Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Starting Up India: Why No One Talks Education?

Start-ups are fashionable. They conjure up the image of brilliant teenage founders creating billion dollar businesses from scratch, magically finding the confluence of perfect technologies and hidden desires. The inconvenient fact that they mostly fail is also wrapped in a heroic feeling - fail, fail again and fail better is the battle cry - and its toxic consequences on the people's lives are overlooked as the investor cash goes on chasing the next big thing.

This narrative is already familiar, being everywhere on the media, books and all those seminars promising to change lives. But, the fashion now invaded politics, with Start-up Policy gurus appearing on Government roasters, Start-up courses being listed on university catalogues and Start-up programmes being promoted as the latest governmental idea to promote its beleagured middle classes. The conversation usually focuses on tax breaks and lots of expensive real estate in the form of innovation zones, and everyone expects magic once the Government programmes are rolled out.

One interesting reaction to such start-up talk came recently from Mike Cannon-Brookes, the Founder of Atlassian and one of Australia's most prominent entrepreneurs. He felt like throwing his phone at the TV, he said, and tweeted if anyone stopped from starting a great company because they have to pay taxes (the full story here is indeed worth reading). And, his big question was - why does no one talk about education when talking about start-ups?

Why, indeed?

Think for a moment the 'Start-Up India' programme, the much-touted transformational announcements made by the new Indian government a few months ago. This is seen as the Government's crowning policy, supplementing as it were its focus on manufacturing, or 'Make In India', that would help create enough economic opportunities for 70,000 Indians turning 25 every day! The announcements were media-savvy, full of catchy phrases and serious-sounding promises, with the commitment to ease regulations (much needed), offering tax holidays to start-ups and to promote enterprise in certain areas. But, at the same time, the Indian government embarked on a systematic programme to make Public Universities fall in line, from influencing key appointments, censoring what is being spoken in campus, trying to dictate what is taught and whipping up a conversation that unfavourably compares the 'subsidised' students and researchers at universities with the Military personnel working under harsh conditions and great personal danger. Taken together, the government simultaneously is giving out two messages: That India's future hinges on start-ups and one must not spend time educating oneself but rather sign up to fight the enemy! It does seem paradoxical, but there is a common theme - both sound good on TV! 

And, that is indeed the point. The governments talk start-ups because they sound cool, at a time when when politicians are desperate to sound cool and can not find anything in their toolkit which does. Start-ups, otherwise, are big convenience for governments. Think of a country like India, where most businesses are controlled by conglomerates, a handful of business families with cosy links to politicians and banks, who tend to control everything - from food to aviation! Start-ups are supposed to bring disruption, challenge the dominance and turn markets upside down. No one, in politics, finance or otherwise, should seriously want such disruption. If they did, they would have talked education. No, the idea of start-ups in India is indeed an easier route to business for the scions of these business families, a way to turn their black money legitimate, rather than any inconvenient disruption.

Politicians perhaps do not notice that India is already full of entrepreneurs, all those people making-do as they can not find jobs, selling knick-knacks, driving taxis, working as tour guides and all that, and though this may not be sexy, they are all micro-businesses and often money-making ones. These people did not wait for the Government to come up with cool schemes and tax breaks to start their businesses. Therefore, this Start-up India thing is not the next big mantra, unless we are talking about creating start-ups that are digital, global and innovative. And, that indeed does not happen without an world-class education system.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Trust and Taxes

Of the life's two great certainties - death and taxes - we have not been doing very well with the latter. For an increasingly squeezed Middle Classes, facing declining real income, uncertain job prospects, costlier health-care and education and the very real possibility of never being able to retire, the fact that the rich does not pay much taxes may occasionally shock, but not paying taxes has indeed become one of the key signals of being rich. The newest metaphor of business - the cloud - is not just about technology, but of de-materialisation of taxes too.

Obscure as it may be, the fate of taxes, and its consequence, may be one of the best ways to understand the global economy. Consider the two seemingly opposite conversations trending in the news in the last few weeks. One is that the Indian cabinet is considering imposition of a 'Google Tax', or, more correctly, an 'Equalisation Levy', an uniform charge on revenues made in India for all corporations not having an entity in India. The point of such levy, initially mooted in Britain after the outrage about Google, Amazon and Starbucks not paying taxes in Britain, is to challenge the notion of a Cloud Corporation that claims to be outside any jurisdiction despite doing business on the ground.

The other, seemingly opposite, conversation is about George Osborne's recent proposal of wanting to reduce Capital Gains taxes dramatically - from 28% to 20% for top rate taxpayers - alongside reduction of tax credits, among others, on account of the ongoing austerity programme. The strange economics of such cuts, at a time when capital gains are rising and real incomes for most people are falling, made the inevitable opposition claim, that the Tory government is for the rich, of the rich, by the rich, credible. The Chancellor had to drop the proposals to withdraw tax credits rather unceremoniously, citing a mistake in calculation, but still fighting to justify why Capital Gains Tax reduction makes sense.

