The commodification of education in India

Although many people believe Indian institutions of higher education are some of the best in the world, university rankings from independent university ranking organisations such as The Times Higher Education (THE), Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and Shanghai Ranking place Indian universities in much lower ranks than expected. As a result, for those students who can afford a foreign higher education, studying abroad becomes an increasingly attractive proposition.

Questions arise: Can this brain drain be reversed? Can Indian institutes of higher education take up the challenge to improve their standards and rise above the mediocrity that dogs its very essence? And most significantly, where would they start?

In an excellent article on the state of universities and higher education in India, titled Learning and intensity: the crisis of intellectual engagement in higher education, in The Telegraph newspaper from Kolkata, India, dated 4 September 2015, Prabhat Patnaik, Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, brings to surface one such essential element of Indian institutes of higher education. He says,

“There has been much lamentation in the country of late over the fact that no institution of higher learning figures in the list of top 100 prepared by The Times Higher Educational Supplement. But this is not the real problem, which consists rather, as already mentioned, in the absence of any intensity of intellectual engagement in Indian institutions of higher education.”

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

Later in the article, Professor Patnaik describes an obvious impediment in Indian higher education which fuels this mediocrity that dogs Indian higher education. He writes,

“The university now is seen increasingly as an extension of the higher secondary level where students are expected to learn, assiduously no doubt, the material available in some text-book, and regurgitate it as competently as possible in the examination hall. The emphasis is not on questioning, contesting, thinking for oneself, and thinking creatively, but rather on excelling in mastery over a “package”, which allegedly constitutes “knowledge”.”

Professor Patnaik goes even farther to address the ‘commodification of education in India’ with these words:

“The commodification of education presupposes the commodification of the products of education – that is, of those “buying” education; and, for them, education becomes a mere input that should aim to give them command over the largest possible sum of money. The proliferation of private profit-making universities on the one hand (which invariably claim, illicitly, that they are not profit-making because their profits are being ploughed back into the institution). And of students, on the other, who see education entirely as a means of commanding a larger income, are the twin features of a world where education is getting commodified – and this ethos affects public universities as well.”

[Citation: Learning and intensity: the crisis of intellectual engagement in higher education, Prabhat Patnaik , The Telegraph, Kolkata, India, 4 September 2015.]

India’s expectant economic turnaround

An economic recession is bad news. A long-ish recession such as the one we’re experiencing now is far worse as feelings of uncertainty creep into our minds as the days go by. We look up to our government for a solution, but the best we find is a toss-up between growth and inflation, a hype over GDP, and promises of job creation.

In free markets like ours, entrepreneurship helps; but that too has to be funded for sustainability and growth. Banks can loan money only when the money supply is fluid and their ROIs are met. Consumers can spend only when they have money saved. And, printing more money (which is a government intervention) may only add to the inflation.

The question is, what can the government do to drive economic growth (which, in India, is happily hovering around 9% – way ahead of most other economies globally) and create wealth for everyone to enjoy?

In the illusion of boosting GDP, what the government in India seems to be doing is re-distributing existing wealth to the already-rich and the politically-favoured. The middle-class is experiencing some benefits, but the poor in India still can’t make a decent living. The existing economic divide seems to be widening further.

This has been true for India since her Independence, in spite of adopting a socialistic form of government. Although India has been Independent for close to 70 years now, she has failed to sustain her investment in developing the manufacturing sector, choosing instead to build the IT sector from the early eighties.

Manufacturing seems to be in focus now under the Narendra Modi government, but benefits may not accrue for another 10 or even 20 years. The Western World and a few Asian countries like Japan, China and South Korea which had invested in both manufacturing and IT for many years now seem to be on the brink of an economic collapse.

So, who can tell which strategy will work? Yes, innovation and entrepreneurship are important for India, and India may follow USA’s footsteps in building a significant economy from startups. But the venture capital available in the market today is not yet a significant portion of the total capital needed for India’s economic turnaround.

State of the Future 2015-16

“Another 2.3 billion people are expected to be added to the planet in just 35 years. By 2050, new systems for food, water, energy, education, health, economics, and global governance will be needed to prevent massive and complex human and environmental disasters.”
– quote from 2015-16 State of the Future Executive Summary | The Millennium Project

The Millennium Project, a global participatory think tank, is known for its research into the challenges that lie in our future, and offer strategies and solutions to reach a better future of all of us. Based in Washington, DC, USA, the non-profit organisation seeks participation from futurists, academics, policy makers, governments, NGOs, corporations, among others, to understand the state of our world and identify ways and means to improve it. The Millennium Project publishes various research reports from time to time, of which 2015-16 State of the Future is a recent publication.

