They’re Having Fun at College. Are They Learning Anything?

nytimes college india.jpg

The Times has a piece on a familiar theme: lots of people are getting college educations in India that aren’t especially useful.

India was once divided chiefly by caste. Today, new criteria are creating a different divide: skills. Those with marketable skills are sought by a new economy of call centers and software houses; those without are ensnared in old, drudgelike jobs.

Unlike birthright, which determines caste, the skills in question are teachable: the ability to communicate crisply in clear English, to work with teams and deliver presentations, to use search engines like Google, to tear apart theories rather than memorize them. (link)

I know many readers will wince when the centrality of English is reinforced (especially by a western media outfit). And the idea that caste is now totally irrelevant seems far-fetched given the intensity of the current debate over reservations and the “creamy layer.” But Anand Giridharadas’s point isn’t so much the English language or the eradication of caste as methodology and ethos — and the fact that 17% of India’s college graduates are unemployed even as the top companies are desperate for talent. His examples of how to do it wrong are Hinduja College and Dahanukar College in Mumbai. In Giridharadas’s analysis, the problem at these colleges is the emphasis on things like obedience and punctuality, rote memorization, and the failure to inculcate the confidence amongst students to question authority.

It seems to me these are problems that could be fixed without overhauling the entire system. Leaving space for questions in a lecture is a start; guest-lecturers from industry might be another. If you agree with Girdharadas’s assessment of the problem, can you think of solutions that don’t involve waiting for the government to fix everything?

82 thoughts on “They’re Having Fun at College. Are They Learning Anything?

  1. That is due to the presumtuous attitude of a majority of Indians that if you don’t graduate from a IIT then you are probably stupid and weak. There is no room for proving yourself. That is the main reason why IITians are hired for management,financial,IT and every other field there is. While others are scratching their heads. And then the funny thing is the industry complains there are no people with “skills”. Yeah, of course not everyone can solve a complex physics problem. But if you are not given a chance to prove then what is the point. That is one more reason the US is better. All big tech companies hire you even if you don’t graduate from an ivy league or stanford or berkeley(not talking about investment banking). If you dont prove yourself then you are defenitely out. But Indian companies wont even give you a chance unless you can explain string theory.

  2. The job market for Indian college graduates is split sharply in two. With a robust handshake, a placeless accent and a confident walk, you can get a $300-a-month job with Citibank or Microsoft. With a limp handshake and a thick accent, you might peddle credit cards door to door for $2 a day.

    I am presuming they are referring to a lack of an ‘Indian accent’ and the placeless accent would be similarity to the ‘American accent’. Very interesting, indeed.

  3. There are better and worse colleges, and the better ones do have more interactive, creative classroom methods (I’m thinking of the better Delhi schools) but for the most part, instructors have neither the mandate nor the training to really teach well – one has to stick to a particular curriculum, and the students are only graded on exams, and you’d have half the class skipping lecture in that case even in “good” American schools. If even college-level instructors are not given any autonomy in selecting their teaching materials and syllabi, and paid about a tenth of what a recent MBA grad gets, with huge classes, what do you expect them to do? A lot of government money and tuition money goes to the fancier IITs and IIMs, while PhD programs that should be turning out the instructors of tomorrow are woefully underfunded.

    The culturalist explanation – rote memorization, discipline and so on – can only explain so much. It’s pretty remarkable what some schools, particularly the IIMs, D-School and JNU – have managed to do with the same “culture,” by giving their profs more leeway and more resources. The NYT article was lazily written and used easy stereotypes, IMO.

  4. Over the past five years, many of my 900 or so cousins in India have come to the U.S. for grad school/employment. The following is just an observation based on their experience, and may or may not be reflective of the recent immigrant community as a whole. It’s amazing to see, despite their level of education, how much adjustment it takes once they arrive here. Those that are in grad school aren’t used to merely spitting back lectures on exams and those that come for work aren’t used to a more free-form atmosphere where they are expected to be more than robots. Obviously, with their intelligence they adjust accordingly, but every one of them has voiced an opinion along these lines.