All this points to something McKinsey has already claimed, the 'Age of Ever Lower Taxes', the trend since the Thatcher-Reagan years of the 80s, may be finally over. It is indeed very difficult to justify why large corporations and their wealthy bankers would escape paying taxes, just when the middle classes, the very people who led the shift away from Welfare State, are squeezed out of the benefits of economic expansion. This, particularly since the illusory feel-good afforded by easy credit vanished after 2008, combined with resurgent economic nationalism across the emerging nations, ensures that the era of extraordinary corporate profits may be over.

This is what it should be. There is an anti-tax sentiment among the business executives trained in American-inspired business schools across the world, a collective ethic which has not moved beyond that of the raiders of tea ships at the Boston Harbour. And, despite the general shift away from Friedman's ethic of 'business of business is business', none of them seem to notice the irony when businesses claim to do good and change the world, and yet go all the way to exploit every minutiae of tax codes to evade taxes and spend millions on locating themselves in dodgy tax heavens and lobbying politicians and media to keep this quiet. However, the carefully cultivated story, that lower or no taxes allow businesses to stay and create jobs, is rather nonsensical: Businesses stay only if there is a consumer opportunity to stay. Dare any business to leave the Indian consumer market on account of higher taxes (which has all sorts of consequences, including allowing Indian companies to gain traction locally and becoming stronger to compete globally) and the bluff will be exposed - a fact that the Indian government knows and has now decided to act upon.

George Osborne spins a similar story, and that may have particular resonance in Britain, which is essentially an open, export-facing, service economy. In that sense, Britain is peculiar, though it would lose most of that advantage if it chooses to leave EU in June. However, many of my British colleagues assiduously avoid Starbucks - a habit now growing on me just because they would not meet me there - because they failed to pay UK taxes for several years despite doing a lot of business there. Such small defiance indeed have significant impact on business practises - Starbucks did decide to pay UK taxes eventually, though it was nearly not enough - and the collective impact of consumer action is what is tipping the balance on tax regimes, despite pliant politicians.

One must distinguish the modern taxes, imposed by democratically elected governments for purposes approved through representative methods, from the king's and tyrant's levies or colonial duties. Boston Tea Party was not about 'No Taxes' but about 'No Taxes without Representation'. In fact, 'No Taxes' motto of businesses undermines democracy. I have heard of businesses in Asia which do not pay taxes because the governments are unjust, and rather make voluntary contributions to causes they believe in, mostly backing fundamentalism and extremism: Businesses that avoid taxes in the developed world undermine their governments, and the principle of democratic governance in general no less than these.

So, we are perhaps ready for a Boston Tea Party in the reverse: Next time you buy from a brand, ask them where they pay their taxes. This is not very different from 'Buying British', just more intelligent (indeed, many of those making a lot of being 'British', may not pay British taxes). One could trust a brand more if they are engaged enough to pay the local taxes, and conversely, trust those less who refuse to make commitments and engage socially.

Friday, March 25, 2016

On The Holy Grail of 'Demand-Led' Degrees

Over last several years, I have worked to find that Holy Grail of Education: A degree that leads directly to a Job!

I did write about this search on this blog, all the dead ends, disappointments and revealations that came along the way. Starting with perfect innocence - that this is the best thing that can happen to corporations whose difficulty in finding skilled personnel - I came to learn the ground realities of the trade, that the skills gap is usually 'someone else's problem' and long-term solutions are no good for the managers focused on quarterly targets. 

Despite this, however, I got somewhere. Almost implausibly (to me, at least), I got some advance commitments on hiring graduates we could train. It was a commitment with all the expected checks and balances, but that provided that keystone for building a demand-led degree. And, indeed, the first one is always the hardest: Once that one commitment was signed off, it was easier to have conversations with other companies, because they could follow a template.

But this post is not about my conversations with corporations, which I wrote about elsewhere. This is more about the insights I had later, once we designed the programme around the hiring commitment and took it to students. The proposition, however imperfect, is the nearest one could get to the holy grail - an explicit demand, a clearly articulated way to get there, a degree that leads to a job! 

This part of the story has many angles: We had to explore the question of pricing, payment mechanisms, the actual structure of the course, communication and branding. But there is one insight, a challenge, that stood out above all else, stemming from the simple idea of customer segmentation, but one that may undermine the whole proposition of 'demand-led' education.

That the students who are looking for education is not looking for a job, at least not immediately, and those who are looking for a job are not looking for education.

I am not making a philosophical statement, though there may be a philosophical point here. Nor, having spent most of my working life in For-Profit Education, I am inclined to make the case for greater purpose of education, though there is such a case to be made. This, for me at the current time, is simply a question of tactic: How to deal with the divergence of student expectations in building a demand-led education proposition?

