Monday, March 31, 2014

Reverse Migration: Good or Bad?

I spent an entire day today discussing Reverse Migration and how this could be facilitated through Corporate Philanthropy. The underlying assumption of the whole exercise was that reverse migration is good thing, and we did little to challenge that assumption, and focused instead on the mechanics of how this could be facilitated. Since this discussion was in the context of a region I don't know well, it was inappropriate for me to question the assumption that everyone seemed to have taken for granted. However, it does create an opportunity for reflection within the contexts I know - India in particular - and think whether reverse migration is a good or a bad thing.

Such ambivalence may be completely out of place given all the research about Brain Drain that we know of. And, the case for this may be acute in some cases: There are more Ethiopian Doctors in America than there are in Ethiopia. My college years were full of readings regarding the economic impact of brain drain (alongwith my own dreams of going abroad, I must confess). There is little questioning of the wisdom that when skilled people leave a country, it represents an immediate economic loss of that society. 

However, this does not automatically mean that reverse migration, these skilled people going back, will make good of those losses. Or create any economic gains at all. I would argue that reverse migration may not be seen as 'reverse' at all, and should not be perceived to have a squaring off effect of the brain drain, but rather should be seen as a phenomenon of its own.

But, before one gets to this, even the conventional idea that brain drain is unequivocally bad needs to be examined. For example, let's say we have a very skilled mechanic who could earn $20 a day working in Nepal. Now, if he leaves and goes to Saudi Arabia, and earns $50 a day (assuming that he has been offered humane living conditions, which is, admittedly, a big assumption), he is economically better off. His skills, because he will be working with better equipments, will develop faster than it would have if he stayed in Nepal. He may send home 40% or more of his earnings home, setting off the impact of his productivity on the economy. His example may lead to people being inspired to become a mechanic, creating more mechanics than Nepal would have otherwise had. And, indeed, they may all leave, but this will set off another positive feedback cycle than I just described.

Admittedly, this narrative will be different if one has to replace the mechanic with a Doctor or an Engineer, who may have other positive effects and greater possibilities of creating conditions of contribution within their own societies than the mechanic. But there is still an argument to be had how deep that effect will be. If America sends all Ethiopian doctors home (and simultaneously, all rich countries ban Ethiopian doctors from working abroad), wouldn't that discourage a smart Ethiopian student from studying medicine, and in effect, make the country worse off in the long run? 

Doing the calculations about the economic effects of the Brain Drain may be entirely reasonable (particularly given the fact that some countries pour disproportionate amount of public money educating the smartest students, who eventually leave), but mobility in itself may not be the problem. Rather, I shall argue, the problem could be the nature of the education system in these countries, who, following the examples of rich countries, create 'tiny-at-the-top' systems, which lends itself to brain drain. Besides, it is the lack of the sense of community responsibility among the elite and the educated that may be the problem here: Doctors who stay back may not create the 'conditions for contribution' that would be needed for them to have more impact in their community than the mechanic, and they may end up setting bad examples than good.

Coming to reverse migration, therefore, the effects are likely to be more nuanced than just reversal of brain drain. I went through the process of celebrating the possibility of Reverse Migration (See Reverse Migration: India's Chance) to becoming more circumspect (see Reverse Migration: Is India Ready Yet?) over a period of two years. The reason for this change was manifold. First, after the writing the first of those posts in 2009, I got to hear the stories of people who have actually made the journey. These tales were mostly dark, full of disappointments. There were other angry emails too, from people who never left: They were basically asking the question why they would be expected to roll out the red carpet if someone chooses to return to India. Second, after my deeper engagement with Indian employers during this period, it appeared to me that most of the Indian businesses were deeply focused in the 'Inside Market' and saw little additional value in hiring foreign expertise if it came at an incremental cost (this may be different in sectors such as finance). Third, I came across plausible theories about how diasporas may deter democracy, and the very viable explanation that the footloose Indian diaspora left India at the wake of democratic transition and consequent loss of privilege (in contrast to Pakistan's land-based elite, which couldn't leave, and scuttled democracy for half a century). In many ways, the diasporan politics of supporting an autocratic candidate in the upcoming Indian election - in the name of 'development' - confirms to me this antithetical relationship between diasporan elite and democratic culture.

I shall be the first to admit that Indian diaspora is somewhat different from other comparable ones, like the Chinese or African diaspora. Only 3 million Indians left in great age of migration, the later half of Nineteenth century, as opposed to 22 million Chinese: Indian migration is relatively recent, and of a different category. India may have, therefore, a different attitude towards its diaspora (of which, I am one) and indeed, more reasons to complain about brain drain (almost 40,000 IIT students, equivalent of 20 years output of the IIT system, live in America alone). However, I would argue that India's ambivalent attitude towards reverse migration may be more realistic than acceptance of reverse migration as an unalloyed gold and surefire way to economic development.

Like in the case of brain drain, therefore, I believe reverse migration can only be beneficial in the context of certain conditions. The host community being welcoming is one of them. But it also matters what the incentives behind reverse migration is. This is where Corporate Social Responsibility backed reverse migration intrigues me: Those who need to be paid to go back and contribute even for a two week period don't seem to me to be those who are very eager to make a contribution. And, without the commitment to contribute, reverse migration may be more of a problem to the host society than a panacea.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why I Studied Adult Learning?

Over the last three years, I have had several conversations explaining why I chose to study Education, and particularly Adult Learning. It struck some people as odd that when I thought of gaining professional credential, I chose to do a Masters in Education, rather than an MBA or study online learning technologies; and, that I chose to focus on Adult Learning as a discipline, and not study Compulsory Education, which is indeed the more popular thing to do for an Education graduate. 

It was a common sense decision for me, as I wanted to pivot my career into Adult Learning: All the things I did in the last few years, taught Postgraduate courses, wrote curriculum, designed online environments, explored international partnerships, wrote and conducted assessments, explore education policy, and built an education start-up, all those activities centred around this one clear decision to build a career in adult learning. So, the decision to study the discipline formally was a no-brainer. Just that people who want to be in education normally don't study education - they do an MBA instead: I didn't think that was a good way to go about it.

I also wanted to leverage my experience in Adult Learning - accumulated through my years of IT Training, eLearning work, recruitment exposure - into something consistent and meaningful. Unlike many of my colleagues in NIIT, I didn't think my primary capability of building and managing channel, though this was certainly a key part of the job. I saw my work as delivering meaningful education experience, sometimes through a channel but also through other means, such as online, at other times. I had my sense of purpose at work from experiencing meaningful educational outcomes for our students. I wanted to continue along this route.

So, my principal purpose was to understand the business of education with the intent to create an education business. I am happy I did what I did, because this gives me a perspective why For-Profits usually mean poor education. I started at a completely different point, having spent a significant number of years in For-Profits, and had a view that For-Profits represent variety and innovation in the otherwise stale world of adult education. But through my academic studies of adult learning, I somehow came to understand the nature of For-Profits: Their business is not innovation, because education is a regulated market in most countries and there is very little effective competition in the face of expanding global demand (when capacity is regulated), but rather manipulation of the regulations. In most cases (may be not all), For-Profits is a cowboy business offering little value: Some of my For-Profit experiences are certainly consistent with this view.

Besides, I have come to appreciate the nuances and sensibilities that are involved in Education. This would not have happened if I participated in the process just as a student (as I did) or as a teacher (which I did too): The study afforded me a place for reflection, which was certainly needed. It became clearer to me that education is a many-dimensional process, and I came to the view that technology apocalyptic view held by some was certainly limited. It is funny because I have spent many years arguing technology-based learning, often trying to reason how these could effectively do the job of a human instructor. After a few years spent in the university studying and thinking about the subject deeply, I am a convert: I believe while one must use technology in learning, as this enhances the experience and being able to learn through technology is an essential ability needed by the modern student, this should not seen as a replacement of a sound human pedagogy. Consequently, much to the annoyance of the investing class that I speak to (who live in the eternal quest of 'scale'), all my models feature human facilitators, real environments and communities of people, rather than just better algorithms. Indeed, this is why I studied education.

