Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The high GDP growth and low employability anomaly in Indian Higher Education Sector

The high GDP growth rates of India relative to the rest of the world should normally lead to higher demand for higher education. During the late 2000s, there was a lot of talk of how low GER's may impede growth; however today we are in a situation where there is huge under-utilised capacity in the higher education sector despite decent macro-economic growth. 

The premium and top decile institutes continue to get large number of admission applications. Students in these institutes generally get jobs commensurate to the cost of education and these institutes manage to command a premium compared. That is par. Top 10% institutes all over the world find it easy to get students.

The problem is that, while in other countries only the bottom quartile has student intake problems; in India, for more than 90% of the higher education institutes there is a shortage of applications and seats go vacant. This despite the fact that India's Gross Enrolment Ratio in the ages 17-27 compares unfavourably not just with global benchmarks but also with many emerging economies. High growth, low GER and low student interest in professional higher education institutes is a precarious situation to be in.

The massive underemployment of graduates and the concomitant reduced student intakes in the laggard professional institutes is because lack of employability (rather than lack of employment opportunities) and hence poor returns on investments on higher education for students (as a result of higher cost of education relative to expected remuneration levels for students passing out).
Macro-economic indicators suggest that there is an intrinsic opportunity to revive the sector. Indian Higher Education institutes need to introspect and re-invent themselves to correct this anomaly. There are a few dimensions the institutes will have to review before they start improving their academic and financial outcomes.

Firstly, institutes must realise that students are not taking admission because they lack confidence in the institutes ability to provide industry relevant education to churn the students enough to make them employable. Academic rigour and industry connect, which is missing in most institutes, is the only sustainable way of getting out of the poor student intake-poor placement-poor student intake vicious cycle and to create a sustained pull factor for student enrolment. There is massive short supply of quality institutes; and institutes should focus on improving their quality quotient as an end in itself. Putting admissions above academics is putting the cart before the horse, and that will never be sustainable.

Secondly, education groups need to understand that the education sector has matured to some extent. The returns and pay-back period will necessarily be similar to other industries. Gone are the days when institutes had a minimal pay-back period and 100% plus return on promoter investments. The biggest cause of poor quality is short investment horizon of institutes. Depending upon the type of course and geographical location, mid-rung institutes need to plan a 2-4 year time frame for operational cash break-even and a 5-10 year pay-back period for capital investments.  The irony is that, while promoters had planned for short investment horizon reduce their perceived risks, in effect their long term risk substantially increased as most mid-rung organisations generate negative returns, if the cost of capital is factored.

Thirdly, institutes need to make sure that the courses are rightly priced. Globally the accepted norms is that the expected first year salary offered should be 80% to 120% of the total cost of education. However, a large number of Indian higher education institutes compare unfavourably to this metric. For example, there are many private universities where students pay more than Rs. 15 lakh to complete a two-year management degree, but the students may struggle to get a job with a salary of Rs. 5 lakh per annum. The numbers for engineering colleges are equally bad.

Fourthly, the institutes must improve business models - i.e. innovate to improve revenue streams and focus on process efficiencies to reduce costs. Unfortunately, most of the promoters do not have significant domain knowledge. That, coupled with limited risk-taking abilities are preventing them from noticing the nooks and niches to innovate and mould business models to create new revenue streams. Consulting, research, vocational education, outreach are some of the many options that are under leveraged. Similarly, most institutes do not have adequate focus on process efficiencies and cost structures. Benchmarking, re-engineering and technology offer many options. However institute management is still based on intuition and institutes do not proactively use management science to look for differentiation or efficiency enhancement.

Fifth, and I have purposefully kept it at the end, is the poor regulatory framework. The sector demonstrated exponential growth in late 1990s and early 2000s because of regulatory de-bottlenecking; but insipid governance and misdirected regulation spoiled the party thereafter. I have put it at the end, because I feel large proportion of institutes can improve their lot despite the  regulatory weaknesses. 

There is an opportunity in the segment which can be leveraged if institutes look to reinvent themselves by focusing on creating long term value for the students. To do this the key is focussing on quality, increasing the investment horizon, reviewing curriculum - teaching what the industry is prepared to pay for, reviewing the fee structures, innovating to embrace new revenue streams and reducing costs through process re-engineering and/or technology.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brexit - Britain is slipping

Seventy years earlier, Britain withdrew from most of its colonies. Now Britain has decided to withdraw from the EU.

 The British acumen was one of the most dominant in the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. The British leveraged the value of globalisation through trade and colonisation.  It had the confidence and gumption to tread into unchartered territories and exert its durable influence. It could expand and amass wealth and prestige. That was that time (and up until the middle of the 20th century), the sun did not set in the British Empire.

