What am I learning in Oxford?


Most of my friends in India keep asking me what I am really studying in Oxford. They have heard about degrees such as MSc, MA, MBA, MPhil and PhD (Oxford lingo- DPhil), but few have heard of something called MPP. This is not their fault though; in fact, many of my batch mates from other countries share similar feedback. Two things happened recently that convinced me that I should write about my course learnings in Oxford. First, my childhood friend Arup, who now owns a catering business, got a contract to provide lunch in a public gathering and wrote these lines to me,

“Manjit, you are studying public something, right? Help me setting up the lunch menu for a public gathering dude. Maximum price: INR 50 per person. Note: Don’t include extra onion, very expensive”.

The second event is the end of Michaelmas term. If the word ‘Michaelmas’ is new to you, let me explain. In the Oxford education system, one academic year runs from October to June and is divided into three eight week terms- Michaelmas (autumn), Hilary (spring), and Trinity (summer). But for my course, the first term was elongated at both ends, resulting in a 13 week long Michaelmas term. Before people start showing sympathy to me and my cohort for this seemingly unfair treatment, let me write about the levers that made us stand tall and fully charged until the last day of the term. As I reflect back, I can very well appreciate the transition of my thought process through the different courses in the Michaelmas term.

Thinking like an Economist

My friends declared me crazy when I explained them my logic for not approaching a beautiful girl with a bald head or not regretting after pre-booking a worst rated Bollywood movie. I wish I had known the words- ‘opportunity cost’ and ‘sunk cost’, and they would have avowed me an economist. Each time IPC supremo Montek Singh Ahluwalia came up with a poverty line, I used to scream with the rest of India- ‘Planning Commission does not know the ground reality’; now, I might criticize but will not scream for sure. ‘Economics for Public Policy’ was a fantastic course of the last term that taught us interesting concepts – why countries don’t produce everything at home, how to make someone feel ‘better off’, when to privatise an enterprise, why bargaining is not a ‘stupid middle class’ idea, and above all, what does the word ‘rational’ mean in a real sense. Now I can justify the existence of a state where citizens don’t need to pay any income tax, an education system completely managed by private players or a healthcare system fully controlled by the government, the reasons why we need trade unions and why being in fiscal debt can be a good idea sometimes. With three lectures, one seminar, one roundup session, two doubt-clearing sessions and one nine mark test every week, course convenor Clare Leaver made sure every one of us starts thinking like an economist; no matter whether you love economics or hate it to the core. Of late, there is a popular lingo in our cohort to describe one’s understanding level- Clare’s way of getting ‘clareified’.

There will be Blood, Lord of War, Blood Diamond, etc.

These were just movie titles until I studied the policy course on natural resources in the minus one week of the Michaelmas term. It’s amazing how countries like Malaysia have built a fortune with natural resources, while countries like Nigeria and Cameroon have messed up everything because of natural resources. There has been a lot of apprehension and excitement over the huge reservoir of natural gas recently discovered in the southeast African country of Tanzania. In this course, we deliberated on the challenges and opportunities brought by this finding by working with a few experts who were placed in Tanzania. We are also expecting to meet senior officials from the government of Tanzania in the next term to share our findings and carry forward the research. While answering the question whether natural resource is a curse or a blessing, I was amazed by the influence some private companies can have on a sovereign state. To my IT professional friends working in Apple, Microsoft, Google- I know you guys always wonder why and how Shell, BP, Gazprom or ExxonMobil pay so much to non-IT fellows; I can help you out to solve the puzzle. Lastly, to justify the title of this paragraph- we did watch a few interesting movies based on natural resources during this course. Bollywood, Coalgate- I am getting some blockbuster ideas!

Into the world of Political Philosophy

Whenever somebody asks me to take a stand on the caste reservation system of India or seeks opinion on ‘eliminating’ all illegal Bangladeshis from my home state (Assam) – I feel frustrated. Even if I spend hours after hours, I can’t conclusively take a side. For the first time in my life, I studied political philosophy in the Michaelmas term and learnt that even the greatest minds around the world in the last 500 years have not been able to solve the kind of dilemmas I mentioned. The realization that I am not the only confused soul in the planet truly overjoyed me. We thoroughly discussed, rather debated several important questions of ethical dilemma under the convenor ship of two thoughtful philosophical brains – Prof David Miller and Tom Simpson. What is the legitimacy of state, is democracy the best option available, how we could bring justice and equality, are we accustomed to living in a market society, should pornography be banned, how could we position ourselves in the big debates surrounding immigration and international intervention- I can’t stress more today how much policymakers have to struggle to bring an ‘acceptable’ policy amidst those unsolved questions. Those who want to directly compare a private company with a government often forget the difference in the basic values of both the types. For me personally, this course has completely washed away my intrinsic cynicism for unpopular government policies. To government recruiters- I believe you are getting the message that I am trying to send out☺

