The Education Business (No! it is not another note on Educomp)

13 April, 2012

As an alumnus of the London School of Economics (LSE) I received the news of Sir Howard Davies' resignation last week with mixed emotions. For those of you who haven't had tracked the story (it has barely received a mention in the Indian press), here is the outline. Sir Howard, the man in charge of running the LSE, resigned on the back of news that in 2009 the LSE had taken donations from the Libyan Government and had agreed to give "leadership skills" training to Libyan officials. Furthermore, Sir Howard had also taken on an advisory role with Libya's sovereign wealth fund.

Whilst I was saddened to see Sir Howard leave (he has done much to reinvigorate the LSE and make it a more hospitable place to study and teach in), I was also relieved that he had stepped down thereby drawing a line under the LSE's affiliation with a dodgy regime staffed by infamous individuals (for more details please watch the daily TV newscasts on the chaos in Libya).

In the Indian context, however, there are a number of other aspects of this development which I find interesting. Firstly, the LSE students' union played a role in this resignation by occupying Sir Howard's office in protest at the LSE's affiliation with Libya. Given that in India we have political scandals on a much greater scale with metronomic frequency, the utter lack of student agitation in India on the political front is puzzling. Somehow, political causes (as opposed to political parties) no longer seem to excite our youth and that is worrying because it suggests that our current governance deficit will widen in the years to come.

Secondly, in his resignation statement Sir Howard said that whilst he had "… nothing substantive to be ashamed of" in his personal dealings with Libya, "the short point is that I am responsible for the school's reputation, and that has suffered". Perhaps hardbound copies of this letter should be sent to the ruling elite in Delhi and also to our various state capitals because I can't recall the last time a senior politician in India fell on his sword (rather than being sacked by his party high command) for compromising the Indian Government's reputation.

Thirdly, the LSE's predicament highlights the "adverse selection" problem that not-for-profit bodies or causes face when they woo the rich and the powerful for donations the people most likely to donate generously for such causes are often the people with the most checkered reputations. Donations for not-for-profit causes are their way of buying the only thing that has eluded them so far social standing. However, I haven't seen too many other universities either in Europe or in the US or in India own up to receiving donations from dictators and dodgy businessmen.

Finally, the conduct of the Libyan dictator's son, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, over the past month also raises questions about the value of higher education, whether in the LSE or elsewhere. After joining the LSE in 2002, Gaddafi junior finished a PhD at the LSE in 2008 (yesâthat's right, the donations came a year after he finished his PhD but it would be naughty to presume that the two are related to each other). The subject of his PhD was global governance. The academics who guided and taught him at the LSE were some of the best in the business. Whilst studying in London, the heir apparent stayed in a $15m eight-bedroom mansion located in a wealthy suburb north of the city centre. Apparently, the mansion had a sauna, a swimming pool and a cinema basic essentials clearly for a good PhD thesis. In between working on his PhD, Seif mingled with London's political and business elite. From that life of apparent sophistication, he is now reduced to a man who in a live TV broadcast threatens a civil war in which his father's regime “will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet”.

As they say, there are certain things that money cannot buy. A good education is one of those. Democracy, as I highlighted in my column last week, is another. It is worth celebrating the fact that most Indians can to a significant extent lay claim to both.

(To become a regular blogger with VCCircle or for any feedback, write to shrija@vccircle.com or blogs@vccircle.com)


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The Education Business (No! it is not another note on Educomp)

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