  5. I have to tell you that the article is true to a certain degree. I have been interviewed at Infosys for a different position and the HR guy did say to me that I was different from the usual list of candidates because I had an American education and skillset. When asked why this makes me better, he lamented the fact that the company got interviewees who are well-versed in concepts but lack the practical application skills. Lamenting this to an interview candidate like me seemed unprofessional but I saw what I went through when I was in India and in the USA and remembered why I liked the educational system in the States.

    Remember, the teachers that teach are schooled in the old way of teaching and reform should start with them. The companies should tie-up and offer internships to students when they are still at college so that they can communicate with other people and see different perspectives. Teachers can only do so much and so if students are not encouraged to explore outside, it seems that this cycle will continue.

    I remember an episode of ‘The West Wing’ where there was a reform needed in education and the idea floated was that people who graduated from college, get a scholarship to study if they agree to teach at college after graduation akin to the armed forces-education tie-up in the United States. Something like that could be a start.

  6. Even though I agree with most of your post, I feel that the title is loaded, the curriculum is not the students discretion and it is guided by University Grants Commission at the University level and to some level by NCERT at the school level. The problem may be lack of private investment in university level education, which I think you mentioned in one of your earlier posts.

  7. As someone who has studied in India and the US, this is a topic that rings many bells in my head. And while I agree that the education system in India needs reform, I doubt that Americanizing it is the answer. The Indian education system is dealing with a much higher number of students than the American system. Rather than simply giving students more time to ask questions, it may be necessary to cut down the classroom numbers by hiring more teachers. This would mean allocating more government funds for education. Some of my most productive hours as a student in India were the tutorial hours (modeled on the Oxbridge system of lectures in the university, tutorials in the college) where a small group (3-6) students met with individual lecturers. I was fortunate to belong to a university system that did this rigorously and had the resources to do it.

    As a student in the US, I particularly valued the ability to choose my own courses as opposed to having a whole class take the same exact set of courses. An Indian pedagogist with whom I discussed this ruefully commented that the educations systems mirrored the way way we eat – the Indian readymade thali versus the American cafeteria tray!

    But one thing I sorely missed in the US was meaningful, affectionate relationships with my teachers. Obviously my experience cannot be generalized, but I found that faculty membes at my school (in NY) were much less invested in students, especially and justifiably so if they were overworked, underpaid, adjunct faculty. On the other hand, I have warm memories of several teachers in Delhi, who were among the wisest, most scholarly people I know, and who always made time for those personal discussions and gestures that go beyond syllabuses and clasrooms. While qualification and performance standards for faculty may be lower in India as compared the US, perhaps it also saves the former from the Publish or Perish syndrome.

  8. I think the problem starts at the high school level (5- 10 standard), not the undergraduate level (Junior college, bachelor’s degree). High schools stress on rote memorization skills heavily. In fact, the students who score highest are the ones who are able to memorize the “guide book”. Teachers, often grade the examination results by comparing the answers with the answers in the guide book. Many students even memorize couple of pages long mathematical derivations.

    Since Junior college and Bachelor’s degree admissions are based on your marks at 10th grade and 12th grade, what we have is that the majority of students who enter the science and commerce streams(outside of IIT; IIT has entrance exams) are the ones who have excellent memorization skills. They do not have a superior understanding of math and scinece. Many times, students with good math and science skills have to enter the arts stream (because match and science count for less that 50% of your final score).

    Professors at the Junior and bachelor’s degree level are merely adapting their teaching techniques to what works best with their students. I have had professors who truly try to explain theory and fundamentals to their students. The students fail. There are professors who simply make the students memorize the answers to the questions that the professors will ask in the tests. The students pass. The college fires the professor that concentrates on theory and promotes the professor that concetrates on memorization. Simple economics. Students pay fess that makes the college run. If more students drop-out, the college loses money.

    I think if we want to improve the quality of Indian students, India has to start using entrance admissions test at the Junior and bachelor college levels. That will ensure that the students entering “Science” colleges have an aptitude for science and math. That will also work towards changing the culture of schools. Instead on using rote memorization to score as much as possible on the SSC tests, schools will start preparing their students to pass the entrance exams, and if entrance exams stress on understanding of theory, schools will have to start teaching that.