The world order changed post the WW-II. The relative influence of the British substantially reduced; though it did remain a major force. It retained its competitive edge and standard of living because of the wealth it has accumulated over the past couple of centuries.

However, in the last 70 years, guess the British wealth creation and gumption continued to slip - despite the pound notionally gaining in value. We now are in a situation where a majority of Britain have voted to withdraw further and protect a smaller pie; rather than having the confidence to venture out to the large EU market and may hay. If we consider Scotland, Ireland and London voted in favour of a posture of a expansionary posture - then a much larger majority (compared to the slim 52/48 split) of the average working class people in England wanted to leave the EU.

This means, the self-assurance, confidence, productivity and wealth creation of the average English has fallen. They prefer to erect protective barriers against the onslaught working class from Poland, rather brushing their shoulders with the best of the world and exerting greater economic influence in the EU.

This is the ying and the yang at play. 200 years of ascendance,versus 70 years of slipping. But I am not sure, if the English psyche has bottomed out yet. Someone has to stem the rot. Else, we will see another major disturbing event very soon. M/s Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are you listening.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Aja – A Celebration of Life

I was a late entrant into Aja’a life, but during the few years I knew him he left a distinct impression in my mind. The first thoughts that come to my mind, when I think of Aja  - is that is he was a celebration of life. He was everything that a copy book story dreams of. A full and an eventful life. 

Up until that very day that he had a fateful brain stroke on an early Monday morning, after he slipped into a state of semi-coma and in-cognition, Aja was an air of authority and in total control of his own kingdom. He wrote in his diary almost daily –recording the finances in fair detail and neatly recording the eventful happenings of the day. He had a very strong sense of what he wanted to do or didn’t want to do. More often than not he preferred to walk to the bathroom or to the dining table without any help. He was the master of his own will. Needless to say, added to his sense of security was the feeling that he was the boss of the house.

He was a contented man. Justifiably happy with the way life had panned out – despite the ups and downs that he had experienced, like everyone has. He enjoyed the niceties of life – good food, meeting people and chatting away for-ever. Even though his diet had reduced over the years, he enjoyed the multi-course meal on the fare everyday. Despite his relative immobility because of his age, he was always ready to take a trip to Bhubaneswar to meet his relatives. He had a gargantuan memory of past events, and people he last met tens of thousand days earlier (though he, quite inevitably, sometimes forgot what happened a day earlier). I enjoyed the way he and Nana (my father) brought to life old anecdotes, which were otherwise long forgotten,.

I don’t know much about his earlier days. But I believe Aja and Aai – the tall, fit man with an admirable gait and the petite bride – were a much envied couple during their days.  He was a government servant and worked in different parts of the state and was posted in the state secretariat for the last many years of his life.

The beautifully calligraphed certificate B.A. (Hons) in English from Patna University in the year 1939, that hung in the drawing room, was always an object of interest for me. It spoke volumes of his academic prowess. Getting an Honours in English in 1939, am sure was quite rare. I would whet my curiousity by asking any questions about his Ravenshaw college days. It is worth mentioning that Ravenshaw college students used to get degrees from Patna University during his time. I have heard with amazement how he cycled from Cuttack to Bhubaneswar (more than once) to meet his siblings and other relatives as a septuagenarian (which would be as late as the 1980s).

There are other nice stories, about him which I have heard from Lara, how he would tease them (Lara and Rupa) about spellings, and  how he used to immaculately balance multiple tiffin carriers in his cycle to take Aai cooked delicacies (including probably manda pitha) to Kazi Bazaar from Vivekananda Lane when the grand-duaghters visited India (it is worth noting – all of this must be in the 1980s when Aja was post seventy years old). More recently, I have heard/seen the teasing sessions with Lara about his wedding and kids (or the absence of them).

These stories can go on and on. I am sure his legacy will last another hundred years through these stories through the words of his great-grand children and the words of their children.

I would like to say good-bye to you Aja – with lot of love and with sincere magic wishes that you are happy where you right now (you are probably towering over the Vivekananda lane house and making sure Aai is fine, the tenants paying the dues in time and everything else is in order) and getting ready for another long innings in your next life.

In loving memory of Aja-in-law (Late Pitambar Kar), Jan 1, 1914 to Jun 12, 2016

Friday, June 17, 2016

eState of the Devas – A Book Review

eState of the Devas – A Book Review

The book eState of the Devas, the first book of Sandip Dash, is a spiritual sci-fi thriller. Maybe we can christen it as a spi-fi. In a snapshot this book is about the path of Shriti to attain eState and reach the River Moksha, through a host of trials and tribulations that she faces in her life. I see some parallels between the journey of Sandip’s Shriti and that of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. However they are two significantly different journeys set in two different ages and are two characters are diametrically different individuals; and the two books are two vastly different books.