Let's take the easier part of the proposition first: Those who are looking for a job are not looking for a degree. If we talk about the job being the point of all the endeavour, those who engage with it are simply focused on the job itself, and the process of a degree education to them is irrelevant. As a proposition, asking someone to pay to get a job is easier, though may not be ethical, than asking them to pay and spend time educating themselves with a degree to get that job. 

The other side of the proposition works in parallel: Those who are looking for a degree are looking for the usual attributes that come with it - recognition, ranking etc - rather than the job that awaits in  the end. It is indeed just a matter of thinking, and possibly the conversation would be completely different if this was not about a degree leading to a job, but a shorter, 'job-training' proposition: But, then, we have always assumed that this - the perfect combination of academic credentials and employer demand - would be the future of Higher Education.

The point is, it could be. Nothing in this limited experiment invalidates that broad proposition about the future of Higher Education. This may simply be too novel to believe in, ahead of its time. May be the market, India, which is a conservative educational market, is not suited for this kind of proposition yet, because degrees, in India, have all kinds of cultural connotation and marriage-market premiums attached to it. But, it would perhaps be equally mistaken to treat these insights as outliers, because the countries with most youth unemployment problem are usually those which are most conservative about its Higher Education.

One can plausibly conclude that such conservatism about Higher Education is indeed the key reason for Education-to-Employment transition, but that does not help us derive a solution. The conservatism about Higher Education, as in India, is rooted in history and culture of the country, and is unlikely to change in near future, or without a significant social unheaval. In real terms, then, despite all the common-sense appeal of demand-driven degrees, this may not be a solution to the education-to-employment transitions at all.

Indeed, I know my formulation of 'demand-driven education' is limited and wrong, and this is exactly what is causing the problem. I am defining it as an award tied to some kind of job guarantee, and there are obvious problems with this approach. Education is, by its nature, a forward-looking enterprise, shaped by expectations rather than here-and-now acquisitions. However, the tangibility of those expectations have always been the problem, and investors, educators and education entrepreneurs are forever in the quest of making it more tangible: I assumed that I reached the promised land, only to discover that tangibility often turns expectations to dust.

The other problem indeed is the degree, which is a closed framework, stuck to regulatory structures and cultural assumptions. The construction of demand-led education is not simply about attaching a clearly defined job with a degree, but making the framework of a degree open enough to accommodate the demands of the labour markets in general. Educators, stuck to the frameworks generally treat openness and flexibility as a deviation. I remember an educational experiment from the 90s when an educational institution came out with a 'blank semester', a semester whose contents would be defined at a future time: This was not well received, and soon became an object of ridicule: And, justifiably so, as it sought to box the future within one semester of a pre-defined curriculum. 

My next quest begins here: To create a model of demand-led education, combining the insights of local labour markets and open frameworks.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Are Your Employees 'Socially Engaged'?

Of all the strategies a company could conceive to win hearts and minds on social media, nothing is perhaps better than what its employees can do, if they engage socially. 

Usually, the Social Media strategies that companies come up with are not very different from the traditional PR. It is top-down, canned good news stories, written by professionals. It has a very predictable, managed feel. Managed by professionals who have transitioned from traditional to social media - what an inconvenience - it can not but be that way. 

But, social media is different because of the need for authenticity. Broadcast media has the reputation for editorial control (even if grossly overestimated) and this gives automatic credibility to something seen on TV. Social media has no such thing: Anything can be on Facebook, or Twitter. What such stories lack in credibility, can only be made up by authenticity. And, while one can, and indeed try to, be authentic, it is a hard thing to fake by definition.

In fact, most social media strategies are designed to kill authenticity. They are designed to stop the cacophony of multiple voices and to unify the message on social media, controlled and calibrated by designated personnel and agency. Just like traditional media! And, indeed, the advocates of this approach will be quick to point out its benefits - have we not heard those stories how employees damage the brand, spread rumours, and get fired, for saying, doing, posting something on Facebook?

Now, if one is sober, one knows those stories are man-bites-dog incidents: With hundreds of millions of people on Facebook, those are exceptional stories, and usually they are of exceptional stupidity or deviance. Besides, the unified messaging is not exactly about shutting everyone out of social media, but rather of company culture. And, usually, the more fragile the company culture, the more rigorous the Social Media controls.

Social media strategy, in a sense, more an extension of Company Culture rather than PR strategy. It is a great opportunity to appear Human. It provides a great opportunity for a company, usually obsessed with its internal language games and naval-gazing in its own labyrinth, to have that personal conversation. In a world where trust is in such short-supply - being on Fortune 500 no longer earn it automatically - social media is that field of gold every company wants to explore.