  9. I know many readers will wince when the centrality of English is reinforced (especially by a western media outfit)

    Any readers who wince at the reference to “the centrality of English” need a reality check. India’s experiment with non-English-medium education is over. No self-respecting member of the new Indian middle class will send his/her children to a non-English school. Heck, the new middle class probably wouldn’t have existed without English education. Disclosure: I did most of my schooling at a non-English school in India. There are very few things that can can cause a greater competitive disadvantage in today’s India.

  10. There is this common joke in India goes something like this. In hindi or any regional language. Sandaaswallah 1 (toilet cleaner) – The west is very advanced. They have everything. Sandaas 2 – Yes, yes. Look at us, elbows deep in someone else’s shit. I too want to own a bike/car/house. Sandaas1 – You know why they are so prosperous….cos in the West even the Sandaaswallahs know English. Sandaas 2 – Haaaiiiin.

    I don’t know where to begin. I am so angry reading that Times article. OK, breathe and try and articulate.

    “Unlike birthright, which determines caste, the skills in question are teachable: the ability to communicate crisply in clear English, to work with teams and deliver presentations, to use search engines like Google, to tear apart theories rather than memorize them.”

    I didn’t realize that searching on google was a difficult skill that had to be taught or mastered. I am glad the IITs get that right.

    “India is that rare country where it seems to get harder to find a job the more educated you are. In the 2001 census, college graduates had higher unemployment — 17 percent — than middle or high school graduates.”

    The above statement is so baseless and the sophistry is not very good. Middle or high school graduates find more “jobs” where they clean tables, work in garages, deliver food etc., while college grads get offered jobs to sell mobiles and credit cards which they don’t want because it’s not considered prestigious. They want a job where they can sit their ass down in an office and make a power point presentation.

    “Depreciation nikal diya, assets ko less ho gaya.” So went a lesson being given by the accounting professor at Dahanukar College in suburban Mumbai — removing depreciation reduces assets — an example of the widespread use in supposedly English-language colleges of Hinglish, an amalgam of Hindi and English.

    What dickwads like Anand don’t realize is that not everyone in India earns their living from Mckinsey and other glamorous corporate jobs. There is a huge section of entrepreneurs (textile mills, merchants, wholesalers, all kinds of traders) and service employees at banks, insurance companies etc that cater to these folks. What kinda language are you going to use? The above Depreciation nikal diya or your IIM jargon?

    This whole emphasis on English in India is f***ing annoying because for trade to happen and the economy to grow etc, people need to sell. Actual products. You can strategize all you want, have nice marketing presentations but you must sell your product.

    Nobody that works for a corporation thinks out of the box. In India or in the US. Because corporatios are run on reducing risk. The few people with vision (out of the box thinking) start their own companies. The rest wallow in their glory of mediocrity just another cog in a lubed up machine. That’s why consumer products are tested endlessly, so that you can use statistics as a crutch and no one can blame you for thinking out of the box. Which results in the movies we have today, endless line extensions of consumer products and God knows what else.

    Indian education is by rote. That is a problem and has its roots in the old way of learning in gurukulas (where things were recited) and the notion was that with memory comes understanding. I remember reading a study/hypothesis somewhere that the more you have memorized (information stored in neurons), the greater the odds that more synapses, links and correlations that will be formed between them hence allowing you to apply what you know to different situations through association. Don’t know how far this is true.

    College teachers in India are BAD. Period. They get tenure and regurgitate the same notes from the last 40 years. Quite pathetic. We need better teachers that encourage independent thinking. But even otherwise, honestly, the majority of jobs in business out there can be done by high schoolers or basic college education. Most things are learned on the job (I’m not talking about highly specialized fields which comprise maybe 0.0001% of the job market).

    By all means do business with the west and be their back end operations and write piddling code for them and some local users. Just don’t think that those are the only jobs out there. And ask anyone that has a degree from IIT and IIM and is working for these consulting companies abroad or for the likes of Wipro and Infosys, what skills they acquired at their great schools and what they use.

    Welcome to the glamorous world of business where people shake hands, make presentations, speak crisply in English and have team meetings.

