Showing posts from 2019

Is 'Brain-drain' dead?

'Brain-drain' used to be big: Textbooks had sections on it, conferences bemoaned it and it was seen as a serious problem holding back the 'Third World'.  But, that was then: Suddenly it went out of fashion. As I grew up under its shadow - I studied Development Economics for my first degree - I am always very curious to know when exactly it died. It was already terribly out of fashion in the 1990s, the age of 'liberalization' and 'Globalization' and as the 'Third World' ceased to be the 'Third' and became 'developing' countries instead. But I have a hunch that 'brain-drain' limped on for a while, at least until 2008. As the lights went out in the West and many skilled migrants started returning to their home countries (which somehow withered the storm, at least at that point), 'Brain-drain' became an utterly useless concept. However, what killed 'Brain-drain' is not 'reverse migration'

Online Higher Education and Cultural Invasion

Once upon a time, I was a believer. I believed that the wonderful possibility of online higher education will make available affordable, high quality higher education for the aspiring middle-class students everywhere. Of all the vistas opened up by the Internet, this was the most transformative. This would have made a truly flat world; this would have resulted in a convergence of values and ideas, desires and languages.  That was then, the late nineties. Before the dot-com bust, before 9/11, before Facebook conquered the world. Most importantly, before I did a day's work for the online universities and met the first students who enrolled in them. Before the wonderful rhetoric met the real world and billions of dollars of venture capital was poured into online universities! And, before various failed schemes to improve higher education in the 'third world' came full-circle. In between, I was in the frontline. I have this odd enthusiasm about what I do. Though I

On the politics of offence

Brexit-busy Britain is due for an election. Amid the clamour, it’s quite difficult to bring up something other than the big BoJo-Jezza battle. However, the noise obscures the rapid and fundamental changes in British public life of a transformational sort. Long after Brexit is forgotten and today’s debates turn into stale pub-jokes, these changes will continue to shape British politics, life and ideas, and serve as raw materials for the future theorist. One such trend is the increasing marginalisation of female MPs, 18 of whom decided not to run again. Just when it seemed that political participation of women is irreversible – Britain had a female Prime Minister only until a few months ago and two of the three shadow ‘great offices’ are held by women – history seems to be going back again. The women MPs stepping down cited the climate of harassment and intimidation, often unleashed very publicly on social media. Those who remained in the fray say that they feel afraid to knoc

What does Liberal Education mean in the Digital Age?

Liberal Education had a particular meaning at its origin. Or, rather, it had two or more different meanings at the origin: the 'liberal' in English-Scottish sense, an education to be critical and to seek the truth and the German idea of 'Bildung', of continuous self-cultivation. This is a self-consciously gross generalisation, but I think those two ideas should remain at the heart of modern liberal education. It should both be sceptical and hopeful, never a slave of received wisdom and forever in the faith of cooperation and progress. And, this is exactly the same core values modern, secular, democratic societies need: The belief that we can work with one another, better our lives and can make decisions without being told - by some divine or dictator - what we should do, is essential to its existence. The above is rather obvious and well-trodden ground, but importantly, these ideas are historically defined. Some of these ideas, of questioning, of progress, of

'Extensions of self': Indian organisation theory and its limitation

I watched a popular Indian mythologist expound on an Indian Business TV channel that Indian organisations are essentially different from Western ones. His reasoning is that the Western organisations are supposed to be separate, stand on its own, entities, Indian organisations are extensions of its owners, and hence, not just culturally different but organically distinct too.  I am sure this is an attractive opinion. In this season of celebration of Indian exceptionalism, what's better to think of a culturally exclusive form of business? Also, one that makes all the idiosyncrasies of Indian businesses look explicable and even desirable! I am sure a lot of this Business Sutra will be sold - I can see many presentations blooming around this central thesis. Except that, leaving out the soundbites and mythologies, it reflects a profound misunderstanding of both Western businesses and Indian business culture. In fact, the whole premise is based on a false dichotomy, or, to

Rethinking Indian Higher Education : The Liberal Education turn

The most intriguing - and the most timely - policy pronouncement in India's new education policy is its emphasis on a Liberal Education undergraduate. While this is inspired by the American model (at a time when Americans seem to be going the other way) and also the more recent Chinese example, this cuts against the grain of the structure of Indian higher education.  It will be an exercise of fresh imagination altogether, as what a Liberal Education would mean in context have to be defined from scratch. 'Liberal Arts' may have become a trendy subject area to study in some of the new private universities in India, but its object and structure remain largely undefined ( see my earlier post ). The high-level policy intention of unveiling a 'Bachelor of Liberal Arts' gives little detail on what this means. And, indeed, the current theocratic mood of Indian politics anticipate this to mean the opposite of 'liberal'; more scholastic and revivalist, but n

