Friday, November 24, 2017

'Neo-Liberalism' and Its Symptoms

'Neo-Liberalism' has come to eat the world. 

The term pops up every now and then, sometimes in unexpected places. Usually derogatory in its employ, it appears to signify both the cause of the disease and its symptoms. I am not sure if anyone calls oneself 'neo-Liberal' by choice, but in a sense, all of us, mortgage-wielding, Cappuccino-sipping, Economist-reading, English-speaking, Starbucks-bound middle-class men, are. In its usage, it is nothing like 'Nazi', or 'Fascist', or 'Communist', as each one of those were specific categories (one could be called a communist and could admit to be a communist), but rather a label that is necessarily bestowed on others, with its main function being absolution for the speaker: That is, if I can call something, or someone, 'Neo-Liberal', then I am not.

One thing for sure though: It is deemed to be something bad. Just calling someone 'Neo-Liberal' isn't enough, you have to say the word in a bad sort of way. You can't say 'Neo-Liberalism' like you say 'Handsome', or even, 'Atheletic'; you have to call someone 'Neo-Liberal' in the tone that Margaret Thatcher employed for the word 'Socialist' - slightly nasal, thoroughly dismissive, and yet decidedly sinister('Socialist' never recovered from that)! As long as you get this right, you can escape scrutiny, even in the most hallowed circles of pedantry, i.e., the academic conferences: A full conference can be convened to debate the true meaning of a commonplace, like 'War' or 'Revolution', but 'Neo-Liberal' is taken as self-evident and usually met with applause and other un-academic responses.

So, questioning how to identify a 'Neo-Liberal' is a bad one from the start. One can write histories of Neo-Liberalism and I am certain someone is planning a documentary collection; but it only shows that I am a History of Ideas sophomore if I indulge such curiosities whether 'Neo-Liberalism' exists. However, my disquiet has a strong enough reason: After Trump, Brexit, Modi and Xi, my categories of Neo-Liberals and others have got murkier and murkier. It is no longer a useful short-hand if we have someone who seems to believe in Markets and yet, not in free press; wants to allow tax cuts but wants to gorge on debts and expand public expenditure; wants less regulation and yet wants to control what people eat at home; wants to build free economies but without immigration. This bunch of politicians, in effect, retired our Neo-Liberals so very suddenly that we seem to be missing them, and calling for a redefinition of the term - perhaps, a definition as there possibly never was one - is not out of order.

To be fair, most Twentieth century political categorisations are now quite challenged. Fascists masquerade as Conservatives and Socialists and Liberals have somewhat been mixed up. Even the Left and the Right could not keep their Estates Generale purity: The Left sat on the right so long that they forgot their place, and the Right stole so many Left ideas that they dropped the label, at least when they referred to themselves. And, even in this melee, Neoliberalism stood out - perhaps just because it is so ubiquitous, so temptingly vaguely and yet so decidedly influential.

I could say that I can't define Neo-liberalism but know it when I see it, but I read The Economist every week, and therefore, see it ever so often. Therefore, despite the difficulty, I shall try to 'symptomise' what Neoliberalism stands for, or, how to know a neo-liberal when you meet one. And, I would try to do so using a model based on four parameters - Globalisation, Inequality, Regulation and Society - which I personally use as a shorthand to understand political categories.

On Globalisation, Neo-Liberals are globalisers and believe in free movement of capital and free trade. This is one of the founding tenets of Liberalism and the neo-liberals haven't strayed further from their base. And, this is why Europe, rather than Brexit, is a neo-liberal project. The neo-liberals are also usually committed to free movement of people, but, from their corner, it is to be justified by an economic rationale rather than anything else. Compassion for refugees is not a neo-liberal thing, but the business' needs for skilled workers very much is.

On Inequality: Neo-Liberals are free marketeers and therefore, they believe Inequality is an economic phenomena which appears and disappears with changes in technology and the production process. So, for them, this is a natural event and one can't legislate it away. Rather, the best way to deal with inequality is to encourage more efficient markets to do their job. This does not, however, mean that the Neo-Liberals do not favour intervention: Their interventions are more likely to be oblique, through improvements in Education and Health, rather than taxation and welfare.

On Regulation: The Neo-Liberals have at heart 'Government is the problem' mantra, so that makes them different from old-style Liberals, who loved intervening in one way or another. But the lack of appetite for regulation doesn't make them free-for-all Libertarians, as they believe in expert knowledge and the right of the few enlightened individuals define what happens to rest of us. This primacy of the professionals is also at odds with the Conservatives, who have a natural affinity for tradition (which professionals often seek to rationalise and overturn) and tacit knowledge (which professional knowledge discounts and replaces). So, 'nudge, nudge, nudge' is the neo-liberal mantra, which, in more traditional language, would be called 'Carrots and Sticks'.

On Society:  If Reagan provided the Neo-Liberals the catchphrase for Regulation, Thatcher gave them the definition of society:"There is no such thing as Society". What we call 'society' is a collection of self-interested people cooperating with each other for pure reasons of survival and advantage. Traditions are merely an illusion, and membership of this 'collective' is based on economic roles and contributions, which makes it somewhat easy to make the case of immigration. The neo-liberals, therefore, wouldn't approve of beef-crusade of Mr Modi in India but would solidly stand behind him when he scraps environmental employment regulations.

In summary, then, the Neo-Liberals are a hopeful bunch (whereas the Conservatives are pessimistic) who believes in an economic community (again, ad odds with Conservatives but more like the Marxists) where free markets and individual initiative can drive progress and maximise common good (this is not what Socialists or Marxists would accept). They believe in unregulated development of technologies (Conservatives wouldn't) and free global movement of people and capital (Conservatives and Socialists wouldn't like that, despite the latter's insistence on solidarity of men). Neo-liberals are less hot on regulations than their Liberal predecessors - this is what justifies the 'neo' tag - but prefers intervention in terms of health and education. They are a peculiar late Twentieth Century phenomena who we have come to denigrate, but only because almost all of us, unless you are landed gentry or dyed-in-the-wool communist, have all become neo-liberals ourselves and feel the need to denounce the ideology which stems from everyday compromises that we do (and believe we are doing it for pragmatic reasons).


 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Compassion: The Soft Skill We Need

It has become a commonplace to say that, with globalisation and automation transforming the world of work, we need more 'soft skills'. There are various lists of these 'skills' available on Twitter or Linkedin, and often they are just similar things expressed with a slightly different twist. The idea is that when cost pressures push the corporations and investors look to capitalise every ounce of 'value', our very human qualities matter more than our ability to carry out instructions. In the battle for our career with robots, we can only survive by being more ourselves.

However, these things are usual staple in Conference Circuits. Books have also started to appear on the subject - a few dystopian ones in a sea of very enthusiastic elegies to the brave new world - and the message is very similar. Howard Gardner may label something 'Creativity' which Daniel Pink calls 'Play'; Howard Rheingold may call something 'participation' which may become 'Relationship Work' in Geoff Colvin's telling; but the message is that instead of competing with Robots, the basic strengths that made humans such a successful species need to be invoked all over again.

However, there are some missing ones in even the most elaborate of the lists, and these intrigue me. My favourite one is 'Compassion'. I never see this C-word pop up in any of the Powerpoint slides. Communication and Collaboration feature prominently; Relationship Smarts have also got some airtime after Mr Colvin's intervention: But Compassion never made it. Indeed, there are others, but, in this post, I want to explore the case of Compassion and why it is not considered a critical Soft Skills - and, what does that tell us about the whole conversation about Soft Skills.

First, the case for Compassion, as I see it. Compassion is the essential human tendency, a higher cognitive ability that differentiate humans from animals. Indeed, some animals are capable of compassion, but these are the ones with bigger brains and greater cognitive abilities. In contrast, the competitive spirit is a basic life force, existing almost across the board in the living universe. As we get to compete with Robots, competitiveness can be programmed but compassion less so. In fact, as far as I am aware, the recent breakthroughs in Machine Intelligence, which signifies a break away from efforts to mimic the human brains to a new kind of thinking, makes Compassion even more difficult to fit in. 