Seen this way, the very expression - Social Media Strategy - is counter-productive. Strategy, whatever it may actually mean, denotes a top-down thing, preserve of a select few. What companies need is perhaps Social Media strategies, or even better, Social Media culture. Once we accept Social Media as a reality of business life, and that it is critical, it is surely the job of every employee to actively become evangelists of their organisations. And, indeed, this can not be achieved through a dictat, because it would invariably involve the employee's own time, and unavoidably, their own equipment. So, no policy can really force employees to become evangelists: Only active encouragement of their passions can.

It is an ambitious goal, indeed. Disgruntled employees is a part of business. But then, that is that: They are there and no amount of social media policing would ever make them go away. But active evangelists on social media, who do it for love, is the best thing a company can have. And, employees can do it more consistently, with dedication and passionately than any customer. (One may expect customers to have more authenticity, but try to imagine a company who only has super-happy customers who only speak, or write, in immaculate English!)

I, therefore, think it is important for every start-up to ask themselves whether all their employees are socially engaged. It should indeed actively encourage them to be in Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter or whichever platform they like, they should encourage them to blog and tweet without fear, and engage with customers or partners freely and have a conversation. It should actively seek to create a social media culture, actively talking about social engagement in company meetings and promoting employee blogs or twitter accounts in its official channels. It should help employees to be socially engaged, offer training if necessary, and indeed allow them access to tools and facilities that may make these engagements better.

Education and The 'Fourth' Industrial Revolution : 1

Whether we call it the 'Second' Machine Age or the 'Fourth' Industrial Revolution, the idea that we are at some kind of technological tipping point - that moment in history where society would change - seem to have consensus. Such change, going by historical experience, means different things, doing new things and not doing old things as well as finding new ways of doing old things. This transformation, all these new ways, is a function of education.

There are winners and losers of the transformation so far. All economic evidence points to a massive loss of privilege for the middle classes, though the feel-good factor of house prices somewhat soothed the effect. In fact, the stagnation of middle class life, despite all the excitements of Uber-hailing cabs, is present and clear, making the economists question whether the Information Technology revolution has had much beneficial impact on living standards, particularly in comparison with earlier episodes of industrial progress (specifically, when compared against the 'Second' Industrial Revolution, the late Nineteenth century period running upto the Great War).

This observation is perhaps more true for the Developed countries than the Developing. Life has indeed got better in Asia, Latin America and Africa in general, and a large part of that could be attributed to the progress in Information and Communication technologies. This, combined with the expanded global cooperation at the end of Cold War, enabled a new wave of globalisation, giving birth to a new word, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and a complete ecosystem of people, ideas and education. 

Consider India, as an example: It built a huge BPO industry since the 1990s, which now employ millions of workers, which has been a job-creating miracle. This meant a number of things, including a newfound love for English language (in the 80s, many Indian states made the attempt to promote local language education, but by 90s, those efforts were dead in the water), massive expansion of education of a certain kind (Engineering College capacities expanded more than a thousand times in twenty years), change in the composition of labour force (more women and minorities in mainstream jobs and careers). This meant other things too: Courtships and marriages across caste and language barriers became far more common; mobility, always a problem in India with its language and ethnic barriers, became more common; Young graduates started looking for jobs in large Indian BPO companies rather than the public sector, and marriage market started putting a greater premium on these jobs.

The point about the 'Fourth' Industrial Revolution, though, is that we are now entering a very distinct phase of technological progress. There is anxiety about how this will play out, and the coining of the term, Second Machine Age captures some of it. As the capabilities of machines increase, the 'jobs' that sustain Middle Classes may further contract, and by one estimate, half of the current occupations, including the popular ones such as Book-keepers and Taxi-drivers, may become obsolete. The optimistic vision of it, while accepting that this would indeed be the case, point to the fact that newer professions may emerge. And, while the newer jobs may not numerically offset the loss of existing ones, the optimists point out that we may be reaching a point on the technology learning curve that may translate the technological progress into standard of life benefits. However, all these, the emergence of new jobs as well as translating technological progress into standards of life benefits, demand a new form of education, which is not yet forthcoming.

Before speculating what form that education may take, however, it is worth thinking what impact this 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' may have on the Developing World, and particularly India, as this is the country poised to supply a quarter of the new workforce of the world in the coming decades. Some shifts are already visible. Despite its massive size, the BPO industry has stopped growing, though it continues to recruit new people because of its massive churn. The recent US-India WTO dispute around the H1B Visa Fees also point to the shape of things to come: The political will in the United States (and in other developed countries) to allow the Globalisation of Jobs to continue is sapping. Chinese data may be hard to come by, but one estimate points to loss of at least a third of the contract manufacturing jobs on like-for-like basis, primarily due to the near-shoring of manufacturing enabled by increased automation: The same is now happening in services. Applying the same formula used by Oxford economists Frey and Osborne, the ones to predict the threat of automation to half of the occupational categories, three quarters of Indian BPO jobs may become automated in the next decade. Indeed, in India, most of the recent new job growths have come from sectors servicing domestic consumers, as their incomes and consumption has expanded. The Engineering college expansion has somewhat given way to Skills education, aimed at developing tradesmen but one that has really evolved into servicing the needs of sectors such as Retail, Automotive, Banking, Telecom and Education. While this has helped hundreds of thousands of people to find employment (many of them Engineers stuck in non-technical, non-graduate jobs with a low wage), this is basically the second act of the impoverishment of the Western Middle Classes: The maturity of technology revolution is now inflicting the same misery on the Indian Middle Classes, the very people who benefitted from the cheap job phenomena at the beginning.

