Sunday, August 31, 2014

'A Just Society By Just Means'

India was to be, as Nehru told AndrĂ© Malraux, 'a just society by just means'. 

67 years on, as we seek to redefine India, we should return this vision. It is the time to make a fresh start perhaps, as we haven't achieved a just society and lost sight of the just means - and indeed, any appetite, as it seems, for such grand imagination. But that should precisely be the reason to reimagine!

Ideas such as these are often laughed at, as rhetoric that means nothing. Yet, here is a poor illiterate country, which instituted a liberal democracy, and managed to hold together despite its diversity and difference. One must be conscious of its many failings, but this should not undermine what India has achieved. The current ruling generation, which has seen none of the privations of colonialism nor made any sacrifices, may want to mock the struggles Indians waged, but such ignorance can only lead to a return of history and continued dependence. Ideas such as these, successful or not, can liberate, make us think and inspire us to imagine again.

Indeed, such visions are imprecise. One can argue endlessly about the meaning of justice. These statements are devoid of details, and it does not tell us what would constitute 'just means'. However, Nehru was, justifiably, not prescribing a way, but was laying out a vision. That we may even expect him to tell us everything, might sufficiently explain why we failed to achieve the aim. It was an invitation to us to imagine, to be just ourselves, in our private lives as well as with our social selves. This is an invitation we must belatedly pick up.

India's glory lies in its future rather than in the past: The best days are still ahead of us. It may perhaps be by attaining the founding vision, a just society by just means, lifting ourselves up from the poverty, illiteracy and hopelessness, we can attain our greatest goal, a dignified life for all citizens. To do this, in the face of all our constraints, would be a great achievement of statecraft.

Sadly, our failure is not one of imagination, though it may seem to be so at this moment. It was, rather, our lack of pride, our acceptance of a fake failure and meek surrender to some alien ideas as it was preached to us. It is through this, the acceptance that we failed because we couldn't build a consumer economy, we were persuaded to abdicate the search for a just society or just means. We were told that we had done well with electoral democracy, which was the mere first step, and failed in everything else. And, we were told not to imagine any more but subjugate ourselves to ideas imported from elsewhere or from an imaginary past.

But this is not the road to redemption, but an invitation to put the clock back and forget - and busy ourselves in the chores of daily life without any pretension to imagine the future. And, indeed, this means abandoning hope - the hope that makes any nation great - and slumping into self-serving ambitions that extend not beyond the paycheck. And, together sink in the acceptance of our inferior existence in the universe, limited by the aspirations and ideas of the others, a mere cog in the wheel of history and not its designers. This pathetic abandonment of the grand vision of India is not merely a failure of will, but a betrayal of freedom in itself, because, as in Nehru's vision, India was to be beacon of freedom from colonialism and its attendant values.

Which still dominate us, in new forms, affecting our desires, values and senses of self. Only the will, the courage, to imagine again, would free us from our 'self-imposed immaturity' (as in Kant). Dare to imagine should become the new mantra for new India, and we should return to the unfinished job of creating a just society by just means.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Conversations 14: Challenging The Educational Status Quo

In the last few weeks, I travelled to several cities in India talking to employers, listening to their plans and concerns about people hiring. I got some numbers - it is evident that they are hiring people in thousands - and I also realised how hard it is to do so. I met some of these employees, bright ones, and listened to their aspirations and how employers help and do not help them in furthering their careers. This was not one neat piece of market research, I was not going around with some kind of questionnaire in hand, but rather a series of overlapping conversations. However, they collectively give me an idea on what's happening in India, though this perspective is limited to the middle class, 'white collar' jobs.

Admittedly, my engagements were actually quite specific. It was, first of all, limited to certain industries, those which could be serviced by the new kind of Higher Education I am engaged in. The agenda was narrow - I wanted these employers to partner with us as we introduce an employer-centric Higher Education offering - but it was evident that the problem is larger than what I was concerned with. My other conversations, with people at the front-line of the Government's skills training initiatives, added interesting perspectives. Together, they painted a picture thus: 

1) The students are coming largely from 'government families', where the main bread-earner worked either directly for the government or a government-supported entity. For them, skills and abilities to do the work never mattered. Either this was about mastering a competitive examination or knowing people with influence. The parents, who remain an important voice in the absence of an alternative financing system (the student financing often needs collateral), are often intrusive and try to dictate the minute details of the education process, often acting as a bulwark (or at least an excuse) against any educational change.

2) The employers, who often compete on a low-cost strategy, work within the 'throwing people at problems' paradigm. The bulk hiring, acceptance of high turnover rates, minimal commitment to employee development (outside the job specific training) are usual features of an Indian workplace, even in the large multinational corporations. The salaries are generally low, though, it often seems quite high when contrasted with the earnings of the previous generation, who mostly worked in public enterprises. 

3) The educators - indeed there are various shades of them and I am only concerned here with the most earnest ones - are committed to an information-heavy teaching, carrying forward the heavily stratified world of their youth and overtly concerned with the preservation of the power and the privilege of the 'guru'. Good teaching culturally value respect and obedience and put these in a dichotomous relationship with free inquiry and independence, which are systematically discouraged. Such approach is further maintained by overt reliance on tests and examinations.

4) The employees are often fairly ambitious, pushing the boundaries and often displaying a level of awareness of the 'system', far beyond and much different from their parents, the employers or their teachers. There is a parallel world they are creating and operating in. They are creating their own ground rules within the existing field of authority, using the system to gain the privileges rather than defying it. The conversations are often constructed in employees-versus-managers terms, but the objective of the employee remains taking on the managers' roles. However, there is less of a generational gap in value terms than one would expect in a country like India. There is low deference to expertise and lack of appreciation of the patience and commitment required to develop one: The parents' value system of finding the shortest way possible through connections have been supplemented by the next generations impatience and insistence that India as a young country should have waiver from such boring norms of developing expertise.

In summary, the picture that I see is that an entire system locked into an anti-meritocratic spiral. Indeed, there is excellence at the top of the pyramid - but I concern myself with the mass education systems. The innovation challenge that I see in India are constructed in terms of the following question: What could one do to change the system of values underlying education? This, to me, is a better start point than expecting the employers to change the norms or the parents to suddenly appreciate the changing world. Besides, for those things, one can only pray for, while there could be some conscious and deliberate efforts to create a transformative education.

I already have a mandate to do something at the undergraduate education level, which I shall now pursue. However, I have now started thinking about the system of values and motivations, which underlie all education. The point I hear from all the constituents is that there is a problem there - but one must shy away from doing anything about it because it is the hardest. There is no money to be made trying to change thinking, and this rules out a for-profit intervention. But even others, the not-for-profit interventions trying to change education and enhancing employability, concern themselves mostly with tinkering at the edges and making trivial interventions, marked only by activity without outcome. This can only be achieved through a coalition of interests, and staying in India for a prolonged period of time allows me to connect with those who are trying to explore options and challenge the status quo.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Moment for Return

It rained heavily while I waited to board my flight at Pune's Lohegaon airport. It is only a short walk to the plane, but it was the kind of downpour that won't allow even those few steps. The ground staff, who can't but be out and about, were struggling even with their big, workmen-like umbrellas. My cheap folding umbrella, a companion I learnt to keep while living in London, has to remain safely tucked away: This rain is just too mighty for its makers to have imagined. So I waited in the erratic queue ful of busy-looking people, for the bus to do the one minute ride, which the bus was doing, with all its elaborate maneuver around the plane and along the pre-set routes, once in every fifteen minutes. That's when I started writing this post - partly to get around boredom, but also to remember this smell, the smell that comes from such rain. It may be my imagination - in fact, must be my imagination - that I was smelling the wet soil even through all the mixture of fuel air, sanitizers, assorted perfumes worn by people in the queue, and airconditioned air vented out at various spots from inside the passenger area as we waited outside, but I would like to believe that it was there, and it indeed reached me.

