Thursday, August 22, 2013

Indian Higher Education: The Globalisation Conundrum

Indian policy makers like to view India as an emerging superpower. Their policy making in Higher Education is guided by this ambition, which goes beyond the usual rationale of labour productivity and national competitiveness. This is understandable: After all, a democratic government in an emerging country must forever keep it emerging for its own legitimacy. However, the ambitions of building an education system worth a superpower are problematic because this distort a practical, labour market led approach to Higher Education. This may open up wide gaps between demand and provision, making talent shortages worse and more permanent, and make the rhetoric unsustainable.

Whether India can become a 'superpower', whether the world needs another one, whether this would bring any benefits to Indian citizens (who, no doubt, have to stump up the costs) are all valid questions, but should be left for another day. I intend to discuss here a few conjectures (which, admittedly, are not empirically supported, but most of my work and research are focused on this now) about the disconnection between Indian Higher Education policy and labour market realities. 

All this could indeed be seen in the broader context of Indian policy making, and particularly be held against the carefully crafted image that things happen in India 'inspite of the government'. But any serious observer of Indian Higher Education will agree that in matters of education, the perennial Indian interventionist state is alive and well, and hugely influences whatever happens in the sector, creating powerful incentives and disincentives for public and private organisations all the time. Despite what seems to be an apparent policy failure to create and promote high quality higher education, students seem to be beholden to the Government policy on Education and driven by ebbs and flows of various Governmental announcements.

This is exactly why the superpower sentiments have a credence and need to be explored. However, what really changed in India (and in many countries across the world) in the last two decades is the exposure to global trade. The urban labour market has been significantly reshaped by integration of India, or at least some of its sectors and industries, into the global market. This has represented the other force shaping the demand for Higher Education - causing a lift off for certain disciplines and professions, at least temporarily.

Temporarily because India's globalisation has so far happened in two stages. First, starting the 1990s and extending into the early years of the 'noughties', certain industries and sectors grew exponentially, Information Technology and IT Services being the most prominent. This lift off was seen in Manufacturing, Pharmaceutical and other export oriented sectors as well. The expansion of these sectors mopped up the talent pool which India's limited, mostly publicly funded institutions generated. Next, the tides of globalisation turned, starting the middle years of the noughties, and the growth of export orientated sectors somewhat stalled (for many reasons, including the strength of the Rupee, rising costs due to infrastructure bottleneck and high domestic inflation, and talent shortages), some of the slack being picked up by the expansion of domestic demand, which was about exposure of Indian consumers to a 'better' lifestyle and preferences. The industries that provided most urban employment during this time have been domestically focused, insurance, banking, retail and education, which needed a different skill set and orientation, and offered different scale of wages and benefits from those of the export orientated sectors.

The Indian Government's, and consequently general public's, quest to become a superpower came with the rising prosperity. The rhetoric and actions, such as nuclear testing, quest for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, formation of an ever closer alliance with the United States during the Bush years, all pointed an increasingly confident and engaged India. It is also the time when the Government started talking about creating a Higher Education sector emulating the United States: The benchmarks were set for a rapid expansion of the university sector, of the prestigious brands of IITs and IIMs, and creations of millions of graduates to serve the needs of a growing economy. 

The needs, however, were changing, due to the 'deep' globalisation India was gradually embarking on. The early problems of not being able to find enough skilled Engineers and Bankers have now been replaced by not able to find willing salespeople. While the globalisation protected (somewhat) the graduate salaries in the West and decimated non-graduate jobs and salaries, one saw in India an expansion of what one would call non-graduate jobs, but no commensurate expansion of skills and abilities at that level. Indian government's policies were driven by the desire to create more high prestige institutions, but at the same time, withdraw from the state-funded local colleges and other non-prestige institutions, leaving that to the private sector. Yet, the regulations demanded private sector to have elaborate infrastructure (or pay a bribe) and ruled out any possibilities of innovation, in curriculum, delivery or certification, making way for black money into education and creating an inflexible structure, which is structurally out of sync with the economy.

One policy response to this apparent mismatch was a rush to vocational education, with Indian policy makers and some education entrepreneurs deciding that the need for skilled tradesmen are far greater than graduates. But this is also grounded on a similar misreading of the labour market: The Western style tradesmen training pays off when the market for trades has been professionalised and regulated, and India is a long way off from doing this. What resulted is a supply-side grandstanding where Ministers rattled out big numbers, but the training organisations produced even more people who can't find a job befitting their skills and training.

India's education problems, therefore, may be emanating from using inappropriate Western models and mindsets in the context of a very different economy. It seems that Indian economy is producing a number of sub-graduate level jobs, which requires high level of literacy and numeracy, and presentational skills, but not the advanced level of analysis and critical capabilities that a graduate may be expected to possess. The MBAs in India usually get into these jobs, because they can't find any other: But this also creates a power disincentive for future applicants, as the pay-off from advanced degrees become obscured.

I would argue that the solution may lie in understanding India's position in globalisation value chain and coming up with an education structure appropriate for the same, rather than trying to copy inappropriate Western models of education. This may indeed require a broadbased reform of degrees and awards, the levels of institutions and may even extend to professionalisation of certain trades. This model, if it has to produce an appropriate labour force, has to enable the local colleges, and aim at creating a flexible system of education with incentives for progression and lifelong education. India is currently embarking on deep globalisation with an education system based on planned economy principles; it is time to relook at the assumptions and redesign the system all over again.

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