How would Education - and particularly Post-Secondary Education, being at the faultline of life of learning and working life - respond to all this? The hangover of the immediate past still dictates policy-making, the Western countries want the universities to host incubation centres and Developing countries are still building Engineering schools, but the world has moved on. The middle classes, caught inbetween the peaks and troughs of globalisation, are sleepwalking, trying to cling to outmoded aspirations and illusory promises of national grandness, falling pray to demagogues everywhere. At this point, the educational challenge and the educational possibility has peaked into a perfect storm, allowing spaces for education innovation, infeasible at normal times but obvious at moments like this.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Dead People and Their Ideas

I think about dead people. Not because they are dead - this is not about any maschoistic exercise thinking about deadness - but of their ideas. I seek my intellectual stimulation not just from Wired magazine, looking at all those gadgets of the future, but also trying to understand what Adam Smith or Karl Marx would say about technology, society and progress. But such habit of looking back makes me lonely - I am often without company in the midst of excited conversations about gadgets and possibilities.  But, oddly, this does not make me feel old: It makes me feel alive.

Whatever you may think of this self-justification, there is something lovably naive about all this chatter about technology. Lots of people believe that whatever we are experiencing - this progress - is unprecedented. Consider, for example, this magic of hailing a cab through Uber, or getting a handyman through Handy! This is denting the universe - they would claim! While it is certainly denting the universe in a way - Uber's billions could buy out all the possessions of most of us - that exalted claim of changing lives as has never been done before is at best narcissistic. We have never been before - as we never hailed a cab on a smartphone - but this is deja vu all over again for those who could think what public transport would have appeared like for those lucky humans when it appeared. Lord Curzon, the Victorian in a time-wrap, once fought with a bus driver as he would not drop him at home: Our sense of loss with Uber may be compared with that.

Forgetfulness have its virtues. We forget, particularly those moments of the end of the world that pervade our lives from time to time, and that allows us to move forward. It is easy, but mistaken, to transpose this individual virtue as a collective goal: To seek to achieve historical amnesia does not make us move forward, but back - as we forget, we repeat! This is where Dead People and their ideas are infinitely useful: They are those counsellors who stand outside our time, and even if we do not fully understand history, their ideas are useful bulwork against the collective forgetting that we make ourselves capable of.

So, unlike being old - I do not start my sentences with "In 1972" - a life pursuing Dead People and their ideas may be alive, filled not just with I-was-here-before moments but also a view of what comes next. It is not the pursuit of lost time, but rather the voices from out of our time that give me a sense of perspective: We have been triumphant about our technological progress before, just as much, and as economic historians are pointing out now, our recent progress may be hollow in comparison. We do not know, we can not know - such judgement would surely be the preserve of a future generation - and it is only the thought that would matter. 

Future is exciting, and past matters - but we live in the Present. But the present is just a moment, something so temporal, almost without its own presence: Caught between the legacy of the past and expectations of the future, the present is merely a negotiation. And, bereft of meaning in itself, it is that perspective, balance, or tension, between the Past and the Future that gives the Present its meaning. In this, some intimacy with dead people and their ideas give us that perspective.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Getting Back to Work

I did stop writing personal notes on this blog. I wanted to make it more professional. But that made me, as I realised on reflection, write long, rambling posts on ideas that are personal, which may not have much consequence as I am not living them. In that sense, personal is more professional on this blog - at least that reflects my lived experience - and I intend to get back to doing it again. 

So, here am I, at a seemingly interminable red light at a crossroad. Stopping so was an admission of failure: That my ambition to create an world-changing education outfit failed. I desired a recovery, after a fairly intense few years of bootstrapping when I flirted with bankruptcy and lived precariously doing contract teaching and occasional writing, and all those 'bourgeois' comforts and ambitions that I so heartily disliked when I had a comfortable life, became so much desirable by their absence again. So, as I hung my hat - in fact, ate my hat would be a more appropriate description of what I did - and went back to work, I promised myself that it is only a stop-gap, a project! 

