Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Defying The 'Hindu' Rate of Education

India used to be known as a sickly economy, known for its 'Hindu Rate of Growth'. A term originally coined by Economist Raj Krishna, to explain India's lowly rate of growth of 3.5% annually between 1950s and 1980s, the 'Hindu Rate of Growth' was to mean what the Economists call the Secular Rate of Growth, which means just the trend level of growth - the rate at which nothing really changes. India somewhat escaped the Hindu rate of Growth starting 1990s, when freeing up of the entrepreneurial energies of Indians allowed the economy to progress, and some changes did indeed happen, particularly in the Middle Class life and in the Cities. However, lately, this faltered and India returned to an anorexic growth rate. 

So, the primary job of the newly elected Hindu Nationalist government in New Delhi is to prevent India going back to its 'Hindu rate of Growth'.

But we can introduce another term in the same vain, the 'Hindu Rate of Education', which may be used for a similar meaning - the rate of education which keeps society as it is - to represent a similarly daunting challenge for the new government. There is some growth to be squeezed out of structural inefficiencies, but if an Indian miracle has to happen, it will happen only by transforming the Indian education model.

Post-Independence, India built a top-down state, very much around the British bureaucratic model. The Indian education system was built to support this model, to create bureaucrats who can control everything from the commanding heights of the state machinery and large corporations and banks. While this principle of statecraft may have been abandoned in the nineties, the attendant idea of education have now survived five decades: Education is still for social privilege in India, a good job, dowry etc. This is for the select few who will rule, manage or lead the others. This idea refuses to die: The previous government made bold noises about vocational education - education for the less able as if it is their fault - and wasted a lot of money on it. Underlying this, however, was the same Elite-Commoner divide that I am complaining about.

Seen this way, India's rather pathetic enrolment ratio of 15% - only 1 in 8 eligible young people go into Higher Education - sounds about right. This is not about citizenship; this is not about economic possibility; this is not about knowing India and contributing to society. This rate - this is The Hindu Rate of Education - is reflective of how India saw education.

The attempts to change it by expanding capacity has failed. Even if the capacity was expanded manifold - more than half of India's higher education capacity has been created in the last six years - the enrolment rate declined to budge. Part of this is India's growing young population; but the other part is the pointlessness of the whole education business in India.

There may be new colleges with shiny infrastructure, but no new ideas: The best Indian colleges could do is try to borrow curriculum and ideas from their old colonial masters, Britain, and some from America. For all the expansion, there is not a single coherent discussion about how education should be in India. Rather, Higher Ed is the playground for political privileges; donations to a local politician is the best way to set up an university there. And, indeed, India has some really frightening universities therefore, with no efforts to do anything meaningful. No one can blame the students shying away from these places, and in fact, that they do is good for the nation: There is nothing worse than bad education, and citizens who think they are educated when they are not. (Or, more practically, when incompetent Engineers build bridges, Doctors who bought their certificates perform operations, or, on a personal note, you submit to an untrained dentist's chair)

The new Indian government has made its intent clear: That they want a Hindu system of Education. Though this has no connection with what we imply with the 'Hindu rate of Education', the former is likely to reinforce the latter. Hindu education, which is basically the education of the classics and the arts for a select few (in fact, most castes are prohibited from learning): This is the problem that underlie the 'Hindu Rate of Education', or the British-imposed Education to Govern (just read English rather than the Vedas).

The argument I am pursuing is that to avoid going back to Hindu Rate of Growth, the Hindu Nationalist Government in Delhi has to break the trap of Hindu Rate of Education: While their minds are set upon a Hindu System, an exclusive, privilege-based idea which aims to produce a governing elite, this is not going to happen. The root-and-branch reform of Indian Higher Ed is not about throwing away English (far from that: I actually believe that India should look at ways of accepting and integrating English without its inherent colonial rhetoric and ideas: See Contra Macaulay)  but throwing away the colonial idea of education for a special social privilege and to create a governing elite.

Indeed, even a rose-eyed optimist knows that it is not going to happen. The people who run the new Higher Education institutions are in the game not to rock the boat but to make money from it. And, the Public Higher Education system is too politicised, too distracted, and too elitist anyway to do anything for anything.

Therefore, a self-perpetuating Hindu Rate of Education will persist. The only hope is that some business person somewhere will realise how fragile all this is, and will change everything. Yes, to make money, but India is one place where one can make a lot of money in Education and build the Google or Facebook of education, rather than making small money to hide under the carpet. All one needs to build is a smart education that works; teachers who teach, courses which make sense, a system that respect and encourage the student rather than demean and intimidate them. All the government has to do, when such a business emerge, is to stay out of its path. This is unlikely (as such an winning idea would upset a lot of powerful people) but the urgency for growth may just allow them to act sensibly.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Innovation in India: Time To Start Thinking

The Global Innovation Index, produced by INSEAD and others, is built around seven factors - Institutions, Human capital and research, Infrastructure, Market sophistication, Business sophistication, Knowledge and technology outputs and Creative outputs - and measures an economy's ability to innovate. India has continually slipped in the rankings, from 62nd in 2011 to 64th in 2012, to 66th in 2013 and now at 76th in 2014. Indeed, it is useful to contrast India with China, acknowledging the coveted hyphenation that many Indians desire: China has remained on the 29th position during this time, losing and recovering the lost ground during the in-between years (though China includes the territory of Hong Kong, which is treated separately and is a top 10 territory in these rankings).

