Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Education Innovation in India: A Conversation

I am scheduled to speak in an event on Innovation in India in a couple of weeks time. The subject I am supposed to speak on is whether Indian Higher Education system is sufficiently equipped to spur innovative mindset. In a way, this is an interesting topic to speak on, given my own work on what kind of education system we may need as the labour markets change drastically. And, for me, innovation is not a subject to be taught in a classroom, but a practice one needs to be embedded into, so there is no 'Innovation Education' without 'Education Innovation' at the same time. India does badly in terms of Education Innovation, even considering the various crown jewels of Indian Education System, like the IITs. In the past, I have described the Indian Education providers as 'sleepwalkers', as they are mostly preparing for a future that does not exist: Despite this sounding rather extreme - and I admit there are exceptions - this description perhaps sums up best what is happening in Indian Education right now.

But, before we get to that, let's talk about the best institutions in India. One can't deny that the best institutions in India, the IIT system, the best universities, are amazingly creative and innovative. If I dare say that the Indian Education system is not preparing its students to be innovative, the first thing I shall get back is the amazing number of the entrepreneurs and executives that IITs produce for the Silicon Valley. There will be all those anecdotal evidence that Indian Education is doing very well, and there is no denying of this fact. However, they remain an exception rather than the rule. They produce, in total, 2000 graduates a year even after expansion, out of the more than 20 million students that goes to college in India every year. When we talk about the Indian Education system, it is a misrepresentation if we talk in terms of the IIT system. But even if we do, IITs are not the place to see Education Innovation - because innovation mostly happen on the fringe, not at the heart of any system.

So, how does the rest of the education system do in terms of spurring creativity and innovation? Very badly, will be my judgement, given my various conversations and visits to several universities, colleges and business schools. Being innovative and creative are not the key values most of the institutions are trying to imbibe, because the Indian Education system exists for a different purpose.

This gets political at this point, but this is my favourite thesis: That different countries have education systems built on different rationale. The Indian system, like the British, have been built to preserve and maintain social hierarchy. You go to school to advance your life's prospects, to get the privileges and perhaps to earn a better dowry. There may be other systems, like the American and the Chinese, which was built around productivity and economic participation, but India's is not one of them. And, in this structure, preservation of the order, rather than disruption, is the key value. Indian Education System is, therefore, all about being anti-innovation.

If we choose to ignore this political context, one could simply explain the anti-innovation nature of Indian Education as most Indian Educators do: That the students want it. This 'demand-side' explanation for lack of innovation (which Amar Bhide will call 'venturesome consumption') is also very valid, but it is merely the expression of the political point made above. Otherwise, why would a 'restless generation' (as New York Times calls it) with huge aspirations and an 'Indian Dream' (as Times of India calls it)  not want to be creative and innovative? Why would the sons and daughters of Dalits and the Minorities, who are increasingly find their path to Higher Education after the decade of prosperity, not want a different kind of Higher Ed? The reason, of course, is that we are yet to seriously challenge the mindsets inherited from the colonial times: Education for privileges is still the norm.

I am conscious that I am using 'Innovation Education' and 'Education Innovation' interchangeably, but they are at least parallel, if not the same, things. Innovation as a mindset is a precondition for 'Innovation Education' and that mindset is seriously hampered when the education system revolves around what social privileges a particular education will give. Indian education needs new kinds of colleges and approaches, and the groundswell of aspiration that we are experiencing now should provide the ideal seeding ground for the same. For that, the conversations about education needs to turn first: So far, however, we have made no attempts towards this.

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