  11. Sriram:

    Obviously, with their intelligence they adjust accordingly, but every one of them has voiced an opinion along these lines.

    I’ve observed the same stuff that you mentioned. In fact I too had to go through this ‘adjustment’ when I entered grad school in the US. But in the end, it’s not too much of an ask. One quickly figures out how to walk the US education system tight rope. In theory, we had all the facets of US ed system back in India too..but they weren’t implemented at times. I was quick to realize that weekly assignments had to be worked on and submitted (!), office hours were not meant for dozing off in your hostel room, it was perfectly fine to take your lunch to the lectures and eat while the professor is trying to explain you the nuances of combinatorial optimization, you were expected to work on all the problems yourself…you couldn’t just copy your friend’s work and pass it off as yours :) .

  12. Mytake,

    That is due to the presumtuous attitude of a majority of Indians that if you don’t graduate from a IIT then you are probably stupid and weak.

    Please don’t drag IIT into every single discussion on education in India. I don’t think this is true. Sure, you are treated like a genius and given a pass with everything if you come from IIT, but if you don’t, you still get plenty of opportunities. It’s only if in idle discussions about the glory of India’s education (either among Indians or among others) that IIT figures to the exclusion of others.

    There is no room for proving yourself. That is the main reason why IITians are hired for management,financial,IT and every other field there is.

    True and bad. But it’s still nothing compared to the way your career in France is made or broken solely based on whether you went to Ecole Polytechnique/Ecole des Mines.

    While others are scratching their heads. And then the funny thing is the industry complains there are no people with “skills”. Yeah, of course not everyone can solve a complex physics problem. But if you are not given a chance to prove then what is the point.

    This is true. There’s a lot of closed-mindedness. This fake lament about “scarcity of skills” is just BS.

    But Indian companies wont even give you a chance unless you can explain string theory.

    Most IITians don’t know ANYTHING about string theory – which is all very appropriate. First of all, it’s an engineering institution and second, the fewer people there are wasting their lives on string theory, the better.

  13. Amardeep, I am slightly disturbed that you, being an academic, should offer this opinion:

    It seems to me these are problems that could be fixed without overhauling the entire system. Leaving space for questions in a lecture is a start; guest-lecturers from industry might be another.

    The role of a university is not merely to provide skills. The role of a university is to inculcate in its students a habit of critical thinking. If you want to be more utilitarian in your point of view: the role of a university is to subject its students to such intellectual stress that:

    a) Those who emerge through the system shining would be well equipped to be pioneers, be it in the arts, the sciences, or in entrepreneurship; and

    b) Those who don’t emerge shining still possess sufficiently well-honed faculties for what it is that they wish to do with their education.

    Guest-lectuters from industry will certainly be qualified to deliver the “intellectual stress” that I refer to. But, the question is, in what areas ? We in India are certainly beginning to see extremely good, intellectually rigorous specialists in the Computer Science and Biotech sectors of the industry. However, a vast majority of otherwise articulate, imaginative and successful individuals with industry affiliations in India are thoroughly unimaginative about higher education. Their mantra is “higher education must be more job-oriented”, without clarifying what that means, and many of them are pretty anti-intellectual in their attitudes.

    I agree, however, with your larger point that one cannot wait for the government to fix things; but bear with me for a bit before I get to that point.

    I don’t want to get started on this: but the need of the hour – if one cares for both equity (i.e. eradicating the if-you’re-not-from-an-IIT-then-you’re-probably-stupid factor) and intellectual growth – is to save India’s drowning Universities (as distinct from the “Institutes”). Several of the drowning Universities in India are actually staffed by wonderfully intelligent people. It is true that every department has its share of rotten apples – people who have been appointed to the faculty via nepotism, etc.; what I am saying is that there are several Universities that have departments that are eminently salvagable. But, if these aforementioned intelligent people have to show intellectual keenness, they must have the opportunity to stay sharp themselves. This includes participating in research. However, having to spend 18 to 24 hours per week IN LECTURING ALONE, even the keenest college teacher is a thoroughly blunted and demoralised person. If this situation could be turned around in some of India’s universities, it could be the beginning of a (very slow-moving) domino effect.