All this to tell myself that I must get back seeking significance again. That giving up was not about giving up, but a temporary pause, one step backwards in preparation of two steps forward, eventually. But, then, such stepping back can be eternal. One must not underestimate the lure of banality, the power of that ultimate enemy of significance - comfort! All the things that define us in our usual lives, our possessions, can bind us forever into mediocrity. Even if I am fully aware of its danger, that loss of apetite for anything out of the ordinary that come from chasing the ordinary, it is too powerful a force to escape from. So, stuck in a red signal at a crossroad, this lack of motion is reprehensible and adorable at the same time.

I have always sought to escape comfort, force of habit. Only that kept me from being consumed by the otherwise straightline prospects. The question for me, now, is whether I have changed. Whether that one last outing was too much, whether it has burned me so deeply that I have now given up. Besides, living precariously takes away some of the romantic attraction an unlived adventure may present. I know now that there is very little purpose in the life of an adjunct teacher at the very bottom of an educational food chain, and the self-inflicted heroics of living a life of one's own choosing are often no match of the sinking feeling one gets looking at students who just wants to know what time I would finish! At those moments, the banality of middle class parties, all those chatter about children's school, game's score and mortgage's rate, may suddenly appear infinitely more desirable. Once I have accepted that as the medicine of recuperation, the question really is whether I can go back to living intensely again.

I present it as a thought, a choice, but it is not. Mediocrity, the pursuit of survival, or even comfort, is hardly meaningful the way I live. In a sense, I am an exile rather than an expat, and this is by choice, with deep affectation for home, staying away not to avoid discomfort but to escape being normal. Seeking a sweet life, so abundantly available all around me, is not any more a legitimate goal than a mountaineer seeking to get atop a mountain in search of a mojito. The point of whatever I have done in life is to find a purpose - or, in terms of blown-up American rhetoric (which I have grown somewhat alergic too - those overblown ways of speaking in superlatives!), to make a dent, in whatever! There is no going back for me to the self-contained cycle of life, one defined by mortgages, pensions and passing away.

So, I get back to work. It is time to declare the hibernation over, recovery complete, reflections done. The safety mechanism, so sensibly boring, has had its time, but any longer, and I shall be in a nitrogen-sleep. It is time to dust off the tools of transformation I know - make a 100 day plan - and seek another adventure. And, part of this is to find my voice again, here, and to resurrect this blog from inside its professional envelop to its tentative, but faithful, tone.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Business Models for Global Higher Education: Five 'Avoidable' Assumptions

Global Higher Education is good business. Over the last five years or so, billions of dollars worth of investment has gone into it, and it has become, if not the next thing, at least one of the next big 'things'. This euphoria may be a fall-out of the bust in For-Profit Education in the United States; or, it may have arisen out of the unique demographic opportunity in Asia, and with a generation-lag, in Africa. However, it is still a relatively new business, stumbling through its way - figuring out its business model as it goes along.

So, here is the question we should start with: Is Global Higher Education business a solution in search of a problem?

One must start with Education as a business and the debate surrounding that. However, Public Higher Education in the form that we know is a relatively recent thing, and education businesses stretch back in time much longer than we think. Education businesses often took the lead in the time of great social and technological change, and made money out of the emerging vocational opportunities in book-keeping, business training and even medical school. Once these became professions which people train for, Public and Philanthropic institutions caught up with it, pouring long term investments into building great institutions, and legislating to limit the For-Profit play in the field.

For-Profit play survived, and even thrived in the recent years, primarily on the back of de-regulation that came since the Thatcher-Reagan years. However, for this very reason, Higher Education businesses developed a national character. As businesses, they were deeply connected with government policy, building business models to take advantage of every new dollar that came along. Therefore, the localism that confront the idea of Global Higher Education is not just a leftist reaction to global business, but rather a business philosophy deeply ingrained in the Investors', and Entrepreurs', mindset.

However, such locally focused businesses are now coming up against a barrier that is afflicting many consumer-focused industries in the developed world: Lack of demand. In case of Higher Ed businesses, it is the demographic shift - ageing population - coupled with transformation of work challenging the business models. Countries in Asia and Africa, which is experiencing a population boom, expanding private business activity but an education sector crippled by the lack of public investment, therefore, presents a never-before opportunity. This is the gold rush of our time.

But, Global Higher Education businesses are often underwhelming (as some of Gold Rush would have been), failing to deliver the promised millions all too often. Such under-performance is becoming critical as the bubble in private valuations seem poised to bust, and the investors start losing heart that global Higher Education would ever deliver. It is the time, as they say, to start thinking.

Such reflection must start, I argue, with the examination of five key assumptions that underpin most Global Higher Education businesses. These are unstated, unexamined beliefs, with historical roots, but, with the experience of half-decade as guide, apparently misconceived.
First, there is an 'Asymmetry of Knowledge' assumption, that global education business models exist because of an asymmetry of knowledge, abundance of 'know-how' and 'know-why' in metropolitan centres of global education - US and UK primarily - and scarcity in other countries. Whether or not this is factually correct is not the point. Instead, the modern global education business models exist because, as one of the commentators put it, the talent is everywhere but opportunities are limited in some places (or, as Richard Florida says, the world is not flat but spiky). Therefore, it is not the magic of the degrees from US (or UK), but the doors they open, that makes learners to come to it.