This smell makes me feel Indian. I have not lived in this country for fifteen years now, but have never forgotten the smell. The memory is so strong that I can even imagine it at times, as I must have been doing here right now. This is that smell from my childhood which arose from wet ground when the rains touched it. With a very unscientific imagination, I always imagined that such rain must be poring through the ground to touch earth's heart - and bringing out her deepest love for everything us. That smell therefore bonded me to the land, with an emotional tie that can transcend all practicalities, and remained with me as I surrendered to my ambition and left the country. This smell remained though, in my mind, to make occasional appearances in unlikely places, as it is doing right now, as I stood in bored abandon waiting for my one-minute bus ride for my eighteen minutes flight to Mumbai thereafter, fidgeting with my mobile phone to look as busy as everyone else on the queue.

They say smell is the most memorable of all feelings and obviously I shall agree. And, it is to me to the most evocative - my childhood lives through this smell - as well as an answer that I am searching for: I am forever reconciling my idea of happiness, an idle winter morning where I visualise myself standing in the balcony of my childhood home enduring the northerly breeze and waiting for the sun to become stronger; with my idea of success, which I conceive as a mixture of globetrotting, glamour and gold rush. These are two diametrically opposite ideas and I live in the tension between the two: I can never make a home in England nor settle down to be a babu in Kolkata.

Surely, I am fully aware that this is a false dilemma in many ways, because the two propositions are not opposite but relate to two different things, work and lifestyle respectively, and any trade-off will involve my own sense of priority for one over the other. But, at the same time, the trade-off involves my life, what I do in my waking hours. And, as I have come to know, such trade-offs, while it may sound normal to many of my compatriots, should not be taken as a necessary price to pay to be in the modern world. What I saw, as I traveled, that this proposition presented to me as normal, hide the fact that there is a hierarchy of choices underlying it: My idle winter morning is so impractical because we have come to accept that such things value less than an idle winter afternoon spent in a Swiss resort (or an yacht somewhere). What we take to make sense is actually to buy into the conventional meaning of 'sense', as told on TV perhaps, and what I think of as success is merely accepting that my childhood and heritage meant nothing. I have come to accept to live in a bubble and accept that I must spend my time, the only thing that is really mine, in servicing a desire which was imposed upon me.

That the smell of the ground brings forth such reflection is liberating. As much I celebrate transient identity, I see identity as an anchor, a way to resolving dilemmas such as mine which has no easy answer, and also to escape the prison of other people's ideas, which are usually dressed up and presented as self-evident truths in so many areas of our lives. The smell of the ground, as I mentioned, overwhelms all my supposed rationality and makes me feel that it is coming out from the heart of the earth (while I am perfectly aware that the real smell may be of Sulfur). But at this very liberating moment of standing in a queue, this is not just a smell but an anchor, a signal on how to resolve questions I can never really resolve by trying to make sense, because what I believe to be 'sense' is merely buying into other people's percepts, often constructed to their advantage. 

This narrative will end in a rather obvious way. The bus will come, the queue will dissolve, the plane will do its absurdly short flight, and I shall be back to the hustle-bustle of Mumbai, haggling with cab drivers for a ride to my hotel. In a few moments, I shall not care when this rain will stop, and just make an assumption that like all rains, it would stop. Life will become normal when the rain stops and the scorching Sun returns. All these, put in this blog, will remain to earn the scorn of occasional visitors as nonsense: In fact, it is very much intended to be so. I am writing in this very bored, very evoked moment as if to say what if life is really unreal, and what if this smell is from the earth designed to remind me who I am and what I ought to do. This will be no more a conspiracy than all these rationally constructed logic of living in London, expressed in terms of career, money, and progress. This smell is no less real than all the luxuries of Louis Vuitton and Gucci and all that. In fact, I get more time to adore those luxuries than this rare opportunity to get bored and really smell the soil: If simple rarity would have the predictor of value, this moment would be infinitely more valuable than those assorted shopping mall time that I am destined to spend. This is a moment when all my childhood, and all those people associated with it, with all the love, all the dream, all the pride, come compressed in one distilled moment, cleansed off all the disappointments, cries, injuries and limitations, as in a perfect pearl preserved with great care in the crest of time. The real, the queue, the boredom, the pretenses of myself and of others standing here, the absurdity of the bus and the plane, are no more real than the imagined, water tearing through the surface of the earth and touching its heart, breaking down its defenses and bringing forth emotions deeply hidden: This is what is happening to me.

The flight must call, I must rush, the phone must be switched off and the ruminations must end, but one knows where to return, which may wait but an wait that goes on forever.   

Monday, August 25, 2014

Conversations 13: Of David and Goliath

My weekend, spent boringly in Bangalore, was about catching up on some readings and watching some TED videos, including this fascinating talk by Malcolm Gladwell.

In fact, this made me so interested that I ended up watching his longer talk at Google (below) which covers the same ground and more. In fact, this next talk highlighted one more issue close to my heart, which is, when you are at a disadvantage, you need to learn to play a different game. Indeed, this comes from the story of Vivek Ranadive, recounted here in this second talk, and this has profound implications, or so I think, for what I do.

Without saying much more about Gladwell except that I shall surely read his book next (and recommend everyone to see his profile on CBS by Anderson Cooper), let me try to summarise what I am learning from all these discussions. My obsession remains with how to educate someone who did not have the advantage of a selective education so that s/he can live a productive and happy life in a modern economy. Taking advantage of being in India, I want to develop a better understanding of what goes on in the vast vocational education efforts that are going on in India. But even before I could have the opportunity to spend time on that, this David-and-Goliath story points to one problem in the whole scheme.

Employability training, as planned and perceived by those with privilege, is all about training up those without privilege on the skills that the privileged are presumed to have. But this means both discounting all that these learners have going for them, and making them play a game that they are disadvantaged at. When I mentioned the point to someone who I met from Azim Premji Foundation, he gave me a great example from their work where they are trying to use street drama to work in various villages to raise awareness and participation. I guess the bottom line is exactly that: To empower those we want to empower, it would need more than Powerpoint. However, once the governments get into the numbers game - the Indian government wants to train 500 million people and want to get credit for that - such things become impossible. 

The economist Kaushik Basu recently tweeted: "The reason India is trailing in its once-strong higher education is not that it's doing things differently but not doing things differently." Absolutely.


Conversations 12: Re-engaging With India

I decided to write a personal note almost for the record, my own record, so if I ever look back on these blog posts several years later, this will serve as a bookmark: This is where and how my thinking changed, it would record. Not that I have done anything truly significant, but more than a week in India and I have started feeling comfortable with it. I am engaging with India with more substantial intent this time than before, and the nature of my engagement is also slightly different: Hence, it matters.

Despite being Indian, and a frequent visitor, every time I come to India, it takes time to adjust. This is nothing to do with the country, which indeed remains the same, but it is me - every time I go back, nostalgia and memories overlap with reality, justifications mellow down experiences, afterthoughts make emotions benign. So, every time I walk out of the airport, I bring an image of a country with me, which must go through a series of interactions to get real. This happened to me this time too, along with a persisting jet lag (perhaps on account of trying to hit the road all too soon), followed by an disabling food poisoning resulting from some adventures with South Indian cuisine. However, after a week, I feel fully up and running, and engrossed with the opportunity that I see before me (and have a realistic perception about the challenges).

