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Showing posts from March, 2015

Indian Higher Education - The Origins Story

The Director in charge of a new university in India told me that he wanted to institute a Gurukul system, where students and teachers would live in the same campus and every student will be attached to a personal mentor. For him, this was going back to the origins - the ancient Indian tradition of instruction by a Guru - which should help regain the lost heritage that was India.
This is not exceptional. There is a search for this lost tradition all over India. There are lengthy discussions, and well-meaning initiatives, about value education, schools that espouse traditional values, a return to Hindi and Sanskrit in the curriculum, and more bizarrely, invocation of mythical technological achievements and fictitious glories. India, confounded by the forces of globalisation and pressed to find its identity beyond the consumer ethic, is intently looking rearward for a model of Higher Education.
What this reaction is against is the modern Higher Education system that India has had for t…

Reclaiming My Interests

I am in between two trips, which, different as they are, perhaps represent my moment in life rather accurately.
I came back from New York, after a work trip. During this, I got to see some sights, including the General Assembly of the United Nations (courtesy an old friend) and the Global Headquarters of IBM, including the CEOs offices etc. In many ways, they were similar - a representation of global ambitions, political and commercial - and representative of a long history of progress. Particularly notable was the Herman Hollerith Room across the corridor from the IBM Board Room, named after a pioneer in computing and the founder of one of the companies that later became IBM, which is used for sitting the guests visiting the top Global executives of IBM (including serving as Prayer Room for visitors from Saudi Arabia when needed). This room featured a tabulating machine that was used in one of the first US census, just like the other various artifacts of technological history that a…

Education-to-Employment - Can There Be A Global Solution?

Could there possibly be a Global Solution for the Education-to-Employment problem?
The question can be answered at two levels. First is to see the contrast between the national and the global. A solution shaped around the local labour markets, sensitive to cultural nuances and regulatory quirks, can be contrasted with the ideas of some kind of universal solution, something that works everywhere.
This latter view of the world is, in many ways, increasingly common and incredibly arrogant. This is the view from the top, in which the world is just a poor version of the West, all waiting for some kind of redemption. This proselytising view has two incompatible assumptions at its heart. First, it works on the basis that the Western education models are broken, because they do not deliver the desired outcome, namely, employment (or more broadly, occupation) at the right level. Next, it makes a further assumption that some kind of universal model, based on what has been done in the West, cou…

UK Higher Education - Election Time!

With elections seven weeks away, the UK Higher Ed community is presumably anxious. Last election marked a decisive turning point for the UK Higher Ed sector - the Cameron Government pursued twin strategies of an inadequately thought through funding reform and a plainly disastrous clampdown on student immigration - which would have long term consequences for the sector as a whole. With the UK political debate becoming more vicious and backward-looking, the UK universities, many of whom are among the best among the world, can be understandably worried. In the last five years, Higher Education has become more global, except in the UK. Now that the major parties are all united in an UKIP-inspired fear of Europe, this may turn out to be proverbial nail - and start the eventual long term decline.
One could reasonably expect some lengthier, weightier reviews of the impact of David Camerons five years in office on the UK Higher Education sector coming out in the next few weeks. However, some…

New Ideas in Higher Education

Someone told me, new ideas in Higher Education do not work. He has a point - even Gerald Grant and David Riesman conclude along the same lines in their The Perpetual Dream: Reform and Experiment in the American College - and paradoxically, the worse the crisis of educational exclusion or irrelevance in a country, the more difficult it is to introduce new ideas. The reason perhaps is that though in theory Higher Education is an enabler of social mobility, in practise, in many places, it is only a system of perpetuating social privilege. And, hence, even those who seek to climb the social ladder approach Higher Education with a conforming attitude, trying to disrupt everything else but not change the way to the gate of disruption. The lack of venturesome consumption, as Amar Bhide will put it, makes new enterprise and innovation extremely difficult in education.
It does not indeed mean that businesses do not make money in Higher Education. They do, and lots of it. But, paradoxically fo…

About Democratic Education

Democracy is not just a political arrangement. It is a huge mistake to think about democracy purely in terms of political process, because then we miss the requirement of embedding this socially. Fareed Zakaria made the point that the failure of exported democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq was because it did not precede with constitutionalism and rule of law, as it did in the mature democracies in the West. But, I shall argue, that constitutionalism and rule of law did not come from nowhere. It was a result of long struggles or violent revolutions, and sometimes, it came from concessions made in the fear of impending revolution. And, indeed, the dynamic that produced the revolutionary stirrings, and the liberal instincts for constitutionalism, were firmly embedded in the social dynamics of education and economic participation.
Now, as we look to make democracy as a deliberate rather than an emergent phenomena, we must look beyond the mere mechanics to these aspects of social dynamic.…