Compassion is a real differentiator because it may be irrational. This is different from collaboration, which one does for with a favourable outcome in mind: It is logical, so it can be programmed (and indeed, Robots are better at collaborating, without emotional hassles and stereotypes to deal with, than humans). Compassion, by definition, has no defined positive outcome for the person concerned, except the emotional well-being. But compassion has great collective benefits; it makes people work better together, make lives happier and at the biological end, allows new features to survive and grow. It is crucial to ideas, as a brutal winner-takes-all space would only preserve those who shout the loudest and keep us forever in the prison of the present: The outliers and the oddballs will never make it. It is the stuff that built the greatest common glue that made human societies successful: Religion. It is, I shall claim, the most successful and persistent of the soft skills that each generation needed to survive.

But we never speak about this when enumerating the soft skills. There are several reasons for this, but all of them are equally 'debunkable'. 

First is that compassion is not a workplace skill. This is empirically untrue: Many of us have direct experience on the contrary and having one's best friend at work is also very common. In fact, our ideals about good workplaces are of a community based on compassion, friendship and understanding.

Second is that compassion is not tangible, but so are all soft skills. A related objection is that it is not teachable, but any good school teacher would seriously object to that. And, even if schools have become all too assessment driven, religious teaching is all about compassion (particularly in Christianity and Islam, two of the world's most successful religions). 

Third is that compassion is culturally specific: What compassion is to an Indian may not be the same to an American. But this is flawed too, but compassion is more of an universal human feeling that the ones we call 'soft skills', such as Communication. Compassion is exactly the same feeling for an Israeli and an Arab, an Indian and a Pakistani. This is why religions based on compassion can successfully build multi-cultural communities (without linguistic unification) and this is why those who take 'culture training' to conduct international business do worse than those who are characteristically compassionate.

Fourth, a more serious one, is that compassion is rather unpredictable. If pure compassion is not based on self-interest, how does one fit that into a pursuit of career, which is all about self-interest. But this is based on the fallacy of the company man, the assumption that we are capable of maintaining a 'professional self' different from our person. As some Organisational Theorists would point out, it is the whole person who comes to work, and, at least for most people, office and careers are not solely about 'self-interest'. It is rather about their 'self-concept', and most of them are compassionate, 'normal', individuals.

Indeed, the meta-reason why Compassion does not make it to our list of soft skills because we believe the world of work is a world in itself, different from our daily lives. But the point of soft skills is exactly that: The world of work is rapidly changing from a factory, where one interacted with machines, followed instructions and lived within processes, to more like the usual human community, where being human is no longer a disadvantage, but a necessity. Compassion has come to be seen as a religious thing, not because religions invented compassion but because compassion was a human tendency that allowed us to invent religion (okay, I give it away and admit to be an atheist!). When we reach deep down and think what makes us human, as this robot-induced challenge surely does, compassion comes at the very top of human abilities. It is time to put it back on the soft skills that we should be looking out for.

 



  


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Why Apprenticeship Schemes Fail?

Apprenticeships seem like one idea whose time never comes.

Or, its time may have come and gone, long time ago. Its past makes it appear romantic, just like medieval castles and knights. Its reality, however, might have been very different: Apprenticeships might have been too long and too limiting. There was a reason why it was one of the practises that died off with time. But its passing is mourned, and its memory evokes a time when work meant a long commitment and lifelong engagement. It signifies a different reality from today's uprooted workers and dehumanised workplaces, something we feel nostalgic about.

So it is evoked from time to time, as the policy-makers run out of ideas. As job crisis hits countries - an effect of the twin forces of globalisation and automation - college, the enabler of middle class dream, seems to fall short. College's own medieval mystic, that of a detached pursuit of humanistic knowledge, looks out of place - too long, too academic, too disconnected and too expensive! Various rounds of government funding, therefore, seeks to build apprenticeships as a technically focused and employer engaged alternative, a panacea to the persistent skills deficit and productivity issues.

Just one problem: They don't work! 

This is one of the areas in modern policy-making no one really wants to talk about. Or, even when people acknowledge that the Apprenticeships did not work, they usually see this as an implementation issue. Each successive Government Minister, in Britain and elsewhere, comes up with his or her own tweaks in the system, one final solution to fix the broken system, until the next Minister and his solutions. No one wants to ask the question whether Apprenticeships are fit for purpose - as a catch-all solution for getting millions of young people into jobs - because it is politically so attractive, both to the Right and to the Left. This is one of the last remaining orthodoxies everyone can agree on.

But, as I mentioned, empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Apprenticeships often lead to nowhere. Indeed, there are success stories in the newspapers, but that's the man-bites-dog case, exceptions rather than the rule. Besides, apprenticeships often mean getting stuck, at a low level poorly paid job, where only permanent factor is the lack of job security. Where are the 3 million success stories of David Cameron apprentices, one would ask. India seems deeper into skills deficit after its much vaunted skills training programme spent all its money. And, in America, it never seems to take off! 

Before I write any further, though, I must make a distinction between Apprenticeships as an idea and Apprenticeships as a programme or approach of mass training. Indeed, the successful apprentices are everywhere: All doctors, nurses, lawyers and Accountants have gone through some form of long and arduous apprenticeships. But the government programmes aim differently: Not long but shorter apprenticeships (one year is the most common length) and not at 'professional' jobs but vocational, shop floor ones. This is the second type which has manifestly failed, and its failure is becoming even more pervasive and troubling as the workplaces change and Robots step in.

One can perhaps see two problems almost instantaneously with these Apprenticeship programmes as conceived.

First, while they try to reclaim the medieval charm of apprenticeships, the government programmes are funding-bound and focused on wrong parameters. Mastery of a job, which requires long engagement, is not the goal. In fact, these programmes are measured by time and not mastery. And, therefore, shorter the better, as long programmes will not be financially feasible and politically attractive. These programmes, therefore, are often designed to be illusions of apprenticeships, a frugal and superficial supply of cheap labour, often a distraction to serious employers than a strategic source of talent. 

Second, apprenticeships aim low. The modern apprenticeship programmes are designed to serve those who can't go to college. College, and its supposed aim of professional knowledge, remains the ideal, the way to middle class dream. The apprenticeships are the second class option, for those who are not very good. This devalues apprenticeships as an option almost from the start. The colleges choose to avoid the word altogether, sticking to an alternative such as the internship, and while it remains common among many professions, apprentices are seen as those who failed. In a society where politicians promote middle class dreams, apprenticeships are tickets to nowhere. In areas where education is meaningless without practical work, professions that I cite above but also sectors such as Hospitality, a long apprenticeship often forms the core of a degree programme. But, anything outside, anything that the Government labels as Apprenticeship, is immediately devalued and rendered meaningless.

Therefore, persistence of college guarantees the failure of the apprenticeship schemes. But this is a bigger problem than it appears. It is not just about degree over diploma, to be fixed with tweaks of funding regimes. It is mainly about what kind of knowledge we value. We prefer expert, theoretical knowledge over contextual knowledge emanating from practise, an enlightenment idea ingrained in modernity (and in college education). The global turn, as well as automation, may push the pendulum back and practical, local knowledge may have become more important, but the idea is still at odds with how we think. We want to codify ' soft skills' even when we acknowledge they are 'soft' and intangible, because our infatuation with a particular idea of knowledge and mastery runs so deep. This is the biggest hurdle Apprenticeship schemes face: What we call knowledge and expertise and what we value is directly oppositional to what they promote. And, unless this changes, Apprenticeship Schemes will remain the panacea in waiting.  

 


Thursday, November 02, 2017

Getting Ready For Automation

Automation sounds like Science Fiction. There is an eerie feeling watching a Humanoid Robot on stage. It's indeed there, all over Facebook, but like the other strange things, it is easy to assume that this is distant, out of the ordinary and not going to come and live next door. The more it is hyped, the easier it becomes to dismiss. Until it arrives, not with a bang but in just everyday-way!