My immediate agenda in India is to develop the opportunities for an global learning company, which sets up project-based learning in partnership with employers and universities. The idea is that employers will closely participate in the learning process, by allowing live projects and allowing their staff to mentor students, and the students will earn academic credits for the project work they do. Over the last few days, I have interacted with many employers and have a sense of how critical the talent crunch is. In fact, the system that we are trying to set up addresses many of the issues that the employers were telling me about. The only challenge I perceive going forward is whether many employers have a long term strategic approach to talent - we are building talent pipelines to be recruited over the years rather than recruiting people for here-and-now need. Indeed, my aggregate view of the Indian companies have been that their business models are often predicated on the quantity rather than the quality of people they are recruiting, and strategic perspectives about skills and talents are quite difficult to achieve when recruitment is often a frenetic people-churning machine. I, therefore, feel that this job will perhaps involve a bit of proselytising about the education-to-employment process, something I consider as an area of interest and strength. And, indeed, this will mean a wealth of learning about the process and space.

I am hoping that this learning will further feed into the broader work on Indian Education that I hope to do. I spent some time talking to various vocational education providers, trying to understand their business models. I remain keen to help create a meaningful model of education for people without access to sophisticated schools and career advice - this is what led me to do the various projects that I did over the last few years - and these conversations stimulate me to think about an appropriate model for this work. At this point of time in India, the vocational education is a cheap way of expanding traditional education. I, however, think this is completely misdirected, because the students they train have a different start-point. What these companies are mostly doing is to provide a poor man's version of the education city-based students receive to a disadvantaged group of students: This is likely to amplify and proliferate the disadvantages these students have, rather than enhancing their strengths. Through these interactions, I am learning not just about the process inefficiencies which are rather obvious and far too many, but also about the absurdity of the whole enterprise itself.

Which is possibly the pivot in my thinking, as these discussions stimulate me to search further for an appropriate model for providing such an education. At one level, this means revisiting a lot of things that I studied during my Masters and possibly rediscovering the appetite for Doctoral studies. At another, this means getting involved into various conversations about this subject that is happening in India. While the space is generally devoid of new ideas, there are some inspiring examples as well. I was impressed with the kind of work Azim Premji Foundation is doing in primary education, and some other private companies which are innovating with education technology targetted at the vocational space. While I remain interested in comparative education and would look to learn from global experiences, India is one of the most exciting countries to experience these trends and even to set off innovation. I am hoping that my deeper engagements with India will allow me perspectives that I wouldn't have otherwise got if I was studying this from a distance.

My big challenge now is to organise myself to take advantage of all these opportunities. I wanted to come away from England to have some space to do the thinking about what I should do next. Last few days of touring alone provided me some opportunities of reflection, though touring was rather hectic and the meeting timings erratic. However, this engagements with India clarified my mind quite a bit and allowed me to think through: I could see perhaps how to make a new beginning, both personally and professionally. If it needed persuasion, I am now totally convinced that my original percepts about the Indian opportunity was not misguided. It needed more on the ground engagement, and for that, adequate resources. This is why I am convinced that I have made the right decision.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

India 2014: The Democratic End

India is a proud democratic country, even more so after the magic of a clear majority has been achieved by the new administration in Delhi after quarter of a century of coalition politics. Everywhere one goes, democratic pride is in display: If some people started doubting if a democratic system will only produce politics of division, they have now been thoroughly convinced that Indian democracy is a system that works.

In this rather triumphalist environment, it is rather blasphemous to question whether democracy is enough in itself. Indeed, blogging with a contrarian opinion is quite hazardous in India, where people are commonly arrested for political opinions using colonial era gagging laws. Besides, even if there is no legal ground to arrest someone, smashing up people's houses by agitated supporters of one party or the other is quite common. TV channels are routinely silenced, either by political mandate or by corporate takeovers, with the objective of squashing any critical perspective. In some ways, India seems to take democracy as the end, not a means to attain greater liberties.

Among those celebrating India's democracy, the contrast with China is often highlighted. Many claims India will eventually overtake China because India is democratic while China is not. There may be some merit in that claim, though such unquestioning formulation, worthy of a George Bush Junior, may make one wonder whether this is complacence or plain silliness. These claims are indeed made quite nonchalantly, as appropriate for a self-evident truth, even though the local government in India's capital city remains in suspension for last several months. That India is sending Helicopter gunships to fight its own landless peasants in Central India is seen only as an anti-terrorist operation. If one observes the case of Irom Sharmila, the lady who has been protesting against the arbitrary powers given to the Indian Armed Forces and was jailed and force-fed for the last 13 years (read the latest), the limits of democracy is enough view become more apparent.

Besides China has a deep meritocracy, which India's corrupt democracy in fact undermines. Most institutions, Police particularly among them, but also such unseemly ones like Hospitals and Schools and Universities, are politicised, with appointments linked to political patronage. The Indian judiciary prides itself of its independence, but questions about its corruption and political affiliations are only kept off the media for the fear of contempt of court, which Indian judges have a penchant for. And, indeed, deep corruption in all public services, this week Senior Officials got arrested for selling a range of things including Government jobs and Censor Board certificates, makes one wonder whether democracy is enough.

Indian democracy is indeed no mean feat. The very imagination that a poor, illiterate country could have universal suffrage was a great achievement of political imagination. Indian people have indeed risen to the challenge, by displaying their collective will in great splendour every time they were allowed to vote. They have taken the right decision on every turn, throwing out the corrupt and the inefficient, and voting for hope, peace, and lately, development. And, indeed, democracy has become ingrained in the Indian life: Last time a Prime Minister tried to suspend democracy in 1975 learnt a lesson.

However, the greatest danger to Indian democracy comes from its treatment as an end in itself. The people who imagined Indian democracy saw it as a means: To greater liberties, as a means for holding the powerful to account, to ensure equitable development. Trading off such aims to treat democracy as enough, and to speak moist-eyed about how there was a polling station at even the remotest part of the country (no mean feat), and accepting poor education, poor healthcare, corruption and lack of accountability as just ways of Indian life, poses the greatest challenge to sustenance of Indian democracy. Democracy isn't a substitute for public accountability; democracy does not guarantee meritocracy, so on and so forth. Democracy makes all those things possible, indeed, only if we care about them. It is time for Indians to wake up from their democratic stupor and start working towards some of those other goals.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Rethinking Education's Value Chain

Managing and optimising the value chain is the big thing in business strategy. Numerous innovations have taken place since businesses have started thinking about it, and such innovations revolutised the businesses. The biggest change with regard to this is perhaps how manufacturing companies moved away from production activities, and instead focused on the activities directly related to the customer experience. So, however nostalgic we may be about a team of Engineers hacking together a working personal computer out of someone's garage, Apple is the company it is by producing machines in Foxconn factories in China and by being in control of the customer experience through its design, development and retailing and channel operations. In short, the current paradigm is that the value resides with the customers.

As Higher Ed comes under financial pressure and told to be more business-like, the Education leaders have also started innovating with the education's value chain. They have drawn lessons from manufacturing companies, perhaps, and decided to outsource activities which were previously sacrosanct - the teaching itself. As if following the manufacturing playbook, large educational organisations started focusing more on brand, marketing and administration, and filled their classrooms with armies of adjunct tutors. This is indeed particularly true for private institutions and lower ranked public colleges, and popular among investors in education, which see the tutor salaries as the biggest cost for any education operation, and therefore seek to minimise it. Following this mantra, colleges today have become indistinguishable from the other offices, employing vast arrays of management staff but few tutors. When Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) started overseeing UK private colleges in 2012, their reports showed that they were somewhat surprised by how few tutors actually featured in the permanent payroll of these colleges. The adjunct model is indeed working very well.

Except that this takes the education business away in the opposite direction from where manufacturing companies wanted to go: Away from the customers (students). The value chain thinking in education is perhaps applied too literally, and dare I say this, with little thinking. If the value resides with the students, it is the interface with the students, the classroom, where the institutions should be focused on. But they are not. 