This also gives me a different view of knowledge and a different prism to look through into the coming 'machine age'. I see the Catch-22 For-Profit education is into: They must train people for immediately available jobs knowing fully well those jobs are going to disappear. But I also see this as a problem of their own making - they wanted to commoditise knowledge in the quest of scale and it is commoditised knowledge, or the illusions of it, is quickly making 'college' redundant. It is their peculiar concept of education for a limited and manipulative purpose that destroyed the communities, they (and other marketised universities) hired more administrators than they had student facing people, and in turn, this reduced the educational experience to a meaningless credential factory. The fact that I had to engage in Sociology and Moral Philosophy because of my peculiar choice of discipline gives me these perspectives that I otherwise wouldn't have had.

So, what I am still doing trying to create a For-Profit education company? I haven't given up because despite many limitations, I still see business as a positive force in the society. It allows me to do things, it allows me to stay outside the games the universities play for privileges and perks. I have come to believe that one can build businesses that really changes things - I keep looking up to Google and other great businesses that really did - and I wish to apply the knowledge I have gained within a business to create something disruptive. This is still a bit of a journey - I am only bootstrapping through my first start-up, but this is like Abraham Lincoln, "I shall study and get ready, and perhaps my time will come".

India's Journey: From Manmohan to Modi

India's election in 2014 is going to be a defining one. Whoever wins, and whoever becomes India's leader afterwards, it is going to be a definitive break with the Post-Independence Republican experiment. And, though it is far from certain that Gujrat's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, will finally prevail, powered by a carefully orchestrated campaign by the American firm APCO Worldwide, his prominence is symptomatic and an indicator of things to come: Hence, the title of this post.

There are lots of things in balance. The balance between the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the city and the village, the English Speaking and the non-English Speaking, the Big City and the Small City, the metropolis and the regions, the Majority and the Minority, all the balances that the constitution makers had to grapple with, during the founding days of the republic, are up for grabs again. The foundational principles, yet again, need to be interrogated.

However, we are perhaps over-emphasising the break represented by this election, and it is perhaps right to see this in the context of the developments of the last two decades. The controversial, arrogant figure of Narendra Modi may well represent the spirit of this new India, but it had a long transition - better represented by the fading, ineffectual outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Dr Singh, as Finance Minister in the early 90s, was a key figure in unleashing globalisation into India, and then as a two-term Prime Minister in the last decade, oversaw the consequent ripping off of India, destruction of its republican institutions and values and reconstitution of a self-obsessed, get rich quick society: India has come to embody corrupt globalisation and disintegration of institutions more acutely than most other societies, explored in detail in this essay in The Economist, with the percentage of Indians who have paid a bribe now exceeding Nigerians and Indonesians with similar experience, and the recent Billion Dollar scams made the Bofors controversy, which brought down a previous Indian government, look puny with its $50 million haul. Mr Modi is merely the best representative and a symbol of the political culture of this broken society.

Seen in this context, Mr Modi will be a continuation of Dr Singh's legacy, may be its highest manifestation. He is possibly the best man to create the Disneyland of Capitalism that Indian middle class dreams for: The land where the rich operates with license to do anything they like, the majority can enforce their will without accountability, and better roads and easy mortgages wipe out the need for compassion for the less fortunate and every other social obligation that we may have. The institutions like the rights of the minorities, the democracy, all the unnecessary checks and balances the constitution makers put in place to maintain the balance between the diverse citizenry of India, and which are indeed a serious roadblock in the path to 'progress', can go, should go and will go under Mr Modi's administration. This is the promise he is running on.

Where Dr Singh and Mr Modi differ, however, is what they provide in place of the things they wreck. India's multicultural, diverse, democratic identity is not just an idealistic construct: It was meant to be a pragmatic one, fit for poor country, where everyone is in the minority. All these divisions were carefully plastered over in a very modern idea of India, constructed to provide the sense of identity that Indians may not readily have, and to hold the nation together, may be even to build the nation. Dr Singh's globalisation gamble, which put the modern bond traders and emerging market investors in the pole position, chipped away this social compact block by block, putting the priorities of money (and short term gains and bonuses) ahead of the balance and cohesion of the nation state. And, indeed, with everyone looking after their own, the nation state has come to a breaking point (with insurgencies in Central India and elsewhere challenging the viability of Indian state outside its cities). Dr Singh, and his Congress party, was unwilling and unable to provide an alternative narrative of the nation to go with their policies: This is where Mr Modi has something to offer.

It will not be out of place to sum up Mr Modi's doctrine of identity, presented hand in hand with his 'development agenda' using the following words:

"1. (The New Concept of India) wants (Indians) to be active and to engage in action with all their energies; it wants him to be manfully aware of the difficulties besetting him and ready to face them. It conceives of life as a struggle in which it behooves them to win for himself a really worthy place, first of all by fitting himself (physically, morally, intellectually) to become the implement required for winning it. As for the individual, so for the nation, and so for (the world). Hence the high value of culture in all its forms (artistic, religious, scientific) and the outstanding importance of education. Hence also the essential value of work, by which man subjugates nature and creates the human world (economic, political, ethical, and intellectual).

2. Anti-individualistic, the conception (of New India) stresses the importance of (India) and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of (India), which stands for the conscience and the universal, will of man as a historic entity. It is opposed to (Nehruvian) liberalism which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when (India) became the expression of the conscience and will of the people.  

3. No individuals or groups (political parties, cultural associations, economic unions, social classes) outside (India). (The New India) is therefore opposed to Socialism to which unity within the State (which amalgamates classes into a single economic and ethical reality) is unknown, and which sees in history nothing but the class struggle. (The New Idea of India) is likewise opposed to trade unionism as a class weapon. But when brought within the orbit of (India), (this new idea) recognizes the real needs which gave rise to socialism and trade unionism, giving them due weight in the guild or corporative system in which divergent interests are coordinated and harmonized in the unity of (India)."

There will be more, but these words are certainly true to the spirit of Mr Modi's "India First" message. Indeed, as everyone would be able to figure out, these words are not really Mr Modi's, but excerpts of Benito Mussolini's 1932 'Doctrine of Fascism' where I inserted the 'India' and 'the idea of India' words. But a close reading of the whole document (read here) indeed renders, in my mind, a clear pointer to Mr Modi's idea of India, which can at once maintain a national identity while allowing capitalist 'development', of the kind Dr Singh presided upon.

Surely, the battle for India is on, and it is early to declare that this one idea of India has decisively won. Rather, my point is to say that Mr Modi is not really a break from the past, but just its continuation, in its most virulent form. His visions represent a departure from the founding ideas of India, for sure, but he is merely giving expression to the path we are already set in. In short, his is not any revolution, but the degeneration of the kind we are used to, perhaps its highest and last stage.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Developing A model for Adult Vocational Education

After having spent one year on developing a management training proposition, I am at a pivot: My principal focus of my work is developing a system for effective skills learning. In one way, this is an extension of the management training idea that we started with; in another way, this was at the core of our thinking all the time - how to connect learning and practise and make people effective practitioners. However, this may represent a broader change - and perhaps a meaningful one - that this will take us beyond the management training. As I am learning as I go along, management training is less about doing things, despite the idealised conception of it as an enlightened practise, and more about prestige, credentials, rankings etc. The point of it is, as one of my students put it, whether you can 'talk the walk'.

So, my current project is about getting involved in Adult Vocational Education in India, and developing a model that can work. There is lot of talk about vocational education in India - and there is a lot of people who specialise in 'talking the walk' - but very little has actually been happening. My initial survey of the sector throws up appalling examples, a colossal waste of public money, poor execution, straightforward fraud, very little innovation etc. The current conversation that I am into is about raising money to acquire a stake in an existing business, and creating a model for Adult Vocational Education. The model part is important, because there is hardly any apparent model in Indian Vocational Education that is readily investible. For a start, most of these models are very low margin: This may be common in many other sectors in India, but what makes it particularly daunting is because in vocational education, low margin is combined with low demand. There is little effective demand from people wanting to pay to develop a vocational skill: Vocational skills are usually looked down upon by the Middle Classes (who want office work) and those who may benefit by acquiring a vocational skill is neither able to pay nor aware of the need to train. One may argue that this societal change is needed, but businesses hardly engage in changing societal attitudes: That remains firmly in the realm of public investment or charitable activity.