The ‘art’ of communication

Suppose you are the prime ministerial candidate of a political party and going to unveil your party manifesto for the national election at 4-00PM today. Six hours before the release function you got the news that the immediate senior leader of your party lost his cool and slapped one citizen during election campaign. How will you pull up a convincing communication strategy before 4-00 PM? I personally believe preparing a solid strategy & communicating that effectively to the public is the biggest challenge of any policymaking exercise. This involves not only an artistic mind set, but also some skills of science. The co-existence of traditional press releases with Facebook page updates is not mere a coincidence, that is a new age strategy. This applied policy module was not only focussed on government communications, but also enriched by insights from the acting director of McKinsey’s communications team and a day long class at the WPP office in London. To end the course, the students came up with a road safety campaign for UK and presented before the CEO of WPP and executive director of UK Government Communication. By the way, the incident of the election manifesto is a true one. Ahh- before googling, please spare three minutes thinking how you would have responded.

Spotting a pattern in the life graph of decision makers

I chose an optional subject on Operations Research in my undergrad; I was never a number lover and my friends who graduated from NIT/IIT can very well imagine how I might have managed this subject. History echoed and this time as a compulsory subject. Both the ‘experts’ and ‘poets’ studied some of the complex concepts of decision and data analytics during the zeroth week of the Michaelmas term. Many of us make a living thinking about tomorrow and the importance of accurate prediction is the fundamental of this thinking. All the financial markets, both the short and long term national plans rely on our ability to analyse data and predict a pattern. After attending this course, I have developed a wish to teach the fundamentals of Distribution, Correlation and Regression to every politician. It is not that regression will help taking a correct decision, but decision-makers should understand how much homework is required before taking a decision impacting hundreds of lives of common citizens.

Wearing the hat of the Finance Minister

The fact that I have been an educated young person with some trading experience in equity market, I believed it was my moral responsibility to make sense of finance minister’s speech on the budget day. This seems an uphill task, but the applied policy course on ‘Public Budgeting and Private Finance’ was initiated on the optimistic assumption that one among us would become a finance minister of his/her country one day. Gus O’Donnell, who served as Cabinet Secretary to three British Prime Ministers convinced us in two marathon days that we could prepare a national budget (yes, after negotiating with all the line ministries with proper techniques). The private finance module exposes us to the ‘typical MBA’ world of private equity, subprime, volatility, discount rate, commodity market and non-famous ‘bus model’. What I liked about my class – when we were calculating billions and trillions of money in every case, my friends were upright and conscious about the limit of market and the essential role of a state. This might sound like socialist left wing mentality, but I am talking about wearing the hat of a Finance Minister, a designation seen beyond ideology.

Evidence based policymaking

The above title is a buzzword in the public policy circle, though many policymakers don’t have the slightest clue where and how to find evidence while drafting a policy. Maybe it is human nature that we get fascinated by the output. When a minister talks about benefitting 30% of the population by a policy, nobody asks how the hell he finds that number. Mere views and responsibilities can’t create numbers, someone has to find and fetch them. This practical course made us realize how difficult it is to find credible data and gather evidence. Now, whenever I see a fancy Excel sheet or a PowerPoint presentation, the things keep playing in my brain- what was the sample size, who paid for the random control trial, do they appoint a third party to do propensity score matching and so on. But on the flip side, do you want to know the side effect of this course on the students? In our Secret Santa gift exchange party of the Michaelmas term, I overheard one batch mate saying- “It’s such a nice gift; but how did you know about my choice; did you ask somebody, did you read all my tweets, are you spying on me, did you call up my parents, did you peep into my diary, did you……? ”

That was just a quick glimpse of what I am learning from the core public policy courses after coming to the University of Oxford. Before winding up, I must confess my excitement for the excellent topics lined up in the Hillary and Trinity terms. One more thing that I have not mentioned above is the list of excellent guest speakers who came to teach us in the Michaelmas term. From the Chilean finance minister to George Soros -the list is excitingly long and demands a separate blog post from the BSG fraternity.

Ok, I have not written what happened to my friend’s request. I did prepare the lunch menu for the public gathering (because I do indeed study “public something”!) and Arup booked a profit of INR 8 per person on that, as well as bagging 2 new contracts. Here come the two biggest takeaways of my first 3 months’ learning in Oxford – your background (childhood friends, family and country) is your real identity; secondly, knowledge is what enables you to successfully manage Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype, as well as setting up a lunch menu without using extra onion.

The first one is intrinsic for me, the second one –I am trying to learn in Oxford.

Image: Manjit Nath and Dr Tom Simpson at the Challenges of Government Conference 2013. Picture by John Cairns.