Second, there is the assumption that a global qualification creates a 'Professional Advantage', even in the local job market. But this is not borne out by evidence. When Parthenon, a consultancy which is now part of EY, went around asking employers if global education credentials matter, they came back with a surprising answer. In summary, a candidate with global degrees may be preferred over a candidate with only equivalent local degrees, but they do not necessarily get a premium (except in some areas like Multimedia Production and Hospitality) for this. Such preference, though, arise from the students' life experience - we all know and accept that working and living abroad transforms a person - rather than her degree. This counts against the holders of Distance Learning qualifications or Online Degrees, as they may not have had this exposure. Besides, the 'equivalent local degree' is a nuanced term: In this scale, a local state university would count higher than a For-Profit abroad. And, finally, absence of a premium makes the pursuit of overseas qualification, at an extra cost, not a particular rewarding enterprise.

Third, and this is a common one cutting across industries, that there is a 'Globalization Apocalypse' and markets are all converging. This holds that even if the employers may not put a significant premium on global qualifications today, the learners are still better off acquiring a global credential, simply to be ahead in the game as business practises evolve. But, most current economic growth in the world is not driven by global demand, but rather demand arising out of inside markets, from the multitude of Asians and Africans moving from $1 a day to $1.20 a day, for example. The thriving industries in the emerging markets are not IT Services or Export Manufacturing as was the case only a decade ago, but Banking, Insurance, Retail, Telecom and Education, servicing the local consumers. In that respect, business practises are diverging, and global credentials, which operate with a chip-on-the-shoulder worldview and create a chip-on-the-shoulder mindset, create handicaps rather than advantages.

Fourth, as there always is, a 'Technological Assumption'. The excitement about Global Higher Education opportunity is rested on the spread of the Internet, mobile revolution and falling costs of data communication. This is the supply side of the business model, the way to service the unquenchable thirst for better knowledge and professional advantage of an increasingly globalised labour force. The problem is technology is not value neutral, and the Internet in a remote village in India is not the same as the Internet as we know it in San Fransisco or London. And, this is not just about download speed: It is also about all other things including where it is accessed. The dingy, crowded, sweaty 'Cybercafe' indeed looks very different from the suburban Starbucks. 'Where' is a more important question than we would ever imagine, as it is hard to visualise the lives of the students who do not have a quiet, personal room of their own - never had and never will - purely through the technological standpoint.

Fifth, and here is another supply side assumption linked with all the above, is an assumption about 'Language'. That everyone speaks English is not true - we know that! Yet, most business models of Global Higher Education is language-blind, standing on a simplistic assumption that everyone would understand English, and the same way (which is an even bigger leap). English is indeed a language of privilege in most parts of the world, and the privileged either have easy access to local jobs and opportunities, or they did not wait for the global Higher Education to reach them.

With all these, am I belabouring the point that there is no opportunity in Global Higher Education? Not at all - I am just arguing that we need to look beyond the simplistic view of selling British or American degrees through some sort of Online mechanism, just as the funding environment becomes more demanding. More specifically, I am suggesting that we need to explore three key ideas in building the business models for Global Higher Education.

One, Global Higher Education does not create a 'Professional Advantage' in all jobs and professions, but in some specific jobs and professions. Industries that are externally facing, IT Services, Hospitality etc, are good examples, as they serve clients globally. But a bigger and emergent opportunity is in the areas of Global Workflow, industries and professions where global collaboration is absolutely crucial. These are new opportunities without clear solutions, befitting disruptive innovation and global business opportunity.

Two, the 'Closed Business Models' of Global Higher Education is out of sync with the reality of disruptive globalisation. Indeed, it is oxymoron to think that the opportunity of global business arises because of massive shifts in technology and social practise, and yet it only requires doing what has always been done, just over the Internet! Indeed, there is some talk about 'unbundling' of Education, but not so much of 'Open Business Models' which allow global and local to 'Re-bundle' together as the need arises. Closed Business Models are ineffective in dealing with the diversity of labour markets, reward structures and cultural preferences that global engagements invariably bring, and open business models that mix local and global to an appropriate degree to reflect the Global Workflows it intends to serve stand uniquely able to take advantage of the opportunity.