One may wonder why then there is so much business activity in the Adult Vocational Skills Training sector in India. There are a number of reasons. The most obvious one is because there are some operators in India who sees this as an easy money opportunity and they are into doing this by not doing. Keeping these operators aside, there are some other activities in the sector, which mostly concern itself with displacement: Rapid industrialisation of India's hinterland comes with lots of displaced people, and consequent insurgency. It is therefore a business imperative for some of the business houses involved in the land acquisition to create provisions for vocational education for the people they displace, so that these people could be resettled into urban employment and wouldn't be able to return to their villages. Often, CSR projects, as they are called, come with explicit requirements to resettle the 'beneficiaries' outside their home state. Finally, there is also a bit of public money into this: Ministry of Rural Development, and other Ministries, all have a kitty to spend on education, and this forms a large part of the activity in the sector: This is, however, a finite source of money, likely to dry up as the incoming Indian government (after the May 2014 General Election) tries to tackle deficits further.

So, the business model of vocational training in India, if there is one, is based on a temporal opportunity, and usually not related to education at all. It presents therefore two investment problems: First, the requirement for long term investment on something with only short term prospects; and second, an apparent market of asymmetric information, where the intended beneficiaries don't know, don't want or don't care about the intended benefits, ceding the sector, therefore, to sub-optimal offerings and unscrupulous operators.

Indeed, one may question why get involved in this market at all, but I have come to realise that cracking the India opportunity (Education's El Dorado, as I call it, everyone knows there is Gold, but no one knows how to get there) is the principal value proposition of U-Aspire. Developing a business model that works and building a sustainable proposition that works in India may be our surest way to build the global platform that we seek to create through U-Aspire. And, this is, despite the many difficulties I face, not least the difference in expectations and work practises, my principal motivation behind engaging into the exploration of India's vocational education market.

My approach to development of a sustainable business model in the vocational education sector in India rests on segmenting the market into self-financing and support-financing market. I have a clear proposition for the self-financing market, and the first thing I am working upon is to put a model together which may draw upon some of the benefits created by the government enthusiasm about vocational training, such as availability of bank finances. The opportunity here can be further augmented by employing the 'global' range of U-Aspire's programmes, which will hopefully add an element of desirability in the overall proposition, and the competence-based framework we already have. 

However, this still leaves me with the task of developing a model for the support-financing market. This is the big pivot, because U-Aspire's model is currently restricted to self-financing students. The imperative of the acquisition will mean that we have to assume some of the responsibilities of the company that we are trying to acquire, and will involve a commitment, though non-binding, to train a million students over a period of ten years. This will draw my activities squarely in the support-financing market.

Which I don't necessarily see as a distraction, but a necessary part of building a proposition fit for its intended market. The acquisition that we are planning is intended to give us deep capabilities in the Indian market, and 'deep capability' in the market like India means reaching out to grassroots. Anyone can build a small, urban, fancy training proposition in India: The real question is whether this can be built around a sustainable flow of students coming through the system and reaching out deep into Indian heartlands. However, building a support-financing model connected with the self-financing model for business and creative professions means looking closely at new occupational areas, new models and new engagements from the current haphazard engagement models that exist.

So, I am working on a model for grassroots vocational education based on a set of principles: 

One, this proposition will be a community based. So, one of the key aspects of this plan is to set up a movement, unified around a shared purpose (I am fascinated by the Gung Ho movement in Wartime China, which I have written about before). My reading is that often, the learners in vocational education projects in India are not clear why they are doing it, expect for a Per Diem that they get from the government for being there. One needs to communicate better why anyone would be in a vocational skills programme at all.

Two, going hand in hand with establishment of shared purpose, one must also find a better way of recruiting and engaging learners if this is to be successful (the current model is to pay an agent). So, my thinking is to create a mentoring network, recruiting people in the communities to be able to help and mentor others into their search for professions. And, doing so, I wish to take away the financial motive as inherent in an agent network, and replace it with a more broadbased incentive, a regular pay, a pride in the job, recognition of the contribution they would make and regular engagement. 

Third, I am looking to create a vocational learning model which is long term, rather than merely focused on skill building. This is about building communities yet again, and not just delivering some programmes for training. If one looks at the endowments available from the government to train the people, one may be able to afford a decent sustained exposure to new ideas, skills and possibilities: The problem is that the commercial providers driven by maximisation of profits turn this into meaningless exposition of classroom based training, and then blame the learners for disengagement. In the model I am perceiving, joining the learning will be like joining a community, which will come with its own responsibilities and relationships, and the financial model underlying this will not be a transactional one based on immediate realisation of all profits, but building of a longer term income stream to be realised from the enhanced productivity of the trained worker.

Fourth, I am seeking to build a model which is forward-looking, which means this will go beyond just the prescribed skills, and endow the learners with the lifelong learning abilities, technology skills, and 'rhetorical' abilities (so that they talk and walk, not just walk allowing others to do the talking). In my mind, any 'skilling' is meaningless unless it is transformational. The current model of vocational training fails to be long term because it is so opportunistic and only focused on dealing with immediate opportunities; it needs to engage itself with changing lives which will hopefully transform its business model as well as its social proposition. This is one thing I rue about the current Government meddling in vocational training: I believe my early attempts in IT Education (which was all about self-funded students) were driven by the desire to change lives rather than just ticking boxes and claiming funding.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

UK-India Education Partnerships: A Personal Perspective

I often get asked about doing business partnerships in India, primarily, but not exclusively, by UK educational institutions and training companies. Indeed, this is my day job, because the UAspire proposition is largely based on building partnerships in India: Lot of my work is now directed towards writing reports and strategy papers on the same. However, my usual advice to those who approach me to do the work has usually been to turn around and ask - why do you need to get into India?

True, India is perhaps the World's most exciting Education market. It has all three things that an educational institution may thrive on - lots of students, a not-so-good domestic competition and an industry hungry for skilled employees at all level. It is English speaking and most of its institutions are shaped by the colonial legacy, which makes it even more attractive to British institutions. The Indian institutions and businesses, potential partners, show a prima facie interest in attaching themselves to British institutions, and usually quite welcoming to British delegations and visitors. So, there are many reasons why an institution could be interested in India.

Yet I ask. This is because India is not for the fainthearted. The magical promises of the market have rarely been realised. Indian businesses are savvy - they hold the promise of the market access as an effective negotiation tool to extract a good deal - and even their awe and humility are more negotiation stances than a real position. In reality, these are pragmatic businesses or institutions acutely aware of what they want or need, and quite effective in extracting the same from the British partners.

It is worth exploring why so many partnerships come up short. This is definitely not just because the Indian business savvy trumps the British straightforwardness: Quite the opposite, most British negotiators come to the table with some kind of imperial grandeur and forget that successful partnerships can only work on the basis of value creation. They are often as hard-knuckled as their Company predecessors were, and often have an expectation that people will pay just for the pleasure of doing business with them. And, then there is this ephemeral thing called Quality: I am often asked whether Indian students would want to pay for a Quality British product? My answer: Quality is what the market needs, not what someone thinks quality should be. There is a lot of examples of overshooting the market, with over-engineered products and meaningless overheads. And, indeed, I feel the Indian sense of quality - functional and street-ready - does not arise from lack of taste or knowledge, but the essential pragmatic nature of the society.

So, the real point of my question is this: Are you ready to commit? If not, the British institution will approach Indian market as sort of an underdeveloped market, where they can pass on the obsolete, the suboptimal, the unnecessary, at a good price. This has been the predominant engagement model - design efforts to enter India is unheard of - and this is a sure sign of impending failure. India may be exciting, but competitive too: Indian institutions may be underdeveloped in more ways than one, but they are attuned to their market and accumulating capabilities. So, the other model, creating a model fit to operate in Indian market, which is what I usually suggest. And, indeed, I get blank looks.

Surely it is Marketing 101 to suggest that the students should take precedence over 'we are British'. But that is ever so difficult to explain: Therefore, most Education Partnerships become a plaques on the walls, but never produce any students. The Indian side of the same equation is buying into British partnership, to be put on the wall and just that. Its all a fair game, just meaningless.