Indeed, one could argue that this is for a good reason. This is because often the money is coming from the governments, donors or loan providers, creating a vast bureaucratic overload. Besides, the education institutions are spending a huge amount of money, and employing a lot of staff, in one critical touchpoint with the students - in marketing. Seen from the priority assigned to various activities, it would seem that most education institutions today are vast marketing machines. 

This is perhaps a mistake. Unlike the product companies, where the customer and the payer is often the same, in education, it may be different. That someone is paying for it does not make value automatically migrate to that particular interface, if the benefits of that expenditure have to realised to the satisfaction of another person. God save the spa where I send my wife for a loving break and which decides to treat me as a customer because I am paying for it! On a more serious note, the government is funding the student for a reason, and so is the Student Loan Company: Treat the students less than par and the loans will remain unpaid. So, this conception of value creation that underlie the current operations, and organisational structure, of educational institutions seem to be out of sync with the concept of the value chain.

I shall claim that the this new managerial university model is one of the key reasons why education is becoming dysfunctional. Indeed, the education investors want more, not less of, a managerial university model: They are investing in companies which project scalable education models by 'adjunctifying' (if such a word could be invented) teaching. This is the only way they could find to liberate education from its 'cottage industry' thinking. But by doing that, they shift the organisations away from the customer experience (or redefine the meaning of customer experience, making students happy with better swimming pools or marketing package rather than good education) and more into a bureaucratic jungle. However, we can perhaps see that the smaller private colleges work better than big college chains (collapse of Corinthian Colleges in the US may just be the tip of the iceberg as far as the problems of big chains are concerned) and the relationships that underlie the operations of proprietary tuition homes in India somewhat work better in creating more student success than big industrialised private universities. While these are anecdotal observations - and indeed some serious discussions on the models of the managerial universities, both public and private, need to happen, rethinking the value chain of education and locating the activities that are critical to value creation may be a good start for an education entrepreneur.  


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Education and Ideas of Economic Growth

It is commonplace to talk about education for economic growth, but our ideas about what leads to  economic growth somehow defines what kind of education we may want. 

As Joel Mokyr highlights in his eminently readable 'Lever of the Riches', there are four 'ways' to economic growth that the standard economic history brings forth. 

First, what he calls the 'Solovian Growth', after Robert Solow, the doyen of economic growth theorists, which hinges of capital formation. In this model, the entity, the country in the standard formulation, saves more than it produces, and build capital stock in terms of infrastructure, human capability and investible capital.

Second, what Professor Mokyr calls 'Smithian Growth', this alternative route to growth hinges on trade, either within the country, between the villages and cities, or between regions. The more trade there is, greater the rate of growth.

Third, there is a theory that population growth itself bring about economic growth, making infrastructural projects efficient. This is perhaps applicable for those societies with limited population, where it does not make sense to build a road because so few people will use it.

Fourth, and final, is the 'Schumpeterian Growth', where technological creativity creates new efficiencies and new ways of doing things, thus augmenting the existing capital stock but increasing the level of economic activity. Some economic historians, cited by Professor Mokyr, talk about technological creativity coming together with expansion of credit, a feature of developed economies, to create conditions for such growth, but as Professor Mokyr points out, expansion of credit isn't a necessary precondition for this kind of economic growth; technological creativity, though, is.

While we seem to unquestioningly accept that education facilitates economic growth, it is perhaps logical to think the kind of education we would need depends somewhat on our underlying theories of economic growth. For example, India, where the talk of economic growth is incessant, is somewhat after the Smithian paradigm, where the expansion of trade, facilitated by increased consumption, is supposed to bring about the economic growth. The education, therefore, is geared towards making Consumer-Citizens out of students, by teaching them industrialised lifestyle and making them financially literate (so that they can manage credit). It is a very different kind of education from the developed nations, where the predominant paradigm is Schumpeterian, and therefore, the kind of education that is expected and delivered, is focused on values that may lead to technological creativity.

The key question, of course, is if these categories are mutually exclusive, or even sequential. So, the people who may think that India's growth will come from opening up its inside market, without the Schumpeterian innovation engine powering such expansion, may not be right. Consumption-driven growth that India is in the pursuit of, and the pro-young rhetoric that it is accompanied with, somewhat obscures India's need for disciplined innovation, that may augment its rather limited capital stock. The approach of India's government which focuses on making more people join the modern consumption economy (to keep busy the sprouting shopping malls and occupy the new housing stock) as the only goal of the expansion of education system lacks such perspective. India, if it is develop, will have to build an education system which bring together Schumpeterian growth with Smithian growth (and indeed plug the holes to Solovian growth through better institutions and curbing corruption), and not build its formula for prosperity on the expansion of consumption alone.   


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Education for Employment: What Private Businesses Can Do?

Because businesses need more and more skilled people to do the jobs, they are the key beneficiaries of education. This has not always been the case - the Church and the Government needed educated people more than businesses until very recently - but in a secular society and with the age of small governments, that has changed. Today, the businesses are perhaps the largest recipient of the educated people, and for most students, education is about preparing for a career in business. Indeed, this does not mean that education does not have any other purpose, but it is best to recognise this changing perspective about education.

What the educators should, or shouldn't, do in this changed context gets discussed all too often. However, what does not get proportionate attention is what businesses need to do. The businesses often complain that they don't get the trained manpower that they need to remain competitive, and they expect the education sector to deliver them what they need, but they wouldn't similarly step up their efforts to facilitate the education that they may want provided. The governmental resources to provide an education that will satisfy the business' requirements are clearly inadequate; and even if the education is privately funded by the students, it is difficult for the educators to balance off all the constituents, including the students, to create an employment focused education.

In this context, it is appropriate to talk about the role of private businesses themselves in bridging the employability gap. The direct engagement of the businesses into the education process, through exchange of know-how, facilitation of experiential learning and provision of funding, can all help make education more relevant to businesses. All these are indeed better than complaining endlessly about the limitations of the traditional education process, and paying a heavy cost in terms of sub-optimal recruitment pipeline.

That businesses should be more engaged in education is already a part of the global conversation, but the current paradigm may be counter-productive. Some countries, like China and India, are experimenting with the ideas of a CSR tax, which is a forced mechanism for businesses to contribute to social causes, education among them. While this works at one level, there is a renewed commitment and expanded commitment among many Indian and Chinese companies, this somewhat undermines the point that the businesses need a learned society for its own sake. With short term earning pressures weighing in on every move of the executives in modern businesses, a business case is far more convincing than any other sort of persuasion. And, taxation, while effective in the short run, may end up undermining a greater consciousness among the businesses about what they need to do to help develop a better workforce.

Besides, the taxation approach, while rightly focusing on the problem of educational access, somewhat ignores the challenge of educational quality and relevance. The latter is, in the context of rapidly changing society, at least as big a problem. While the suggestion that one should focus on Quality but not Access is nonsensical, the opposite is also equally wrong. However, this is the implicit argument in the conversation behind the CSR tax, that one needs to solve the problem of access first (and quality and relevance can be thought about later). This does not work, because a bad education is often worse than no education: While the countries have increased the numbers going into education over the last two decades, the numbers dropping out has soared, not just in absolute terms, but also as a percentage of people going into education at every level. And, graduates found unemployable topped up this problem further. The CSR approach to education does nothing to encourage businesses to join the conversation about relevant education for their own sake, which arguably would have a much greater impact, both in convincing businesses about their commitment to education as well as overall educational impact.

In fact, businesses can do a lot in injecting result orientation and innovation in education. In fact, where they play a role, they do such things. While most of these things are viewed with suspicion by educators, these are basic values of modern business. If the students are to prepare for a career in business, they are better off going through a system which are informed by such values. Indeed, no one is suggesting that there will be one monolithic system of education and businesses will do all of it; the state will still have a role to play and so will the religious and community organisations. But businesses can involve itself within the context of sectors or types of institutions (say Business or Engineering Schools) and innovations in these sectors, if effective and relevant, can spread to other places. 

