiasm about building businesses towards a dramatic 'exit'.

Truth be told, I am deeply sceptical about the notion that the human history has suddenly accelerated since the Industrial Revolution, and with each passing day, things are happening faster (and hence the boring consistency of the middle class life is a handicap). This scepticism has nothing to do with the achievements of enlightenment science (indeed, all my heroes are enlightenment figures) but the limitations of a short view: The wheels may have taken a long time to craft than Internet, but they, in their humble way, may have moved forward the civilisation no less dramatically than the Internet.

Indeed, some of the inherent arrogance in this implies has enlightenment roots. The enlightenment science placed the humans as the masters of the universe, and eventually this translated into taking an individualistic perspective about all success, 'how I made it' celebrationism. The fact that individual success is often a combination of different factors, including sheer chance, and contributions of many other individuals, was completely forgotten. The celebration of individualism is apparent in the life of a man such as Ben Franklin, but a good biographical tale, such as Isaacson's that I own, always put the narrative in the perspective. 

The other problem with such individualistic perspective of success is that it does not only create a false impression of how success came about, it also creates a false sense of where we are going. This whole 'British Lion' approach of our political leaders, exemplified almost too perfection in David Cameron, is too closely predicated on a myth of a strong leader, who must stand above everyone else and listen to no one. Indeed, the cerebral, consensual style of leadership seems to be passe, and from India, to Japan, to Russia, we are opting into the myth of strong individualist leaders. I shall argue that this is a wrong view of what leaders must do moving forward.

The 'strong leader' concept is based on execution, that someone who can make dissidents come around and get things done. However, this works only as far as what needs to be done is clear. This perspective changes when the future is uncertain and we are supposed to figure out what is to be done in the first place. One can see a straight-line progression from industrial revolution to present, but if anything, things are less than certain in the aftermath of great recession, government bankruptcies and huge growth in inequality. At times like this, one needs perhaps a leader as a 'sheep-dog', in C K Prahalad's metaphor, a leader who has a sense of the future and commitment from all fellow-travellers, but one who is willing to listen and learn - and not just talk. The populist models that we have now are too focused on manipulating (nudge is perhaps the right word) than listening, and we are losing the whole concept of listening as we get too confident about being able to change minds.

This rambling thought (this is why I called these posts, 'conversations') sets the agenda for my next three months' focus: Developing a view about leadership. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am trying to focus my individual endeavours into themes, so that even if I am not studying formally, I am able to develop my own knowledge and skills. I have been teaching a course called 'Leadership Journey' for the last two years, and I am planning to make a summary of all the discussions I have had around this, and follow this up with a series of biographical and theoretical studies. My objective is to develop an understanding of a leadership model useful for my own leadership journey, and indeed, I would like to develop a course or write an essay around it some day.

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How To Live

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

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

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

- T S Eliot

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