Gandhi and Indian Democracy

That India opted to be democratic, and remained so, goes to the credit of Pandit Nehru, India's first Prime Minister. Nehru was a democratic man, in rhetoric and in practise, and despite his enormous popularity and stature inside and outside the country, he successfully avoided the entrapment of 'Big Man' syndrome, which afflicted so many of his contemporary leaders of new nations. It was a great exercise of imagination, and logistics (Ramchandra Guha talks about this in his masterly India After Gandhi) to get an enormous, diverse, largely poor and mostly illiterate country on the democratic path. It defied most theories about democracy that political scientists propound - that democracy is mostly a rich country thing - and became the crowing glory for India, and indeed a very convenient excuse for all its failings.
At a time when Indian democracy, along with democracies all around the world, is facing existential dangers from the forces of globalisation and the aftersho…

The Concept of Democratic Merit

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Lani Guinier has written an important book, which is also a pleasure to read, and this is about the concept of Democratic Merit. Part polemic, against the mindless system of SAT-driven education system in the United States, part Education Treatise and partly high minded discourse on how democratic mindsets work, it should be read not just in the US but in other countries and contexts, because education is all too often seen as a technical thing focused on preparing Doctors and Engineers, and divorced from its social role altogether.
The argument in Professor Guinier's book hinges upon a definition of merit given by the Nobel-Laureate Economist, Professor Amartya Sen. In Professor Sen's view, merit is an incentive system for the actions the society values. The merit system as defined by SAT (and other tests), an individualistic, context-blind ability and intelligence, this book argues, is out of step with the requirement of a democratic society. Ms Guinier expands her argument…

On A Naked Fakir in the Parliament Square

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The unveiling of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the Parliament Square in London is a moment of triumph for the British Asian community. The statue of the man, who, like no other, represented an unique resistance to British commercial imperialism, being put at the very heart of such institution indicates the prominence and influence of the British Asians in the public life of the UK. The representatives of the community turned up in large numbers, along with a number of students from Hindu faith schools in London. It was a great moment of asserting a community identity and of celebrating integration in the life of their adopted country.
This is a triumph without a corresponding defeat though, fittingly for the man being celebrated. This is not one identity getting better of another - which is the usual zero-sum meaning we associate with the word 'triumph' - but the realisation of a much subtler message Gandhi embodied in his work. Vijay Merchant, the ex-Indian Cricketer who d…

On Leadership : Trust and Difference

Having worked in International Setting most of career, and having lived in four different countries and engaging in business in at least half a dozen others, one of most attractive conversation topic for me is - what makes an organisation effective globally?
In my work, I come across educational institutions which want to recruit students from all over the world, or businesses which want to trade, and indeed do, globally. I hear conference speeches and business presentations proclaiming global ambitions. I meet people dreaming of scale, globally. Yet, at the same time, I see the track record of global engagement to be one full of failures and disappointments, over-expectations and under-achievements. 
I believe the essential problem of constructing a really global organisation comes from the essential tension between trust versus difference. Any organisation wants to impose an uniform culture - and indeed, doing so is essential. Only by promoting an uniform culture can an organisatio…

Employer Engagement In Higher Education

It is one of the things everyone wants to do and no one knows how. In theory, it works perfectly - employers need skilled people and educators can benefit from the insights and experience employers can bring to table - but, in practice, the time horizons of employers and educators are really very different. In the forever changing and intensely competitive world of business, there is little visibility of what comes next, a year from now, and there is little slack to devote to such long term considerations, at least at the operational level. Education, by definition, is a forward-looking enterprise, and any educator claiming to have a magic potion to skill people in a few weeks can safely be assumed to be a charlatan. And, therefore, despite the best of intentions, serious and substantiative Employer Engagement in Higher Education has remained one of those desirable, but unrealised, projects.
The time horizon issue is real, but it is not the only reason why Employer engagement is so h…