However, to get the innovation and result orientation going, the businesses will need to be more involved. Currently, it is all about doing good, which translates into some limited amount of money and mostly hands off engagement, alongside lots of window-dressing to make the business look good. The little money that flows in also goes mostly into 'trophy items', Academic Chairs, Research Centres, or at best Scholarships, and most of these remain one-off, unsustained and of limited impact for both the student and the respective businesses themselves. An urgent conversation needs to happen towards how best to make businesses create a sustained commitment, through greater involvement and clear linkages to its own strategic goals: Getting the businesses on the table to have this conversation is perhaps the best way to enhance employability. 


Monday, August 18, 2014

Content Side of Education: An Indian Opportunity

As I travel in India and meet with education providers, I come across this popular view that there is no business in educational content. So, the business models of private education providers are predicated on innovations in delivery, technology or financing, but content is by far the least popular. This is not surprising - this is indeed the view most financiers of education hold - but slightly puzzling particularly in the context of India, where most content is so poor.  

It seems that the argument is when so much free content is available, what is the point of making more content? And, secondly, the business model for content seems very difficult to crack. These are apparently valid points, but the 'content gap' in education in a country like India remains apparent, and some business model innovation is needed.

Indeed, there is some work happening already. There are companies adapting MOOC content for Engineering Education, in partnership with an Indian university. I have also seen distance learning programmes built around the TV programming done by Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). I have also seen extensive licensing from global publishers and translation efforts for text books. I would, however, think that there is a case of production of educational content, which seems to be neglected among the Indian providers.

The global content is an useful source, but given India's educational challenges and linguistic diversity, what's on offer is clearly inadequate. The MOOCs can only work so far. I have seen classes conducted with the imperfect YouTube generated subtitles, which are mostly wrong and lowers, rather than enhancing, understanding. Besides, these are clear cases of learning objectives fitting the content rather than the other way around. Khan Academy may do a world of good and can indeed enhance learning, but it is hardly able to cater to all the needs that a country like India may have.

In terms of production, I see some efforts from the broadcasters - I met several people talking about education focused programming for TV channels - but these discussions remain within its media context. The approach these providers want to take is to fill the time for their respective channels, rather than building an useful educational provision. The universities are so far behind in the game that they are not producers of content, but consumers themselves. All of this indicate an opportunity in educational content production, but a business model remains to be found.

I would presume the answer lies in Public-Private partnership of some kind, which can bring the scale to content production. The broadcasters' interests in educational content should be seized upon by the entrepreneurs, though they should think about combining different media and channels, and worthwhile educational objectives, to make standalone educational content business work. A good enterprise of suitable scale should also engage one or the other cash-strapped universities to join the effort.

The capabilities needed to produce educational content are already there in India, with some of the world's most successful companies in the space being Indian (Tata Interactive Services and NIIT/ Element K come to mind). But these capabilities have not been deployed to serve the Indian customers so far, with these players remaining mostly focused on outsourced opportunities. The big change perhaps is that with public money being poured into education and skills development, there is a clear opportunity emerging. My prediction would be that some very innovative and successful educational content companies will emerge in India serving the local consumers in the next few years.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Conversations 11: The 'Skills' Conversation

I am in India and experiencing a new country from the one I knew last time I lived here, in 2002, as well as very different from the one I experienced when I engaged in 2007. The hope is somewhat muted, the denial is somewhat more obvious and the new India has somehow arrived. It is both sophisticated and coarse: I watched its new Prime Minister deliver the Independence Day speech with great sophistry and touch, but the message he gave out is somewhat nonchalant and pedestrian. His vision for India rested on India grabbing some businesses away from the increasingly expensive China, as the latter finally catch up on Health and Safety and Environmental protection. With rousing language and intense passion, he laid out a case for India which will beat the Chinese in providing cheap labour, and invited the companies of the world to 'make in India'.

I have long given up taking political speeches seriously. However, this particular speech was significant not because of the occasion or for anything that was said, but rather because it represented so succinctly what I was seeing in the new India: A new sleekness backed by little content. Like the new mall in Kolkata devoted to International Brands which fail to accept international credit cards, the telecom companies that boast universal connectivity but advised me to make mobile calls without moving around too much, the big budget movies with sophisticated animation which are mostly shown in slow motion. 

The new consensus, learnt perhaps in the best business schools in the world, is that presentation matters. Perhaps a good thing for the country where utilitarian products and functional bare-minimums were the norm when we grew up, the presentation society seemed to have happened in a space of a mere half-decade. And, it has happened so fast that it has moved out of sync with the ground realities, perhaps by intention: It is perhaps driven by the belief that if you keep saying you are good, you will turn out to be good. This may be staple stuff for management gurus, but not useful when you are out in the field competing with others with less pretensions.

This make-believe world indeed pervade my own area of concern, that of skills. I am told that India is a world leader in skill development, and the Prime Minister did the usual boast saying 'India has the skills'. This is nothing unusual, despite the persistent complaints by the employers that they don't find the right people, for politicians to say that India has the skills. My usual question, whether India is equipping its people with the right skills, usually gets challenged: I shall never forget the business school professor who accused me of being unpatriotic for even bringing up the subject. His point was that if the world is outsourcing all the jobs to India (?), India must have the skills: A somewhat circular construction perhaps popular among the politicians, including the Prime Minister's advisors. 

This 'world leadership' in skills is truly amazing, because the absence of it is perhaps most obvious even to the most casual observer. And, this is not just about Communication and Presentation, as many employers would make me believe. More accurately, India has an hour-glass problem in terms of skills, a sophisticated Senior Management cadre and lots of unskilled staff, but nothing in between: The middle management staff, people to interact and service customers, technical staff who can go beyond procedural work and find creative solutions, are all extremely hard to come by. The lack of customer-facing staff is the most obvious and gets talked about, and the lack of the others don't get noticed because India does not get to the creative end of the work (at least not much). Besides, the rhetoric about being world leader in skills, and shouting down any inquiry into viability of this claim, only allows the problem to get bigger.

As a part of my work, I want to inquire into this claim about Indian skills. I know the leadership in skills is only political rhetoric, used to claim great achievement on the back of a huge spending commitment to train 500 million people over a decade. I have only anecdotal evidence, primarily gathered through comparative observations of the back-office workers in Poland and Philippines, smaller but better skilled countries, and just enough narrative information about India's own skill building initiatives, which, like many other initiatives, appear to be a tale of high rhetoric, wasted money and little impact. However, my current work allows me to gain insights on what's really needed and what's being done. Indeed, I take pride in the work I have done, alongwith my colleagues, in Aptech and in NIIT in the 1990s, to train millions of Indian students in IT skills; I want to know how we collectively lost our way. I am conscious of the risks of such work, because it is at odds with the 'Presentation Layer' of the Indian policy making (which is the only layer which seems to matter), but the risk of no one doing it also too great, as India tries to get 10 million people jobs every year and runs a real risk of wasting the biggest demographic opportunity in many generations into one of the greatest socio-economic disasters. I am also acutely aware that the Indian thinking about the 'skills' is based on steady-state assumptions about the world economy - it is oblivious about technology change and the dynamic of globalisation - and this makes this an even more urgent conversation. If I was looking for a theme to commit to, I have got one now.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Education for Employment: What Employers Want

In course of my initial approach to understand India's skills landscape, I have been interviewing a few recruiting managers over the last few days. The issues I came across ranged from wholly predictable to somewhat surprising, underlining not just the drift of the modern workplace but also the unique challenges an Indian recruiting manager are facing.

I am conscious that these conversations are, by no means, representative. I was talking to people from only two specific industries, and it is obviously quite a small sample to draw conclusion about the Indian labour markets. But this was still worth writing about as the starting point of a more complete project I want to embark upon, to understand the interfaces between employment and education.