Is it worth engaging in India at all, then? It sure is, the fundamentals are just too great. But a consistent strategy is needed, backed by real commitments - as someone should do while entering a market. Indeed, I am trying to do the same in my own business: After having identified a business in India where the values match and collaborative work looks possible, I am trying to raise money to buy into this business, design product propositions to be delivered through this business and even committing myself to extended stays in India to make this happen. My ideas have come a full circle: I know without the deep commitment, India does not work.

Is English Unstoppable?

English is fast becoming the world's language. While some Frenchmen are perturbed, and call the language penetrating even their universities 'American' rather than English, the Tower of Babel seems to be reaching a final solution. 

Why does this matter? The apologists of English do not see this as an imperial project but a triumph of pragmatism, a natural corollary of globalisation and rise of an uniform consumer ethics. And, indeed, there is one view that it is the 'democratic' nature of English - the language can be molded and adapted to its host cultures infinitesimally - that makes it so popular. They claim this is not about English or American, but the story of many Englishes.

So, you can speak any language as long as it is called English, which means an expansion of what some observers will call an Anglosphere. This is a sphere of influence of a certain kind of rhetoric, enabled by the unity of media and thinking. In one way, this is a function of technology, and if we accept the view, there is no going back from here. The rise of television, and the rise of Internet, lead to mass culture, and massification of language spheres. Living with English means being inside a language bubble, and being subject to certain assumptions and ideas, being subject to certain values propagated from the top, and being subject to a certain kind of mind control - being inescapably a part of the global consumer society that the ascendant Anglo-American civilisation.
Can this ever be reversed? There is some enthusiastic talk about China's rise and the need to learn Mandarin, but there are more children learning English in China than the US, UK, Canada and Australia combined. China may indeed soon have the largest English speaking population in the world, with India in the second place. So, however much we think history's pendulum would swing, should swing, China may be one example of the rise of the Anglosphere rather than its possible challenge.

In a world like this,  at best, the Chinese can hope to secure a Sinosphere, leaving out a space for the Francosphere, the traditional Spanish territories, and a part of the world resurgent with Arabic, at best four or five world languages competing with English. However, this is the precise system, a world divided into language blocks, as it always was, under assault from English: This is not the coming shape of the world, but the world that was. 

However, one would think that the seeds of reversal of a world language system remains within the greatest triumph of a language system. English will remain preeminent as long as the current consumer civilisation continues to spread. One way to see a language system spreading certain values all over the world - the consumer culture, the particular type of rhetoric ('freedom', 'liberty', 'democracy', 'choice' have all come to mean new things), a way of thinking - and the other is to think that the way of thinking facilitates buying into a certain language ethic. This view will mean that the fortunes of the language may be tied with the idea it carried, which is possibly the lesson of history.

So, if the current consumer ethic is challenged, that will also mean challenging the language sphere of English. And, despite the apparent implausibility of the proposition at the current time, it seems that some of the ideas are being challenged. Crimea 2014 may be Georgia 2008, but may be not: May be this defiance of the American view of the world, and the assertion of a Slavosphere is indeed the kind of return of history Obama administration is warning themselves about. May be the Chinese silence is actually the Chinese defiance. May be the fearful rise of Modi in India (the man may not become the PM, but his odious ideas may now come to stay), his flagrant majoritarianism and chauvinism, is a sign of times to come. All these may snowball into a rollback of the consuming world that we have come to know about, and with it - the English! Once the language has been abused and extended to pimp for the schemes of the tinpot emperors and armchair imperialists, it is time for closet Nazis to come out and use a different language to counter its influence.

We may be heading to a breaking of the civilisation, but does this mean rise of one or the other language sphere at the expense of English? It may not be: This may be a point of diffusion, a time of ending the imperial schemes and a return to the tower of Babel, notwithstanding what the technology-determinists will have us believe. With the use and abuse of English, one may perhaps know that the world speaking one language may be as much as a bad thing: It allows imperialism by ideas, and an eventual hollowing out of values that sustain a civilisation, which is what we may be experiencing now.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Does India Need More Universities?

Indian policy-makers always come up with this comparison: United States has more than 4500 degree granting institutions, but with four times the population and a middle class of the size of US population, India has only about 700. So, India needs more, is the implicit conclusion. There is no clear consensus on how many more universities India needs, but one tends to hear a number between 1200 and 1500. However, in the rather hasty rush to create universities, as expected, India is creating more problems for itself.

Surely, university creation is mostly state business than a Federal matter in India. But states have caught on to the Central rhetoric. Some states in India allowed private universities, some allowed a free-for-all business, but some, like West Bengal, MP and Maharashtra, always maintained a conservative line. Those last bastions seem to be falling now.

Consider West Bengal: It is no surprise that the Communist Government that ruled the state for more than 30 years couldn't ideologically adjust to the Private University business, not even for their cronies. Not that they created a successful public university system: They rather destroyed the academic culture of the state, once well regarded in India, by meddling into institutional autonomy and strictly political appointments. Higher Education was not one of their priorities. A few years into their tenure, many of the states brighter students were leaving the state for college elsewhere. By the time they departed, they left the state's higher education system in a mess, riddled with an underfunded public system mostly run by political appointees.

The new government, which won the election with the slogan of change, needed to address this urgently. So, they did two things: First, they evicted the political appointees of the past government with their own political appointees. And, next, they started allowing private universities to be created. 

The logic behind allowing private universities in West Bengal is somewhat questionable. The West Bengal government believes, and said as much, that these private universities will create jobs. If this sounds like common sense, one should follow closely what the government is saying. They are not saying that the private universities will create skilled people and therefore investment will come to West Bengal. They are saying that since the Heavy Industry investment will not come to West Bengal, allowing a few private universities will hopefully keep busy the state's middle classes. Private universities, in this construct, is the employer, not employment generator!

I was close enough to the business to hear this bizarre rationale in West Bengal, but a similar sort of thing may be playing out in other states too. Why else there is so little discussion about the quality of education in Indian politics and media - contrast that with the vast amount of literature (and political debate) in almost every major country about the purpose and efficacy of college - and so much talk about the number of universities, colleges and students one ought to have?

One straightforward explanation may be that India is coming from behind and it needs to create a lot of capacity, fast, to accommodate its students. Therefore, the discussions about capacity precedes and overwhelms any discussion about efficacy, be it in Higher Education or in Vocational Education. But then, India's Engineering colleges and Business Schools are failing, because the students are not interested in the poor education they offer, and the pressures on India's traditional, and underfunded, colleges are as great as it ever was. It is not unusual to see Indian institutions to operate with only a handful of students, and many private universities only have a few hundred students as compared to the thousands of students in public colleges.

This is problematic because institutional size matters. Despite a similar rush to create Higher Ed capacity, an average institutional size in China is over 6000 students but in India, it will be less than 500. This significantly constrains what the institution can do - a small size immediately rules out any research capacity - and also relegate those institutions into permanent dwarfs.

Indian institutions are also highly concentrated in certain areas, forming academic corridors based on real estate prices and policy friendliness, leaving other areas underserved. This is indeed typical for development through private capacity: Divorced from any social objective, these institutions tend to focus on certain profitable, usually well served areas. In West Bengal, one can guess, all the new capacity will be created within a 100 mile radius of Kolkata, its capital, leaving its North and West, relatively poor parts, untouched. This also means that the new Higher Ed capacity is usually concentrated on a few disciplines, mostly business etc., which are more profitable. The enthusiasm for Engineering or medicine, the areas of highest demand, among private operators have somewhat cooled after the regulators woke up to the poor infrastructure provision in many of these institutions, and has been replaced by a new-found love for Liberal Arts.