The 300-page 2015-16 State of the Future report is a meticulously researched work by Jerome C. Glenn, Elizabeth Florescu and The Millennium Project Team, and is available for purchase from The Millennium Project website. An 11-page Executive Summary (PDF) is available as a free download and provides a compact understanding of what the main report contains. It lists 15 Global Challenges which we need to take cognition of immediately. Here are a few excerpts from the Executive Summary of 2015-16 State of the Future report which are worth contemplating upon:

“Concentration of wealth is increasing. Income gaps are widening. Jobless economic growth seems the new norm. Return on investment in capital and technology is usually better than labor. Future technologies can replace much of human labor. Long-term structural unemployment is a business-as-usual forecast.” 

“The global economy is expected to grow about 3.5% during 2015, while the population of 7.3 billion is growing at 1.14%; hence, the world average per capita income growth is 2.36%. This is still about half the per capita annual income growth prior to the global financial crisis and world recession.” 

“To prevent the possibility of quantum computing with artificial intelligence and sensor networks growing beyond human control, we have to design human-friendly control systems and ways to merge wisely with future technology while living simultaneously in cyber-worlds and physical “reality.”” 

“The Millennium Project has identified and has been updating the following 15 Global Challenges. They can be used both as a framework to understand global change and as an agenda to improve the future: 

  1. How can sustainable development be achieved for all while addressing global climate change? The IPCC reports that each decade of the past three was consecutively warmer and that the past 30 years was probably the warmest period in the northern hemisphere over the last 1,400 years. Even if all CO2 emissions are stopped, most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries. Hence, the world has to take adaptation far more seriously. 
  1. How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict? An additional 2.3 billion people received access to safe drinking water since 1990— an extraordinary achievement—but this still leaves 748 million without this access. Water tables are falling on all continents, and nearly half of humanity gets its water from sources controlled by two or more countries. 
  1. How can population growth and resources be brought into balance? The current world population is 7.3 billion. It is expected to grow by another 1 billion in just 12 years and by 2.3 billion in 35 years. To keep up with population and economic growth, food production should increase by 70% by 2050. 
  1. How can genuine democracy emerge from authoritarian regimes? A global consciousness and more-democratic social and political structures are developing in response to increasing interdependencies, the changing nature of power, and the need to collectively address major planetary existential challenges. Meantime, world political and civil liberties deteriorated for the ninth consecutive year in 2014 (61 countries declined; 33 countries improved). 
  1. How can decision-making be enhanced by integrating improved global foresight during unprecedented accelerating change? Decision-makers are rarely trained in foresight and decision-making, even though decision support and foresight systems are constantly improving—e.g., Big Data analytics, simulations, collective intelligence systems, indexes, and e-governance participatory systems. 
  1. How can the global convergence of information and communications technologies work for everyone? The race is on to complete the global nervous system of civilization and make supercomputing power and artificial intelligence available to everyone. How well governments develop and coordinate Internet security regulations will determine the future of cyberspace, according to Microsoft. 
  1. How can ethical market economies be encouraged to help reduce the gap between rich and poor? Extreme poverty in the developing world fell from 51% in 1981 to 17% in 2011, but the income gaps between the rich and poor continue to expand rapidly. In 2014, the wealth of 80 billionaires equaled the total wealth of the bottom 50% of humanity, and Oxfam estimates that if current trends continue, by 2016 the richest 1% of the people will have more than all the rest of the world together. 
  1. How can the threat of new and reemerging diseases and immune microorganisms be reduced? The health of humanity continues to improve; life expectancy at birth increased globally from 67 years in 2010 to 71 years in 2014. However, WHO verified more than 1,100 epidemic events over the past five years, and antimicrobial resistance, malnutrition, and obesity continue to rise. 
  1. How can education and learning make humanity more intelligent, knowledgeable, and wise enough to address its global challenges? Much of the world’s knowledge is available—either directly or through intermediaries—to the majority of humanity today. Google and Wikipedia are helping to make the phrase “I don’t know” obsolete. 
  1. How can shared values and new security strategies reduce ethnic conflicts, terrorism, and the use of weapons of mass destruction? The vast majority of the world is living in peace, and transborder wars are increasingly rare. Yet half the world is potentially unstable, intrastate conflicts are increasing, and almost 1% of the population (some 73 million people) are refugees or IDPs. The diplomatic, foreign policy, military, and legal systems to address the new asymmetrical threats have yet to be established. 
  1. How can the changing status of women help improve the human condition? Empowerment of women has been one of the strongest drivers of social evolution over the past century and is acknowledged as essential for addressing all the global challenges facing humanity. The percent of women in parliaments doubled over the last 20 years from 11% to 22%. However, violence against women is the largest war today—as measured by deaths and casualties per year—and obsolete patriarchal structures persist around the world. 
  1. How can transnational organized crime networks be stopped from becoming more powerful and sophisticated global enterprises? Transnational organized crime is estimated to get twice as much income as all military budgets combined per year. Distinctions among organized crime, insurgency, and terrorism have begun to blur, giving new markets for organized crime and increasing threats to democracies, development, and security. 
  1. How can growing energy demands be met safely and efficiently? Solar and wind energy systems are now competitive with fossil fuel sources. Fossil fuels receive $5.3 trillion in subsidies per year compared to $0.12 trillion for renewable energy sources, according to the IMF. Energy companies are racing to make enough safe energy by 2050 for an additional 3.5 billion people (1.3 billion who do not have access now, plus the additional 2.3 billion population growth). 
  1. How can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition? Computational chemistry, computational biology, and computational physics are changing the nature and speed of new scientific insights and technological applications. Future synergies among synthetic biology, 3D and 4D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, atomically precise fabrication and other forms of nanotechnology, tele-everything, drones, falling costs of renewable energy systems, augmented reality, and collective intelligence systems will make the last 25 years seem slow compared with the volume of change over the next 25 years. 
  1. How can ethical considerations become more routinely incorporated into global decisions? Although short-term economic “me-first” attitudes are prevalent throughout the world, love for humanity and global consciousness are also evident in the norms expressed in the many international treaties, UN organizations, international philanthropy, the Olympic spirit, inter-religious dialogues, refugee relief, development programs for poorer nations, Doctors Without Borders, and international journalism.” 

