Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"Proper" English & Reservations-of-a-Different-Kind

    A couple of years back, an alumnus who had graduated more than 30 years back from the B-School where I teach, had shared a personal episode with me. After joining the institute, within first term he realised that he could not cope up with the place. This was not so much because of the academic pressures, but because all teaching was done in English, and he was not at all conversant in the language.

    Deciding to call it quits, he went to the then dean, and told him about his decision. "But you can't leave just because you don't know English!!", the jesuit priest told him... and then spent next six months, daily two hours, teaching him English!

    When I met him, he had already worked with some of the leading Indian and foreign corporates for a couple of decades, had raised a family of very mature children (I met them), had decided to branch out on his own, and was operating his business.

Why did I recall this incident today?
    ...Today, I chanced upon a report (tip: Uma's blog) about Garima, the 16-year old daughter of a Delhi police constable, who had topped her class X (in the government-aided DAV Dwarka) by securing 97.6% marks in the CBSE exams - and a perfect 100 in science. Belonging to one of the Delhi villages, when she applied to DPS Dwarka (New Delhi), she was not selcted.

    According to the school principal: "This year, we had around 200 applications for 28 seats. In the admission process, the Board exam score is not ignored, neither is it the only criteria. We take in students on relative merit, on the basis of an entrance test, an interview, and the board exam marks."

    Garima ranked 12th out of 80 students selected in the written test, and made it to the interview, where she failed to make the grades. DPS' explanation for rejecting her was: "The CBSE marks don't mean anything to us. We have certain criteria about the kind of children we want. She wasn't able to speak English properly and that was also a problem."

    There were 9 other girls who got selected, though they had less marks in CBSE than Garima, but fitted the "kind of children" the school wanted.

    Garima was lucky, since she got noticed by the media and appeared on NDTV debate. Barkha Dutt wrote about her: "...there was nothing about her spoken English that suggested that she would have been unable to keep pace with the syllabus. Yes, she spoke with a regional accent that some would consider insufficiently sophisticated. But there was no doubt that she could not only follow a complex argument, she could also make herself understood to any English speaker."

I think, and hope, that Garima's case is not generalisable across all schools and all people. There are some heart-warming exceptions too. For instance, there was this touching article on Sudama's Children in the recent issue of The Outlook, which featured the Delhi schools and childen from less-privileged backgounds who studied there... about their challenges and the support they got from their peers and school.

Neverthless, Garima's case does open up three issues to think about...

1. The Purpose of Our Elite Educational Institutions
Whether DPS - or IITs, NITs, IIMs, XLRI, etc. - the entry to all such institutions is based on criteria that select the "educatable" students. These are the one who meet the criteria - good "background", the "profile", "communication skills" (in "proper" English) - that will help them to do well at the exit stage (e.g., cracking the IIT, B-school entrance test, getting a "good" job, etc.). This 'exit performance', in turn, increases the equity and ranking of the institution, and will attract more of such people to the educational institution.

Needless to say, such institutions do add value by polishing the latent aptitudes of the students.

But do they really create value which contributes to society?...

...or to paraphrase Justice Chinnappa Reddy 1985 SC judgement:

  • is it greater value to sharpen the aptitude of "the children of the upper-classes who go to St. Paul's High School and St. Stephen's College, and who have perhaps been specially coached for the examination may secure 70, 80 or even 90 per cent of the marks"

  • or does one create new value by bringing those chidren into the mainstream of the society, who have "no books and magazines to read at home, no radio to listen, no TV to watch, no one to help him with his homework, whose parents are either illiterate or so ignorant and ill informed that he cannot even hope to seek their advice on any matter of importance."

    [Barkha Dutt's article - The English Divide - articulates the other two issues much better, and so, I will take the liberty of quoting from her]

    2. The "Meaning" of Merit in Our Society?
    "Garima’s story is a metaphor for India’s twisted tryst with the future... For some months now, as the debate over reservation has raged, opponents of the quotas have made the same point again and again: we should be a society where merit matters. It’s a compelling argument... But what do the anti-quota street fighters have to say now? Here’s a girl who competed in the mainstream, her own DAV pitched against the trendier, richer, big names. But her merit was swallowed up by prejudice.

    ...and all because her English accent was not sufficiently sophisticated!!!