Finally, as we progress from a top-down to collaborative paradigm in Global Higher Education, one needs to explore new possibilities in educational pathways. We should be searching for a 'Common Global Core' offering diverse pathways to multiple qualifications, outside the disciplinary and national boundaries. This key supply-side assumption - to do away with artificial boundaries of disciplines and national education systems - should create scale that allows one to move away from enforcing technological and linguistic uniformity that excludes a lot of people.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Humanities Education: Need For A 'Repair'

College Education may indeed change as the social demands of it transform radically. We can debate whether this is good or bad - I have argued elsewhere that there is little objective discussion here and a lot of self-interested talk - but one frightening consequence of this is the impending demise of Humanities. This threat is less clear in some countries than others. An extreme case is India, which is fast becoming a nation of Engineers (and also Doctors and Lawyers), where humanities is usually treated as a subject for girls, or those who are not expected to make a living. But this is also pronounced in countries like the United States, where humanities funding is under threat in many states, and even in Western European countries, which were traditionally focused on liberal education but that edifice is being dismantaled rapidly with the roll-back of public funding of Higher Education.

In response to this decline of the humanities, a number of books and articles have been written in the last few years. Usually, the argument for humanities operates at two different levels. First, there is a vocational argument, which accepts that the primary role of college education is to help the student become economically productive. This argument highlights the primary role of human abilities such as judgement, empathy and perspective in today's vocations such as management, strategy-making and design, and proposes that a good humanities education is indispensable for development of such qualities. Besides, there are arguments made for development of Character, a new buzzword, and the key role humanities play in this. Second, somewhat distinct from the above, some commentators argue that it is mistake to limit education's role to economic gains alone, and posit a good humanities education as the key to democratic society. The core of the argument is similar - that humanities help develop perspective and tolerance, empathy for other points of view etc - but this is projected in the broader social context rather than just for vocational needs.

This may appear common sense, but there are powerful arguments arrayed against humanities. First, its detractors argue that it is a mistake to claim that humanities education is uniquely able to develop perspectives and judgement. They argue that a good technical education, if delivered in an application oriented form, can do the same. Second, the argument about Character is easily refuted - it is the process of education rather than content of it! Third, the argument about humanities helping build democracy runs directly counter to the technocratic mindset, current dominant in political circles, that democracy is simply a function of a set of institutions backed by economic prosperity. This argument also runs backward, that without economic prosperity, no democracy can survive - and, hence, the case for humanities education is seen hollow at best.

Whatever its merit, the arguments contra-humanities are made by powerful people, usually the bankers who believe in economic motivations first and foremost, supported by, in an odd coalition, by bureaucrats who believe in technocratic nature of democracies. It is also helped by those who argue about humanities being about a higher form of judgement, and spin all sorts of linguistic pretensions that distinguish academic left from the rest of the humanity. In a way, the arguments for and against humanities education stand on very similar grounds - that human actions need a higher form of consciousness which is the preserve for a select group of people - and hence, humanities loses ground when the conversation is about mass Higher Education and wider economic participation.

This is a mistake. The experience of newly industrialised countries perhaps indicate that democracy should not be taken for granted. Attempts to enforce the institutions of choice and a matching economic order have failed spectacularly. The overt emphasis on vocational education created an army of engineers, but such economic prosperity has not helped develop middle class sensibilities, and have not sparked a re-run of self-sustaining industrial revolution. Rather than creating positive feedback loop of innovation, social reform and progress, the modern industrial societies have shown fragile dependence on 'Hot Money', real estate or stock market booms and accelerating emigration. And, if anything, the democratic institutions have been undermined by industrial development - and China has become the preferred model - and prosperity (or the sense of it) has run counter to progress. One can, and tends to, dismiss all these as a reaction to unrestrained globalisation, but that in itself is a failure of policy-making, and of making sense.

There are some, Michael Roth of Wesleyan included (in his passionate and well-argued book about humanities education), who see a renewed interest in China about 'Liberal Arts'. My friends in India would also point to the 'Liberal Arts opportunity', arguing that employers prefer to recruit Liberal Arts graduates from good colleges than MBAs from indifferent institutions. But there may be little to celebrate here: The 'Liberal Arts' fetish is prompted by the elitism and quest for distinction rather than any attempt to develop better judgement, empathy or understanding. It is also about importing the very American format of selective Liberal Arts colleges, backed by the same pretentious argument that democracy (or progress, as in the case of China) can only be sustained by a special group of people with higher form of consciousness - or, better grasp of rhetoric.

Humanities Education, therefore, needs a 'repair'. The question before the humanities educator is existential in nature: How to make it fit for our system of mass education and universal economic participation? In this, the argument for exclusivity should be abandoned first - a humanities education fit for all humans is perhaps the need of the day - and making such education accessible, rather than inaccessible as this new-found love for Liberal Arts institutions in developing countries look to do, is a clear imperative. Humanities education is yet to catch up fully with the two great movements in education in modern times - Lifelong Learning (many humanities educators treat this as an extension of consumer society in education, but do not make the case well) and Education Technology (which is seen as a tool of Capital, rather than an enabler of universal education) - and a rethinking would necessarily embarce these twin trends. The success of many humanities programmes, both on MOOC platforms as well as Premium offerings such as The Great Courses, should serve as a pointer to the shape of things to come.

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