In theory, the market-driven development of India's Higher Education sector should create more diversity, more opportunity and more innovation. However, that's not what happens in practice. The word 'market' is usually just a label to hang on the door to conceal the usual crony capitalism, auctioning of university licenses for political funding. Add to that the political grandstanding about hundreds of universities, without any regard to the students' lot or any coherent policy thinking, and one gets to the point of chaos, where market does the opposite: Concentrate the power in the hands of few, stifle innovation, restrict opportunity and undermine diversity. This may be the broader narrative of Indian capitalism, but this is being played out in Indian Higher Education within a short span of time, in sharp relief, and causing long term damage to the country's capacity to educate its people.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Reflections and Interests: Five Minds of My Own

I have always been a great admirer of Howard Gardner's work, and therefore, my views of the abilities required for the future is indeed informed by his formulation of the Five Minds - the Disciplined Mind, the Synthesising Mind, the Creative Mind, the Respectful Mind and the Ethical Mind. To put it simply, these are the five cognitive abilities and/or ways of being Professor Gardner thinks are necessary for a professional of the future. It is quite a departure from the 3 Rs, Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic, that I grew up with, and like many of Professor Gardner's other work, this indeed seems intuitively correct.

However, while thinking about these Five Minds, it is perhaps important for me to think what these means for me, and how I shall further develop these abilities and skills. And, only as I do so, I can start translating some of these ideas into my practise - develop five minded professionals through my various educational projects. 

Disciplined Mind

I have a wide range of interests, literature, arts, photography, politics, technology, but I think in a certain way which point to my 'discipline': When confronted with a new situation, I instinctively start looking for the historical reason, more specifically for economic incentives for the principal actors in the context. This might have developed over many years of reading and discussing economic history, and my quest to understand the historical origins why things turned out the way it did. This is the sign of a discipline, that I shall think in these terms without needing to be told to do so. Even when I studied Adult Learning and had to write a dissertation, I chose to write, among many possible contending topics demanding my attention, and perhaps to my supervisor's annoyance, a history of For-Profit Higher Education, exploring the incentives of the major players, entrepreneurs, students, regulators, and why things turned out the way it turned out. 

I have also spent many years in Adult Vocational Education, spending over 15 years setting up operations and businesses, designing curriculum and engaging with policy makers. This is perhaps another discipline I have developed along the way, an intuitive understanding and reflexes suited for this field. The best evidence of it comes when I am forced to think about new ideas of business - I shall always come up with educational ones - or when I think of a profession, and I can't think of anything outside the educational domain. Even the extreme challenges of a bootstrap life in an adopted country can't change that.

Finally, I have always written things since my childhood, trying to understand, nurture and critique the efficacy of written language. This blog, which is now running for 9 years and have more than 1200 postings on it, is my attempt to develop my writing. This is my attempt to develop a discipline, an ability, and when I started, I had a ten year perspective in mind. I am still at it, and when I read some older posts, I know my writing has indeed improved through practise. This is possibly the third discipline that I have developed over my lifetime.

Synthesising Mind

I have been told that I am analytical and can look at problems in a logical way. However, I would tend to think that my primary style is synthesis, and not analysis. The principal ability that served me well in my business as well as academic pursuits is my ability to draw information from disparate sources, in some cases from unexpected ones, and see a pattern of logic. I shall ascribe it to my historical bent of mind, rather than anything that I consciously developed: I am almost always thinking in parallels, experiences, theories that may not seem congruous at the first instance. For example, I shall argue in my dissertation about For-Profit Education is that the current tone of debate about the universities - that this is not about equipping the populace with useful skills but creating knowledge and nurturing communities - is Teleological, Aristotelian in construct, an idea that came to me while attending Professor Michael Sandel's MOOC on Justice. Over time, I could develop a consistent position bringing together the discussions of Aristotelian ethics and contemporary politics of Higher Education: This is more evidence of a synthesising practise than an analytical one.

On similar vein, my first attempt to do a book length work that I am into now is more an act of synthesis than anything else. I am producing the essays on the broad theme of The Consumer University, exploring the relationships between the institution, the society and the learners and how it evolved over time and in different countries. As usual, this is more a work of historical narrative than economic analysis of the type most of my close associates are engaged in, and my idea is to synthesise the ideas of moral philosophy, sociology, economic rationale and contemporary business thinking to produce a narrative of the changing 'business' of the university. What's notable is that I have taken a synthesising position without even being conscious of it in the first place.

Creative Mind

Creativity has been one of my problems, as I did not fit into rigid structures most of the time. This led to my eschewing the conventional career paths, which I found too restrictive. I loved small teams, independence and ability to craft strategies of my own: Whenever I have allowed to do so, I have usually excelled. One of the best times in my career was when I took charge of my employer's country operations in a small country, seemingly under the radar of the Head Office because it was so small. While my employer, a large IT Training company, usually ran its international business in the usual manner, in a combination of predatory sales and hard-knuckled negotiation usual in International Franchising, I took the opportunity in transforming this ignored country operations with new partnerships in large scale corporate social responsibility projects and socially committed partners. In a short span of a year, we got not just to the Number 1 position in that country's market, but the best performing country operation in all of the International Business of my employer. This, indeed, brought me the corporate attention, and soon I was resisting pressures for more predatory sales and dumping of unusable material in that poor country: I left.

My creativity, however, is not the usual advertised kind. I am not the one for outrageous acts: I don't wear colourful clothing, don't smoke or drink and try to live a quiet and boring life, allowing myself as much time for reflection and thinking. I have, however, been pursuing conversations and friendships across the world, developing ideas, projects and initiatives of various kinds, which are all designed to question the conventional. While my creativity has so far not been rewarding for me, like the other two attributes above, I can't actually think in any other way. Yes, there are days when I feel frustrated with the broken state of my finances and start the day with the thought that I must become one of those corporate types, but this does not last very long. Hard as this life may be, I have come to accept that there is no other mode available for me.

Respectful Mind

I have been exposed to diversity to an extraordinary degree, working with people from all over the world. My friends come from all the different religions, nationalities and political persuasion. Despite moving to Britain and sincere efforts to understand and adopt this country's cultural norms, starting with sarcasm and time keeping, I have made efforts to remain Indian. And, as I came across other cultures and ideas, I have come to realise that no stereotype, however intuitive, is good enough. Indeed, I had my share of dreadful acquaintances, starting with straightforward racist ones (some refused to sit next to me at company meetings) and even the Fundamentalist types (who will not attend meetings where Alcohol is present, even if its not served); yet I felt most uncomfortable with the unreasonable types, who will regularly turn up at this blog lecturing me about selling my soul to some sort of imperialists just because I didn't agree with them. I have tried to maintain a respectful conversation throughout and I can show evidence of that on my post of Lord Macaulay, where I was subject to all kinds of abuse.

Ethical Mind

Over time, and indeed this is an ongoing endeavour, I have developed a sense of ethic. This is tricky because my sense of ethic may not correspond to the textbook norms - indeed I find the middle class morality quite claustrophobic - but I shall claim that this was defined by two rules that I follow throughout. 

The first is that I don't ever use another human being for my own ends. Indeed, this is a Kantian position, but this is also somewhat Indian. Therefore, I shall meet people even when there is no apparent interest for me to do so. I shall keep in touch with people even when the immediate reason for it is extinct. I shall introduce people to people without asking for a reward for myself. This is not something I was born with, but developed over a period of time. I believe despite my many transgressions - am I always truthful - this minimum ethic ensures that none of my relationships are really manipulative. Indeed, there are people who think I am quite naive and intend to use me: My position in those situations is usually to remain consistent with my own position rather than playing their game, and even if they secure an advantage, I still win.

The second position is an essentially Indian, Hindu, one, and that is about feeling indebted. While I seek to maintain independence and individual initiative, I am conscious of the fact that I can't do anything without the love, support and encouragement from people around me. In my conception, this is not about family or a few loved ones, which will be the usual Western position, but rather the wide world, as Vedas will have it, including those not present, my ancestors, God, Nature, everyone. I am not pious - as I said, my position on most issues will be antithetical - but I believe my morality stems from acknowledging that I am not alone in the universe and my existence is crucially dependent on everything else. I am sure Professor Gardner did not expect me to take up such a huge burden, but this is where I am trying to mix my Indianness with my global life: I am still an individual empowered agent making my own decisions, but this does not come at the cost of reneging my responsibility and commitment to others.

As I mentioned, my ethical mind is a work in progress and I may fail ethical tests in most cases. I am non-vegetarian, and given my parlous state of finances, I don't donate much money to charities. I may have other ethical slips at work - all the delayed assessment marking could be construed as a serious ethical lapse - and I shall be one for gay marriages, revolutions in some countries, and open relationships. My ethical mind is based on these two, rather minimal, commitments, but I have developed a reflex based on them. So, like the other abilities, these are now my default positions and I can't think of anything else. In those unfortunate days when I try to think of myself as the Master of the Universe, that everything is meant to support me and I have no obligation in return, I don't do very well.

