Monday, October 29, 2012

Call Centres

Recently I’ve been having one or two problems concerning a bank account I have in Britain. I have several numbers for the bank that look like British phone numbers. But whenever I call, I am answered by someone in a call centre in India. This has caused me some difficulties since the problem I have really needs to be resolved by someone who is actually in the UK, yet none of the people in India seem to be able to give me a contact number for anyone in Britain. However, I hasten to add that the people at the call centre themselves are quite competent and I can certainly understand their English. Indeed it is often easier for me to understand them than people in certain parts of Britain where they have a distinct regional accent. Because salaries for Indian companies are still relatively low, call centres there which serve international companies tend to attract employees with excellent English and high educational backgrounds.
Offshore call centres (or contact centres) are the best-known face of business process outsourcing (BPO), a rapidly growing global phenomenon whereby companies transfer work to somewhere with lower labour costs. Outsourcing may be onshore: many Japanese companies, for example, use call centres in Okinawa where wages are lower than in Tokyo or Osaka. But they save even more money if they offshore services to China, where it is increasingly possible to find workers fluent in Japanese. Asian countries that have high levels of English are particularly well-placed to attract outsourced work from the huge number of companies doing business in that language. According to India’s Economic Times, BPO is now moving into higher-value KPO: ‘knowledge process outsourcing’. In the Philippines, the work done by call centres includes software development, animation for Hollywood feature films, and transcription of legal and medical documents. If you check a job-recruitment website such as you will find hundreds of positions being advertised for dozens of BPO and KPO offices in Cebu City alone. The Philippines has even been getting work from India.
In India itself, a growing outsourced business is tutoring for children. In the United States, face-to-face tutoring for a high school student can cost up to $100 an hour, whereas an online tutor based in India can be found for as little as $2.50. Bangalore-based Tutor Vista has 150 tutors advising 1,100 children in America. Parents pay $100 per month for unlimited hours. Tutors have an average of ten years of teaching experience behind them, most have master’s degrees, and they get 60 hours of training in American accents and young people’s slang. Rival company Growing Stars Inc. teaches subjects like elementary school maths, science and English grammar and high school algebra and calculus to over 400 American students.
Call centres around the world are often manned by young, single workers who don’t mind working at night. According to Kingsley Bolton, a sociolinguist at Hong Kong's City University, in many Asian countries the job tends to appeal to middle class females who have few safe and socially acceptable work options.Women are often thought to have better language skills and more empathy when dealing with difficult customers. Bolton’s research in the Philippines also found a disproportionate number of gay and transsexual employees who, he speculates, may be attracted to a job that can entail an element of role-play: as long as it facilitates business, phone operatives can be whoever their clients imagine them to be.

This role-playing is highlighted in One Night at the Call Centre, a novel by investment banker Chetan Bhagat that sold over 100,000 copies within a month of its release in India in 2006. The story takes place over a single night at an Indian call centre servicing American appliance users. The main characters have false American names (Shyam is “Sam”, Radhika is “Regina”) and loathe having to be servile to customers they consider less intelligent and educated than themselves. Their instructor advises them to think of 35-year-old Americans as having the same IQ as a 10-year-old Indian.
Nowadays nearly everyone knows that a call to New York or Sydney may well be answered in Chennai or Cebu, so the call centre workers don’t need to pretend that they are anywhere they are not. Last time I called my bank I had a nice chat with a man called Sayed about a local Muslim holiday in southern India. He promised to call me back after the holiday with good news about my enquiry – but I am still waiting!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Internationalising Asian universities

Last time I wrote about international university rankings and wondered whether they were biased toward English-speaking countries. This time I want to say something about how some Asian countries are trying to attract more foreign students by changing their semesters and increasing the number of courses in English. Previously, American students wanting to study for one year in Malaysia, Thailand and Japan, and Malaysians, Thais and Japanese wanting to study for one year in America might have to take two years away from their home university because of differences in the school calendar. But Malaysian universities have started to change their school year so that it begins in September, coinciding with North America and Europe. Many Thai universities will do the same from next year, and Japan’s University of Tokyo is making similar changes.
Despite the improved international rankings of several Japanese universities, such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Tokyo Institute of Technology and Keio, according to JASSO, the Japan Student Services organisation (, only 4% of students in Japan are from foreign countries. The number of fulltime foreign university teachers is also relatively small. Moreover, according to the Ministry of Education, the number of Japanese students studying overseas has fallen by 50% in the last ten years. Many people think that all of this is because English is not widely used in Japanese education. But things may be changing.

Recently, Time magazine’s website reported on new programmes for undergraduates at the University of Tokyo starting this month that will be taught entirely in English. These are open to Japanese students but will include participants from 14 other countries. Other universities with programmes in English include Waseda and ICU in Tokyo and Doshisha in Kyoto. Meanwhile the government’s Global 30 initiative aims to increase the number of Japanese students going overseas. Some people think that these changes may help foreigners more than they help the Japanese, however. Already, thousands of Asian students are getting degrees from Japanese universities and then getting jobs with Japanese companies. Many of them were already fluent in Japanese before they came to Japan, especially in writing, which is somewhat easier if you have a language background in Chinese or Korean. Having studied alongside Japanese students, they are attractive to many Japanese companies when they go for job interviews because they speak Japanese and understand Japanese culture well, but they also speak one or two other Asian languages and English well, unlike most of their Japanese friends.
If more courses are offered in English, it may mean that more foreign students come to Japan, not just from East Asia, where Japanese has long been a popular subject, but also from Southeast and South Asia and from further afield. Many of them will go on to become proficient in Japanese and knowledgeable about Japanese culture, even if they study in English, and so they may look for jobs with Japanese companies. It is already hard enough for young Japanese people to get jobs – indeed one of the main reasons many of them say they do not go abroad is fear that they will miss out on the very competitive job-hunting process. Making Japanese universities more international through increasing the number of courses in English may therefore be risky. But with the economy continuing to be sluggish, and English spoken much more widely in booming economies like China, Singapore and Malaysia, it appears to be a risk the government is prepared to take.