Tuesday, January 06, 2015

'Post-Professional Society': Education and The New Middle Class

India is Education's El Dorado: Everyone wants to go there but no one knows how.

I say that often enough, sometimes to my peril. People like to treat me as an Indian Education specialist. My past experiences in Indian education, particularly the hard-fought bit played out in small town India, make me some sort of a tour guide to this El Dorado. It is indeed a problem for me if the place does not exist.

However, I don't want to be an 'Indian Education expert'. I am in fact rather weary of the professed experts of Indian Education, those who produce shiny reports and make glitzy Powerpoint presentations talking about the new middle classes and the wonderful opportunity there. Many of them, of course, will dutifully carry mineral water in their bag while in India and end their explorations within the city limits of Delhi and Mumbai, and have never stepped inside, much less taught, in an Indian classroom. The very fact that I have been out to those small cities, and taught, make me suspicious that the promised land may not be there.

Before I commit the blasphemy in full, however, let me acknowledge that there is a statistical case for the wonderful opportunity in Indian Higher Education. There are lots of young people, and many companies requiring skilled personnel, and a broken education system which fails both sides. The need is urgent - 10 million people joining the non-farm workforce every year - and well understood - there is a whole industry of India Experts (which I don't want to belong to). I am not in denial of these fundamentals, and indeed, I have been a great beneficiary of the expansion of professional education in India, cutting my teeth in the field. I am just slightly skeptical, however, whether this emergence of middle classes fit neatly into the staged development model experienced in the Western economies, and whether one could. coming from outside, really provide the kind of education that this middle class desires.

My thesis is somewhat simple: That the emerging middle classes have a different attitude towards education compared to 'traditional' middle classes, and therefore, an expansion of income does not necessarily mean an expansion of demand for 'good' education in a country like India. An attempt to justify this statement is, however, a more complex enterprise: There may be many factors at play why the 'new' middle class will approach education differently. 

First, the 'emergence' of the new Middle Classes in countries like India has not happened 'organically' like the one in Britain, where economic expansion led to expansion in education and emergence of what we would now call 'Professional Society'; the new middle classes emerged within the space of a generation, more in consequence of financial globalisation rather in any domestic factor. In many ways, this emergence was 'easy' - it did not need the long struggles for a place in the sun - and quick - it is a first generation thing in most cases. Education may be seen as a catalyst for doing well in life in another circumstance, but in India (and in similar countries), many people will think this is due to astrological reasons with some justification. [No doubt, astrologers have done very well]

Second, this 'emergence' happened with the backdrop of the global change in the nature of knowledge and expertise. The emerging middle classes are somewhat contemporaneous with Google, and can believe, with some justification, that the world's knowledge is available to anyone in one click. The consideration that one needs to have a prepared mind to access this knowledge is a moot, rather academic and completely avoidable point: Most people in India embraced the 'post-professional' credo rather than looking to develop 'expertise'.

Third, it did help that India hasn't yet shed its colonial heritage, and being able to speak in English is still the most valuable expertise an Indian could have. As the Infosys founder Narayana Murthy said in an interview, "In India, Articulation trumps Accomplishment." The dominant position of English in Indian culture, and the existence of the five-star 'economy-within-an-economy' in India where English language (and custom, manners, dresses and cultural preferences) gets one through the door, meant that all other 'skills' could be assigned an inferior position. In practical terms, a good 'English Medium' school education may be just enough for many people, as they could talk for a living.

In short, the meritocratic argument that the traditional middle classes used to stake their claim on social prestige isn't one for the new middle classes in India: The new argument, consistent with the global phenomena of the changes in the nature of knowledge and expertise, is that success is luck, being in the right network and being able to speak well, which fit the existing Indian framework of relationships and recognition. If anyone wonders why there is not more demand for good education in India, despite the vast expansion of the middle classes (more than 100 million added to its ranks already), this should serve as an explanation: The emerging middle classes are looking for quick and easy ways to get credentials, rather than demanding education. This is indeed a global phenomenon, as underlined in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's groundbreaking study of 'Academically Adrift' students. The Indian Education has reached the 'Academically Adrift' phase straight on.

There are different conclusions to be drawn from this, but the key one is this: As someone put this to me recently, Education markets in India is often a romantic idea. That picture that one sees of emerging middle classes lapping up a good education offering because they had no good domestic alternative, does not happen. The Indian institutions know well how to attract this segment, and build shiny shopfronts and good promises at low price. Indeed, the demand is maturing and within a generation, good private universities are coming up in India. But the multiplier effect the International Officers at various universities talk about (and their Indian counterparts sell to them) isn't going to happen. Like any other market, one needs an India strategy, and this needs to be based on something other than just the magic of the emergence of a new middle class.
 
 
 



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