    Operationally, it is the government that will have to sanction the money etc. that makes this sort of limited turnaround possible. BUT a “limited turnaround” can be achieved if the research-and-education community in India – that is so fortunate to work at India’s elite “Institutes” – joins hands in forming a pressure group that guides the re-making of those Universities that can be re-made in a fairly short time.

  14. The iit “teaching model” and syllabus is largely based on that in the US, not surprising since many of the faculty have PhDs from top US schools. The biggest problem with the Indian higher education system is the same as what the problem was with the Indian economy as a whole a couple of decades back — centralization and regulation. The syllabus is set by central authorities, the teaching loads and schedules are set by central authorities, even the pay and perks of teachers. To add to this, there is a lot of regulation preventing private universities from filling in.

    The solution is simple — decentralize, deregulate, privatize. It’s just that this is not the solution our socialist-minded babus want to or care to hear.

  15. That is one more reason the US is better. All big tech companies hire you even if you don’t graduate from an ivy league or stanford or berkeley(not talking about investment banking). If you dont prove yourself then you are defenitely out.

    This is a great point and is a wonderful thing about the US. But I think this has to do with there being truly a short of people in comparison with the number of jobs available in the economy. They simply can’t afford to choose only ivy league students. If there were a lot fewer jobs, people would suddenly become much more risk averse and start compalaining about “lack of skills”.

  16. In India, the most valuable skill to have and be successful is adaptibility which may be the case everywhere but more so in India. The people most likely to succeed are those that come from middle class backgrounds, grounded in their regionalism (speak mother tongue and one or two other Indian languages), with an English medium education.

    Once they get to college (irrespective of what they choose- science, business), what the successful ones do and do well is interact with people from different backgrounds. College is a great place for that in India since it is a meritocracy, rote or otherwise. Whether they are academically brilliant or not doesn’t always matter.

    These are the poeple that will go on to become good managers because they can speak in Hindi/Tamil/Gujurati to some customers, clients, employees so people will find them warm, lightly accented English to their co-workers and bosses and American colleagues, so that automatically makes them competent, efficient and in some eyes cool.

    In their social life also, they will fit in easily at the high society South Bombay parties (which is what they probably aspire to) and be comfortable at a “stag” party in Bhandup where a bunch of guys and 1 girl (occasionally 2 and then the party is considered to be totally off the hook) sit around drinking scotch, shooting the breeze and after enough has been imbibed someone will start singing or dancing.

    They go on to become VPs in banking, insurance, or n the software, BPO end and move from the middle class and plant themselves firmly in the upper mmiddle to upper class. Over the years they move to a ritzy location and have kids that will grow up in rich neighborhoods with rich friends and usually won’t have the adaptibility of their parents and are prone to say things like “dude” and “she is such a bhenji”.

    They will do well for themselves too but from a good old boys club way. There are always exceptions and I don’t know if this is applicable to girls or Delhi or Sandaswaalahs.

  17. Amardeep,

    Sure, Indian educational system is bi-modal. No doubt, but for a simple reason, there are hardly resources availbale to most of Indian Univseities, sans few. Sure, Harvard’s budget is also massive compared to Tier-III, Tier-IV Universities here but still they do have a very decent infrastructure.

    People outside IITs do well too. Some examples, Kalpana Chawla from Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh later an astronaut (UT Arlington, and UC Boulder in middle); Sameer Bhatia of hotmail fame was a freshmen at BITS Bilani, and then Caltech and Stanford. I would also put PEC, Chandigarh and BITS Pilani also toward the top end. Infosys wants to pay teachers in different colleges so that they can up the ante. These days, deemed technical Universities (funky category in India) have big-name recruiters banging classrooms to hire people.

    Some comments here are quite good on raising such issues.

  18. With a college like Hinduja’s all the kids probably drove or were driven to class while the prof probably made a two hour trip by train. I wish these NYT types would start at the beginning when they write articles on certain topics – 800 words on whats wrong with the Indian Education system does not cut it.

  19. brown grrl:

    “This whole emphasis on English in India is f***ing annoying because for trade to happen and the economy to grow etc, people need to sell. Actual products.”