That moment is now, almost. One may dispute how long it will take for technology to become smart enough to replace humans in one specific role or the other, but the indisputable fact is that it would happen. That moment is not lifetimes away: Within our lifetime, and definitely within that of our Children, it is going to get there. Humanities great hope of survival can not be that Moore's Law may not hold. And, besides, it is not just the technology but also the financial will behind automation that will power us into the 'second machine age'. The challenge we should focus on how to deal with this future, rather than try to escape or postpone it.

Education is a part of the answer, and a big part of it. There are two ways Education can and will play a role. First, like it happened during the industrial revolution, expansion of schooling equipped a new generation of workers to take advantage of new technologies and therefore, raised labour force participation and productivity at the same time, unleashing an unprecedented level of prosperity and creating a new and much bigger middle class. Second, education also enabled innovation and enterprise - users of new machines finding new and better ways of using the techniques and discovering new possibilities of business in production, distribution or sales - that leveraged the technological progress and created a sort of positive feedback loop. In summary, education restored human agency and leadership in the face of unprecedented technological progress in last industrial revolution, and may yet do it again.

However, this time it may be different. This is not because the people are not sufficiently aware of the technological change - they are not because it is impossible to fully appreciate radical changes when you live within it - and, in fact, if anything, there are more conversations about technological change now than it ever was in history. Rather, this is because over the last century, Education has become an integral part of the political power structure and the Educational-Political Complex dominate our social lives and ideas. Once we have accepted 'merit' as the only legitimate source of power in a modern society, the idea of 'merit' has been defined, owned and controlled closely: Letting go of the idea of 'merit' and redefining it would seriously upset the power structures that we live within.

So, the Politicians and the Bureaucrats across the world, with a few notable exceptions, want to ignore the educational imperatives for automation. Indeed, they turn up at the conferences and play along the revolutionary possibilities of technology, but for them, this need to remain an elite affair. In the industrial revolution, the technological progress, playing over decades, allowed the emergence of a new kind of politics - Liberal politics - that held the middle ground of embracing technology, globalism, democracy and public education. This created a politics of progress, a sort of an 'abundance' mindset in which education was a necessary corollary, and allowed it to create a model of public education that eventually democratised the possibilities of technical advancement.

But there is nothing similar today: Politics is binary, and defined by historical pessimism of different kinds rather than optimism. Education is a multi-billion dollar business, with mature structures and entrenched interests. The narrative of technology, ring-fenced by intellectual property protection and evolved structures of commercialisation, revolves around brilliant breakthroughs rather than tinkering and adaptation - creating an illusory elitism. While everyone seems to say that education needs to change in the face of the new realities of automation, there is little conversation about what those changes can be or should be, and indeed, politicians and policy-makers remain singularly uninterested in such a conversation. Private sector innovation also remains limited, as everyone seems to buy the elitist narrative of technological progress, and there is little focus on democratisation of the possibilities (except for the furore about inequality, but taxes, rather than education, are seen as the answer).

In context, my little project about creating greater awareness about Automation and Globalisation, focused on a city in the unsung part of the world which is also an industrial wasteland, should be seen. The bigger battle for me is to make the beneficiaries engage in the conversation rather than getting resources for it. For the politicians from that city, automation is a distant drum which the developed world should bother about, and which, they assume, will become their concern only after their own political shelf life has passed. And, yet, this time it is different: The automation would hit those parts of the world that benefited from the globalisation of the 90s first and the hardest, wiping out the jobs and prosperity the current generation has come to take for granted. It is already too late to change through education, one may argue, but such an answer fails to offer an alternative: It is just too late to hope that life as it was would continue. 

The political indifference, though, has the opposite effect on me: I am seeing the urgency of private action even more clearly than I saw before. Instead of limiting our engagement in the face of apathy, I am thinking of expanding the scope of activities. Our initial ideas of being a platform for connection and advisory may need changing if there is no one on the other side looking for connection and advice: It is better to build structures for real education for automation rather than telling people about it.

 


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Building University 2.0: Beyond Platforms and McDonaldization

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 is only the late Twentieth century trend of Mass Higher Education that made the processes (and 'quality' that protects the integrity of these processes) become synonymous with the University. In a sense, the 'User Network' model refers to the past of the Universities as much as to its future.

However, the User Network model - or 'platform' as tech businesses will call it - can be easily misunderstood. Rather than the community, it may be seen as something like Facebook, a space and a toolkit, which allows the learners come and create value themselves. This is the vision that For-Profit education and its investors have embraced readily, because it resonates with the motto of 'platform thinking' - with infinite scalability and cost models focused on sales rather than delivery. 

And, this is now being carried to an extreme of self-service universities. The teachers and any form of knowledge are being discarded in favour of 'skills', the idea being no one needs to know anything because knowledge is dynamic. A character in a famous Satyajit Ray movie says, "It is pointless to learn as there is no end of learning", and this fallacy seems to be celebrated in the various neoliberal projects of 'disruptive learning'. Together, they aim for 'McDonaldization' of the University, ironically designing value propositions based on standardised processes and cancelling the community out. In their formulation, the new university is knowledge-free, devoid of any teachers, self-service, bite sized and often virtual: Learners can dip in and out, and create value by themselves for their own use. 

That I have come to see the danger of such an idea should be self-explanatory. And, what I describe is not a fringe phenomena, but the key proposition of what goes under the 'disruptive innovation' label in education. This is backed by serious venture investments, which love the scalability and content-free model, and these ideas are promoted by think-tanks and conferences the world over. Such models are tested out in developing countries, turning entire generations into guinea pigs, and failures, as they come, are swept under the carpet as failures of implementation rather than conception. Ideas, like Learning from Experience, are expropriated to justify the approach, though its proponents, people such as John Dewey or Paulo Freire, had meant very different things. The more recent ideas, such as Self-Organising Learning Environments, evangelized by Professor Sugata Mitra (who I worked with in NIIT), are celebrated, though Dr Mitra's thesis has the ideas of learning communities entrenched into it. The McDonaldized, 'disruptive' University 2.0 disregards such nuances to build education models that fit the spreadsheets, rather than inconvenient objectives such as the development of the person and developing a critical engagement with the world.





 


Saturday, October 28, 2017

An Update On Me

I have come back where I started. I decided to write this blog in a diary mode yet again. This is how I started anyway, but abandoned the banter as I got more people reading the blog. But I just feel too constrained to fit myself into a crusty professional self - this has been the bane of my career, I would suspect - and I found out that churning out wisdom on the blog is not my kind of thing. I tried and stopped, stopped and tried, and like now, and I am at another moment of fresh start.

A part of how I approach this blog is about my professional responsibility as well. When I am in employment, rather than being my own boss (I alternated between the two modes several times), these constraints matter more. I never wanted to write what I had for breakfast on this blog (I am not famous yet) but about ideas and situations that stimulate and make me think. And, some of these are disappointments: In fact, I figured out, disappointments stimulate more than a happy night out. Or, for that matter, being stupid is also an immensely stimulating affair, if one has the good fortune of getting back to senses not long after. The trouble is, of course, that one can not write about these publicly while also carrying out one's professional responsibilities, which essentially means being the 'role' rather than the person.

As one could perhaps guess, I am at the end of one such life and starting another. My silence over the last couple of weeks, and my resolve to find my voice yet again, would testify that I am at an inflection point. This is the end of the three year period I spent working around the idea of Experiential Learning. I took this on as my attempts of building a global collaborative learning platform through my own start-up faltered. It was a very interesting journey and I had the chance of working with some of the most brilliant people I have ever met. However, three years down this road, it is time for me to start out again, and explore the ideas that I have developed in a more independent manner. That indeed means an all-change moment for this blog: I feel more free, and, at the same time, I have more to write.

Of course, not for the first time, I procrastinated before taking this final leap. This is because I have put relationships ahead of the cold, hard logic of career progress or financial gains, and people I worked with often became my friends (I did refer to them as friends, prompting one colleague to remark that I have 1.2 billion friends in India). This made what should be a rather mundane and procedural affair - leaving a job - a complex human project for me, one involving relationships and commitments. This is perhaps another bane in my career, that the distinction between professional and personal isn't as clear-cut as it should be. For me, therefore, changing a role is almost like leaving a family, and frankly, I can never leave fully something I was so deeply and passionately involved in (as most people who I worked with in the past would testify).

