The Deep-Dark Story of Our Education – Part I

Some time back, I came across a thought provoking blog written by a colleague – a fun guy who occasionally writes controversial stuff, just like me. Unfortunately, he also belongs to the despicable profession of HR (runs for cover), and therefore he chose to decorate the blog with just enough jargon to force the use of Google Now on every third sentence.

Minus the complexity, the blog was an insightful piece about the importance of the ostensibly almighty “Premier B-School” tag. Just as I read it, a lot of interesting thoughts were doing the salsa in my head. I am a very keen, and oftentimes a critical observer of the ‘Premier B-School way of thought’. Critical, because I feel a bit victimized by the great game of the Indian ‘Ivy-League’, as my colleague calls it; keen, because I feel there is some strange catharsis awaiting my troubled psyche at the end of all this observation. And thus, as soon as I was back home after a 12 hour session of screen-staring at work, I was in front of the screen again.

In the October of 2014, an entrepreneurial dude named Adhitya Iyer, made history when his book, The Great Indian Obsession: The Untold Story of India’s Engineers became the highest crowd-funded book in India and the 6th highest in Asia. The book is now available on Amazon, and has a fancy ‘book-trailer’ for itself. It tells what I am sure, is a heart-breaking story. I haven’t read the book, but anyone can guess what it talks about – “India churns out more engineers every year than the US and China combined”.

What follows is best described as a story.

‘Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands the fine monument of India…’

At the end of the second world-war, a Parsi gentleman, Sir Ardeshir Dalal, Knight Commander of the Indian Empire, a businessman closely associated with the Tata Group and a part of the Viceroy’s Executive Council suggested that the “growth of India depends on our ability to capitalize on industrial technology in this post-war era”.

I do not know exactly how this idea was taken. But it seems to me that this was like a situation where a movie star practices his Academy Award acceptance speech while sitting on the set of his first movie. Because while the people I have mentioned above were looking at a possible future for India, this was what the ‘present’ of the 1950 Indian economy looked like:

GDPCont

That tiny black slab of only 14% is the amount by which Industrial Output was contributing to the GDP. It might very well be the point of view of visionaries and prominent industrialists that the future of India lies in the Industrial sector (it did not, to be honest), but an educationist, who is able to perceive the real-time day-to-day effect of the above pie-chart might have found this hard to believe. One also needs to note that while India had visionaries leading such educational initiatives, our ideologies weren’t even remotely close to the principles of capitalism. Jawaharlal Nehru – the original master politician and alpha-male of the UPA dynasty – is famously considered to believe that ‘Profit was a dirty word’. The Indian model was Democratic Socialism, focused more on developing capacity for distributive and self-sustenance reasons than on supporting the meteoric rise of industries through technology. The fact that we were predominantly agrarian, and that agriculture at the time was highly labour intensive seemed to preclude the necessity of great technical education in favour of developing a skilled agricultural workforce.

Nevertheless, Nehru was big on education, and the atmosphere in the concerned departments of the education ministry must have been all cheery, optimistic and motivated. Mr. Dalal’s idea was welcomed and acted upon by setting up a 22-member committee, headed by Nalini Ranjan Sarkar – another popular businessman who had dabbled in Politics and eventually served as the Finance Minister of West Bengal. After four long years of work by the Sarkar committee and members of the education ministry, the first IIT was established at the site of the Hijli detention camp in Kharagpur, in 1951. Nehru gave the inaugural address for the IIT, where he famously called the institute a ‘fine monument of India’.

Following this, four more IITs were set up – at Bombay in 1958, at Kanpur in 1959, and at Madras, in 1959. In 1961, the Delhi Technical University was conferred IIT status. These were the original IITs.

The Efforts Slow Down

There were a lot of things which suggested that IITs didn’t come through without resistance. For example, there was a lot of backroom gossip and criticism against setting up the first-ever IIT in Kharagpur. People didn’t like the location – it was a long way away from many industrially prosperous parts of the country, and quite inaccessible to the smarty-pants living in southern or western parts of the country. The three new IITs in Bombay (west), Madras (south), and Kanpur (North), were in fact, put in place to scatter the presence of IITs across the nation and make them more accessible.

More notably however, after the conferral of IIT status to the DTU (thus creating IIT-Delhi), this IIT drive sort of died out for almost three decades. There were some efforts towards developing Regional Engineering Colleges in collaboration with the state governments (these later came to be known as the NITs). Unfortunately, even the RECs saw what could best be termed as an initial slew of efforts between 1959-1965, where fourteen RECs were set up in different locations, following which, things came to a grinding halt in the second half of the sixties. Post some scattered efforts around 1967 (just three years after Nehru passed away), the government simply stopped setting up new colleges. We must keep this in mind, because this is critical. It seemed quite clear that the pressure exerted by the above pie chart was becoming too much to handle. The next IIT was set up in Guwahati in 1994, a long-delayed project which was ostensibly sanctioned by Rajiv Gandhi on a whim to satiate protesting Assamese students.