    3. "English" as an Instrument of Social Divide?
    This is an important aspect of our social divide, since in India - inspite of its much touted "large English speaking population", there are barely 20-40mn (out of 1bn), who can actually read, write and speak English (of course, we have our own form of "Hinglish" with the road-side dhabas advertising that they serve "snakes" (snacks) with "child bear" ;0)...

    ...and there is an "elitism" about speaking "proper" English - even though, our English acquires its own regional peculiarities across the country.

    As Burkha Dutt, points out:

    "...Garima’s story exposes India’s paradoxical relationship with the English language. Nobody in the world speaks English like us. We have our own idioms, our own words and our own accents.

    We pretend to love our own English and brag about how it is India’s great selling point; the reason we dominate the global outsourcing business. But, of course, deep down we know that our English is not the English that the West really wants. And so, each time we talk to Britons or Americans, we subtly alter our diction and inflection. When we set up our call centres, we drop the subtlety entirely and start accent classes to teach our young people to abandon the speech patterns of our own society and to migrate to a virtual, linguistic, middle America, where they become impersonators of people they will never meet and never know.

    But within India, we still treat our own English as the great social decider. We laugh at regional accents, smirk at those who make grammatical errors and feel most at home with those who talk like us. Everyone else belongs on the other side of the English divide. And as it turns out, the other side of the class and caste divide as well."

  • Did you say merit?
  • DPS turns down CBSE topper
  • The English Divide
  • Sudama's Children
  • Schools shouldn't hold interviews after boards: CBSE chief

  • Saturday, June 24, 2006

    Ambanis, Azim Premji, My Domestic Help... and Me!

    This was the find of the day!... that the most affluents of the country, myself and even the old lady who helps out in the house actually belong to the same category - the rich of this country!!

    The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) classifies the income levels across 11 levels. While reading Satish Deshpande's Contemorary India, I came across this table in which he had reduced the 11 levels to 4 - below poverty line, not poor, "middle class", and "the rich".

    Image and video hosting by TinyPic

    As one can see, among those 7-8%, we all are the affluents of the country...

    ...and now, if you don't mind, please, I will go to my weekend party invitation... and celebrate my newly discovered affluent status by consuming equivalent to one month income of some others on this planet...

    Friday, June 23, 2006

    Modern Indian Economic Mythologies

    Perhaps, every generation/era has its own set of mythologies and urban legends, which are mutually reinforced by the metropolitan conversations among the elites who have a voice... They define the "good" and "evil" in binary (fairy tale?) terms, which are comforting for those/themselves who find the grey areas of real-life uncomfortable to deal with/live in.

    In our times, apparently, one of the myths is the huge economic utopia that the post-1991 liberalisation has created. With India's GDP sky-rocketing surpassing the erstwhile "Hindu Growth Rate" (notwithstanding the fact that GDP itself is a function of how it is calculated - another modern myth!), there are two myths that appeal to those who have "seceded from the society"

    Myth 1: Liberalisation of Indian economy has unleashed a boom in employment opportunities

    Unfortunately, the reality bites, and the figures do not match with the assumptions. The following figures are from the Planning Commission's database.

    Image and video hosting by TinyPic

    According to Planning Commision, the employment rate fell down from 2.7% in the pre-liberalisation era to less than 1% post-1991

    Myth 2: Pre-91/"liberalisation", Indian industrial/social infrastructure did not develop due to the anti-industrial policies of the "socialist economy".

    Once again, the reality does not match the beliefs.

    Image and video hosting by TinyPic

    Image and video hosting by TinyPic

    Facts notwithstanding, the modern Indian myths perpetuate among the urban elites... reinforced by media, urban elites and government...

    Sunday, June 04, 2006

    Meritocracy & the "Secession of the Successful"

    This is a continuation of my previous post about Manufacturing "Merit"...

    According to Wikipedia:
    "Meritocracy is a system of government based on rule by ability (merit) rather than by wealth, race or other determinants of social position.... Meritocratic governments and organizations stress talent, formal education, and competence, rather than existing differences such as social class, ethnicity, or sex. In practice, research on social mobility indicates that all these supposedly neutral criteria favour the children of those who are already privileged in some way."...