However, I decide to move on based on a professional consideration, the realisation that the Education to Employment problem in developing countries is hard to resolve within the current For-Profit frameworks and mindsets. There are several layers of mistaken assumptions and structural issues which come in the way, and this is not the place or the time to dwell on the details. However, there is one key issue that I take away from the current experience, and I hope that this would become a key thing to deal with as I move to the next projects.

The reason why I think the For-Profit approach, which underpin all the currently fashionable venture investment in the Education sector, falls short in achieving anything transformational is because it misreads how value is created in education. It borrows its model from Technology industries, where 'platform' is the new, cool thing. A 'platform' - Facebook is a great example - essentially offers a space and a toolkit for its users to create value. This is immensely scalable, as the businesses themselves don't have to create content and even direct its purpose (other than maintaining the social norms and legal requirements) and invest all its energies in expanding its user base (sales) and the scope of its tools. The users create all content and connections, and willing allow the business to monetise the value they create for its own profits.

The 'For Profit' approach wants to bring this into Education. It is easy to see how this translates to the education context: No content, only platform! The For-Profit approach feasts on all the sleek theories of self-learning, though they conveniently ignore the caveats and only take the bits that fit their own world-view. For example, no serious education theorist (including ex-NIITian Sugata Mitra, who is the favourite guru of this camp, as he speaks about self-organising learning environments) would ever say knowledge is not important in education: But this message is conveniently lost in translation and at the For-Profit end, education means only skills and experience. Again, someone like John Dewey would highlight the Centrality of Experience in Education, but his caveat, that Experiences are of whole life and not of some bottled exposure, is conveniently ignored (see my previous post on this). The platform approach, therefore, takes what George Ritzer called 'McDonaldization' (see here) to a new extreme, to a self-service model where the learners become the new, digital, sharecroppers.

This is the opposite of rote learning that goes on in many schools, and indeed, I have no sympathies for that. But, the content-free education doesn't look anything like freedom from bad education or promise any transformation, despite the tall claims and loud promotions. It, instead, builds an education model totally subservient to pre-existing commercial models. Education - as the meeting place of Experience and Knowledge, as an opportunity to develop an independent and reflective identity - is totally ignored, and instead what one is left with is a superficial model of social interaction, underpinned by oneupmanship and self-promotion. Superficial communication, in this model, takes the place of understanding and engagement, experience is vulgarised into universalising models and knowledge is projected as a baggage. Despite the claims of careful, evidence-based approach, these educational approaches are usually based on learning designs made on a spreadsheet with dollar figures, and ended up hurting more than helping - and indeed, it hurts the most vulnerable most severely.

I have spent last five years, ever since I walked out of my job in the UK private college in 2012, exploring various models of Education-to-Employment transition. I recognise this as an urgent problem, and I remain totally committed to the cause even if I have to take a different road now. The 'Digital Sharecropper' model (Nicholas Carr's term) is not going to solve this problem, and will only make it worse. It needs more substantial, and sustained, involvement on the ground, with greater engagement with the stakeholders and greater respect for local cultures and norms, than anything I have done so far.

So that is really going to be my agenda going forward: Enabling socially committed institutions in building robust educational models. This may have to happen outside the VC mindset and needs to enabled by other, more enlightened, sources of money. The other part of my agenda is to expand my work as Historian of Global Education and write more often and more widely, as this would reinforce my work in the more practical arena of building solutions. This is the conversation I shall turn this blog into now, and I hope that is a change for the better.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Reinventing The High School

There is not much we agree upon these days, except that more and more people should go to college. This has become the self-evident truth of the late Twentieth century, and achieved the status of a divine revealation in the twentyfirst. Contrarian views, voiced from time to time by a few elitist conservatives, who believe college, along with the privileges to govern in perpetuity, should be preserved for a small group of people, look dated and out of place even among the political right. Countries speak of knowledge economy and equate it to the size of college-educated population. Technologists speak of automation and artificial intelligence and see college education essential for producing, consuming and living in the world they wish to make. Economists speak of productivity and equate it to the level of education. Everyone everywhere seems to think more college would mean more progress and well-being.

This, without any real evidence! College, historically, has been a system of manufacturing privilege, a part of the system of symbols that the governing classes govern with. The out-of-date observations of the elitists, therefore, have a ring of truth about it. The expansion of college has been a cruel joke to many - deferring the Labour force participation and leading to acquistion of useless knowledge - and developing countries, buying ideas unquestioningly from their erstwhile colonial masters, often went down this dead-end road of skullduggery. The college fetish has created a huge population of uselessly educated, unemployable population, 

I can anticipate people jumping in defence and explain how great universities make great countries, but no one is discussing Research Universities here. Indeed, they have a function, but the claim that more than half of young people of a country should go to institutions to do advance research is the modern equivalent of tulip mania. And, then, there is that great deception of 'college premium': It discounts the college-educated who doesn't find employment, and plays a game of averages where a few big earners crowd out everything else. These claims are not just wrong - they are harmful! They can undermine the productive capacities, particularly of a young, developing country, such as India or the nations of Africa, by subverting the priorities and let the State subsidise wrong kind of education, which, rather conveniently, benefit a narrow elite at the expense of everyone else.

There is one aspect of this wrong model that I want to write about, and that is the de-emphasisation of High School. Originally conceived as a preparatory stage for young people to enter productive work, High School in its modern version has become merely preparation for college. For a young and emerging economy, where college is not free and deferment of work is not an option for many people, High School is where social divergences play out in the earnest. This is where the apparently democratic claim of universal college shows itself in its true elitist fervour, by separating those who could afford special preparation from those who can't.

But, apart from the private tragedies, there is a public cost. The academic studies that 'mass' Higher Education offers in these countries - obsolete curriculum, unprepared teachers, minimal infrastructure - represents a colossal waste of time and money: Never before, I shall claim, had so many done so little over such a long period of time. Apart from the waste of public money, it is not just the deferment of work participation: It is also about wrong attitudes, wrong expectations and a misplaced sense of entitlement which has to be dealt with.

What's the solution? I am not advocating denying anyone college, as I am as aware as anyone who would really be denied if such a monstrous proposition comes into play. What I propose instead is a reinvention of High School, an acknowledgement that this is not a mere appendage of the college but a valuable preparation for entering into workforce. This plan needs to have several interconnected elements: Recasting of existing High School infrastructure, reinvention of High School curricula in line with the modern labour market, compulsory engagement with employers and social work at High School, acceptance of High School diplomas for a number of jobs and lastly, Expansion, rather than reduction, of college options allowing the employed and mid-career people pursue college as and when they think fit.

I am aware that just the opposite happens in developing countries. The High School is reduced to the point of irrelevance, governments suffer from college fetish, useless colleges abound and yet, options of distance learning and college credit are tightly regulated. The story here is one of misplaced assumption of copying the Western models and western rhetoric without critical thought and contextualisation. India's recent emphasis on Skills Education somewhat recognises this point, but descends into an outdated binary of education or skills conundrum. This is because High School falls within the Education box, and the government went on to create a parallel infrastructure, at a great cost and with a good deal of corruption, and built a system few people wanted to use. It did not discard its college fetish, and kept sending young middle class boys to dead-end careers and fast-disappearing jobs. No wonder India is facing a job crisis for the college educated, while at the same time, its skills training centres struggle to fill their seats. 

I have written about this in the past (see here) and looking to direct my Education-to-Employment work more to the High School segment going forward. I am already keenly aware that High School is not meant to be anything else but a time of prolonged suspension, years of anticipation for the college, of no value to itself. This is the barrier my work will be up against: To create meaning where none is sought, to create value in itself. But, I have always worked on things that I thought meaningful, and I am convinced that this is the most meaningful work I have found yet.

 

 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Hiring To Fit 'Culture'?

It only seems natural to hire people who fit the organisation's culture. In fact, the most common excuse for executive failure is the inability to fit into the culture of an organisation. We all have our own stories about colleagues or bosses who were complete misfits and caused havoc.