When I asked my correspondents what their greatest challenges were, the responses were somewhat mixed. Almost everyone talked about, in one way or other, about finding people with right abilities in the numbers they need: A straw poll tells me that only 20% of the people recruited who matched the profile desired by the employers, and there are some compromise being made for the majority of candidates.

However, the definition of 'right abilities' was somewhat surprising: As it turned out, the recruiters may be placing greater emphasis on Communication and Presentation Skills, and 'right attitude', than the technical abilities. The consensus was that while specific technical skills can be taught, communication and behavioural skills are much more difficult to deal with. Indeed, this is where the compromise is being made, people with inadequate communication skills are being recruited because there is no other alternative. There was no consensus, however, on whether this means the technical skills of the recruited candidates are usually adequate: Most of them thought these were inadequate too, but it mattered less, but a few thought they were getting the right level of tech skills.

The recruiting managers cited that the required volume and the urgency of the requirements are far too great for them to be 'perfectionists'. They were also conscious that there is a huge churn - one recruiting manager told me that they have to replace at least 30% of their total workforce every year - which, rather paradoxically, makes them less sensitive to getting the recruitment right. On my suggestion whether they could perhaps reduce the churn by tightening recruitment was mostly met with a rather fatalistic reply: That this is the way of the market and it is unlikely to be changed. Overall, this approach to recruitment might be a reflection of the business model of some industries, which depended on recruitment of lots of people with basic technical skills, but the approach seems to be universal. I talked to one successful business which runs a chain of diagnostic centres, which had quite a similar challenge and a similar approach, though their requirement of technical skills were quite specific and higher compared to an industry like insurance; surprisingly, they also suffer from a high level of churn, perhaps a reflection of the competitive nature of the market.

The idea of churn seemed to be all pervasive - which is not surprising - but this led to surprising conclusions. Most people accepted this as a given, and built recruitment strategies with the assumption that most people they are recruiting will leave the job quite soon. The recruitment focus was therefore based on numbers and not the skills, and communication skills mattered more than technical skills. Piecing all these together, it seemed that someone with a good communication skill can easily secure any job and can command a good salary because of the competitive nature of the market, but high level technical skills mattered much less (which may not be a correct impression, but skewed because of the limited scope of my survey).

The other big issue that came up, surprisingly, is the question of mobility. I perhaps somewhat mistakenly assumed that the issue of mobility has been resolved - post-liberalisation Indians are much more mobile than my own generation - but it still seemed to be an issue. Indeed, there were differences among industries here: The IT recruiters did not think mobility was an issue anymore, but everyone else did. It also seemed that there are some unspoken regional preferences in recruitment, though it was difficult to ascertain whether these were personal preferences of the recruiting managers or a more institutional approach. On the other hand, there was no clear gender preferences: That I even brought up the question offended some of my correspondents.

Indian employers reported spend the least among the BRIC countries in training their staff. Almost everyone, however, seemed to need to prepare the candidates for a significant period of time before they become productive. Despite the complaints about communication skills, the training seemed to be focused on technical skills rather than communication, partly because of the attitude that communication skills can't be improved and partly because of the fear of churn (some respondents, however, perhaps knowing my background and interests, noted that cross-cultural training is much needed). Apparently, the overall data (that Indian companies spent least on training) is not representative of the sectors such as IT and Financial Services, which may spend more than other sectors, though the countervailing concerns about churn remains a factor.  

One thing everyone agreed upon is that the educational system is failing to meet the requirements of the employers. In the light of the employers' requirements, primarily framed in terms of good communication skills, willingness to travel and commitment to a career, this was somewhat surprising. The levels of technical skills may disappoint the employers, but this is not what they are complaining about most. However, one could perhaps guess that Indian classrooms are hardly the place to develop these 'desired' skills: The culture of teacher-led education (with students never having to present or do an activity), somewhat mono-cultural classrooms and little thought and exposure to the world of work, the average Indian educational institutions usually fall short even on those rather straightforward requirements. This is perhaps the reason for success of the 'finishing school' business in India (a term that invariably cause surprise and derisive laughter among my British colleagues) but none of my correspondents thought that the 'finishing schools' actually work. Their common observation was, perhaps correctly, that the changes needed are fundamental and not just the cosmetic kind that the 'finishing schools' end up providing.
So, what should the schools do? Apart from providing good technical skills, their job seems to be cut out in terms of changing the culture of the classroom, providing wide ranging career counselling and work exposure and allowing cross-regional exchanges and work experience placements. This seems rather obvious, but most schools don't even get to do this. In fact, the recruiting managers thought they keep their academic calendar so busy and their efforts so focused on purely academic pursuits that they miss out on creating even a basic level of student experience. The Indian colleges may not agree to this, and cite their range of extra-curricular activities, but the relative weight of these activities is clearly out of sync with how the employers look at this.  

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A Great Indian University: Starting The Conversation

I discussed some ideas about how a new Indian university could be imagined (See Imagining A New Indian University and Imagining A New Indian University: Part 2). As the university creation reaches a fever pitch in India, with states jumping in to grant university licenses, this discussion is relevant enough to indulge in. Many new universities have started out without a clear sense of purpose, or even a sustainable 'business model' other than build-it-and-they-will-come, an assumption based on India's swelling student population but one that underestimates the essentially pragmatic nature of Indian students. An urgent debate about what an university should be needs to happen in India.

At the very basic level, the new Indian universities should approach the Education and Employment gap. This need is well understood - with students demanding 'placement' and universities bending over backwards to attract employers - but the methods of it are often muddled. Well-endowed universities are putting in a lot of sales efforts, formally or informally, trying to attract one employer or the other to their campuses; however, very little could be seen in terms of employer engagement in curriculum development or teaching processes, and almost nothing in research. The universities, whose licenses were primarily granted as the government struggled to find ways to make the country's young population productive, fail their essential purpose when they can't make their students productive and employable. 

If this failure demonstrates a fundamental lack of engagement, one should know that making students employable only a part of an university's agenda, even if this was the most explicit goal at the time of their creation. The employer demands are always shifting, and they are even more dynamic today as the globalisation and technologies of automation are reaching a tipping point. The shifts in the jobs and careers make the failure of imagination in Indian universities appear in sharper relief: Their failure to be relevant for the present is amplified by the absence of any views about the future. The curriculum, even in those rare cases where employers were consulted, fails to go beyond the HR Managers' specifications for here-and-now requirements; there is no frame of reference that the university may provide.

Finally, the lack of engagement with the present and absence of imagination about the future is expectedly supplemented by emptiness as far as a sense of the past is concerned. Apart from borrowing some phrases from the Western counterparts, one being 'Liberal Arts', Indian universities have done little to define what values they stand for, or indeed, if they should stand for any values at all. The conversation in the universities are about the net worth of the parents rather than what the learning is worth, and the students in most cases are not troubled by debates such as creationism versus evolution, because their world seemed to have started from their rich fathers (or in most cases, rich grandfathers). 

Yet, Indian universities, if they are successful, could represent a model for the entire developing world. China has traversed the path already and created great universities, but the Chinese model, given its social, political and financial peculiarities, are hardly replicable. The surplus demand, the millions of young people seeking education, makes Indian universities to be so complacent, but this could be their great strength in creating world class institutions once they have found themselves a purpose. Like the Indian software companies, which are caught into the opportunistic services trap and are mostly unable to create products or brands, the Indian university culture is busy with industrial scale teaching exercise, but nothing else. The difference, however, between these two sectors is that while the software businesses have to seek out the market and this makes the investment in products and brands so risky, the Indian universities are sitting on world's largest and fastest growing Higher Education market, and wasting the opportunity. They have the ultimate disruptive opportunity to change Higher Education as it is done, yet the best they can do is to ape the Western universities, though their operating environment and historical realities are completely different.