Rethinking Indian Higher Education : The diagnosis

The new education policy that the Indian government is rolling out is significant, only if it's the first such policy pronouncement in over 30 years.  The last one was in 1985. As the saying goes, past was a different country and they did things differently then. In the meantime, India has grown to be reasonably prosperous, demographically vibrant and disproportionately confident. The geopolitically realities have changed: The cold war is distant past, Russia has fallen and risen again in a new guise as China shook the world in the meantime. This new education policy, therefore, has to be really new and see the world with a fresh pair of eyes. From that perspective, the refreshing honesty of the draft of the policy is a great start. One huge obstacle of any change in India is that no one wants to admit that there is any problem. Kishore Mahbubani's diagnosis of India being an open society with a closed mind is right on the money. What's worse is that any dis

What really matters

Every Sunday morning, I miss Kolkata. Yes, that crowded, polluted, malarial city at the frontline of climate catastrophe? That slow city, just off the tropic of Cancer, where people still rehearse for plays, read books, debate politics and go home for lunch. Where to be poor - which is not being consumed by money-culture - is still glorious. Where, despite their new-found love of shopping malls, young maidens may still fall in love with the do-nothing poet next door. Where, despite the 'free' life of apartments, people still live in large, crumbling, houses, negotiating idiosyncrasies of the joint family.   Of course, that place, of my youth, may not exist anymore the way I see it. Globalisation has reached Kolkata in the form of ugly, overpriced apartment blocks; glass buildings of IT sweatshops; separated, by malls and brands, lives of the rich and poor; chain schools and hotels by the hour; badly done replicas of global landmarks; noisy politics of religious div

Making History with Brexit

 History is the result of human actions, but not of human design, wrote Friedrich Von Hayek. ‘Brexit’ bears that out. Globalisation was not supposed to go backward. The Lisbon Treaty of 2007 included Article 50, the option to exit. But that was never meant to be invoked. The British politicians demanded it to sell the treaty at home, but it was always assumed that once done, the British public would always stop at ‘we can go but why should we’ thought. But 2015 was not 2007. A lot changed, and three things, in particular, wrecked that cosy assumption. The First and the most obvious one is immigration. The expansive Blair-Bush foreign policy encouraged the EU to expand East and Southwards, adding 10 new countries in 2004. Free movement rights into Britain for the citizens of the new member states sent in, against the plan for a few thousand, a million new migrants. The second – and the most painful – factor was the 2008 recession. Yet it’s the aftermath that matte

Beyond the Politics of 'Ism'

None of the human inventiveness that has broken new ground in science and technology can be readily seen in today's politics, which has become a narrative of regression and despair. The early Twentieth-century demons are out of the bag again and we are debating some of the issues we debated ever since. With time - as we descended into permanently labelling people by what they believed at a given point of time - the politics of 'ism' has become personal. At a point of history when cooperation - on issues ranging from confronting terrorism to climate - and community have become essential to our well-being, we seem to be lost in a maze of ideological walls.  Democracy is dying, some commentators claim, and they point to the symptoms - fake news, irresponsible politicians and discredited institutions! And, yet, the disease goes unrecognised, perhaps by design: The complexity of the system, which was crafted to limit how much an ordinary person could understand and have

Rethinking Bengal's narrative

Narratives matter for the economy. The point is somewhat obvious, but the Nobel laureate economist Robert Shiller re-emphasizes the point in a new book ( a preview here ). Yet, as Shiller argues correctly, we miss this point all too often. We claim that data will speak for itself, but people think in terms of overarching stories rather than nuanced arguments. And, in this, I shall argue, Bengal misses a trick. By Bengal, I mean the state of West Bengal in India. This sliver of the ancient state of Bengal, which became prosperous and pre-eminent in Indian politics for a variety of environmental (changing courses of rivers), historical (the gradual shift of influence from Dhaka to Calcutta, via Murshidabad) and economic (early emergence of capitalist class through privatization of land ownership, spread of English education and emergence of a hub of global trade) reasons, is - by common perception - in a state of decline. When I use Bengal, I am only using the popular shortha

Do not listen to the gentle waves

The feeling that my life is drifting away is perhaps the most creepy one to have. Yet, it's a non-feeling. One doesn't really feel the drift until after the fact; otherwise, it will not be one of drift, it will be of change. Yet, I have that. It's really a combination of two things: of comfort - imagine listening to the gentle waves while looking out of a porthole - and of anxiety - of not knowing where one is off to, or, if at all, one is off to anywhere. It's the opposite of the fear of change; it's the fear of non-change, of meaningless stability. Indeed, days pass and seasons change. It does not help that this country, and almost all countries I care about, are suddenly caught in a cycle of non-change, history going backwards in a climate of global counter-revolution. Every day's new, it appears, could be of any day; like a bad movie, things do not happen in a sequence anymore. Instead, they appear randomly, making sense just by themsel

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