However, a recent post on Linkedin presented the downsides of hiring for culture and that is this: That it breeds conformity. Seen from this perspective, hiring for culture is another 'corporate creep' that at least the Start-ups must avoid, as the objective of a start-up as an organisational form is to confront the status quo.

I have observed in my life with the start-ups that while many, most of them, want to change the world, they don't want to change themselves. While their motto is to upturn entrenched industries and introduce new ways of doing things, organisationally and structurally, many start-ups are derivatives of some defunct organisation of the past. This is human: We all tend to equate 'golden age' with the time when we were twenty, and it is not a surprise that the start-up founders often dig up the nostalgia in attending to unimportant things, like organisational culture and practises, while they direct their revolutionary fervour towards more important ones, like the Website design and sales commissions.

This somewhat explains why some Silicon Valley VCs wouldn't back older entrepreneurs, but this still is a problem for the industry I am focused on - Higher Education - as it is difficult to make meaningful innovation in Higher Ed without appropriate chalk-face experience. The cultural baggage is almost inevitable in an education start-up: That is perhaps why the hiring culture is of even greater importance. That, and nothing else, can help one escape the oxymoron of 'global' companies made out of just one kind of people, the caricature of innovation with the same-old culture.

But this still leaves the practical aspect of hiring 'culturally unfit' people. Isn't that too much of a disruption? However, clearly, no one is suggesting that one should hire disorderly people, just different people. And, hopefully, an organisation can differentiate between culture and values: You don't hire someone who is rude, but at the same time, who may be able to see customer service in a different light.

It makes abundant sense to me, as I have sought out people from different cultures to work with. I have founded three start-ups in the past, and in two cases, the Co-founders were from entirely different cultures. I knew them for several years before we started, and respected them, but they couldn't be more unlike me in their approach and thought. I saw that to be a great advantage. We disagreed a lot while working together, but with respect and understanding, could always resolve things and do things better than what we could have done by ourselves. And, indeed, one time - first time - I worked with people completely like me, things went wrong quickly and I left after six months into it.

 


Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Can India Export Higher Education?

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 agenda in this year's conference (in London on 23rd January and in Bangalore in March). We also agreed to begin working with a select number of Indian institutions to help them develop a global vision, build appropriate service levels and communication strategies and implement it across several key markets in Asia and Africa. This post, hopefully one of the several I wish to write on the subject, is about setting out our general approach to this work.

At the outset, I agree with Pratik that not having foreign students in India is a huge missed opportunity. My ordering of the dimensions of the loss would be quite the reverse - lack of foreign students not only mean lower revenues and slender soft power, but, most importantly, parochial classrooms and student experiences for Indian students - but I acknowledge the important role a country's education system plays in forging global affinities and defining diplomatic relationships. Bollywood stealing the march over the Chinese film industry is a matter of immense pride in India; but, strangely, similar aspirations are not harboured about India's Higher Education.

This is a tragedy. Indians proudly tell the tale of a global India of antiquity, of those Arab scholars carrying Indian number systems to Europe, of the deep connections between Egyptian and Indian medicines and the fascinating journeys of monks and scriptures through the High plateaus of Himalaya to China, Korea and Japan. It was trade as well as knowledge and education that connected India to the world. As Indian seafarers traded with farthest corners of South-Eastern Asia, the Indian universities of Taxila, Nalanda, Vikramshila and Vallavi attracted students from all over Asia. Even as India turns inwards with a revivalist spirit, this globality is an integral part of the Indian golden age, real or imagined. The global culture of India only somewhat receded when India came under Colonial rule, and its Education and Commerce was subverted to serve the imperial interests above all else: For those two centuries, India was torn out of its global context and served at the pleasure of the bosses in London. India was still global, but the scales of globality was tipped - and it remained tipped since - as the country settled in a subservient relationship and developed, internally, a deep suspicion of global.

In trade, Indian companies and professionals have become global. India is making its way through ups and downs, and through rivalry, is following China's sterling example to the global top table. Through trial and error, the Government has started unshackling the entrepreneurial energies and innovativeness of Indian companies, and a different model of engagement with the world has emerged. Just when the Western countries are rejecting globalisation, India wants to embrace it - or, more specifically, Indian companies want to embrace it. They believe their moment has come. Trade has made India global again.

But, in education, it is a completely different story. Here, the trend points to the opposite direction - inward! India has steadfastly kept 'foreign education' out, despite thousands of Indian students heading abroad. It has kept Higher Education tightly regulated and strictly parochial, and as a result, its reputation has collapsed. The land-based vested interests were allowed to dominate, and the spirit that built an Infosys or a Wipro were denied in Education. The old fear of the global defined Indian Education, even when Indian companies showed Indians can compete at par, and benefit, rather than losing out, from global interactions. 

And, within these stifled conditions, India achieved a near-miraculous expansion of the Higher Education system - between 2006 and 2012, every day, 10 new Engineering Colleges opened and 5000 new seats were created - mostly through public funding. In play was the domestic demand, the millions of young people demanding access to education and an opportunity of middle class life, which encouraged private investment, but, at the same time, created a situation of excess demand, faltering regulations and detoriating quality. This is what is biting back now: The domestic demand stabilised; with anti-globalisation and automation biting back, the lack of quality has become apparent; colleges are closing rather than opening; and the need for new thinking has become pressing.

In my view, this is the perfect juncture to start speaking about a Global Vision. The crisis will close the institutions which should not have been opened in the first place, and it would make competing on quality an imperative and the surviving institutions stronger. It would also bring home the need for Blue Ocean thinking. The Indian Government has also come to appreciate that it is hard to build a modern global economy without an higher education sector to match, and have started several initiatives encouraging greater autonomy for institutions deemed excellent. 

The market for International Education is changing too. Rather than a few, metropolitan, countries dominating the sector, and taking a lion's share of the international student flows, a more decentralised network of regional hubs are now emerging. Malaysia, China, UAE, Mauritius are now all important education destinations. True, they have a long way to go to match the Global Four - USA, UK, Australia and Canada - but the politics of immigration, based on a mistaken view of the realities of international education (that it's a mass market phenomena, rather than for the best and the brightest), works in favour of the growth of the regional destinations. In many cases, the institutions in these regional hubs are campuses of renowned global universities, or local institutons offering courses from universities from UK or Australia (North American Universities don't do partnerships well), but nonetheless, such campuses and partnerships are augmenting their domestic capabilities and building their place brands.

As far as place brands are concerned, India has many things going for it. Its culture and heritage are well known, and India is viewed favourably in many African countries for its political and economic engagement. But, more importantly, the achievements of IITs and the spectacular rise of Indian IT industry gets a lot of attention, as other countries want to emulate the record. The success of Indian expats are also noted, and that the current CEOs of Google and Microsoft were born and educated in India certainly adds to the country brand. Its tolerant culture (recent violence against Africans is still an aberration rather than the trend), universities teaching in English, and lower costs of study all contribute to the attractiveness of the country.

And, yet, Indian institutions do a poor job. Partly, this is the curse of excess demand that I mentioned before: Auditing the institution websites, I see them completely inwardly facing - fees in Rupees and Lacs (100,000), no references to visa and international student support services, no multi-lingual interface etc - and the institutions do not actively seek out International students. They still get some, and this is a testimony for strong international demand and India's attractiveness as a study destination, but the institutional engagement remains opportunistic, rather than strategic. When Indian institutions, such as Amity University or a S P Jain, open overseas campuses, they do so solely to service Indian diaspora, or to make themselves more attractive to students in home campuses. In summary, the Indian institutions lack global ambition, and consequently, any coherent approach to global markets.

In the scramble for differentiation in the domestic market, this should now change. The Indian institutions can take heart from the brilliant example of Indian School of Business, which went from standing start to a global brand, in the space of only a few years. True, it received a lot of investment, but it is ambition, rather than money, that defined ISB's success, and relative underperformance of others in the global market. But there is more to learn from ISB's example than just ambition: It is that the Global Vision is not just a smart marketing ploy, but a strategy of completely overhauling the operations, creating a complete global experience and then going to strategic markets. 

