Monday, June 22, 2009

American education, Indian price?

Nobody will argue that Indian families place a premium on formal, institutional education. A big part of it is because getting a college degree is highly correlated with (relatively) decently paying employment. But a very significant part of it is because education is considered intrinsically valuable -- education is viewed as something that makes one more cultured, more informed, and a better human being. I'm not sure that what passes for formal education in India actually accomplishes much of that; my own memory is of learning a lot of stuff despite having to suffer formal education -- the real learning happened on the margins. Not because the content of formal education was lacking, but certainly the manner of its delivery, the process. And the ethos, the environment, and a whole lot of other things. And this was at purportedly reputed institutions -- which the majority of institutions today, are certainly not.

What abounds in India is what one might call cargo-cult education: it imitates a certain form of education that was prevalent in decades bygone, and believes it emulates British or American education, but all it really does is to go through the motions, and that too not particularly well. The result: bad education, badly executed. Those who learn anything at all, and even excel in life, do so despite, not because of their so-called education.

The roots of the problem go back to the British Raj when the colonizers asphyxiated traditional Indian institutionalized education and created a very few institutions based on British model to produce graduates that would serve the Empire. But the Indian governments that succeeded them did little to improve the situation; if anything, they exacerbated the problem. Young people who had the means or the talent or both, left India at the earliest opportunity for Western lands, usually English speaking ones, and most never returned, for their talents, skills and experience were neither appreciated nor accommodated.

After 60 years of despoiling the educational landscape, the newly re-elected Indian government seems to want to improve the situation, by inviting Western universities to set up shop right here in India. Now, I'm a little wary of this, but as long as it does not drain Indian resources, I can't see where this initiative could go wrong. After all, every year, hundreds of thousands of young Indians, their academic ambitions blocked by either the lack of available slots or the low quality of Indian education seek to escape to foreign universities, often suffering racism and other indignities as well as going deep into debt to fund their dreams. According the WSJ article,
Only 9% of college-age Indians have college educations, far lower than in China and many other Asian countries, according to a 2006 study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, a New Delhi think tank. About 160,000 students a year leave India to study abroad, according to the National Knowledge Commission, an advisory group to the prime minister.
If the same universities had branches in India where they could deliver the same education at the same level of quality for a much lower price - that would keep a lot of that money in India and help preserve the honor and dignity of these ambitious young people.

More importantly, the presence of such institutions on Indian soil would raise the aspirations of Indians and send a wake up call to other Indian institutions -- as occurred when the Maruti Suzuki 800 automobile was introduced into an Indian market dominated by the ancient Ambassador and Premier Padmini cars -- and force them to raise their standards.

As often happens, however, there is a slight problem: it appears that the universities want the Indian government to subsidize their entry into the country.
But, he said, given the U.S. economy and shrinking endowments, colleges may need incentives from the government of India to be able to afford to open.
Whoever calls the shots in the government ought to ensure that:
  • any incentive provided to universities doesn't exceed the benefits it might generate
  • the foreign institutions create a curriculum and androgogy that is suited to the needs of India and Indians even while it breaks away from the stale and obsolete patterns that have been used in India for perhaps a century or more
  • the institutions share their knowledge and expertise with Indian institutions and help raise the standards of Indian higher education; this is not too much to ask: with a population of over a billion and steadily growing, not even all the universities in the US can satisfy the Indian thirst for education, and so there is room for everybody

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