This sets the context of a new conversation: Is it at all possible to create a great university in India? What does one mean by a great university? What does it take to create one? Can this be created without endless amounts of money? Do the new universities must follow the historical model, or should they imagine the idea of an university all over again? What is the role of public policy in facilitating the creation of a great university?  I am hoping that, with my renewed engagements with India and Indian Higher Ed, I can engage in this conversation, which I shall report, hopefully, on this blog.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Conversations 10: Changing The Conversation

I wrote this blog for almost ten years now and its purpose has changed. I started to this as 'morning pages', to practise writing to break the 'writer's block', an aim I successfully achieved. Writing a few hundred words every other day has now become habitual, and though I spend little or no time editing - leaving out some errors at times - this has served me well as I eventually started writing for work. By then, though, the purpose of writing the blog had changed. I tried to turn this into my scrapbook of ideas, a sort of recording place as I go through various experiences and learn new things, and I still use this as such. This has also become my way of reaching out to people with similar interests, and I have made some remarkable friends through this blog (and this blog alone, as I have never met them though corresponded regularly). 

It is also interesting to note what I have not done with this blog. During the period I wrote this blog, I 'discovered' my interest in Higher Ed and went on to start a business, living through the full start-up experience, making sacrifices, finding opportunities etc. Some of those activities were reflected on this blog, as I wrote about my travels, my plans and my disappointments. But what I did not do, partly intentionally and partly for lack of resolve, is to turn this blog into a promotional piece for that business. At times, I do wonder whether I should have done so, but found the conscious style that one must adopt while promoting a business severely impeded my joy of writing this. In the end, I wanted to preserve the spontaneity here and choose other mediums for the business promotion.

However, there is another similar challenge that I am up with now. I know this sounds rather naive, but I was always driven by the desire to develop a writing career. This is why I needed to overcome the writer's block in the first place. This is also why I needed to accumulate ideas over a period of time, though, because I pursued multiple interests, there was no disciplined focus for these posts. All I was doing was to make sense of the world, but this blog never became an attempt to canvass commissions or demonstrate capability of any kind.

That I started writing about Higher Education was therefore purely incidental. I got interested in Higher Education, primarily as I saw the gap while traveling around on my recruitment role, and then followed that interest through with formal studies as well as work: The blog merely reflected that drift in my life. I am still at it, but I did not want to become a Higher Education blogger, and wanted to escape the language prison such a categorisation would invariably throw me into. I wanted to be outside, rather than inside, and engage in conversations about change, rather than preservation. And, indeed, professional blogging about a sector would have required a sense of certainty, but my purpose was search - so the pretense was untenable anyway.

However, at this time, I reached a point when certain commitments must be made. As I reported elsewhere, I have given up my teaching commitments, which were taking up a significant amount of my time and kept me tied down to London, and taken on an assignment within a global Higher Ed project. This will require me to travel, a lot perhaps, and hopefully, this will give me time to read and reflect and think more long term about my work and ambitions. This is also the time for me to write more about the things that interest me, none more than the emerging shape of education under the twin forces of Globalisation and Automation. I am expecting this to turn into a deep inflection point in my life, perhaps the starting point of my return journey to India.

At this time, I have little choice but to discipline my interests and focus instead on knowing a few things well. I have set myself up with projects so that I don't lose sight on self-development as life gets busy with travel. My ambition is to study about technology - its history, stories of invention, how it changes society - for the next few months. I am hoping that this will allow me to form educated opinions about what I want to have an educated opinion about - how we should educate the students when societies face such tectonic shifts due to globalisation and automation. As a chronicle of my ongoing interests, it is perhaps best for me to focus my writings on the same subject as well, and learn to create connected narratives rather than discreet posts. I am sure I shall write about my life, travels, experiences, meetings, discoveries, as I always do, but I am in love with this little project and want to do it well.

So, a monotony perhaps for some who signed up for this blog with different interests, but then I never assigned this blog any purpose other than just being an open space to talk things I care about. And, indeed, I said so much about technology without any systematic examination of the subject, and now only intending to do my catch-up. Changing the conversation may not be a departure, but rather a return to my original commitment to make sense of the world.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Conversations 9: A Migrant At Large

Immigration is one of those issues where everyone has a view: I have mine. And, indeed, everyone has a view which is determined by their own experience, plus Daily Mail: Being a migrant myself, I have the first part but not the second. 

I am also an unusual migrant: I migrated not to settle, but to experience and learn. As I always maintained, my roads finally lead back to where I started. But I did not think my education would be complete unless I travelled, and so I did. This is why I seek out experiences which take me to interactions with different cultures and set me challenges to do different things in different countries: For me, all of these are accumulating knowledge and experience for an eventual return.

This makes me a permanent outsider. I am an outsider to what I should call my native land, but also to the one I live in. Whatever practical difficulties this may entail, there are some significant advantages of being in this position: You get to escape Daily Mail, or its other country equivalents, for one. This whole debate about some stereotyped aliens taking over benefits and jobs (though both can't be correct at the same time) becomes redundant, and rather, migration becomes a personal conversation. Living through the suspicions, stereotypes and usual migrant experiences, one forms an idea not just of the society but of oneself. 

For example, I developed a view about immigration watching the rhetoric over the last ten years I have been an immigrant. My own migration was easy: The country wanted Highly Skilled Migrants of a certain age, education and income, and I ticked the right boxes. This is indeed before the rhetoric changed: The highly skilled became highly endowed, and the balance shifted from income or experience to wealth. About seven years after I arrived in Britain, rules changed so that I couldn't have made it - at least if I remained exactly in the same position where I was when I came - because I needed a lot more money. The idea was that Britain did not want more people to come and work here, but rather people who would create jobs. People with money, that is.

This has also been the general drift of the policy elsewhere. Fortune ran this memorable cover, which tells the story in America. Whatever is written on Statue of Liberty, the discussion about immigration is not about high-minded idealism. The British approach of straight-faced opportunism has infected everyone. 

But, then, indeed, it is easy to see the problem in this approach. The British government perpetually lives in the last century, being led by public school boys who never actually had to do a hard day's work or run a small business. Their love for the wealthy should be fairly easy to understand. However, it is difficult to see why Americans will also fall in that trap, after building a successful economy based on the script written on the Statue of Liberty: The original one. All those immigrants who will go on to set up great American businesses arrived in America poor, huddled and often unskilled: They looked a lot more like today's Mexican workers than the French banker running away from a tax regime. 

These are things one sees as a migrant but others don't. In fact, for a migrant, there is not one desirable way of living other than the changing landscapes of a journey. Others, those who never left (outside of holidays), preservation of ways of life come as a top priority - indeed, that is what is called happiness. However, what is less understood perhaps is that the migrants want happiness too, either by clinging to little pieces of home inside their own houses or by trying to embrace a fixed way of living as in the host culture,  but usually fail, as his or her existence itself is treated as an aberration, a departure from things that used to be. One may try to prove the point that clinging to old ways of life may not be an option for many of these migrants, because life at home irreversibly changed as globalisation, often to maximise the returns on the funds of the same pensioner uneasy about the people next door, has been unleashed upon them: One does not have a choice but to board a boat to Europe once the fishing village one lived in die, just because the Atlantic Cod has made its way to European dinner plates. I escape the migrant's desire to be accepted or understood in wanting to be a permanent migrant, but can see the vivid irony when the talk of British ways of life erupt in earnestness.