So, coming back to my opening question, India can export Higher Education and well, if only its institutions would have the ambition. We are looking to put this back in the conversation about Indian Education.




 




 


Monday, October 02, 2017

A Homage to Catalonia: The Political Turn

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 opened up questions about globalisation and democracy that need to be answered. Indeed, this has become a bigger story than it necessarily was at the start by the arrogance of the Spanish government, which failed the first principle of democracy - that it is not just a License for rule of the majority but a system of governance by consensus and accommodation - and unleashed a Chinese-style repression on its own citizens in full view of the world. But this is still a big story, as the muted reactions in European capitals prove: Despite the obvious problems of double standards, the British Prime Minister will be thinking of Scotland and Northern Ireland, for example, before calling stupid actions by the Spanish government 'stupid'.

All over Europe they know, the referendum genie is out of the bottle.

True, the Scots lost their bid, and the Catalan one would have been a non-event if the Spanish Government had imagination. But there is a reason why the Spanish government did what it did: In a few months of 2016, the world has indeed changed. The fears of roiling the financial markets may have swayed Scots in 2015, but since then, the Rubicon was crossed by British voters and then the Americans. In this brave new world, the voters have woken up to the illusions of democracy and started demanding greater transparency and accountability. After many decades of keeping busy with economic lives, they have now discovered that they have been left out, and the political decision making have become at once too important and too distant. They are no longer ready to let the bureaucrats and bankers lord over their lives from the safe distance of Washington, Brusells, London or Madrid.

The narrative of Brexit - and of Trump, and others - has so far been interpreted as old Nationalism rearing its ugly head. And, surely, Le Pen, Geert Wilders and AfD very much fits into that narrative. However, I think the Catalan moment in world politics should underscore a different possibility: That of a Liberal, Globalist localism. This was very much the story of Scottish referendum, when Scotland wanted to be part of Europe but not of the London-dominated UK, and this is also the key story behind Trump's victory or the Corbyn surge. And, further, this may indeed constitute a viable motive for people voting for Le Pen, Wilders or AfD: Not xenophobia, but a desire to have more control over one's life, and a more engaged politics of community. 

The Liberal outrage about the reprehensible (for them) outcomes clouded their view that many Liberal-minded people were voting for these candidates or causes. Liberal voters in Netherlands, for example, voted for Wilders to protect what they saw as Liberal values, which they thought, and rightly I think, are being undermined by the immigrants who are importing their authoritarian and conservative values with them. The Catalan vote, I hope, gives the Liberals something to sympathise with, and that understanding may just afford them opportunities what has really gone wrong: People are tired of smooth-talking politicians lording over their lives with high-sounding platitudes and spreadsheets and policy papers, and want to 'take back control'. And, with this, they could possibly understand how Brexiteers won the day, why Trump still marches on and why Corbyn's politics still makes sense.





Thursday, September 28, 2017

The New Education Credentials

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 Degrees. Degrees are the tools that Higher Education monopolises, and through it, structure the market for education and skills. Over the years, with the sponsorship of modern state, degrees have become essential for an ambitious person. They have become undisputed proxies for knowledge and expertise, even for ability. And, with so much prestige vested into it, the credibility of the degrees were fast challenged as the ability of the college to cope with the changing requirements of skills and jobs came into question. The automatic assumption that degrees lead to a job and career had to be abandoned, for good empirical reasons. The degree question - whether degrees are worth anything - has, therefore, come to the forefront of the debate.

Now, the universities have responded to this by pointing out to the 'degree premium', the amount of additional income earned by a degree holder over that of a High School graduate. This rationale is flawed, as this shows the stagnation and contraction of the wages of High School graduates more than wage increases of degree holders. Besides, this is one case of misleading averages. One of the key economic trends right now is that a few top graduates, aided by more capable IT, is earning more and more. What is called a 'degree premium' is really an IT premium. This may tell us that a top-end university degree leading to those winner jobs are becoming more rewarding, but this does not explain anything for those students joining nameless universities for pointless degrees leading to a hopeless future.

This 'degree premium' claim is typical of the territory-grabbing rhetoric of college: It undermines all other forms of education. High School, which was invented for work skills, become a mere appendage to the degree train; vocational qualifications are seen as poor alternatives and misconceived notions about awarding PhDs in Plumbing (I heard someone say this at a conference speech, for real) come about. While the employers become more weary about the lack of practical skills and life exposure of the new recruits, the Universities, driven to desperation by their increasing and unfilled seats, sell the snake-oil of degrees as an end in itself, creating more debt and despair among students who find out the truth only too late.

What makes this situation even worse is that the degrees are essentially closed phenomena. Despite all the claim of 'credits' and 'transferable skills', it is hard to move from one institution to another or one degree to another. Mixing degrees with actual work is horrendously difficult; taking breaks and coming back to education is tremendously costly. All these difficulties are imposed purely to keep the mystic of the degrees, the prestige that sells it. And, indeed, rather ironically, the less prestigious universities cling to these 'processes' even more earnestly, hoping that the students will equate these roadblocks as rigour and treat their pretencions as prestige.

However, once the very proposition of degrees come into question, these irritants become more and more obvious. At a time when even Central Bankers are being asked to become transparent (as the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, explained in her speech this morning at the Bank of England), Universities can't hide much longer. Increasingly, the public purse they depend on forcing onto them greater disclosure requirements and accountability for outcome, and this is raising all the different questions about the processes and promises of a degree.

So far, the universities have responded with degree-lite credentials, handed through the MOOCs and other platforms, but these are typical cases of old-stuff-new-bottle. The key questions of relevance in a world of dynamic knowledge, recognition of practical work, engagement in real life, inclusivity and flexibility remain wholly or partially unresolved. But, in a way, cracks that appear in the fortune of degrees provide opportunities to create new education credentials. The biggest opportunity here is Mixed or Open Degrees, which co-opt the existing Vocational/ Professional credentials and offer degree pathways in a flexible manner. Admittedly, this is not a new thing: This has been discussed ever since the 70s, and there are a number of arrangements that exist today, particularly in the European context.

But the architecture of these are still too archaic, bound by too many rules and limitations. For example, look at the Accounting Qualifications offered by ACCA in Britain, which allows an undergraduate degree option with Oxford Brookes University for those who completed a certain number of ACCA papers successfully. It is a great option, one of the most popular UK qualification options among the international students, with hundreds of thousands of students opting for it. And, yet, it has all kinds of administrative regulations - when you have to register for it, how long is the registration valid - which clearly indicates that flexibility is not one of the objectives of this exercise. Also, this is not yet an open system: ACCA qualifications are perfectly acceptable to employers, but the way universities recognise it for credits, vary widely. The way degrees are conceived, a closed proprietary product, explains why Oxford Brookes University may treat completion of certain ACCA papers as equivalent to almost three year studies but another university may not: But that is precisely the madness I am trying to draw attention to.

In conclusion, I believe new credentials need to emerge, and will emerge. There are opportunities for everyone, but most for the universities, which will face a crisis in confidence sooner or later. Some of my work now is directed at exploring Open Formats for Academic Recognition, a sort of Academic Middleware which connects Professional and Vocational knowledge, lived experience and academic abilities. I am conscious that Academic Recognition is ultimately a regulatory thing - there is that vast infrastructure of licensing that underpin it - and any private effort is really doomed. But, as I hope, it may be possible if the employers are brought into play, particularly in developing countries, where both the job scarcity and the skills gap are hitting at the same time. My engagements in India and Philippines over the last several years were very instructive, and eye-opening regarding how degrees really become a problem and leads to de-skilling the population. As I reconsider my career options and get ready to hit the road again, I am signing up collaborators for this next project of creating Open and Flexible qualifications.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Relevance Question: Questioning The Academic Research Methods

I wrote previously about the College Trap (see here) - how college can't be denied to anyone in a democratic society and yet, the prevalence of college may privilege one kind of learning over others and undermine democracy itself - and, as someone pointed out to me, this is quite antithetical to my own ambitions of setting up a college eventually. At this point, my broad point about the inaneness of college education needed more empirical justification. 