    The term "Meritocracy" was coined by a British sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 novel The Rise of Meritocracy. Ironically, Young had coined the term in a disparaging sense to describe an unstable society in which one's social place is determined one's IQ. In the novel, this social system led to wide disparities between the masses and the elites, who had become arrogant and disconnected from the public sphere... And ultimately, to social revolution in which the masses overthrew the elite

    Much later, the Harvard Professor, Richard Reich, coined the term "Secession of the Successful" in a 1991 New York Time article to describe how the elite "become arrogant and disconnected from the public sphere"

    In a recent HT article, Sagarika Ghose captured the meaning of "Secession of the Successful" quite graphically:

    "the ‘successful’ tend to ‘secede’ from society as they get richer and more successful. That is, those who are successful tend to retreat into a totally private world. They use private electricity. They attend private schools and colleges. They live in private colonies, manned by private security guards. They socialise at private clubs, use only private transport and thus they cease to have any stake at all in the ‘public realm’ or in the public world."

    Perhaps most insightful are these excerpts from Michael Young's 2001 The Guardian article about merit and meritocracy:

    "It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.

    Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.

    A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education's narrow band of values.

    With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams.... The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself."

    Friday, June 02, 2006

    Manufacturing "Merit"

    These days in India, when "merit" and "social justice" have become an either/or issue, there is some merit in having a relook at how "merit" is defined - and created/manufactured - in our society.

    Notwithstanding the criticism that the educational infrastructure did not grow in India since independence, the data gives an altogether different picture:

    According to another report, the total number of medical colleges in India also grew from 30 to around 250 with an intake of just about 20,000 (India has about 0.6mn registered doctors for a population of more than a billion people!)

    Inspite of such growth, however, two factors have impeded the positive impact of this growth in the educational infrastructure:

    1. The population has grown faster, and the demographic profile of the country has changed in favour of a very large young and vibrant generation (India is one of the youngest country, with a median age of less than 25: *please see the postscript)... Every year, close to 40lac (4mn) students pass out +2 from the Indian pre-degree educational schools/colleges.

    2. The quality of many professional institutes is much lacking. For instance, the more than 100 engineering colleges in Karnataka and 200+ in Tamil Nadu lack sufficient faculty and infrastructure, but demand exhorbitant fee. Similarly, of the close to 1,000 B-schools in the country, only around 50 are recognised by the AICTE, etc..

    ...And therefore, the demand for good-quality educational (and occupational) opportunities has fast out-stripped the available opportunities.

    For instance:

  • This year (2006), around 3lac (0.3mn) students appeared in IIT-JEE for about 6,000 seats in IITs, IIT-BHU and ISM-Dhanbad. The 18 NITs put together have just around 7,000 seats. (The irony is that, as the table above shows, while there are almost 3.5lac seats available in Indian engineering institutions, the aspirants' target is only for the quality institutes, which cannot accommodate all of them. Thus, while the success rate for entrance in IITs/NITs is less than 2%, in many engineering colleges, the seats remain vacant).

  • The situation is similar in the "second-rung" engineering colleges. In 2004, about 3.75lac (0.375mn) students appeared for AIEEE, competing for about 9,000 seats across 117 engineering colleges across the country.

  • Similarly, in 2005, around 1.5lac (0.15mn) candidates appeared for CAT for the 6 IIMs (about 3,000 seats), and around 70-odd other B-schools. Just a few years back, in 1998, this figure was 87,000.

  • Aspiring for the medical and dental colleges, in 2004, about 1.7lac (0.17mn) students appeared for CBSE's All India Pre-Medical Test, competing for just about 1,600 seats in the top medical colleges

  • About 7,000 students compete for the 80 seats across all its 9 centres of the National Law School, one of the premium 5-years courses in Law.

  • This year, for XAT (XLRI's admission test, which is accepted by 30 other b-schools), around 30,000 students (of the total 60k who appeared for the test) applied for the 180 seats in XLRI, etc., etc....

    In many ways, the working definition of "merit" in contemporay India is a function of this big supply-demand gap, where less than 2% aspirants to professional courses qualify to have "merit", i.e., get selected to their desired courses... and a mere difference of less than 0.01%ile in the admission test can change one's status from "merit" to "de-merit"

    And so, to win in this Darwinian landscape, an entirely new industry has taken shape during last decade or so, which specialises in "Manufacturing Merit"...