I also get to meet a lot of international students, who are looking to settle in Britain, the proverbial migrant, who would somehow live through a miserable existence in the hope of making it one day. There is nothing for them in the country they left, they tell me: The stories one gets told about elite jobs waiting for people returning with a fancy education does not apply to them. They set their ambition in just achieving a middle class life, a home whose debt they would pay off with life, a life for their children where they wouldn't be discriminated or persecuted, where they would be able to access Doctors who wouldn't cheat or lie to squeeze extra money out of them - and for this, they are ready to toil, ready to pay many times more for a house than it is worth, ready to accept a permanently inferior place in the society and bear the burden of permanent suspicion, and to accept a role far below their capacity and a cut-price pay. There is a definition of good life all of them have bought into: This good life hinges on being able to buy fancy trinkets rather than having a boring meal cooked at the family home, on having a healthy ban balance rather than having an extended family, on being treated indifferently by neighbours rather than the unwanted and intrusive advices of a village elder. One may call this a migration trap: A self-fulfilling, all destroying cycle, which sucks away those who can, just as it takes away the best mangoes and fishes, from those left-behind societies; and then once they arrive, they are left to live in permanent stigma, rationalising exclusion not just for them but for their children too, unless they give it all just to be allowed a silent existence. 

My travels take me to Middle East, where an extreme version of this plays out. There the exclusion is institutional and the work patterns matches those slaves who built the pyramid. Yet people come, buying into a slightly cruder version of the same Good Life, to get trapped in the elaborate tangles. Again, my being outside rather than inside allow me to see the similarities, even if just as a metaphor, between the communal housing in East Ham and bunk beds in Sonapur. 

Indeed, in all of this, there is a question that one of my students asked me: Is the nation important? Why would I care about the land I came from, and revel in that identity, plotting endlessly my way back? Why is a house in the country I live now not equal the house my grandfather left for me? Isn't this missing to celebrate my present and indulging in an interminable love affair with my past? Should I not move on, because, migrants' life, if anything, is about moving on?

There are no easy answers, particularly as most people leave as they are driven out. The countries who send out migrants are countries where a narrow elite has taken power and keep it among themselves: Migrants are sentenced to marginal existence not just after they leave, but also before - as they are outside the circle of the elite and can not have any voice in the affairs. However, it is still the allure of good life, sold actively by this elite: Look at the celebration in Dhaka or Manila as the migrant's remittances keep the domestic currencies strong so that they can buy their Land Rovers. People is their main export, and the most profitable one, as it keeps paying, one Bangladeshi 'exporter' told me. And, surely, those Land Rover sales help keep British factories and British jobs going, maintaining a full circle. Except that some people would have to live life as a canon fodder.

I think this is the central point: That being a migrant in this new world means giving up your chance to make a difference. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs may disagree, but they are an odd bunch, and increasingly, Americans want more Russian oligarchs than Indian or Chinese students. Making a difference by being a migrant is going out of fashion. In fact, returning is a better way of making a difference, look at the transformation in China and India and Africa, not just of the shopping malls and restaurants, but of businesses, of conversations and of values. That is the promise of good life upturned: That is about rejecting the life in search of good life and creating good life oneself. This means struggle, but no less than that of a migrant, just with a better chance of making a difference in the end. 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

'The New World Order': A Conversation

We live in an exceptional time. Though this isn't a quote from the excellent Foreign Affairs essay written by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee and Michael Spence (read it here) but somewhat its central message: That automation is now reaching a certain tipping point in capability, and with it, it is changing the dynamic of globalisation, ending the party for low cost labour and instead creating a Power Law economy, where a creative elite reap most of the rewards and most other lose out even more completely. Indeed, the authors argue that this is already happening: They report that China may have lost over 30 million manufacturing jobs, 25% of the total, since 1996 (though, the authors note, the data is unreliable because of a change in the way it was gathered) , though at the same time, manufacturing output has expanded at an exponential rate. Foxconn's (and of others) automation projects appear to be the obvious reason. This also bears out on anecdotal observation: Joshua Cooper Ramo's celebratory Globalism Goes Backward cites many examples of the trend, though allocates the responsibility to a change of heart rather than the logic of technology.

The essay makes the point that the first wave of information and communication technology, which led to some equalisation of the price of labour and capital across the world, is now giving way to the next: The technologies are becoming capable of creating a new kind of capital and labour by itself, and give, as owners of this new kind of creative capital, fewer people an even larger share of the rewards. This is the 'Capital Deepening' that the French Economist Thomas Piketty is talking about in his bestselling 'Capital in the Twenty-first Century', but which bears out in the casual observations about the divergence of compensation between the low-skilled and high-skilled staff in almost every sort of trade. This means doom and gloom for the aspiring call centre worker from small town India and the migrant labour in China in search of a factory job, but no redemption for the out-of-work Factory Worker in Leeds or the protesting tube drivers in London. In fact, it may come as bad news for entire economies: Those without creative capital may set on the path of irreversible decline. And, this should make people sit up and think not just in Delhi or Beijing, but also in Moscow and Madrid: Because even relative current affluence based on 'ordinary capital' of resources and money can not guarantee that the party will continue.

If we accept this scenario, some big questions will unavoidably follow. The aspiration of an Indian student to study accounting and get a decent job in one of the accounting back-offices is quite sensible, except for the factor, invisible from his vantage point, that there wouldn't be so many of those jobs in five years' time. The fact that it pays well (in relative terms) will continue to attract new people into the trade, and that the work requires a certain amount of skill but no continuous progression tilts the scale in favour of newer cheaper entrants and against those with experience. On the other hand, such aspirations will continue to encourage educational institutions to prepare people with such skills, flooding the market with more such people with no future. Given that the Indian government (and most other developing country governments, acting on expert advise from the global financial institutions) would want private and for-profit sector to do most of the educating for them, and these institutions gravitate towards here-and-now opportunities by their business logic (the students want immediate returns, and therefore want courses for popular careers), the country may be creating an entire generation completely out-of-step with this new wave of globalisation.

Similar questions may affect other countries. The American legislators are working hard to reduce public investment in health and education, based on a notion that those who make it, make it by their own enterprise, something that limits America's ability to compete in the future. In the UK, the health provisions are being privatised, in the hope that market mechanisms will deliver efficiency, just at the time when the limitations of market mechanism when most people lack the capability to pay are becoming obvious. All the theories we have built in the last hundred years about growth and prosperity, which was subtly and invisibly dependent on a certain way of creating wealth, are becoming open to questioning as the underlying mechanism is called into question.

Many people argue, though, that this future is not inevitable: That a job could be replaced does not automatically mean it would be replaced. The displaced workers may accept lower wages or less generous working terms rather than losing their jobs. This argument is at the heart of the dismantling of the welfare state: One would rather have jobs than healthcare benefits. Besides, newer territories could open up to supplement the labour supply from India and China when it gets costlier: This is the wisdom behind many business gurus trying to explore the new frontiers of the global economy. However, this is where global competition plays a role. If a country is unable to reform its ways and drag its heels, another country will invariably leap forward with technology, making the former play catch up. Globalisation of finance and capital will ensure that capital will seek out the territories of greatest efficiency independent of the political implications, and therefore, the march of technology may continue unabated as long as the global capital flows continue to remain free.

From this perspective, it makes better sense to be ready about this kind of future than live wishing that it wouldn't happen. This has personal and political implications. Personally, this may mean, for many professionals, a re-examination of own capabilities and renewed commitment to learning and professional development. Politically, this will mean a range of things, from looking at the fundamental things such as what kind of society that we would want to build, to a range of practical policy considerations, such as renewed commitment to public investment and review of what kind of education (creative, entrepreneurial, continuous rather than process-oriented, bureaucratic and stage-based) and health (preventive rather than remedial) provisions we need to focus on. It may sound rather innocent, but each of these moves will threaten significant vested interests, and are not going to be easy. However, we are possibly reaching that threshold when not acting will be more disastrous than even the painful action. This essay makes a powerful case in an influential journal: We will do well to take note and start the conversation.  

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"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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