“We should care about the whole world because the whole world will affect us—from new forms of terrorism and artificial intelligence to climate change and financial ethics. The State of the Future is offered to help us better understand the whole world of potential changes.”

[Citation: 2015-16 State of the Future report, Jerome C. Glenn, Elizabeth Florescu and The Millennium Project Team, The Millennium Project, August 2015.]

Twitter trouble

When Dick Costolo decided to step down as Twitter’s CEO, there was a flutter in the industry as to what Twitter would do now. And, more precisely, who would be Twitter’s next CEO?

According to a news report by TechCrunch two weeks ago when Evan Williams, Twitter’s Co-Founder and now on Twitter’s Board (and also Co-Founder and CEO of Medium), was interviewed on Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference about this very question, he had replied, “An exceptional leader…who can make things happen.”

When probed further, Mr Williams had said that the CEO’s role would be more to do with strategy than with product or revenue: “The challenge is deciding what to focus on and aligning the organization toward that purpose.” It would be, he had said, to get the best out of Twitter as a platform.

Soon after, it was announced that Jack Dorsey, who is Co-Founder and Chairman of Twitter (and also Co-Founder and CEO of Square) is going to be the Interim CEO till a suitable candidate is found.

CEO changes are never a good sign for a company. It means the company is in trouble. Unless financial and legal irregularities are involved, or there are sexual allegations against the CEO, a change in CEO usually means the company is not growing. It means the company is taking a hit on its revenue.

It may also mean the company is not evolving. Which is usually a product or practice or purpose related issue. Or, the company is not in touch with its consumers and the marketplace. Perhaps, it’s a combination of all of these issues, including revenue. Strategy is integral to all of these situations and, yes, the right CEO can make all the difference.

[Citation: Ev Williams: Twitter Should Be A Platform Company, Connie Loizos, TechCrunch, July 14, 2015.]