This short book has good mix of intrigue, separation, sleaze, drama, hi tech medical jargons, science, elevated spirituality. It is fast paced, reads well and has a bunch of characters/situations that one can relate to. It has everything that one needs to have in a book to finish over a weekend. I will not get into the plot and intrigue, I will let the readers enjoy it for themselves.

Where this books stands out is the message that is shares, one ‘Fill your inner sense with love and happiness. Don’t do things for love and happiness; do it out of love and happiness’. This is a massive message – and in sync with what all wise people have said, are saying and will say in the past, present and future. Even though this is very intuitive to understand, it is very difficult to practice and internalize – and hence authors will need to keep reiterating this for a very long time. The second message, is the constant interplay of ‘primitive’ versus the ‘evolved’ state of the human mind. Enhance self-awareness by bringing more elements to the realm of the conscious mind from the sub-conscious. As a result, improve self-control by shifting more instincts to the realm of the voluntary to the involuntary. This is possible by practice and focus (or tapasya). The ultimate state of love, self-awareness and self-control (or being in total sync with oneself) is what the author says is the ‘eState’, the pre-requisite to Moksha. The third message, which emerges is that – Devalok (the figurative heaven) is everywhere. One doesn’t have to go to Develok to experience bliss or to reach an eState or attain Moksha. It can be experienced everywhere and by everyone.  Debra and Shriti can be anyone in flesh and blood, irrespective of what we are doing currently – as long as we have the willpower to build our self-control and to disseminate unconditional love (to be in total sync with ourselves) that is required to ward off our detractors, which are in the form of internal vibrations (either stimulated by external factors or internal moods). The fourth message, is the every experience and every situation has a role in the journey towards eState. No person or situation is undesirable or deserves any less love. The fifth message, is the need to take it to the masses, how can it be done. Great souls in the past have done it through compassion, but after few centuries the grip of their teachings has loosened. Science and society has to evolve further to mass replicate it. The six message, extant scientific theories alone cannot predict human behavior. We cannot reject empirical evidence (in science or medicine or any other walk of life) just because we cannot understand it. Rationality also demands, that we accept that human mind and scientific constructs have not understood everything yet, the same we had not understood everything a hundred or a thousand years earlier.

It is quite possible that the author himself has started practicing mediation and has started experiencing the benefits of spirituality by seeing the different corners of his own mind – a pre-requisite, I feel, to be able to write such a book.

This author’s theme is quite exciting. It latches onto a relatively empty space in modern day in English writing amongst Indians. The spi-fi is a very good space to write in. These days, a large number of young people in India and abroad, are more open to appreciate and accept the benefits of spirituality. Concomitantly, there is greater curiosity associated with it, and hence there is a latent appetite for such kind of books. This blends well with the fact more and more people these days embrace mediation and yoga whole-heartedly and there is greater conviction that these techniques help us live healthier and happier lives, even though scientific theories and discoveries about the cause and effect are still evolving and are a long way to go before bio-mechanical-neurological-cosmic connections can be fully understood and put in public domain. A lot is yet to be written in this realm, and my guess is that there will be many more books is this space in the near future.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Untamed Heart - What it evokes in me

‘Untamed Heart’ is an easy to read, well-paced novel. The 300 odd pages can be devoured quite quickly. As the name and the cover suggest, this book  is a woman’s quest for freedom.. But this ‘maiden’ novel by Mona Dash has many more layers to it. A few of those themes, as I saw them, are; one, how people can both unsuspectingly and conveniently get bound by social mores. Justify themselves to their comfort zones, while they miss out on the thrill of challenging them. This is applicable to everyone - not just an intrinsically talented, yet trapped India/Odia bahu of a 'contented' family - who chooses to take life on an auto-pilot.

Two, the path of the river - it has to mingle with the sea, it’s path to moksha. The droplet atop a mountain, will, despite all hurdles, meet its level in a far away sea. As for Mohini s - going by her early instincts in life - she had to explore, she had to excel, she had to be in the thick of things. You cannot have her bound within the four walls, with or without education  She is a  celebration of all those people - of different genders (including the third gender), caste/creed, minorities - who listen to their true calling and figure out a way to keep trying to reach their goals (some of which they maybe unaware themselves).

Three, the changing aspirations and the access of society per-se, post globalisation. How the Indian diaspora is all over the world. How, everyone can actually dream and get whatever they want - in any corner of the world.