So, this, in summary, is an update on my five minds: I believe the abilities fit for the future, though it may mean some struggles in the present. Indeed, in some cases, I am outside Professor Gardner's brief, but so will be anyone trying to construct an authentic description of self.

Rise and Fall of Vocational Education: An Indian Story

I have written about vocational education and the imperative of fresh thinking in the field. My point is that we may be at an inflection point in the history of work, both in terms of technology and in terms of economics, and one needs to carefully think through the likely path in their own country context to develop an appropriate model of vocational education that works for the people. The current models, rolled out primarily for political reasons, unthinking, badly implemented and out of step with time, usually works for no one other than providers, usually local big businesses, and global publishers, who tend to recycle their obsolete materials into the developing countries. I find it fascinating that governments around the world has now bought this vocational education mantra, but doing it so badly that they are doing more harm than good.

My ideas are partly a reflection of my experience, and I thought of writing about my experience in Indian vocational education in general and in NIIT in particular to put these views in context. I have worked in vocational Education, first in India and then in South and South-East Asia, between the years 1995 and 2012. These engagements took different forms: Initially this was all IT Education for the two big IT Education networks of India, Aptech (1995-1997) and then NIIT (1997-1999, 2001-2004), with a start-up experience in Internet education in between (, 1999-2000). Towards the end of this period, where my engagements were mostly outside India, by 2003/4, focus of my work shifted to English Language training, employability and employer engagement with big outsourcing organisations. I had another stint at this between 2007 and 2010, when my work will focus on recruitment, aided by English Language training, and increasingly a focus on other vocational areas, leading finally to a stint in running a college in London which offered Accountancy, IT and Business Training, and which will pivot to Digital Media training and Apprenticeships during my time there. During this time, I did speak and write about vocational training, made friends across the spectrum and in different countries, and taught myself, first in the college I was running (2010-2012) and then in one of the large public colleges in London (Westminster Kingsway, 2012 to present). So, this gives me a view of vocational education from a number of different vantage points, in different countries and through different projects and roles.

This experience, and opportunities to learn from people across the world, reconfirms my view that the governments in developing countries are doing more harm than good in developing vocational skills through their policy intervention. I shall go back to my NIIT experience to illustrate my point. What's worth adding to my brief CV above is that my first vocational education was in NIIT - I learnt Computer Programming and Unix Systems Administration and earned a Diploma, while I studied Economics at the university: It is the Vocational Diploma from NIIT, and not my Economics Masters, that got me my first proper job as a Message Switching System operator back in 1993. I did pay for my diploma - this was because I was convinced about the career prospects in computing - and had my best education experience there. The pedagogy, which demanded that we read the books and prepare for the classes ourselves before turning up, was a revelation in itself. The teachers were immensely helpful (one of them will help me to set up my first start-up, before I graduated, in data processing back in 1991), the computers were mystifying and I also made friends for life. It was such a great experience that I indeed turned an evangelist. This was primarily the reason that I did not stay as a Unix Systems Administrator for long, and rather returned to IT Education through a job in NIIT's main competitor, Aptech, and eventually started working for NIIT in a few years. I was a convert by the strength of my own experience.

And, even when I worked for NIIT - the company will go through a massive, Asia-wide expansion, during this period and will become one of the largest IT Training networks in the world (competing with the global biggies such as IBM Global Services and Oracle Education). At its peak, NIIT will have more than a 1000 outlets in India and over a million students, all of it constructed around a franchise system which I still regard as one of the best I have seen (and I have seen a lot of franchise systems, working, as I did, for different educational franchises over time). NIIT offered an IT Education diploma which it designed itself, in close coordination with about a 1000 employers that took its students. It had the courage not to follow the traditional regulated system, an accreditation scheme ran by Department of Electronics in India at the time, and the integrity to uphold a high standard and offer a great experience to all its students. I shall claim that NIIT's success (and indeed of Aptech and others) created the basis of India's IT Services boom, and indeed, NIIT alumnus, students, ex-employees and former or current franchisees, provided India's current vocational education drive its essential skilled manpower. However, despite its great contribution (documented in some detail to Jams Tooley's The Global Education Industry and Professor Sumantra Ghosal's World Class in India), what happened to NIIT after 2001/2 is somewhat instructive.

Around the new millennium, the Indian government woke up to 'demographic dividend'. The panic in the early 1990s about the growing population (when newspapers wrote menacingly about the population problem and training on birth control was funded by the government) was replaced by a new optimism about India as a demographic powerhouse. Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government provided political stability after years of coalition governments and policy dithering, and economic growth was decisive and visible in the cities. In that environment of optimism, the government unleashed a Higher Education revolution, a new liberal approach to Higher Ed by allowing private bodies to get into the field and start colleges and universities. By 2006, this attained a critical momentum, with 10 colleges opening every day on average for the next six years. Now, while the government did not want profit motive in education and kept NIIT and Aptech out of the mix (except some limited efforts of these companies to set up universities through not-for-profit foundations), the moves actually allowed anyone with money to open a college and start offering degrees. These poorly equipped, poorly staffed colleges were no match for the professional standards of education that NIIT offered, but their higher status, offering degrees, could not be matched by these private providers. Soon, NIIT's education revenues were collapsing, its franchisees were leaving and the company itself shifted its attention to its software business and Western markets (Aptech became a shadow of its former self). 

While this story is not discussed by academic researchers - For-Profit Education companies are generally unloved - this is a fascinating example of a poor, developing country building a world-class industry (with NIIT and Aptech's export successes as evidence) and then destroying it themselves. What is more fascinating is India's later scramble for vocational education - as if someone heard an inner voice - and an enormous initiative to reinvent the wheel without attempting to learn from these previous experiences. Indeed, NIIT and Aptech have jumped into the fray and tried to benefit from the government largesse by getting into areas they are not good at, but that adds to the sense of tragedy rather than taking away from it. In my estimate, India had the infrastructure to train millions of people in English and Computer Programming sitting idle by the 2004, and yet it chose to tear through that model and destroy the capacity through privileging unscrupulous tradesmen of all kind to open educational institutions, and later, in a further bout of folly, committed millions of dollars in vocational education without any regard to the previous experiments.

Indeed, NIIT and others had shortcomings and I have written about the impact of stock market listing on NIIT's operating processes elsewhere. But India's folly in unmaking its vocational education capacity and remaking it so badly is a tale that remains to be told. This experience makes me curious about the politics and performance of vocational education - I am seeking to experiment with smart colleges but also getting involved in projects in Africa and elsewhere in vocational education, side by side with my exploration of historical experiences of vocational education in Europe and rest of the developed world. And, indeed, what makes all these even more interesting is the oncoming technologies that will reshape the ideas of vocation within the next decade. and trance that vocational education providers seem to be in both in developing and the developed world. Having seen disruptive changes in my own career - my career in IT education coincided with unleashing of the Internet (this is why I left NIIT in 1999 and started my own business of training people in Internet technologies) - I know one ignores such technologies at one's own peril. This is something I want to scream about from the rooftops, and hence return to the subject again and again on this blog.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Politics of Vocational Education

Vocational Education is in deep trouble. Despite its new-found charm - it is often flaunted as the panacea for development problems - all its existing model is out of date. All the money being poured into it, and quite a bit of money is being poured into it globally, is going down the drain. And, this is not just an implementation problem: There is a deep idea problem here.

Vocational Education is currently perceived to be a canon fodder for a non-existent canon. The received wisdom is that all the developing countries of the world would go through the stages of industrial development that the developed world has gone through. And, therefore, they need to build up a skilled workforce, using the lessons learned in these industrial countries. They are lucky, they don't have to go through the trial-and-error, the social upheavals, that the developed nations had to go through: They just have to pay up to buy the ready standards and intellectual properties from these developed nations.