    ...the "Coaching Institutes":

    Some Snapshots
    (1bn =1 crore):

  • The Coaching Institute industry is dominated by around 50 firms. This is fast growing industry with an annual turnover estimates that vary from Rs.3,000bn-Rs.12,000bn. (as an offside, the fast-food industry in India has a turnover of only Rs.500bn :0)

  • Among the pioneers of this industry was the Bansal's Coaching Classes in Kota, Rajasthan, which started in 1983. Kota, currently, has around around 130 coaching institutes with an estimated combined turnover of Rs.250-400bn. The cost of 10 months coaching at Kota can vary between Rs.60,000 to Rs.175,000.The students come from all over India, and according to one report in 2003, Kota produced 2/3rd of the IIT entrants.

  • Kakadeo, Kanpur hosts 75 engineering, 20 medical and 15 business management coaching institutes within a two kilometre radius.

  • Chennai-based Brilliant Tutorials which provides coaching for 17 different exams to 60,000 students. According to this list, 730 of its students qualified in the IIT-JEE entrance test in 2005.

  • According to Delhi-based FIIT-JEE, 2047 of its students got selected in the IIT-JEE 2006 (that's for a total 7,000 seats!!!)

  • Mumbai-based IMS Learning Resources, which has 66 centers across the country, and coaches 40,000 students in several common entrance exams including CAT, eight state level MBA entrance exams, GRE, GMAT, etc.

  • Delhi-based Career Launcher has a presence in 51 cities across India and the Middle East and offers career oriented training and entrance exam preparatory education to over 35,000 students.

  • Chennai-based Triumphant Institute of Management Education Pvt. Ltd (TIME) has 90 centres in 59 cities, and claims that more than 1200 of its students got selected in the 6 IIMs through CAT-2004.

  • Chennai-based Aspire Learning Company prepares 40,000 students for the IIT-JEE, ICSE, CBSE, Tamil Nadu state board and matriculation exams in 42 centres across south India and boasts a gross annual revenue of Rs.16 crore.

    ...the list goes on: Professional Tutorials, Sachdeva New PT College, Rau's Study Cirle for IAS, Delhi-based Akash Institute, Trichur-based PC Thomas Classes, Sahil Study Circle, Chanakya IAS Academy, Ascent Education, etc. etc....

  • [Note: Obviously, one needs to apply a "correction factor" to the claims of numbers by the coaching institutes;0)... Nevertheless, there is no denying that they play a critical role in creating "merit" in the current system.]

    ...and How do the Coaching Institutes manufacture "Merit"?

    There is no doubt that they - at least the "good" ones - help polishing the potential/knowledge that the aspirant must already be possessing (in fact, a few coaching institutes have their own "entrance test" or criteria for admitting the candidates for coaching!)

    Compared to the broad generalised coverage of +2 and other courses, however, the coaching institutes are more focused to make the aspirant succeed in the entrance exam. This has to be so, since in our given system, one's "merit" (or lack of it) is determined by a one-shot, one-day-cricket-match kind of entrance exams. One single wrong answer or one single missed question can bar one's entry into the domain of merit.

    Therefore, besides other things, the Coaching institutes, also

  • maintain a database of the previous years' question papers,

  • analyse the trends of questions asked over years in the entrance exam, and prepare the candidates for the kind of questions that are likely to come that particular year,

  • since most entrance-exam papers have "negative marking" component, it is often more likely to score higher marks by not answering some questions than by answering them. The coaching institutes also guide the aspirants how to minimise risk of losing marks,

  • if the final admission involves interview and group discussion, the coaching institutes also prepare the candidate for these "skills" (e.g., improving one's "GK", how to introduce yourself, how to interact in a group, speak proper English, self-presentation, etc.).

  • in some isolated cases (like this one), the coaching institutes also help the candidate by procuring the "leaked" paper for the test... Etc.

    In fact, these latter contributions of coaching institutes are often their USP/differentiating feature.

    From a purely socio-historical point of view, the coaching institutes, in a very short period of time, have revolutionised two major changes in the societal texture of India:

    1. they have redefined and evangelised a new meaning of "merit", which is essentially based on the supply-demand gap of opportunities in the society, and

    2. they have successfully created a small but vocal new "social class" which owns the "merit" (and its definition) in the society.

    *Post-Script June 4th,'06: I stand corrected on this claim about India becoming a "young country" in the recent years. Please see Dilip D'Souza's informative posting contradicting this myth.