For a concrete example, I thought of picking Research Methods, that one thing that legitimises an academic degree, that magic wand that baptises a graduate. My choice is deliberate: I hated it and have long thought about why I hate it. And, the affectionate place that it holds in the academic imagination - in fact, it is itself the academic imagination - makes it a suitable candidate for interrogation. 

I shall provide some more justification in case you are wondering what the fuss is about. Let's start with the question: What's the difference between a vocational/ professional diploma and an academic degree? (My discussions are quite specific to UK, but many other countries operate in a similar way) The answer will be the initiation to Research Methods. Often, an university would recognise a diploma of suitable quality and length and allow its holder to gain an academic degree by learning Research Methods and demonstrating its mastery by writing a Dissertation. The Research Methods course (or call it a module or unit, if you like) is the bedrock upon which academic identity stands.

What is Research Methods? It is about a method of enquiry, particular to the discipline in question. It is the initiation to the disciplinary thinking, approach and exploration and disciplinary language. No wonder that it is treated as a magic wand, that gives the uninitiated ways of looking and speaking academically. The entire structure of degrees builds itself around this one thing - Research Methods! This is also seen as a panacea: Research-based Undergraduate Degrees have been the latest solution that universities offer when the relevance of what they teach is questioned.

Now, the idea itself is indeed sound: The learner should be able to 'enquire' and 'create new knowledge'. Someone initiated in methods of research should be able to adopt to emergent situations and identify new possibilities, adapt to new positions and learn in different ways, it is variously claimed. Such an approach indeed elevates someone from the mundane technicalities of a vocational qualification, which is grounded in static and practical knowledge, to the plain of abstract thinking and higher learning. 

However, the question of relevance should arise precisely from these two assumptions behind initiation to Research Methods. First, that a methodological enquiry disconnected from practical concerns would elevate the person to abstract thinking. Second, that an initiation to disciplinary thinking is key to developing an academic identity.

My first argument is not about the primacy of practical knowledge, as it may first appear, but the disconnectedness of abstract thinking from the everyday knowledge. The limits of everyday experience as a source of knowledge is well understood: It makes one prisoner to her own circumstances. But that the abstract enquiry should begin with an abstract or imagined problem is what I have quarrels with. For me, the research should start with the everyday, practical problem: the Empirical should be the starting point of the rational-positivist. Therefore, the ethos of 'research' and the arrogance of 'Research Methods' as a separate area of knowledge are therefore antithetical.

The second argument is that disciplinarity, which grew out of a particular social and technical circumstance at the end of Nineteenth century, and which was intricately linked with a particular stage of evolution of the University as an institution, is out of step with the current circumstances. This is evident in the current fashion of interdisciplinarity, which universities themselves advocate. And, yet, Research Methods classes are elaborate initiations in disciplinary language - countless hours are spent on how to do the footnotes - and about developing academic style. This stylisation, which is really about playing the games inside the university, raises huge questions about relevance of academic study outside the university.  

For me, the problems with Research Methods as it is usually taught is not peculiar, but symptomatic. Imagine the moment when a student is taught that she has to think about a new problem to research about, and not try to understand a practical concern of her own life; or that some tools and methods as prescribed by disciplinary practises are the only plausible ways of reaching at the truth; or that a particular language is privileged over others for the sake of that enquiry: All of these privilege style over relevance, and puts it at the heart of academic practise.

There are indeed exceptional colleges and teachers who are focused on context and relevance, but they are exceptional and sit outside academic mainstream. Besides, at the mass end of Higher Education, Research Methods have become a ritual, a rite of passage without a purpose or substance. And, yet, all these pretencions have a cost - the one I highlighted earlier - in shaping our views about expertise and 'right' ways of learning. For me, I would much prefer the intense public-spirited polemic of the Coffee House as a way of developing an idea than the rituals of Research Methods.


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The College and The Coffee-House

Over the last several decades, the politics of college has reached a consensus: Everyone seemed to agree that more people attending college is a good thing. The usual conservative position, that college should educate a gifted minority who would assume the 'commanding heights' of the society, has been undermined by the proven link between 'gift' and wealth, as well as the claims that we live in a knowledge society. The weary refrain indulged in Britain's top universities - that the elevation of Polytechnics as Universities in the 1990s was not the abolition of polytechnics, but rather that of the universities - is considered an elitist view. People like Charles Murray, who complains too many people are going to college, are usually viewed as out-of-date and out-of-touch. What's fashionable is the commitment to expand public access to Higher Education, such as the one Obama declared, and the promises of eliminating college tuition fees, such as the one that made Jeremy Corbyn so popular.

The Liberal/ Left position on this issue is rather clear: Access to college shouldn't be reserved for a tiny, privileged minority! College Education - in the Liberal imagination - is seen as critical to democracy, of society governed by the rule of law, of progress. On this last point, they were duly joined by the new-age conservatives, who see wealth creation as a function of knowledge, and thereby, signed up for universal college education. The Left position is slightly more problematic. One of the first thing the French Revolutionaries did was to abolish the universities in France. But the Left's nuanced distinction of levels of education - Primary and Secondary Education as essential but the Higher Education as a bourgeois obsession - did not last the Twentieth Century, as they signed up wholeheartedly to the Liberal ideas of progress and productivity. The educational equivalent of the British National Health service - the Open University, a signature project of British Labour Party - drew upon the Soviet ideas of training Engineers through lessons on Radio as well as the American ideals of Great Books programme.

However, there is a dark side of universal college that goes unnoticed: That it wrecks a havoc on informal learning! Informal Learning is indeed the space where innovation really happens. The early movers and shakers of Silicon Valley were hobbyists, learning by reading popular electronic magazines and turning up at hobbyist clubs. The workers' consciousness was not forged in any university classroom, but in evening lectures and reading groups. The metaphor of emergent, non-systematic, speculative learning is, therefore, not college but the Coffee-house in the Eighteenth Century sense: Where conversations and innovation could happen. 

The problem with our college obsession is that it does not merely coexist with other forms of learning: It projects itself as the only worthwhile form of learning. The point that access to education is not equal to access to college gets obscured, and the need for formal accreditation undermines all sorts of informal knowledge ecosystems. The first attempt of the college to grab this territory - Lifelong Learning - was somewhat a failure: LLL was mostly a turn-off for its intended audience, an official intrusion in what used to be driven by needs and interests. Where there was sponteneity, now there was prescription. And, so it was in its second avatar, the MOOCs, which was college education's second misguided attempt at the territory. It came with all the baggage, that structure, content and assessment are the key elements of learning, not interests, needs and motivations. Implicitly, it was a carry-on from the various previous assumption that college is the sole legitimate source of higher learning. In its wake, more and more informal learning practices died.

This creates a big problem. College, the way it is imagined today, is either exclusive, or meaningless. It is no accident that the advent of mass Higher Education was accompanied by the popularity of College Rankings. This is indeed a trap, because if college exists in the current form, there is no way out for a democratic government other than pushing for greater access, either by pouring public money or by liberalising approval system, both of which create huge numbers of uninspired educational institutions, handing out degrees and grabbing territory from the non-college alternatives. However, this formal learning ecosystem is, by definition, incapable of dealing with emergent needs of learning and non-conventional knowledge, because one can't build a regulatory system for such purposes. Besides, they may pretend to create 'scientific' assessments for every human capability, but by definition, such pretences undermine the development of many key abilities: The name 'soft skills' gives away this limitation, and yet, no formal provider would actually admit soft skills are 'soft'. This privileges conformist knowledge over emergent ideas, and ability to play the system over the development of real human abilities. Predictably, its products struggle when automation and globalisation alters the cosy picture of progress that all this is rooted upon.

So, my argument - and I would believe this is quite distinct from the neo-eugenicist ideas of gifted individuals deserving special treatment - is this: To deal with the world of automation and globalisation, we need an education system, which seeks to avoid the college trap and privileges the Coffee House Learning. This is less esoteric than it sounds: This is the idea behind Hackathons as one would easily recognise. However, the debate needs to be properly framed, and move away from its current divide between exclusivity/ inclusivity of college, and the college as the sole enabler of a democratic society.



