June 29, 2011

New Ideas for Bengal in Higher Education

The new minister for  higher education in West Bengal is exploring new ways in which this sector could be improved. Here are some ideas.

image of Class XII girls borrowed from Indian Patrika

There could be many ways to improve the quality of higher education in Bengal. Curriculum can be redesigned, faculty can be trained or the administrative structure of universities and colleges can be changed. But without ignoring these traditional approaches, can we look for some radical, out-of-the-box ideas that could catapult Bengal to an eminent position of thought leadership ? To do so, let us begin by admitting that there is no dearth of colleges in Bengal but students do not perceive them to be very useful. This is because of (a) the poor quality of faculty and the educational services that they deliver that in turn leads to (b) the meagre job opportunities that that await students who pass out. This note explores low-cost, technology enabled approaches that can help mitigate these two specific problems.

1. Locating, Leveraging & Rewarding College Teachers through Social Networks
Good teachers are a rarity. Despite recent salary hikes, the money that a competent person can earn in the corporate sector is far higher than what a government college can ever offer but nevertheless we have people who because of their personal preferences choose to teach. But unfortunately, the services of these good teachers are available to a small group of students who attend the college where he or she teaches. Students in other colleges, that do not have such a teacher, suffer. This is where we need to step in and create a platform that allows a teacher to transcend the locational restrictions and make himself available to a large number of students and in the process increase his personal earnings.

Distance learning is not new but the approach suggested here is based on the social media -- as defined in public networks like Facebook, Linkedin or equivalent private networks built on, say, the Ning platform. With 600+ million members, the population of Facebook is exceeded only by that of China and India and almost every college student in urban India is a member. The incredible penetration of social media into the psyche of the global population is because it taps into the primordial desire for human being to reach out to -- and be reached by -- their peers.

The blog post “Distance Learning on A Social Network Platform” ( http://bit.ly/pmblog01 ) describes the contours of such a platform and also explains the explains the economics that will sustain it. The core idea is that if any college has the faculty to teach any one subject well then this capability must be made available to students of many other colleges that may not have the same. Hence colleges can tap into faculty and in turn faculty who are in great demand can see a substantial increase in their income which will be a win-win for all concerned.

The technology and infrastructure necessary to implement such a platform is quite simple and inexpensive and given the rapid proliferation of the wireless internet, accessibility is no more an issue. However the biggest challenge would be to convince teachers and administrators. Social media and social networks may be an integral part of today’s youth but people above the age of 45 have great difficulty in relating to, identifying with, accepting the ubiquity of and finally leveraging this explosive technology. Unfortunately, most teachers -- at least those in a administrative and decision making capacity -- fall this category and may dismiss this as  just another fad. But if we can break through this scepticism and actually create an initial  platform then there there will be young, entrepreneurial teachers who will happily come on board and through their activity will move it towards critical mass. A simple version of such a platform is the Kollaborative Klassroom used at Praxis Business School ( http://kk.praxis.ac.in )

2. Common Integreated Campus Placements for Colleges in Bengal

One of the most important reasons why students go to college is to improve their chances of getting a job and while imparting education is certainly the primary reason for the existence of a college, the ability to find a job for students -- the placement process -- is equally important. In fact, most people rank colleges -- IITs included -- not on the quality of the education but on the success of the placement process. Cynical as it may sound, everybody is interested less in the activity ( of imparting education ) and more in the result ( of placing students).  This means that the ability of a college -- the UG colleges, not research institutions --  to place its students is perhaps the best indicator of its ability to deliver relevant and appropriate education and so the placement process as a yardstick for evaluating the effectiveness of a college may have an important role to play in the education sector.

Most professional colleges -- especially the private engineering colleges -- have some kind of a placement department but the vast number of the under-graduate B.Sc / B.A. / B.Com colleges have no such facilities. But creating placement cells and executing the placement process in hundreds of colleges is an impossibly complex task. Instead, it may make sense to create a single technology enabled platform that may serve as a common mechanism to support the placement requirements of all colleges across the state.

