Monday, July 04, 2016

Shaping Indian Education in the Age of 'De-Globalisation'

It is important to recognise that the form and the vector of globalisation is changing. The expression 'deglobalisation' is in vogue, and provides a handy framework to explain outlier events such as the Brexit, rise of Trump and the ascendance of various politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. One way to look at it is compare it with the inflection of 1914, when, after half a century of expansion of global trade and movement of people, globalisation came to a sudden halt and went into a long decline, with the Great War, collapse of the Gold Standard and the general breakdown of the global system. This is the idea that underpin the idea of 'de-globalisation', and many claim that what we see is the beginning of a long process, one that would end in separate countries pursuing policies aimed at national prosperity rather than global connectivity and commerce.

However, this view, and the coining of the expression, betray a kind of historical determinism that we have known to be false, as well as a view centred on the West, which we should have left behind many years ago. The trajectory in the emerging countries is not towards less globalisation, but more. Countries such as China and India, which reaped huge benefits by being integrated to the global value chain, do not want its demise. Besides, the global monetary system, as it exists right now, has effectively created an unrestrained global flow of capital. Britain may have voted for Brexit, but it is still very much welcoming to the citizens of the developing world who stash their wealth in British Real Estate, even if that makes housing unaffordable for its own people. Americans may choose Trump, but even in his infitite wisdom, he would want the rest of the world to keep buying American bonds. And, even if we look at Culture and claim that there is a resurgence of national preferences, we know that there is, in equal measure, a convergence of consumer aspirations, a desire for global identities, tastes, brands and levels of service.

The point, therefore, is to acknowledge that while the shape of the global economy is changing, it is simply not going back in time. The 'de-globalisation' may indeed be experienced in some sectors - the offshore manufacturing may decline with the rise of AI and basic programming jobs may not be as plentiful - but we may not be going back to the closed national systems and autarkies, and global competition is here to stay. Here, we may be looking at a combination of open capital and consumer markets with shorter value chains and more on-demand production, something very unlike what we have seen since 1990s. Instead of history repeating itself, this is likely to be the start of a new historical trend - reversal of the global supply chain but a new world of opportunity for hearts and minds of the global consumer.

It is, in this context, one should think about education. The wave of globalisation of production influenced work and learning in its wake, particularly in countries like India, where the economic activities were transformed by the opportunities and massive influx of process-based and technical jobs. This changed everything, including a shift of perspective from the 90s, when the growing population was seen as a burden, to the talk of 'demographic dividend', population as strength. The new jobs shaped a mass Higher Education system designed for it, crowding out the alternative possibilities and pathways. Despite its pecularities, underfunding and inefficient regulation, the Indian Education system has served its Offshoring industry well, supplying it with thousands of workers uniquely minded to do the routine jobs. That massive infrastructure, with the inflection of globalisation, is suddenly now exposed - it does indeed feel like 'de-globalisation' as jobs are drying up out there - and a new approach is urgently needed to create an education system fit for the emergent new world of jobs.

Surely, thinking in education often changes slowly. In India, despite the close linkage between the expansion of technical jobs and expansion of Engineering seats, the Education sector is not particularly exposed to the labour market trends. One major reason for this is the long tradition of teaching for process jobs in Indian Education: The Education system introduced by the British Raj in the mid-Nineteenth century was meant to create the clerks who will do the grunt work of the empire, a tradition that successfully continued over many generations. This Victorian origin, and the technocratic emphasis that came with the Independence, built a system focused on processes, tasked to prepare students for jobs, but not to sync with changing labour markets and the universe of realtionship-based jobs. And, as the reality knocks, the instinctive reaction is a flight to the past, conversations about facile changes from teaching in English to teaching in vernacular, more skills such as presentation, more technical education - metaphorically, a massive sprucing up of the decks of the Titanic just when the bottoms are falling off!

Depending on which set of figures one believes in, 50% to 70% of the jobs in India, created by the new globalised economy, are at risk. The new Government, elected with the mandate of bringing global manufacturing into India, is a prisoner of its pledge: Its slick marketing of 'Make in India' is out of step with global shifts, and hence, 'de-globalisation', for them, is a handy and vaible political excuse. In any case, with 69,000 people reaching the age of 25 every day, this is a potent destabilising factor, and such pressures should, at least in some quarters of the education community, trigger a rethink.

From that more pragmatic corner, the challenges seem huge but not insurmountable, and not unlike the ones other nations face. Globalisation is shifting from one of production lines to one of consumer aspirations, and next generation of Indian students should learn to win the hearts and minds of the global consumer, including their own. It is now about entrepreneurship, imagination, creativity, realtionships - of bold aspirations to reshape the world rather than merely knowing one's place in it and profiting from it. The starting point in this path is aspiration, one that transforms the mediocre 'Make in India' slogan to a "Made In India' vision, as such globally competitive aspirations will soon be the only game in town.

Unfortunately, much of the recent thinking in Indian Education focuses simply on doing more technology and more skills, being hopelessly caught in the paradigm of the world of 'knowledge workers'. The shift to the world of 'relationship workers', of entrepreneurs and innovators, demand a renewal of basic sciences, greater emphasis on research in all disciplines, greater cultural and social awareness and a reformed technical education system making it wholesome and involved with life.

In all this, the central point will be a timely recognition that the global system is changing, but there is no running away from globalisation. The incidents of last few days, Brexit, attacks in Dhaka and Istanbul (even if one considers Baghdad as a part of an ongoing battle), are not signs of a roll-back of globalisation, but its transformed nature - and indeed, the urgency of being global, because the negative forces will be! The legacy of Victorian Education that underpin education systems, particularly in countries like India, needs a root-and-branch rethink, not because globalisation is over but because it has now matured and stopped being an automatic job-generator. However, in this brave new world, the idea that the educated would inherit the earth still holds; it is only more true now.


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