Saturday, August 30, 2014

Conversations 14: Challenging The Educational Status Quo

In the last few weeks, I travelled to several cities in India talking to employers, listening to their plans and concerns about people hiring. I got some numbers - it is evident that they are hiring people in thousands - and I also realised how hard it is to do so. I met some of these employees, bright ones, and listened to their aspirations and how employers help and do not help them in furthering their careers. This was not one neat piece of market research, I was not going around with some kind of questionnaire in hand, but rather a series of overlapping conversations. However, they collectively give me an idea on what's happening in India, though this perspective is limited to the middle class, 'white collar' jobs.

Admittedly, my engagements were actually quite specific. It was, first of all, limited to certain industries, those which could be serviced by the new kind of Higher Education I am engaged in. The agenda was narrow - I wanted these employers to partner with us as we introduce an employer-centric Higher Education offering - but it was evident that the problem is larger than what I was concerned with. My other conversations, with people at the front-line of the Government's skills training initiatives, added interesting perspectives. Together, they painted a picture thus: 

1) The students are coming largely from 'government families', where the main bread-earner worked either directly for the government or a government-supported entity. For them, skills and abilities to do the work never mattered. Either this was about mastering a competitive examination or knowing people with influence. The parents, who remain an important voice in the absence of an alternative financing system (the student financing often needs collateral), are often intrusive and try to dictate the minute details of the education process, often acting as a bulwark (or at least an excuse) against any educational change.

2) The employers, who often compete on a low-cost strategy, work within the 'throwing people at problems' paradigm. The bulk hiring, acceptance of high turnover rates, minimal commitment to employee development (outside the job specific training) are usual features of an Indian workplace, even in the large multinational corporations. The salaries are generally low, though, it often seems quite high when contrasted with the earnings of the previous generation, who mostly worked in public enterprises. 

3) The educators - indeed there are various shades of them and I am only concerned here with the most earnest ones - are committed to an information-heavy teaching, carrying forward the heavily stratified world of their youth and overtly concerned with the preservation of the power and the privilege of the 'guru'. Good teaching culturally value respect and obedience and put these in a dichotomous relationship with free inquiry and independence, which are systematically discouraged. Such approach is further maintained by overt reliance on tests and examinations.

4) The employees are often fairly ambitious, pushing the boundaries and often displaying a level of awareness of the 'system', far beyond and much different from their parents, the employers or their teachers. There is a parallel world they are creating and operating in. They are creating their own ground rules within the existing field of authority, using the system to gain the privileges rather than defying it. The conversations are often constructed in employees-versus-managers terms, but the objective of the employee remains taking on the managers' roles. However, there is less of a generational gap in value terms than one would expect in a country like India. There is low deference to expertise and lack of appreciation of the patience and commitment required to develop one: The parents' value system of finding the shortest way possible through connections have been supplemented by the next generations impatience and insistence that India as a young country should have waiver from such boring norms of developing expertise.

In summary, the picture that I see is that an entire system locked into an anti-meritocratic spiral. Indeed, there is excellence at the top of the pyramid - but I concern myself with the mass education systems. The innovation challenge that I see in India are constructed in terms of the following question: What could one do to change the system of values underlying education? This, to me, is a better start point than expecting the employers to change the norms or the parents to suddenly appreciate the changing world. Besides, for those things, one can only pray for, while there could be some conscious and deliberate efforts to create a transformative education.

I already have a mandate to do something at the undergraduate education level, which I shall now pursue. However, I have now started thinking about the system of values and motivations, which underlie all education. The point I hear from all the constituents is that there is a problem there - but one must shy away from doing anything about it because it is the hardest. There is no money to be made trying to change thinking, and this rules out a for-profit intervention. But even others, the not-for-profit interventions trying to change education and enhancing employability, concern themselves mostly with tinkering at the edges and making trivial interventions, marked only by activity without outcome. This can only be achieved through a coalition of interests, and staying in India for a prolonged period of time allows me to connect with those who are trying to explore options and challenge the status quo.

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