Manoj Mitra: two Bengali plays

In the editorial of Journal of Bengali Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring Issue dated 27 March 2013, which focuses on Bengali Theatre: Bengalis and Theatre, the editors write,

“Theatre in Bengal was a part of the country lifestyle and the rural folk culture taking the form of Jatra, Pachali, Kabigaan, Tarjaa, Akhrai etc. With the advent of British rule in India, theatre got confined inside the auditorium in a true European blackbox style. However, it was only after the initiative of Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev that Bengali theatre got an entry into it. Since then, the mainstream force of Bengali theatre has been, working in European proscenium style. There have been occasional exceptions where people have experimented with text and form, but by and large, through ups & downs and several metamorphosis, Bengali theatre has been able to carve a niche for itself, as a medium of education and entertainment, specially among the elite and middle class educated Bengalis.”

I’ve seen many Bengali plays when I lived in Kolkata, but I realise I know very little about Bengali theatre. Therefore, the editorial excerpt cited above (which I found on the internet) gave me a quick pointer in the right direction, though I must acknowledge I had not heard of Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev’s name before. Now living in Mumbai, with zero involvement in local Bengali communities, the chances of catching up on Bengali plays is remote. So, it was with much pleasure that I found an old copy of two of Manoj Mitra’s plays in English (published by Seagull Books): Banchharam’s Orchard (translated by Sangeeta and Ranjan Ghosal) and An Encounter With Royalty (translated by Ranjan Ghosal).

Manoj Mitra is an eminent Bengali playwright, actor and director, having written a hundred plays (as far as I know) and performed on stage with them thousands of times, mostly with his own theatre unit called Sundaram. He and his plays are loved by Bengalis of several generations and are popular “among the elite and middle class educated Bengalis.” Mr Mitra has also acted in films for some of Bengal’s and India’s famous film directors like Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha, Basu Chatterji and others, and on television, and won the Sangeet Natak Academy Award and the Asiatic Society Gold Medal for contribution to dramatic literature. A most distinguished career indeed.

The theme that runs through both Banchharam’s Orchard and An Encounter With Royalty is death – or, more correctly, cheating death. Banchharam’s Orchard (Sajano Bagan), first performed in 1977 and made into a very popular film by Tapan Sinha titled Banchharamer Bagan, is the story of a poor old and ailing farmer, Banchharam, who owns an orchard which many people have their eyes on. They wait for old Banchharam to die so they can stake their claim on it but, by God’s blessing, Banchharam simply refuses to do so. No amount of cajoling or trickery seems to work and Banchharam finally outlives his detractors to retain his beloved orchard.

An Encounter With Royalty (Rajdarshan), first performed in 1982, is the story of a selfish angry old beggar Brahmin called Lambodar who wishes to get rich quickly by accepting a handout from the king’s treasury which the ailing king is expected to donate to the Brahmin who can diagnose the king’s illness on an auspicious day. Unable to travel to the king’s palace by himself, Lambodar bullies and persuades a simple village blacksmith, Abhiram, to carry him there. When the king dies unexpectedly, Lambodar prays to God and receives a boon by which he dies and his spirit enters the dead king’s body.

The dead king comes to life much to everyone’s astonishment, and Lambodar as the resurrected king, plans to steal his share of the wealth from the treasury. Not only is he unsuccessful in this caper but, by a change in circumstances, he sets off a flood, a war and the wrath of an old hunchbacked palace maid who kills him. Thus, Lambodar’s spirit returns to his own body back in the village where Abhiram, out of loyalty, had been waiting for him with the dead body. With Abhiram’s urging, Lambodar comes to his senses, realises his folly, and decides to follow a path of honesty.

Both plays are comedies, centred on old men and village life, but with diverse storylines. In Banchharam’s Orchard, the old man shuns greed and chooses to live simply in the face of death, accepting whatever he has got. In An Encounter With Royalty, the old man, swayed by greed, enters a make-believe life, and then, upon facing death, realises his folly and returns to a simple life accepting what is truly his. This simplicity of storytelling involving simple characters from villages is one of Manoj Mitra’s greatest qualities as a playwright. He has been able to enchant the Bengali theatre-going audience with this philosophy for decades.

[Citation: 1. Journal of Bengali Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring Issue dated 27 March 2013, Bengali Theatre: Bengalis and Theatre, Issue Editor: Sourav Gupta, Asst Issue Editor: Rishi Ghosh, Editor: Tamal Dasgupta, Asst Editor: Mousumi Biswas Dasgupta. 2. Banchharam’s Orchard and An Encounter With Royalty, plays by Manoj Mitra, Seagull Books.]