Saturday, September 28, 2013

'De-imperialising' Indian Higher Education

I learnt something new about India when I travelled around the country in April/ May. I was accompanied by two colleagues: One, my Co-founder, a Briton who has never been to India before; Another, a senior colleague who is the Chair of our Academic Board (and previously been a member of the executive in an UK university), who was born in Mauritius but settled down in England three decades ago, and have become as English as anyone (in contrast, though settled in England, I preserved my Indian, arguably Bengali, identity in day to day life, and even in work). I learnt a lot seeing India through the eyes of these two close colleagues,who were visitors to a country I consider my own.

What I learnt went beyond the usual staff one expects: One gets embarrassed by the lack of basic facilities in India when accompanying a 'guest', but at the same time, on reflection, feels proud about how little we have to go by, yet how aspirational we are. Coming back-to-back to a visit to China, one could contrast the hospitality - the Chinese were indeed more hospitable in comparison, and a lot more proud about their own country (indeed, in India, everyone blamed the government, but China, we didn't hear any dissent, as expected). Going around in Indian universities and colleges, we were shaken by the lack of academic culture and integrity. We looked at outdated curricula and was told that the curricula does not change as the university professors who decide on it, usually run a lucrative business of selling notebooks and want to keep selling these without changing much of the content; we were told how academic recruitment is not defined by merit, but caste, religion and the like; we visited schools which ran like factories, with a strict top-down culture of compliance; and we met ambitious students who could only express their personalities by being deviant and disruptive, as the culture of the colleges were disciplinarian, usually run by people from the Army, rather than being student-centric and/or creative. 

But, the most telling thing, apparent to my colleagues perhaps more than me, is how India is still deeply stuck in its legacy. The different treatment that I received from my English colleague was telling enough; however, the fact that this is not due to hospitality towards a visitor to the country was plain as my Mauritian/ English colleague was treated just as another Indian, simply because he appears one, notwithstanding the fact that he was as English as anyone and was also older (there goes the theory of respect for age out of the window). We also noted the post-colonial sensitivities when some Indian Academic Leaders simultaneously tried to tell us how everything is fine with the Indian education system and how respected Indian degrees are abroad, while simultaneously stating that any British degree, no matter from which university, will be highly desirable. To my amazement, I was challenged, rather angrily, by an Academician, in the middle of a lecture because I said that India must address its skills imbalance: The person claimed that all is fine with India because the world is 'outsourcing their jobs to India' and it needs to do nothing: On the other hand, of course, we were told, by the same group of people, that the students are not able to perform even the simple tasks (presumably, the students were at fault). 

If one would believe that one of the goals of the post-independence education system in India was to foster a national identity (and to leave behind the colonial legacy), it seems to have failed. This is an argument I have made in a report I have recently written about Indian Higher Education: That the structure of power underlying the education system has barely changed in the intervening sixty years. This is, I shall argue, that the biggest shortcoming of the Indian education system, that it carries on the imperial legacy at its core: Only that this imperialism comes from within rather than without.

I came to believe that the Indian Higher Education system (and the education system in general) is designed to promote the dominion of certain sections of the society. The complete lack of any critical reflection or discussion, an overtly technical/ professional focus in education, the top-down culture of the institutions and of the classroom, are all markers of this. There is a false argument that Indians are usually passive learners: There is no historical evidence - as traditional Indian education system was based on rhetoric and some of the greatest logicians were Indians - and neither any contemporary proof: Millions of Indians self study towards IT certification, 13% of the EDX students are Indians (the biggest contingent after the Americans) and Indians do very well when they land up in World's finest universities and research laboratories. So, there is nothing Indian about the docility we saw in the classrooms - it was all to do with the education system which is designed to carry on the imperialism, this time by the privileged Indians.

Consider, for example, what is the really valuable skill in India. It is not creative abilities to design, or being a great software programmer; nor it is about having fine legal skills, or the deep training of a physician. The skill that will trump all of these in terms of skills premium is simply English language. Narayana Murthy was right when he said that in India, articulation passes for accomplishment. With right accent and pretense, English language abilities open up career opportunities like nothing else. This means opening up Senior Management positions and higher salaries; at the lowest levels, this means better salaries for drivers, plumbers and electricians as they could service not the expats but the Indians who prefer to speak in English. Talking to Indian employers, we learnt that lack of presentation skills among their staff is their biggest perceived problem: One could read the same desire for English language skills, rather than creativity, innovation, critical thinking and the like one speaks about in the West.

Indeed, English language is not just a skill, but a marker of a class, sustained through the education system, school onwards. This was the original design of Lord Macaulay, but was sustained by the Indian elite after Independence because this suited them. The Indian education system became a legitimising apparatus of imperialism. Imperialism, in this sense,  is to be defined not as subjugation by foreign rulers, but a system of social relationships where certain skills and attitude foreign to the native society, but those that create affinity and cultural affiliation with a global governing elite, are used as instruments of social power. Indian education system, to this day, is designed to sustain this system, and particularly to root out any possible challenges to this way of thinking.

I shall argue that this is not working. This is why Indian democracy seems to be in such perilous state, because we have mostly given up on asking questions. The street protests in India isn't evidence of political consciousness, but just mobs driven by successive waves of media frenzy. The public conversations in India are impoverished, innovation is usually marginalised and people born without privilege usually have to go abroad to seek expression and realise their potential. There is a talk of 'demographic dividend' in India: Nandan Nilkeni contends the population is a problem in a planned economy but a source of advantage in a market economy, but he misses the point that India is not a market economy (because this will mean a meritocratic culture and appropriate rewards of talent and work) but a privilege economy.

This is where a new thinking is needed and a process of 'de-imperialisation' of Indian Education must start. This means designing a new kind of education system, with critical consciousness at its core. This also means a good grounding on various intellectual traditions, not least the Asian ones, because such process of de-imperialisation may start in India with the recognition and discovery of an Asian identity. In fact, India is seen as a subject nation in most of East Asia because of our ability to overcome the apparatus of privilege bestowed on us by our colonial masters (Lord Macaulay's brilliant design), whereas the rest of Asia may be recovering from the cold war slumber decisively. 

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