Conversations 28 - My Next Life

If last half-year of travelling changed anything for me, it is that my desire for an immediate return to India has somewhat dimmed. The personal reasons remain as valid as ever, but the prospect of engaging into Indian Higher Education is perhaps too daunting. While my work has primarily been about innovation in education, no talk of innovation  is welcome in Indian Higher Education. It is a sector focused essentially on carrying forward the colonial division of society, so rooted in the past, corrupted by political interference and black money, and regulated ineptly. There are indeed exceptions, world-class institutions such as the IITs and IIScs, committed research establishments, and genuinely philanthropic entities doing good, but my focus - Mass Higher Education - is afflicted by practises that one would not want to get involved in.
This indeed means rethinking my plans for the next few years, and perhaps reviving one of the plans I almost abandoned in my quest to find a way to …

Career Design, Not Career Planning

Please, give up Career Planning. 
This whole idea of planning, setting goals, defining activities and timelines, moving towards it step by step, is so dated. It used to be useful when one knew where to go. All those advices about beginning with the end in mind, fine on paper, but do not work any more when things change so much, so fast.
The talk of Career Planning, however well-meaning, is always misdirected, and possibly harmful. Indeed, one can plan near term - for that next job, or to get a skill - but this assumption that you can plan your next twenty years, a whole career, is itself based on the flawed assumption that one can predict the world well in advance. This is the mistake most well-intentioned parents make when they push their children down the career paths they themselves took, or in some cases, those they wished they had taken. Such reliance on planning closes down the opportunities of exploration, of chance opportunities, of continuous learning, and often leads to dea…

Is There A Tech Bubble?

Mark Cuban has created an uproar by suggesting that we are in the middle of a Tech bubble, much bigger than one seen in 2000, and it may all end badly soon. Mr Cuban, who made his billions on the back of the bubbles, is someone to be listened to - and he is surely sounding apocalyptic. It is therefore worth looking at his argument closely and putting it in context.
The apocalyptic part of this warning is based on common sense. He is pointing out that todays billion dollar valuations are driven primarily by private capital, private equity and all that, as opposed to the IPO-led bubble that we had last time around. And, indeed, in a privately funded bubble, if and when it bursts, there will be no exits for too many people. In this setting, it will not be about doing a fire sale, it will be about just closing doors and going home.
This part of his argument makes sense. If the bubble pops, there is a real possibility of a quicker and nastier fall-out than what we saw in 2000. However, t…

My Business Book Fatigue

I love reading books. My idea of a perfect day would be one spent reading a good book. And, if I must try to imagine what kind of book that would be, I can answer it in two ways.
First, I can attempt to answer this by recounting a recent experience of one such day, one of those Saturdays inbetween two long overseas trips when I was at home, and I frittered away all those precious time reading Irving Yarlom's 'When Nietzche Wept'. I hardly read any Fiction recently, and I must admit that I did not realise that I was reading a book of pure fiction till I reached the afterword of this beautifully written, almost believable, book. At the end of it, while I noticed the day has almost ended and I did not do anything that I planned to do using the rare weekend at home, still I felt good, satisfied - fulfilled!
The other way of answering this is to say what I do no want to read, which is indeed a more common experience. I hardly get perfect experience with books - some I can not …

On Distance Learning in India

Remember the good old correspondence courses, which everyone hated but everyone else still  took? Something that became the pathway to easy qualifications - but were also notorious for poor education? Usually synonymous to scams, as stories such as Graham Greene's When Greek Meets Greek (1954) depict, correspondence education, in many ways, was the precursor of today's For-Profit institutions. And, in many cases, and notwithstanding the University of London's pioneering External Programme that started in the nineteenth century, established universities only caught up with it much later. Indeed, since then, correspondence education has really evolved - the innovation led by Britain's Open University is a case in example - but it has somehow never escaped the stigma attached to it. In India, one of the world's largest market for correspondence education, it is usually, and perhaps justifiably, treated as sub par (formally) - and often the programmes are badly design…

One Long Conversation

This blog is one long conversation, though it may appear to be fragmented in between different ideas, reflections and interests. A blog must have a purpose, I am often told, and mine is apparently without one. I have indeed understood the powerful commercial potential of the blog as I have carried on for ten years, and come across opportunities of different kinds, including advertising, paid posts, content creation for others, and all that. Every time I refused, because I wanted to maintain the pleasure of writing this (as I do now, completely unprovoked, on the day of the Holi sitting in a Mumbai hotel), I was asked this - what is the purpose of this blog then? At other times, people who are close to me, complained - justifiably, as I could perhaps give the time to them instead of writing a completely pointless piece - and indeed, if this had any purpose, if not commercial even an artistic one, it would have made more sense of this sacrifice. But I have found all purpose, other than…

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