Books; People; Ideas : These are few of my favourite things. As I live between day-to-day compromises and change-the-world aspirations, this is the chronicle of my journey, full of moments of occasional despair and opportune discoveries, of connections and creations, and, most of all, my quest of knowledge as conversations.
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A 'Liberal Education' for India
In an ironic twist, many large employers in India complain that the education Indian graduates receive are too narrow.
Surely, the same employers, riding high on growth of IT services, helped model a tertiary education system - second largest in the world in terms of student numbers - as one narrowly, vocationally, defined. The glamour of the IT services industry, with an urban cosmopolitan life and the chance of lottery-draw for offshore opportunities, completely transformed Indian middle class life over the last two decades: That the whole ecosystem of Middle Class education, from Senior School to Business School, aligned itself to these new opportunities, is no surprise at all.
But this expansion has now stalled, offshore is becoming off limits, and the industry is transforming rapidly. Rather than each corporation trying to develop their various enterprise-wide systems from scratch, and thereby, handing out huge multi-year development contracts to be executed by an army of low-cost coders, more and more companies are now using Products and Apps, prepackaged solutions that can be adapted with some customisation. While the IT services businesses keep maintaining the systems they have built in the last few decades, they can see that business is coming to an end. They are now competing on a different plain, that requires creative imagination of the future of the business, understanding of real work practises and design thinking. A narrow process-oriented education doesn't necessarily prepare a workforce to think creatively, communicate across cultures and operate with imagination, and therefore, the same employers are complaining about the attributes of the education system they themselves helped to create.
While the impact of the structural change of work is reaching crisis proportions - only a fraction of India's army of Engineers find a job after graduation - there is hardly any substantial conversation about the structure and purpose of Higher Education system in India. The lack of jobs have been picked up by the media, which chose to amplify the point of view of the business community, and solemnly proclaimed that Indian graduates are not employable because the curriculum is out of touch and the pedagogy is too theoretical. The regulator of Technical Education in India, the AICTE, has mandated that anyone doing an Engineering degree must henceforth do a certain number of internships, gaining practical experience. The questions of practicability aside - this would need more than 2 million internship opportunities created every year - this would indeed discriminate against those who can't afford to live out of town at their own expense. However, even if this could be done and done equitably, there is no evidence that this would solve the problem of being able to do a different kind of work than what's being done in the Indian workplaces today.
There is another response to the 'crisis', and this is coming primarily from the Higher Education community. They can see that the close integration that they aspired to achieve through the years isn't working any more, and they can see, from their vantage point, that overt vocationalisation, rather than the lack of it, may actually be the problem. This view is somewhat marginal, and indeed, there are divergent opinions on what needs to be done, but a more humanistic approach to Education is definitely on the table as an option. Some employers, particularly outside the IT Services sector, are increasingly open to graduates who had studied Science, Mathematics or Humanities. Also, the current cultural resurgence in India, the rise of Hindu Nationalism (as well as of the other cultural identities, not just religious but regional as well), has made a cultural education more attractive to Indian middle classes.
Such divergent reactions are typical in India - it is commonly said that everything and its opposite are usually true for India - but the very feeble conversations about a 'Liberal Education' is an important departure. Unlike the universities in Western countries, and even those of China and Japan, modern Indian universities were conceived to be vocationally oriented entities. With exception of some universities set up during the National Education movement in the early twentieth century, and that of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in Independent India, a cultural education was never really the agenda in modern Indian Higher Education. This contemporary departure, at least up to this point, has not drawn anything from the earlier ideas, but a rather different 'vocationalisation' imperative. While a 'vocationally oriented Liberal Education' is an oxymoron, but that is exactly the conversation in India. And, because of this, no model exists - no model could exist - for an 'Indian Liberal Education'.
Indeed, the American, British and the European models have evolved over a long period of time, and have had their false starts and crossroads. In a sense, India is just getting started, and early efforts have been rather a hodgepodge of imports of different models. These models are implemented without the context of realities of India. Every great American college, even when they were drawing ideas from German or Scottish models, were a product of their time and place, but the Liberal Arts schools in India, who chose to copy their format, have structured themselves on the opposite proposition, positioning themselves as prep schools for an overseas education rather than a way to engage in the country itself.
Now, this may undermine my earlier claim that there is a conversation about Liberal Education: Apparently what's there is too limited, too little and too superficial. However, that could be said about the whole Indian Higher Education system, which has to find a purpose for itself when the global division of labour model, under which it was conceived and under which it operated for such a long time, falls apart. And, there is indeed a practical model to follow: China, which has developed its liberal education, following their own path and looking to meet their own requirement. When such a moment comes, Indian Educators may find their inspirations, and models, not from American Colleges, but from the Indian ones, such as Viswabharati, BHU and Annamalai.
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation."
The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which appeared …
Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper etal, 1991). Arunthanesetal (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something).
The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive season, is …
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago.
Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so.
Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself.
Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was, as I …
This has been the best and worst of the times for Higher and Professional Education. While people pursuing Higher and Professional Education has attained a new peak globally, new questions about its relevance and cost have arisen too. The expansion of formal education has crowded out the ecosystems of informal learning, in effect depriving societies with one of the tried-and-tested coping mechanisms for social and technical change (see my earlier post on this), but it has offered little in its space. Its claims on the territory, in various avatars of Lifelong Learning or Massive Open Online Courses, have underachieved, being too structured, too bureaucratic, too content driven and too top-down. Finally, its claims of being able to assess everything overshot its capability, and created dissonance with employers as they struggled to work out hard measures of the 'soft' skills.
However, among all these debates and questions, one that attracts maximum attention is the one about …
I remember this awkward dinner conversation. I was with my colleague in Northern Ireland, and a friend of his joined our table. After we were introduced, he wondered at my name and asked me what religion I belong to. I went for the simpler answer and kept my doubts aside: "I am Hindu", I said. That made him even more confused. "What's a Hindu?" he said, "Is that some kind of Muslim?"
When I tell this story to my friends in India, they are usually outraged. What an ignorant person, they would say. Particularly treating Hinduism as a branch of Islam, when Hindus love to believe that everyone was originally a Hindu, upsets them. I have also reflected upon this conversation later. It may indeed be that he did not know. He was particularly ignorant, just as ignorant as the lady, who, standing inside the Irish Bar at Mumbai's ITC Grand Central hotel, asked my colleague - the same person as it happened to be - where Ireland was. But the confusion about …
In an earlier post, I pointed out that the application of 'platform thinking' in education misses the mark, as it fails to understand how value is created in education. Since this apparently contradicts my earlier enthusiasm for the university as a 'user network', this statement needs further explanation.
To start with, Clayton Christiansen's idea that the universities of the Twentieth Century needs to evolve from its current 'value chain' model - wherein its value lies in its processes - to a form of User Network, where its value emanates from its community, still resonates with me. The Value Chain model, with departments, examinations, textbooks and degrees, that we know the university for, is very much a late Nineteenth/ early Twentieth century formulation. And, indeed, one can claim that the universities were always communities, and its value came from being a member of that community rather than its end product - the degrees - for much of history. It …
Since October, as I walked out of my job, I have been looking to fine-tune my ideas about Education-to-Employment transition.
The first step of this was to look at the experiences of last six years, which I spent developing, first, an online competency-based education programme and then on building employer-engaged online project-based education. These were all good ideas, and the reason that I am not doing these any more are partially operational: The first business was underfunded, and the second one was poorly conceived and implemented. But those are discussions for a different day. I am focusing currently on understanding the key conceptual elements - what works and what doesn't work - of a successful education-to-employment transition.
Indeed, the claim that we can make a student employable with a few months of training is apparently pretentious. The years of schooling, family background and the students' dispensation, and luck, plays a much bigger role than any traini…
It is possible to see the recent history as an interplay between Politics and Economics, and 2016 as some kind of inflection point that made politics interesting again.
Allowing for a broad generalisation, my point is that the narrative of harmonised economic interest keeping the status quo, which effectively meant a professional political class indulging in risk-free politics, is no longer the only story in town after 2016. The broad consensus that kept emotions out and interests predominant in public affairs has taken a serious beating in Brexit, Trump and myriad other political changes around the world. This includes the failed bids too, as Marine Le Pen reaching second round or AfD entering Parliament make politics something that all intelligent people should be engaged into.
And, yet, if the 2016 was only the beginning, the events in Catalonia yesterday mark a political turn that all the preceding events pointed to. Whether or not this really leads to a Catalan secession, this …
Earlier, I claimed Ed-Tech is over-rated: It promises too much and delivers too little. Worse, the noise of EdTech obscures Education Innovation, which encompasses lot more than gadgets and apps. My point was that the Education Innovation happening away from the limelight of twenty-somethings, venture capital and conference circuits deserve attention. (See here)
The question is what innovation is really there in Education. Raphael's School of Athens makes a popular slide in Conferences, as the speakers often claim that the classrooms today look exactly as they were in Ancient Greece. That statement is symptomatic: It is instructive to pause at School of Athens and reflect on the claim - what counts and does not count as Innovation in the Conference Circuit.
Surely the classrooms do not look anything like Raphael had painted them. Raphael's school is an Open Portal, and don't have rows of chairs and tables, people seating in neat rows. There were no black, white or smart …
The inspiration behind this post comes from several conversations with my colleague Pratik Dattani, the former UK Director of FICCI, an Indian trade body. Pratik, in a regular column he writes for Dainik Bhaskar, pointed out India's meagre tally of 30,000 odd foreign students, against 450,000 in China (which is growing at 10% annually), is a huge missed opportunity, in terms of foreign currency earnings, 'soft power' and diffusion of foreign cultures and ideas. And, besides, number of foreign students in India may be going down rather than up, and several factors, not least anti-African sentiments in some Indian cities, are contributing to it.
Pratik and I have collaborated on a number of projects over the years and I have been closely involved in a Conference, now in its fifth edition, that he organises on Education Innovation in London and in India. We both agreed that India's continuing weaknesses in attracting foreign students is something we want to put on the a…