    On the money!!!! ONLY ONE way to prosperity is MORE TRADE. It doesnt matter what language that trade happens in. It can happen in Swahili or Bhojpuri, as long as goods are produced and sold people will find employment and overall wealth of the nation improve.

    I am working for a Korean company that is introducing a bleeding edge product in the US market and I see that the engineers working on this product cant speak english well at all. Even the ones who come out here on business trips. But they know their shit … the stuff that counts .. the stuff that is going to bring $$$$$. I guess thats why S.Korea isnt a extremely poor country like India.

  20. 17% of IndiaÂ’s college graduates are unemployed

    Even that stat is skewed. If you go deeper into a state by state analysis its much worse. The state of Orissa graduates something like 1200 students from college each year but only creates 3 jobs or so for those graduates.

  21. Amardeep,

    The first half of this poem is the Indian educational system and the second half, American.

    “Did I Miss Anything”

                             Question frequently asked by
                             students after missing a class
    

    Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here we sat with our hands folded on our desks in silence, for the full two hours

     Everything. I gave an exam worth
     40 per cent of the grade for this term
     and assigned some reading due today
     on which I'm about to hand out a quiz
     worth 50 per cent
    

    Nothing. None of the content of this course has value or meaning Take as many days off as you like: any activities we undertake as a class I assure you will not matter either to you or me and are without purpose

     Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
     a shaft of light descended and an angel
     or other heavenly being appeared
     and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
     to attain divine wisdom in this life and
     the hereafter
     This is the last time the class will meet
     before we disperse to bring this good news to all people on earth
    

    Nothing. When you are not present how could something significant occur?

     Everything. Contained in this classroom
     is a microcosm of human existence
     assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
     This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered
    
     but it was one place
    
     And you weren't here
    
     -- Tom Wayman
    
  22. dabba writes:

    The people most likely to succeed are those that come from middle class backgrounds, grounded in their regionalism (speak mother tongue and one or two other Indian languages), with an English medium education

    On the money! English is an effective tool – that’s about it. I can “think” in Engligh and three Indian languages, and I switch effortlessly.

    Over the years they move to a ritzy location and have kids that will grow up in rich neighborhoods with rich friends and usually won’t have the adaptibility of their parents and are prone to say things like “dude” and “she is such a bhenji

    Sadly, on the money again.

    M. Nam

  23. Since there seems to be quite a bit of haterade and snark here vis-à-vis IITs here, I would like to add that the educational experience inside one (I speak for a slacker younger self, and my circle of friends) wasn’t all that what it is propouted to be, even though they are supposed to be modeled on the American university system. I remember snorting when Business Week, in a cover story, ladled out hagiography on how academics inside are supposed to give students nose bleeds etc. When I was attending one, students could take only two or three electives in total over a span of forty some courses, the quality of professors spanned a wide range (really mediocre to brilliant in their teaching, dictatorial to engaging in how they dealt with students), the engagement of students with their course work was, on the average, tepid etc. This may have changed in the years since I was there.

    The strength of the IITs, I think, is not in what happens inside the classrooms but what happens outside them. Bringing reasonably intelligent kids (the genius types were always limited in number) from different parts of India (mimics different countries in a “flat world”), in small class sizes (a real luxury I now realize, having sat through lectures that have had as many as 100 students, here in the US), giving them superior facilities (dorms, libraries, labs etc) which enables them to interact, and bounce off each other at a fairly high intellectual level was (and perhaps still is) the best part of an IIT education – not the academics, not the professors with American PhDs. I, for one, survived my term mainly because the library was truly world class, and had a serious kick-ass literature collection.

    As for the accusations regarding “old boy networks”, while yes, these can give someone (unfairly? but the world has always been, and will be unfair!) a step inside the door, what matters in the end is one’s ability to deliver the goods. If, by the standards of global business, people who went to IITs have been able to do this consistently over the years, I submit, it is simple minded to rail against some imagined “elitism”. Further, there are far worse “elite” educational institutions – Ivy League with their “family legacy” admissions, Oxbridge with its Public School feeders – on the face of the planet.