Not that rankings matter much, but they are useful reminders of where one is going. India's decline tells a story in the context of the rest of the world. In the past rankings, India was ranked 2nd in terms of innovation efficiency in the previous years, underlining its ability to innovate despite institutional constraints, just behind China's 1st position, a celebration perhaps of India's famed Jugaad. However, in the latest rankings, India slips to 31st place even on this (China slips one place to 2nd, after Molodova), indicating somewhat the limits of Jugaad in a modernising economy (see my note on The Limits of Jugaad). 

A look at the detailed data is perhaps useful too. India's big problem predictably comes from its Institutions, though 'Government Effectiveness' contribute to India's lowly scores less than lack of political stability. One would expect that the recent formation of a single party majority government in Delhi in 2014 will fix this. India also suffers from its 'Regulatory Environment', though it outranks all its BRICs counterparts on the Rule of Law (though not Hong Kong); however, it scores the lowest among the peer group in 'Regulatory Quality', because of the lack of dynamism and widespread corruption among its regulators. India is also ranked 128th (among 143 nations) in Business Environment, only better than Brazil among its peer group, reflecting a poor environment for starting a business, resolving insolvencies and paying taxes. The big bet on the new government in Delhi is about resolving these issues: However, some of these expectations are likely to be dashed because India's various state governments, rather than the government in Delhi, control its regulatory and business environments.

India also performs badly in Human Capital and Research, being outranked by all its peer group countries and managing a lowly 96th position among all nations. Its problems come from Education, perhaps predictably, though it manages to outrank Brazil on Research and Development. India's universities (the QS ranking was used here) rank the lowest in its peer group, though the country gets a respectable 27th overall, leading to an Indian newspaper reporting 'Quality of its Universities' as a strength for the country. However, one must note that the rankings concern itself only with the relative rankings of Top 3 universities in the countries: India's top 3 universities, as these will be the IITs, still contribute more to California's economy than India's.

The picture on Infrastructure is mixed, India gets a lowly ranking both in terms of ICT Infrastructure and General Infrastructure. China, rather predictably, is on the 2nd place in the world in terms of General Infrastructure (after the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan), and this is where the gap between two countries are the most obvious even to a casual visitor (compare a journey on Indian Rail with one of China's trains). China also outperforms India in Ecological Sustainability, which is not saying much but may come as a surprise to those who suffered from the terrible air pollution in Shanghai. It also underlines the challenge India faces as it strives to rebuild its manufacturing sector, particularly around Delhi-Mumbai corridor (and later one between Mumbai and Bangalore perhaps).

India outperforms its peers on the Market Sophistication parameter, and particularly in terms of  Trade and Competition. The most interesting among many factors that make up this parameter is perhaps the intensity of local competition, where India ranks 22nd in the world, just behind Sweden, but ahead of France, Denmark, Malaysia and Canada. Western companies, looking at India's crumbling infrastructure, poor governance and bad unversities, all too often equate it with other markets, overlooking the fierceness of competition mostly to their peril.

India, however, does badly in Business Sophistication, though it outperforms its peer group in Innovation Linkages, doing rather well in areas such as Industry-University Partnerships. However, it slips on the 'Knowledge Workers' factor (Rank 110), a surprising result given all the boasting around India's IT services. There are many elements to consider here, but one comparison really jumps out: China ranks 1st in the world in terms of firms offering formal training to its employees, whereas India is 97th, managing to stay ahead of Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Yemen, barely. In fact, it is on this factor, the gap between India and all the other BRICS nations is the most pronounced, with China (1st), Brazil (20th), Russia (37th) and South Africa (44th) standing in stark contrast with India's 97th.

The above factors are combined make up the INPUT side of the innovation equation, in which India fares rather poorly overall, with an overall 93rd in the world and behind all the peer group countries. It does only slightly better on the OUTPUT side, coming 65th overall and behind all the peer group countries again. This, despite India having the top spot in ICT exports in the world and a respectable 13th spot for Creative Goods exports, somewhat undermines India's claims of ingenuity within a field of constraints. In fact, what's remarkable is that India does not do very well well in terms of its Feature Films and Entertainment Output, which will be the natural conclusion to jump into for India's strong showing in creative output (and excuse for some celebration of India's 'soft power' through Bollywood): Instead, its creative sector may be more invisible, made up of all those back-end work done for global entertainment and gaming industries, where India has indeed emerged as a powerhouse. 

Overall, it is time to start thinking about innovation in India, and whether the Knowledge Economy is still largely a rhetoric than a reality. The picture presented here reflects a fiercely competitive and growing market, riddled with poor infrastructure, institutional and regulatory constraints. The businesses are pushed to innovate to survive, but inefficiencies in regulation may allow cutting corners as viable survival strategy too. One would hope, justifiably, that the rise of a Single Party government in Delhi will solve some of the problems, but it is unlikely to transform India's education sector for better or kick-start the creative industries. In fact, one should study this index alongside other measures, such as Global Creativity Index published by Martin Prosperity Institute, which may underline some of the other issues with India's Innovation capability which have been blurred out here: The cultural factors, the city environments, tolerance, all of which contribute towards new ideas to flourish. As I quoted Kishore Mahbubani in an earlier post (see here), India remains an Open Society with a Closed Mind, in contrast to China's Closed Society with an Open Mind. Rankings such as this are occasions to start thinking, and dismissing all such discussion as a first world conspiracy to undermine India, as it will invariably be seen as, is perhaps proof that we got serious work to do.   

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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