Chronicles of a search: Reflecting on 2023
I have learnt a lot in 2023 and want to put that learning to use in 2024.
Chiefly, I have tested and clarified some ideas I have had. I got involved in Higher Education somewhat accidentally. Mine did not follow the career paths of my colleagues - a graduate degree leading to a university job - but rather an unsual one: A technical job leading to a career in professional trainining, which in turn led to recruitment (I worked in healthcare and technology recruitment for almost four years), which, in turn, got me curious about what colleges do. Because of this background, I did not start in any academic role or even an administrative one, but was recruited for transforming an institution trying to figure out the linkage to employment. Everything else, including teaching and curriculum development work, came thereafter. Therefore, while I have now spent over twelve years dealing with details of academic planning and administration, my peculiar experience focused me on transformation of academic institutions from different angles: Meeting the employers half-way, becoming global and effecting technology-led transformations.
What I did in 2023 was a hothouse experimentation of all the ideas that developed during this period. But if there was an overarching theme, it was to search for a model for a new university. My career - working with senior leadership of universities and private colleges - has been rewarding, but it made me often feel that my work lacked impact. As if, I was working on cosmetic changes without the power to bring in fundamental transformation. I have been, more often than not, the person with bright ideas, but rarely being in charge. I am not entirely blameless: My dislike of bureaucracy and aversion of positional power played a role in this. I did not want a title, and wore them uncomfortably when they came. The shortcoming of this was plain to see in my work this year - I was too reluctant to throw my weight around! Right now, in my reflective mood, I recall a feedback I received early in my career - that I can lead small teams very effectively but it doesn't translate when it comes to bigger teams - and believe that this is due to my limitation to use fear effectively. Perhaps, it is more than that: I detest popularity and shun compliments, because I see those as markers of an insecure personality, but at the same time, I also reject positional power and fear of loss that some leaders use so effectively. This is perhaps what made me come to higher education in the first place: I expected, mistakenly, the environment to be 'collegial', less bureaucratic, open and collaborative. Ever since I started, I have been trying to create such an environment, proclaiming that my objective will be to establish the world's 'friendliest' college.
I must say we came close to it in 2023. We built the company on certain values: Openness, respect, consideration for each other, friendliness. It has not been easy: When new people joined, they came with their previous experiences and immediately set out to judge our culture not as new or different, but as a chaotic and unorganised one. It was a long and difficult road for us to make people unlearn their fears and give up their needs for certainty as a trade-off for flexibility. Further, it was even more difficult as we were operating within a legacy structure: There were set ways of doing things which we were going against. One good thing was that Covid broke most of Higher Education, so our ways of doing things appeared slightly less crazy than otherwise it would have been. But it was a three-dimension transformation we had to live through on a daily basis: Transformation of ourselves, of our organisational reality and of our customer institutions.
As I approach 2024, I want to turn all the learning into an operating system for a new university. There are some fascinating opportunities in global higher education right now. That education needs innovation is being commonly accepted. There are a number of unsettling changes: Covid has produced a 'new normal' of hybridity, AI has created an emergent model of knowledge creation, China has appeared as education superpower in its own right (with India following on its heels) and education-to-employment model of the last three decades has collapsed. Hence, when we speak about a new 'operating system', it doesn't sound out of place. In fact, we get interest even from the regulators, those who are supposed to keep Higher Ed straight and narrow!
Hence, creating a new, connected university is more possible now than it has ever been. Where it should be, I don't know. India is where I spent most time and it has most students, but it is also a difficult place to do things first. I surely see multiple nodes in India which will be part of this global university, but I don't see it to be based there. Australia is another possibility, as my work over the last five years has created some opportunities. However, I am currently based in London and despite the ideosyncracies of the British government, London maintains its own charm as the foremost global city of our time. And, if my personal preferences have to be considered, then I shall perhaps be in Berlin or Vienna or Paris, as being outside the Anglo-American world at this moment of time has its own advantages.
I shall write more about the framework for the connected university. However, this is going to be my preoccupation in the next 6 to 12 months, the main theme of my work in 2024. There are theoretical and practical considerations that have to be dealt with, which I feel excited about. There are battles to be won, but more importantly, coalitions to be formed. I feel I am at the threshold of doing something which I have been preparing myself for, and hence I am approaching 2024 with a lot of positivity.