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A different future of Higher Education

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Unlike the Hollywood aliens, the future of Higher Education can not be expected to land in the United States alone. The American universities, of course, lead the world in academic prestige, cutting-edge research and endowments. They are, collectively, the best and the brightest, and attract the best researchers and best students from around the world. And they are not just intellectual world leaders but also represent the biggest education industry in the world, sprouting an ecosystem built around the success and prestige of the great universities. However, if higher education has to change and make sense in the future, this is exactly what needs to change. I write this as I am rather tired of reading literature coming out of the United States which portrays the future of higher education in the universalist terms. It seems that there is only one reality - that of higher education in America - and every other variation from around the world represents intermediate stages of a journey

What's wrong with higher education?

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Sitting at a meeting where I am told that today's learners would rather sit in a café than in a library, I heard the penny drop. Collectively speaking, we no longer have a clue what it is that we are doing in higher education.  Some conservative commentators see it more clearly than the left-wing ones: That higher education has become an inward-looking credentialing system completing disconnected from any social or even economic utility. It has become so because most of the education, giving in to the consumer economy, is being designed as light entertainment, completely divorced from its own rhetoric. Here is my point: A higher education is nothing if it is not uncomfortable. Aristotle made the point to an impatient Alexander: That there is no royal road to education! Change, which requires, by definition, about abandoning the comfort zones, is uncomfortable: There is no way to soft-serve this. And, yet, as we bring market logic everywhere, education must become easier - comfortab

In search of informal knowledge

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  I have been recently lured into reading Jordan Peterson - an impulse borrowing from the local library - though I did not last long. But, I am thankful in a way - it showed me, rhetorically speaking, the principal struggle of this historical moment, and of all moments of change, is the struggle against the oppression of formal knowledge. If this sounds like yet another battle against the experts, I would make another point: The battle against the experts that our smooth-vowel politicians usually indulge into is only a charade. All they are trying to do is to steal the sentiment of the moment rather than expressing what they really think. If anything, they are on the pulpit preaching against the pulpit, as demagouges had done in the past and will continue do forever.  But the struggle I speak of is a universal one. Theodore Zeldin had it right - the experts tell common people what to do until the common people speak up and change the conversation. All revolutions are, as late David Gra

The uses of pessimism

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The cost I pay for being distrustful of praise is that I come across as a pessimist.  That makes me an odd person. The general tone of life in the Anglo-saxon world is optimistic. The monopoly on pessimism has been granted in perpetuity to the media. But it is optimism that keeps everyone going - you can always do it, you make new starts every day, you can change the world all the time. Even that great priestess of suffering, Simone Weil, knew that the basis of all our knowing, contra Descartes, was: I WILL, therefore I am! Hence, my constantly being on my guard is too dark for most people. My explanation that this is only to guard against my overt optimism is not very convincing, at least to people who know me everyday. I have come to accept that I overcompensate perhaps, and it is time for me, at least occassionally, to pay heed to the bright side of life.  If anything, though, it is the bright side that I am constantly enarmoured with. That I am still starting things, looking for th

The 'venturesome' economy

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There was a time - not too long ago - when I used to be excited by venture talk. Spending hours on PowerPoint presentations or ever complicated Excel spreadsheets, I painted the future - and then 'pivoted'. I participated in the watercooler chat about valuations and name-dropped every VC I knew in town. The future - I believed like everyone else - had a valuation. Nowadays, though, I am scared. Through many failures and some successes, I have come to see what venture capital does to industries. While I spent my entire career looking for innovation opportunities, I have lately realised that disruptions can be literal and really destructive. Of course, my age explains my scepticism, but that also allows me to see things in context. Also, the reason I am scared is personal: I chose, early in my career, to be in education. That's what I have done for over twenty years now, not just working in it but also reading, thinking and talking about it. There was venture-talk in educatio

On waking up

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My Staurday morning was a mild mayhem because I disobeyed the alarm clock.  I am always optimistic with my alarm, allowing me at least one snooze. Usually that action gets the phone in my hand and the combination of email and facebook notifications do the rest. But this Saturday, as my watch told me later, I had this very deep sleep just in time for me miss the pathetic everyday sequence altogether. This, on a day I promised myself a fresh start: A formal beginning of the post-pandemic life when I should switch from forever waiting and compromising to getting on with my ideas in a hurry. This perhaps was the deep sleep as I was dreaming I have got there already. Therefore, I woke up with a start and started as I woke up.  But - if I could get back my faith in omens - this disregarding the alarm was a good sign. I was raised on a certain ethic - getting up early is good, slumbering around is bad - but the very thing that I want to do now, raise my awareness about the underlying structur

Online higher ed: new questions

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As higher ed goes online, we must remember: The medium is the message. There is little point trying to do online what we do in campuses. This is what most online higher ed propositions are built on, and very quickly they become poor copies of the real thing. The screen reduces the whole web of personal interactions and relationships into just content delivery - and universities to diploma shops! It is not surprising that the students do not see the same value in online delivery as they do in the classrooms. But that format also underplays the key strengths that a distributed environment can bring. Flexibility in terms of time and space, for example, may not be that valuable if we are trying to replicate the same activities that happen in a classroom, but mightily important if we try to do what can't be done in a classroom. But there is more: This is not just about access but experience too. There was once a charm getting to know others across the barriers of time and space. Faceboo

The nation-state's last hurrah

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  Dani Rodrik defined 'inescapable trilemma' of our world system back in 2007: That a globalised economy, democratic politics and nation states can't possibly coexist. (See here his post in 2007 on this) We could have, he said, two of the three, any two, but not all three. The last five years - the Brexit-Trump years - should have settled the matter. Democracy and nation state trounced global economy, putting one demagouge after another at helm across the world. Democracy's forward march was portrayed as the nadir of globalisation as we knew it. We were, as it seemed, destined to live in an age of ultra-democratic nation states. It indeed seems so, living through the pandemic. The system of 'each country for itself', with populists and ideologues running the show, showed a range of responses, from virus denial, vaccine nationalism and isolationism. The concerted effort of avert the global financial crisis in 2008 was totally missing this time around. Yet, as th

Beyond Online Education

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I have been, admittedly, a constant sceptic of the inflated valuations of online higher education companies.  Part of the reason is practical: Most online education companies focus much more on sales than creating sustainable institutional structures, looking to create an educational sub-prime. Their aim is often to 'uberise' - commoditise the inherent trust and respect that make an educational community work. That focus on scale, without a proportional attention on the outcome, makes an irresponsible business. Indeed, the Chinese government has recently stepped in to make this precise point. But there are also other reasons why I think these edtech valuations are frothy and unsustainable. I think the investors misunderstand the nature of education, particularly higher education, and therefore, their estimates about the prospect of online higher ed are wildly wrong. The pandemic was an aberration, when people were forced to stay home; as we return to normal, online education wi

The limits of American power

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  The scenes from Kabul Airport are sad and shocking, but they are not extraordinary. If anything, it seems that the Biden administration, even if they did not know what this would look like, was fully aware what they were doing - and what its consequences will be. Their allies were in it too, and they also knew what was going to happen: They were hoping, after Louis XVth, that the inevitable catastrophy would come after they have safely left. Most of the world already knew, ever since the 'Nam, that America is much better at bombing territories than holding them. That George W still misadventured shows the perils of not knowing one's history - or for that matter, any history! There was, of course, a good dose of over-confidence from the end of history moment of the nineties: After all, as Marx said, Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please. It's not just about history, but also about the present. In more ways than one, what's happening in Kabu

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