Thursday, September 21, 2017

Self-Colonialization of India

I came across the term, 'self-colonialization', in a news report on Arundhati Roy's recent speech in Berlin. She was speaking at the launch of her book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in German. The news report only mentions the term cursorily: Ms Roy was speaking about the violence the Indian state unleashes on its tribal and its poor and being on the front-line of the battles for the rights of tribal and villagers, such a characterisation of the Indian state is only natural for her. Besides, coming at a time when India has drowned a few hundred villages by making Sardar Sarovar Dam operational, and fighting mini-civil wars in Central India in the name of 'Development', 'self-colonialization' sounds like an appropriate term.

Surely, this would be greeted with derision in India as unnecessary bad-mouthing of India by one of the pet Hate Figures of the Indian establishment. But this has nothing to do with the validity of what Ms Roy is saying, and rather, this is about the peculiar adolescent self-concept of Indian Middle Class: Unsure of itself, it bristles in any criticism abroad. Particularly a person of Indian origin speaking anything critical about India is treated particularly harshly; after all, India only wants its expatriates' money, but none of their opinions. Ms Roy should be treated differently, as she is an Indian citizen living and working in India; but, rather peculiarly, her English writing and global fame makes her 'foreign', and the establishment commentators would both summarily dismissed her views as 'liberal-elitist' and harshly confront her conduct as 'trecherous'. Indeed, she is neither: She is closer to the ground than any of the foreign-educated Corporate Bosses or Upper Caste Babus would ever be; and, her commitment to action, her work with the poor, at the cost of a life of celebrity and fame which she could have otherwise lived, makes her anything but treacherous.

But I write this not to defend Ms Roy - she needs no such defence - but to reflect on the idea of 'self-colonialization', which resonated with me. For me, self-colonialization in India is more than just the obvious manifestations of State Violence - the uprooting of tribal, the unchecked army brutalities in Kashmir, the martial law regimes in North-Eastern states, the civil war in Central India - and includes the various acts of objective violence, the everyday intrusion of a bureaucratic state in the lives of people, its laws which are borrowed from the English and are still at odds with Indian ideas of culture and community, its ordering of economic lives through brute state diktats and its cynical manipulation of a vast number of repressed citizens through a combination of identity politics and hand-outs. The British colonialised Indian minds through various means other than the 'Hard' power of the Military - the number of British Officers and Personnel present in India was always very small - but by subtle manipulation of patronage and privilege, cloaked in the rhetoric of modernity and progress, which made a class of Indians foot-soldiers in the imperial project. Today's slogans of Development are direct derivatives of the Colonial scheme, the assumptions that villages exist to serve at the pleasure of the Cities is a carry-over of the Colonial mindset, and that the natural resources are there to be extracted and monetised is an unquestioned belief passed on from our Colonial masters.

One could argue that such repression is not new or novel, and it happens in every society, including the developed ones. However, there are distinctions to be made. The developed countries, take England or France for example, have come through several revolutions and war, experiences that shaped political consciousness from below and codified demands of the commoner in the laws of the land. India has had no such experience: Its moment of truth in Gandhian activism was enveloped in the broader Independence movement, and ended in bitter disappointment of Partition. Gandhi was assassinated just in time for his revolutionary credo to take hold, and the Gandhians since then remained on the margins of political action in India, as the figure of Gandhi himself was taken over by the Indian state. Gandhian cultural revolution remained unrealised, no one fasted in Delhi after his death, and the Colonial State was inherited and continued, in spirit as well as in letters, by successive generations of Delhi politicians, business bosses and the Babus of various kind. And, it is important to underscore that the Indian State models itself after the Colonial one - and not the British one - as the Home experience of the empire took a different trajectory. 

In that sense, Colonialisation is not foreign to India, but its very own. And, indeed, it is no surprise that the Independent Indian state did not try to establish a new capital, such as Washington DC, but rather conveniently continued the British Capital, complete with Lutyen's palaces. And, this continues: The current ascendancy of Hindu Nationalists, who are following the fascist playbook to effect a social revolution and erase out periods of Muslim domination from India's history (for them, this part of Indian history was ejected out to Pakistan, as one of them helpfully explained to me), is not trying to get rid of the Colonial past. Rather, they are reclaiming the Colonial instruments with its full power to impose a culture and a way of life from above through a powerful modern state. 

So, 'self-colonialization' is an useful concept for India today. This would have limited appeal, for sure, as this critique would not only be directed to just the Hindu Nationalists, but to the entire experience of Independent India. It would confront the claims of nationalism and progress, which underpins the idea of India as it existed since 1947; and indeed, this would open up the possibilities of new conversation which no one speaking English really wants to have. But it is an interesting possibility, and I would return to this when I get to write about the competing conceptions of India, which I shall do someday.

  


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Knowledge Or Skills?

It may seem a strange question, but this is one of the key debates in Education: Should Education be about acquiring knowledge or developing skills? 

One side of the debate are people like E D Hirsch, Michael Gove and advocates of Common Core; on the other a diverse group of business executives and left-leaning educators, from those who think education should be about skills business needs to those who think what goes on as knowledge is really the dominant culture and it discriminates those from poor or minority backgrounds. Yes, I generalise, and there are many shades of argument on both sides. At the core, however, is the debate about the purpose of education along the lines of knowledge versus skills.

It is important to remember in context that this is not an idle debate: The objective of both sides is to affect some sort of complete transformation of the education system. Besides, it will also be a mistake to think that both sides are starting from scratch and fighting it out in the realm of ideas. Rather, it is more like this: Both sides agree on the state of the education system, that it is not working. They also agree that the education processes have changed gradually over the last several decades to give primacy to Skills over acquisition of knowledge. The disagreements really centre around how to fix it: One side argues that too much emphasis of skills is a problem and we are creating disconnected individuals whose skills are fast outdated; the other side argues that we have not gone far enough in focusing on really key skills, and the baggage of mastering knowledge is holding us back.

Surely the arguments as framed reflect the world-views of its proponents. Gaining knowledge as the purpose of education is a traditionalist argument, and those who pursue it often define 'knowledge' as one of national culture and heritage, as in Common Core, Michael Gove's reforms, or the ideas of curriculum change to reflect traditional Indian culture as being debated in India. On the other hand, the skills argument is promoted by the Corporate Globalists, who see the world as an integrated system unified around a single goal of prosperous life and a common value system of efficiency and commercial intent. 

It is easy to see the problem with the focus on acquisition of Knowledge: What knowledge? There is a prescriptive root of this idea - the existence of a canon, a body of knowledge, great books - and it inherently contradicts the current dynamic, contextualised knowledge. As a good politician, Michael Gove stands on the both sides of the argument as he is also the most iconic doubter of the idea of Expertise, which is currently in vogue. In more than one sense, the knowledge argument looks like hankering for a lost time which was perhaps never there, a celebration of an illusory and majoritarian culture, and a project of exclusion of diversity and dissent, which are the wellsprings of innovation and change.

Equally, the Skills argument is flawed, particularly as its proponents push for 'knowledge-free' skills. Their argument that the education process should concern itself with skills development as the acquisition of knowledge is a person, contextual and continuous process, misses the point that skills without knowledge may be meaningless. Can one be a good communicator without having good knowledge of language, cultural contexts or psychologies? Can one think critically without understanding the languages of the concepts? Can one negotiate well without insights of cultures and characters? Besides, the Skills argument is based on an assumption of globalisation apocalypse, that we are moving into - irreversibly - a flat world, something that was definitely negated over the last couple of years.

My point is a predictable one: Not only I think that Knowledge versus Skills is a false dichotomy, I also think the whole debate is misdirected. But, equally, most debates in education today are not really debates about ideas, but entitlements; it is not about being rational, but about taking a position; not about irrefutable arguments, but protection of interests. It is so in this debate too: The positions are taken up to direct public money, and battles are fought between different political positions. Even seemingly congruous concepts such as Knowledge and Skills become battle-cries of different camps, and the balance keeps shifting from one to the other. What one believes in, in this situation, becomes an act of faith, and a function of where the great chain of educational funding the person discovers himself to be.

 













 

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