Four, London. The love for London is unmistakable. Lot of care has been taken to seamlessly weave the magnificent city into the novel.

Five, narratives. Many short narratives (20 to 100 words) spring up in almost every page of the novel, as seamlessly as London in woven into the text. Readers get a rich dose of a vast cross section of perspectives - mainly social mores that author has observed keenly over the years. Most of them are a well-worded, short narration just stating a fact - past or present. Not a judgement; just a statement. About the type of knife the maid-servants use in Odia families, or the stereotypical female gym trainers (though I don't personally agree with the stereotype - my experience has been quite different), or the matter of fact way dinner is no big deal or is served early in some of small London hotels. Anecdotes about Mumbai and Delhi also find mention. There are many, many such interesting tid-bits that lace the book and give structure to the main plot. As the main plot moved along predictable lines, it did not require too many twists as the theme itself was a powerful statement, the side plots served as the garnishing.

Six, a couple of deep messages. One, the victim and the aggressor can change roles based on perspective and two, in relationships aspirations and space play a critical part. A relationship can get cramped if there is an aspiration mis-match and in such a case - at least one partner (and probably both) suffer.

Those were some of the key thoughts that floated in my mind while I was reading the book. Some of the other points that cropped up in my mind, were - who is the target audience? When one reads a Chetan Bhagat book - the storyline, the titles, the language, the length of the novel - all of them seem a part of a plan. A well thought out package to sell and rake in the moolah. Who is the target audience here - it is not about deep philosophy - though it does have a strong, topical message. Is it meant for the normal devourers of books or is it meant to entice new readers? Does it have a demographic profile in mind?

The other thought I had was that I would have like a third person non-partisan observer, giving commentaries - like maybe in a Dostoevsky novel. I suspected that would have brought out some of the messages more engagingly. This is more of a thought - not a conviction - I would give the author her prerogative to navigate the readers her way.

Overall, I loved reading the book. Excellent first novel by Mona Dash. I am sure you are cooking more of them already. Best Wishes.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Dawn Drops - An Anthology of Poems

I was searching for Untamed Heart in Amazon and instead bumped into Dawn Drops. Was happily surprised to see that Mona had published a anthology of poems way back in 2001 (A Writers Workshop Redbird Book). Belated Congratulations.

Many of us write articles / poems - which are hidden in almost forgotten diaries, odd newspaper clippings, college magazines and folders/hard-drives. Mona has nice expression for such people - 'closet writers'. But she has broken out of that mould and has started putting her work 'out there' (to borrow another of her expressions). Untamed Heart is a full length fiction published by Tara in 2016, her work is also a part of a collection of short stories Love Across a Broken Map (http://theasianwriter.co.uk/2016/05/love-across-a-broken-map/) recently launched in London. To know more about her and her views, go to http://www.monadash.net or just google her up. Good work Mona, keep it up.

Coming back to Dawn Drops. It has about 50 refreshing poems, written probably over two decades, that straddle different facets and phases of a woman's life. The poems depict a variety of emotions and situations -  innocent childhood observing social mores, tentative sharing of perspectives, assertions of individuality, young aged hunger for romanticism, the fears and pangs of marriage, hunger/joys for emancipation, the anticipation of mother hood and coping with losses.

The poems, published almost in chronological order, not only give insights to the life and thoughts of the poet (unless the poems are entirely a figment of her imagination) but also clearly bring out the literary and philosophical evolution of the poet in course of time. The language and idioms subtly, yet distinctly get richer over the years (or the poems!).

What I liked about the poems, was clear style of writing which is distinctive of the poet. Most of the poems are in a narrative - with a imaginative interplay of perspectives and words.  A few poems towards the end of the book had greater intrigue, and were less of a narrative - like World Smells, Black Hair on a White Pillow, The Champagne Sunset Cruise. I also liked the innovative usage of comparative.  ('....the belief grows/Moulds itself like the clay gone hard..' - Prayers; or 'I too will be like all of them/Like a glass of water left outside/And the fungus growing...' - 10 years hence).

The amazon link is http://www.amazon.com/Dawn-drops-Writers-Workshop-redbird-book, but it is saying 'Currently unavailable. We don't know when of if this item will be back in stock.' Maybe I bought the last book in Amazon stock. I am sure, it will be re-stocked soon.

Thanks to amazon, I will be back soon with reviews of Untamed Heart and eState of the Devas  (https://www.amazon.com/eState-Devas-Sandip-Dash-ebook/dp/B01BRS0J7M/), a book written by Sandip Dash a classmate of mine. This is available in paperback and is also a part of Kindle Unlimited.