The blog post “Campus Recruitment as a B2B Exchange” ( http://bit.ly/pmblog02 ) explains the philosophy, the architecture, the technology and the financial structure of such an enterprise. Current job portals like naukri.com are doing something similar but ideally, if this driven as a cross-campus initiative through the government then the likelihood of success could be far higher.

Creating this structure would serve two ends. First it will allow many more students to get jobs -- which is an any case a responsibility of the higher education system -- but more importantly it will create an important quality indicator for colleges in the state. By creating a level playing field for placements for all colleges and then measuring the success of the students from each college both students ( + parents) and administrators would create an automatic ranking of colleges. Colleges higher in the list can be honoured ( and suitably rewarded ) while those at the end should be scrutinised and where necessary, supported to help improve standards.

This note introduces two new ideas and they are elaborated to a certain extent in the blog posts that are referred to. However the devil is in the detail and more discussion may be necessary to address issues related to actual implementation.

June 22, 2011

Land Acquisition in India : A novel approach

Given the current confrontational mood between industry and agriculture in the matter of acquisition of scarce land for industrial development it is imperative that we look at totally new or untried models. But before we do so let us first define some boundary conditions -- the Lakshman Rekha -- that cannot be transgressed.
  1. No land must be taken by force even by invoking the principle of Eminent Domain by the State unless it is to  be used for a clear public purpose. Land for industry does not fall into the category of public purpose.
  2. Land owners, farmers or otherwise, must be paid fair market rates and must be allowed to benefit from the appreciation of prices
  3. Industry must not be penalised by extortionary, black mail practices when they decide to move into a region and seek to acquire land for legitimate economic purposes.
  4. The role of the Government is to kept to a very minimum since there is no guarantee against a move by politicians and bureaucrats to bend rules and make money at the expense of both farmer and industry ( as has been the case in Rajarhat )
The biggest challenge facing industry is that it needs large contiguous chunks of land but whenever word gets out that someone has bought some land in an area, land prices go up. It is not only that individual owners raise prices, but more often than not, land sharks get in, use strong arm tactics to buy land and then holds industry to ransom.

The saddest thing for a small land owner is to have to sell his land at low prices and then seeing a  huge appreciation of the land that he does not benefit from.

In this context the following approach can be adopted
  1. Government must legalize the existence of Land Aggregator Companies (LACs) who will have the right to buy, own, develop and lease/sell  large chunks of land in the country, both in the urban as well as in the rural areas.
  2. The LACs will identify land in the state and go about negotiating with individual land owners and acquiring the land for an appropriate price. This can be cheap land at remote, arid regions or relatively more expensive land in fertile well connected regions -- this is a business decision.
  3. Once a certain amount of contiguous amount of land has been acquired, it can develop and resell / lease the land at a suitably enhanced price that is determined by the market.
  4. The payment to the farmer can be in two parts. First there must be an immediate cash component that depends on current perceptions of land price. Second there must be second non-cash component that will be paid in terms of equity shares of the LAC. These shares will be locked in for a minimum period of 10 years and the original land owner can liquidate the same at a price that will reflect the premium that the land commands at a later period of time.
Industrial houses that do not have the core competence of negotiating and acquiring land are spared the trouble of doing so. They will deal with a single corporate entity and negotiate a price for the land on standard commercial terms. Different LACs in different parts of the country will create a vibrant market mechanism that will lead to industry getting located at places where the price of land is competetive vis-a-vis other economic inputs like raw materials, labour, connectivity, political stability and quality of life.

Original land owners will not feel cheated because not only do they get an initial, possibly low, market price but they get to participate in the upside created by the development of the land and the relocation of industry.

One challenge would be the valuation of the locked in LAC shares that will be given to original landowners but this can be addressed through a variety of valuation norms, including listed prices from the stock exchange, that can be arrived at after further discussion.

To prevent abuse and fraud especially in the valuation of shares, the LACs may be put under the supervision of an industry regulator like SEBI, IRDA or TRAI.

I believe that this model is being used in some parts of the country but perhaps not as openly and transparently as described in this note.

( image 'borrowed'  from http://www.gurgaonscoop.com/story/2010/1/27/2533/29088 )