A roughly similar story was can be charted out for management institutes. Even though the amount of industrial contribution to Indian GDP was not very high, it must be noted that Indian GDP itself was growing phenomenally in the 1950s. This was posing major challenges in managing the many public sector enterprises of the time.

Hilarious, but true, the original objective behind setting up the IIMs was to improve the recruitment pool for managerial positions in India’s public sector enterprises. Towards this end, the Planning Commission invited a professor from the University of California in 1959, and soon after in 1961, we were setting up the first two original IIMs – first in Calcutta and then in Ahmedabad. Similar to the case of the IITs, right after these two were set up, there was no activity on setting up management institutes for another decade until another IIM was set up in Bangalore. This was followed by a decade’s gap to set up one in Lucknow, and literally, so on…

In the worst example of its type there continues to be just one Medical Institute of national importance, AIIMS, Delhi, which was set up in 1956. The first amendment bill to clear newer AIIMS was passed in 2012. That is more than half-a-century of gap!

Even though I presented a picture which seemed to suggest a reduced focus on immediately setting up institutes of higher technical learning, the inertia which is visible in the above paragraphs, seems phenomenal. Because of three main reasons:

SectWise

  1. The sector-wise contribution to GDP was changing rapidly.Look at the above graph. It is mostly ugly but of particular interest are two points, wherever the red line intersects the blue or the green one. In 1975-76, the services sector crossed over, and started giving more to the Indian economy than the agriculture sector. In 1997-98, the industries sector crossed the agriculture sector. These turnarounds saw none to very little repercussion in the setting up of higher education institutes. As a sector, agriculture continued to suffer from the dearth of talent, and lost its importance, even as the other sectors which were overtaking it, saw little change happening in their right.
  2. India’s GDP itself, as I mentioned, was growing rapidly, despite individual contributions of each sector
  3. Something which was growing faster even than India’s GDP, was India’s population. Our demographic dividend of today, has its root in the years of 1980s-1990. While the private sector exploded in the higher education front, especially since the late 90s (thanks to the New Economic Policy which promoted Privatization), neither the government, nor the private sector had much to say about the times of our parents, when populations grew steadily but corresponding growth in higher education was much lower.

 

Sharma ji ka beta

So what was happening to an average student in the early years of the IITs? Well, he was privy to the existence of great educational institutes like the IITs, but totally unable to get into one. His primary education had been average, secondary education even more so, and by the time he was ripe for higher education, there were pressing concerns for earning money, which were pushing him towards vocational courses, and quicker, less technical degrees which could result in a better starting salary. A large part of his peer group was aimless, unaware of the importance of higher education, and blind to the necessity of having a developed career path.

On the other hand, the people selected by the IITs were the true cream of India. The peer group of our parents saw these people succeed like never before, and it set a benchmark in their minds, not just about IITs, but also about the field of engineering. This benchmark is the reason for the popular trope – Sharma ji ka beta – a popular joke in India today, which refers the enormous pressure of parental expectations, most popularly used in the context of engineering entrance tests and board exams.

To be fair to engineering, this was happening in a few other fields as well. There was medicine, the torch-bearer of labels when it came to education, there were also the civil services, primarily the Indian Administrative Services, which saw a mad craze among people who valued the concept of power and honour above monetary success. There was a mad scramble to acquire these labels – Engineering, and Medicine, Civil Services and Management. In short, the previous generation created a fictitious equation of success:

Success = <Insert Institute Name> + <Insert Field Name>

Actually, the equation for this conventional definition of success should have been something like:

Success = Excellent Education + Right Aptitude + Mad Effort + Blind Luck

Quite like the stereotypical raees khandan of a Bollywood movie, the previous generation disallowed the fateful marriage of Aptitude and Effort. As you can guess, this was less than ideal. Many of my peers (myself included) have grown up with one of two mind-sets:

  1. They would never attempt a true understanding of their aptitude, become aimless and choose the fancy career option with more material gains as the default setting, or,
  1. They would grow up conditioned to believe that career options with more material gains were the only challenges worth taking up.

I can admit with much shame that I belong to the first group.

This was very unfortunate. In my honest opinion, there is a lot of gas in the demographic dividend of India – it is an entire generation of children born to chase false ideals of fame, money and public appreciation. There is none to very little light thrown on the fundamentals of success. Shortcuts, quick-bucks, the predisposition to defy authority or the rules for short-term gains are all by-products of this faulty socio-cultural upbringing. I feel it all the time, and so do you. That urge to change lanes to drive just a little faster, the vapid ease with which wallets come out to pay law-enforcers, the weird sense of pride and accomplishment you feel if you jugaad your way out of a long queue – it all comes from chasing wrong ideals. For better or for worse, this is now a part of our culture.

But are these ‘material gains’ I have mentioned above truly as attractive as they seem? Is there even a back-of-the-envelope logic which describes this unbelievable affectation with these particular labels?

I explore these in parts two and three of the series, coming next week. Stay tuned!