It is a simple prescription, fully packaged along with the loans and funds to buy such standards and eager delegations pouring over from both sides and downing adequate amount of Champagne to seal deals. But this model only buys indebtedness and if anything, produces more social strife, not less. This is because the stages of industrial development that we may be preparing for may never actually happen.

Sometimes one gets the eery feeling that politicians never read their own speeches. Because, it is they who try to lecture people, who care to listen, about how we are living in the midst of a profound change and how all the models we knew henceforth are going to be obsolete. They create beautiful rhetoric - change has changed - and plan ambitious projects. And, despite such deep wisdom, they believe the future will be an extension of the past and what worked so far is the best model for what needs to happen next.

But it is the disruptive vision of change which indeed looks more plausible when one looks at the tipping point of technology and economics that are playing out in the modern workplace. It is not one or the other of those things, but the convergence of all the trends that clarify a shape of the future, which is indeed not pleasant for most of the human beings. There may be an instinctive denial of the sci-fi type age of the machines scenario, but at certain parts of the world, say California, it looks more plausible than it does elsewhere. Combine that with the ruthless economics of the banking types based in New York or London, the rise of socially disconnected business (this is not about social media, but what we used to know as society) where profits trump everything else and every grain of efficiency must be sought and exploited, one knows that we are not just looking at a different kind of workers but a whole new path of economic development itself. And, indeed, all those developing countries in love with the industrial revolution, they are comatose in the middle of a Rip Van Winkle sleep.

So, this model of entry level skills training, for those who can't think, is all but obsolete. It is a political weapon, alright - it makes people feel responsible for their own failure - but it does nothing to alter a country's attitude or course of its economic development. True, most of the governments in these countries are no longer governments but clearinghouse of investor interests, and therefore, they don't care much to disenfranchise most of the country's populace and about denying them a fair chance in life. However, the tipping point of technology and economics may not just bring forth an exclusion of just the poorer classes of population of these developing countries, but of the whole countries themselves: It may indeed shut out the national elite of these countries from the cozy comfort of being called to Davos they have gotten used to. Once the tipping point is reached, they will be relegated to the dustbin of history (or the claustrophobic embraces of a dying earth, if it comes to that) just as their fellow countrymen. Globalisation of privileges may make them feel, at this very moment, a worldwide solidarity of moneyed people, but dog-eats-dog usually starts in poshest clubs.

Each nation unto itself, I am saying: The nation state isn't passe and the scramble for skills have started. If one needs to learn from the lessons of industrial Britain or Germany, one needs to look beyond the stages of history and understand the spirit of national envy and competition, which in turn created a solidarity and compromise with national labour movements and created a common platform for skills training. The new nations don't need the same skills, but they may need the national solidarity and the spirit of innovation (rather than copying the model) to shape their own paths. This means a new vocational education - one leaned towards the economies of the future rather than that of the past, one designed to enable the workers with enterprise, innovation, flexibility rather than defined by the mantra of worldwide industrial hierarchy - wedded to a defined national industrial strategy. The time for national Ministries of Talent has come, and new national coalitions are now overdue: Vocational Education is an essential ingredient in this new national order. It is needed, but for a different reason and in a different shape than we talk about it today.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Knowledge

One of the most troubling questions for me is what is happening to knowledge.

Knowledge has been commoditised, I am told. It no longer matters, as one can know by typing a string of words on Google. My interlocutors' point primarily was to say that education must change under these circumstances: It should be about something other than knowledge.

That knowledge is easily accessible is a somewhat common-sense observation, but I wonder this is one of those things that we call conventional wisdom. While it may be waiting on the other side of Google, do I always know what to type? And, even before that, do I know what I should be searching for? Would this count as knowledge?

However, I must concede that the contemporary discussions about the effect of Google on Knowledge somewhat acknowledge the first issue: Knowing how to search. In fact, this is their precise point, that education will be less about memorising facts and more about the mechanics of fact finding. That has become the foci of Western education models, and the sneering about 'rote education' everywhere else.

But this still is not the whole thing. How do I know that I should be searching at all? Apart from all the newspaper stories, the disappearance of plane, Crimea and Russia, death of someone, what should I be searching for? How do I know to search for something that I don't know, and would never encounter within my own language and media environment? 

Why do I need to know that? I, here, is the common person, who should rather be involved in the pursuit of happiness, which should consist of an affordable mortgage, shopping mall trips, holidays with family, retirement plans, all the things made simple and efficient with Google. Why would I need to go outside the regular discussions and wonder about the crisis of world's water, and the many extremist movements caused by the lack of it? It is not about what search terms I should enter in Google (I don't have the faintest idea) but why should I search?

I am not trained in Epistemology, but my instincts tell me that knowing what to know is an important form of knowledge. And, that, for all our glorification of critical reasoning, we have come to accept some sort of linguistic and cultural boundaries within which we must operate. Worse, these boundaries have just become narrower with Google.

Besides, such boundaries and obsession with fact-finding, also allow us to develop the conception of useful knowledge. All discussions, including a post such as this, fall in the realm of useless, without any practical relevance, and therefore, not needed to be searched for. However, I have a second question about the idea of useful knowledge. When we seek knowledge for some other end, and mostly to satisfy a 'practical' end which is usually connected with a monetary benefit, do we somewhat cross an ethical boundary? This is because our inquiry then become contaminated with motive, and our views with the narrow lens of own advantage, and it is not truth, but power, over nature, over others, that we seek in knowledge. 

In summary, knowledge in the age of Google makes me uncomfortable. It seems we have accepted the finiteness of what is there to know and concerned ourselves solely with the mechanics, but this approach made us blind about the increasingly narrow prison of ideas we are consigned into. And, besides, the approach to knowledge for practical ends have also subdued us to commercial motives of seeking knowledge, which by extension become about seeking power, of using others for our own ends.

My search, exploration of education ideas, is primarily informed by this discomfort. For all the talk of educational innovation, I see a deeper slide into the language bubble and knowledge-for-power. I see performance as education replacing 'experience', in whose name the educational reforms are undertaken. And, I see this education as bondage, of losing one's senses in the prison of commodified knowledge, rather than being the harbinger of freedom, another useless rhetoric dispensed all too frequently.

This view is indeed uninformed, thank god!, and only an interim post in my exploration of the Consumer University. However, I see the confluence of machines taking human jobs and most humans entrapped in a manipulated, limited world of knowledge to be a perfect storm of human abomination, a loss not just of our sense of superiority accumulated in the last two hundred years of industrial civilisation, but of our human self built over the preceding thousands of years.

Monday, March 17, 2014

'From The Ruins of The Empire': Interrogating The New Asia

I have now finished reading Pankaj Mishra's From The Ruins of the Empire, a fascinating tale of the idea of Asia in the time of European conquests. This is a colonial history in the reverse, a sensitive, balanced tale of interactions, tensions and ideas around the lives of men who made it.

The story is structured around the lives of two central figures, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838 - 97) and Liang Qichao (1873 - 1929), and their many contemporaries who debated and developed the idea of the new Asia in the face of the advances and adventures of the newly industrialised Europe. Other prominent Asians, men like Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, Rashid Rida, Sun Yet Sen, Lu Xun, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, leading men of Japan leading the Meiji restoration and imperial Japan, the young Ottomans and European Socialists all make an appearance, all in stark contrast with the old world colonialists such Lord Elgin, the Czar, David Lloyd George etc alongside a rhetoric-obsessed, duplicitous Woodrow Wilson. It is a fascinating rubric of ideas, with surprising contemporary relevance for Asians of all hues still trying to figure out what they stand for.

Jamal al-Din, a man born in Iran, was the sort of cosmopolitan Asian whose sort has become extremely rare: Jamal al-Din lived in Kabul, Calcutta, Delhi, Istanbul, Cairo, London, Paris, Moscow and Tehran, had fledgling political careers in all those cities (he managed to get thrown out from most of those countries), had ardent followers and students among the first generation Asian nationalists across the continent (including Japan). I followed with fascination his ideas of Pan-Islamism, which shaped, at various times and in different forms, world views and politics of the makers of modern Egypt and secular Turkey, Iqbal and his visions of Pakistan, Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Queda. This was a lot for a man who lived for only fifty-nine years, and despite some brief sojourns in Ottoman Turkey and Imperial Iran, and a Professorships in Al-Azhar University in Cairo, mostly worked as a private citizen and pamphleteer. 

In contrast, Liang Qichao, who had a similar life and was similarly cosmopolitan (Liang lived in China, Japan, America and Europe), had his time in the Chinese High politics, and was even a central figure in the brief bout of reform in China under the Guangxu emperor in 1898 (before the counter-revolution led by the Dowager Empress Cixi which reversed the reforms, murdered the emperor and made Liang and others to flee to Japan). Liang will continue to play a role in the Chinese politics, holding positions of influence in the Chinese republic, and leave a legacy that will influence a generation of Chines leaders including Chiang, Mao, Zhou En Lai and Deng, and indeed many in Japan.

So, what is the central narrative that involves all these illustrious men (and some women) together? This is indeed the formation of various 'Pan-' identities, which emerged in the background of the breaking of civilisations in Asia. As the Europeans looted cities, destroyed palaces and subjugated once proud people in Egypt, India, Java and China, and forced others, in Turkey and Iran, into unquestioning concessions, these very able men tried to answer two questions. While they marveled at the industrial progress of Europe, and wished their societies educate itself, instill the discipline and active lifestyle of the Europeans and imbibe the spirit of scientific inquiry, they, at the same time, looked at the materialism and barbarism of their oppressors and did not want to create anything like the European civilisations in their midst. In short, they looked around for an Asian identity in the midst of general ruin, and dreamt of principles and ideas which can remake Asia. Pan-Islamism of al-Afghani, which he somewhat reluctantly came to, and Pan-Asianism, originally a Japanese idea which Liang bought into rather defensively, are two such attempts to discover the 'spirit of the East'. Tagore's Cosmopolitan Humanism, Gandhi's rejection of the Western Age of Machines, stood alongside these ideas, as did the Westernisation of Imperial Japan and committed Secularism of Ataturk's Turkey, though in a different vein.

In the end, Asia was remade. The old Colonialism fell apart. A new generation of Asian leaders, Nehru, Sukarno, Mao, Ho, Naser among them, took these formative ideas forward. Their work is unfortunately somewhat maligned, projected with the prism of Cold War politics in the Western media. This book, therefore, is an important attempt to explore the world from a different view point, a very different view point from the patronising and utterly partisan views of the Western media. 

After making the effort, I know this was a must-read for people like me. This is because I am aware of and continuously struggling to come out of the English language bubble that envelop my thoughts and worldviews, and yet would not want to give up the hard-earned values of social equality and scientific reasoning that we have in our countries: In short, a definitive guide for my quest for a cosmopolitan nation that I seek in India.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Towards A New 'Framework' for Vocational Education

Vocational Education is the new-found panacea for development problems, we are often told, as one ambitious programme after another are rolled out by High Profile politicians. I have earnestly followed the fortunes of many of these programmes, often looking from inside as well as outside, here in Britain, in India, in Malaysia, and in Africa. I have written about these experiences on this blog, mainly noting that these programmes usually represent a colossal waste of public money, offer poor education and fail to build up confidence and professional expertise among the learners. While there may be successful experiments, society-wide as in Germany or in individual cases (I have also written about the historical Bailey Schools in China, which kept the economy alive during the Sino-Japanese war), these lessons are usually ignored in the now-prevalent model of mass scale vocational education, funded by the state, delivered to the unemployed by 'providers', usually commercial organisations doing it for a profit. While I continue to research the field, my initial ideas are that this model is not fit for purpose, and fail for several reasons: 

First, there is a problem of motivation of the learners: They sign up for these programmes not to gain the mastery of a certain kind of work, but often to keep their unemployment benefits. They have no interest in what's being taught and no motivation to make a living out of it. They often don't attend, and when they attend, their focus is mainly on getting over with the lessons. In summary, there is little education in vocational education.

Second, there is a problem of motivation of the providers: They are delivering targets, they don't care about learning either. They would happily report an absent learner for completion if the paperwork could be done. If they are paid for success, they would certify any number of learner as possible. If employability is used as a benchmark, they would create pseudo jobs by employing the learner themselves, using some of the money they get for training in paying a low wage to the hapless learner. They would train on skills which are financially profitable to teach but may not be needed in the marketplace, make it as theoretical as possible because practicals are often expensive. In summary, again, there is little educational motive here.

Third, there is a problem of motivation of the government: They are, as James Scott will say, seeing this problem like a state. It is not about education at all: This is about a diet of 'learning objectives' being fed to a set of people who need to be kept out of dole and out of the streets. This is hardly about creating happy or productive lives, but rather about getting political mileage with the taxpayers that it is making the unemployed work harder and getting political mileage with those trained by making them feel guilty for their own failure (rather than blaming the state). There is absolutely no education in the political equation of vocational education.

Finally, if one thought the employers would be the knights of the shining armour for vocational education, one is being plain delusional. Employers don't really employ anymore, and they are going to employ even less. And, for that, they often have enough people vying for those jobs: Even more so in a bad economy. And, further, in today's environment, employers have very little commitment to any particular local community (except in the cases, as in Africa and India, when they acquire land for mining and factories, and want to train displaced people so that they go away) and all they care for is their immediate requirements for people, which is about people with very specific skills and ready for immediate hire.

Yet, vocational education remains important. So important, in fact, that most education is going vocational: The most profitable departments of the university are usually their business and law schools, medical students don't have to be deferential to classics students as they had to be in Harvard merely a hundred years ago, and the mantra in all Education settings is practical skills. The young people are often clueless in the face of a rapidly changing economy, when all the careers and life formats they knew from their parents are rapidly disappearing. We have clear examples, IT education in India, of vocational education changing whole societies. And, when employment is shrinking, there is a new class of professional artisans replacing the company man, those who can do specific things, and those bear an identity based on their mastery of a vocation.

Looking at this contrast, it does not look like a mere failure of government policy. Rather, what seems to be happening is that what we call vocational education isn't vocational education at all. It is the equivalent of workhouses in the industrial revolution Britain, elaborate confinement facilities for people who we want to keep off the streets. It is a Foucaldian mechanism of making poor people feel guilty for their own failure, nothing else. The contraption, a mechanical, check-list driven, force fed menu of skills and abilities, looks more like a brainwashing device than an educational arrangement.

Yet, we are possibly at a breakpoint yet again. The post-90s optimism that we have arrived at the end of history is disappearing: The failure of self-governing markets, climatic limitations of consumer society, the slackness of demand that point to finiteness of Capitalist prosperity should point our policy makers to think more seriously about the professional artisan societies that we must be building. And, in this scheme of things, we need a new framework of vocational education.

Such a new framework should represent a departure from the current model in several important aspects:

First, this must acknowledge that skills are socially constructed. So, the publisher driven, one size fits all, model must give way to a way of creating skills education frameworks tailored for different communities. In doing so, one would hope, we would be able to listen to the learners. It will then be less about trying to make plumbers out of Hip-Hop artist wannabes, and make them into Sound Technicians instead.

Second, the checklist driven nature of vocational education is out of sync with new vocations. So it may no longer be an either-or between vocational education and higher skills: A vocationally trained person must also be able to think critically about the professions. The educational framework today is no longer about a static vocation, but about creating professional artisans, those who are skilled workers, entrepreneurs and masters of their own lives. This needs a different attitude both towards the learners and the learning: Stigmatizing vocational education, for those who can't go to college, is hardly the way to do so.

Third,  the impermanence of any education is to be understood and accepted. Any vocational education must develop the skills for lifelong learning in all seriousness, because that's what the learners will need to be successful. The vocations are disappearing, and 'Professional Artisan' is indeed the metaphor: We are into the zone of CPD in vocational education too.

Fourth, the distinction between Higher and Lower education needs to end too: Vocational Learning should be embedded in school education and Critical Thinking can't anymore be kept apart from practical education. We need to change vocational education, but the same goes for Higher Ed too.

Finally, the politicians should stop talking about it. Vocational Education is as boring a subject as getting people properly trained, rather than just another handout to people who can't. Politicians do a great disservice to the cause of good vocational education when they talk too much about it: They should now leave it to where it belongs, some serious policy making.

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- Theodore Roosevelt

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Will be to arrive where we started
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