  24. Industry can bring a sea change in short period if it wishes. Grads who come to US adapt to the system well in 2-3years and do quite well in doctorate programs. Changing the curriculum in third and fourth years, can salvage and provide the momentum to overhaul the system. Most companies train fresh hires for 6-12 months and have quite elaborate training programs. If they tied up with the universities to share materials and staff and make this a precondition for campus hires, things will start rolling. They can use staff lying idle between projects for teaching programs

  25. Colleges are unsuited for teaching basic language, numeric, or analytic proficiency. If not imparted in primary, middle, and high school, this is task for immersive, dense, learning programs of the sort needed for picking up foreign languages. Incompetent teachers are a huge barrier to any learning. A small part of a solution: Obtain and use quality teaching materials to maximize learning for time and effort invested. Example: the audio economics lectures by Timothy Taylor (teach12.com) are vastly better than your average run of the mill teacher. These exist for various subjects and cover most subjects in basic liberal arts education. Excellent teachers are very limited.. But like software, their message can be easily duplicated and distributed for those who dont have the ability or motivation to pick it up from texts independently. But even here there has to be incentive for learning.

    Any solution must involve deregulating education in a big way.. else the flood out of India (of students) will continue unabated and the quality of indian labor will continue to stagnate.

  26. I beg to differ. To address these problems, the system needs to be overhauled. The root of the system lies in primary and secondary education. Without a grassroots level change, we can forget about reaching new heights, least of all, speaking proper English.

  27. Educational system is linked to the overall structure of the society. Education begins at home and parents and elders rarely encourage kids to question things at home. Already reluctant children enter school and a life full of intimidation thus begins. Its a society where you are not supposed to ask anything, no matter what.PERIOD. In my mind this approach/attitude/method doesn’t always hinder learning of what is already known, but it inhibits the learner from looking into the unknown. Implications and solutions of this are deeper than the Times article makes it seem like.

  28. Cultural mentality towards education and what it helps achieve needs to change for the student body to change. I studied in India thru the 9th grade and 10th grade on here. I was the kid that knew the maths tables by heart but didn’t particularly “like” match. It felt more like a chore, belting out learnings like a robot and not necessarily needing to absorb anything as long as you knew it by heart.

    It only changed after I got here. The approach to teaching and getting more out of a student is completely different here than in India. While I must admit my discipline from India really helped, it still does and I’m happy I had it but studying in India left no room for practicality. Here I had to put my education into practice and had to take a more hands on approach to learning and present independent findings, something that was a foreign concept to me; being asked what I thought about something and how I’d apply it. It wasn’t just about theory but practice and that is where India could really use help.

    I don’t know if the concept of internships exists in India. That is something that truly prepared me for the real world. Being thrown in the midst of a bunch of suits at Goldman definitely had it’s advantages. It was pratical and hands on. I learnt things I never really did in theory at school. Almost all my professors here were professionals who happened to be in academics on the side. I’m assuming that the academics in India are professors and not as practictioners.

    Colleges should really cultivate relationships with businesses and expose the students to the real world long before the student actually goes looking for a job. To me it’s a far better way of preparing someone for the real world than simply making him/her memorize everything there is to and get really smart at that. In the real world if you were left in the middle of nowhere, your book knowledge may not teach you how to find your way out of the bad situation and get home as much as practice does.

  29. As for the accusations regarding “old boy networks”, while yes, these can give someone (unfairly? but the world has always been, and will be unfair!) a step inside the door, what matters in the end is one’s ability to deliver the goods. If, by the standards of global business, people who went to IITs have been able to do this consistently over the years, I submit, it is simple minded to rail against some imagined “elitism”. Further, there are far worse “elite” educational institutions – Ivy League with their “family legacy” admissions, Oxbridge with its Public School feeders – on the face of the planet.

    I dont think anyone here is questioning IITians ability to deliver goods. Its about people not even considering other candidates(in India) from oher universities/colleges. Its about people not from IITs delivering goods. If given a chance most of them would probably deliver goods.

    Educational system is linked to the overall structure of the society. Education begins at home and parents and elders rarely encourage kids to question things at home. Already reluctant children enter school and a life full of intimidation thus begins. Its a society where you are not supposed to ask anything, no matter what.PERIOD. In my mind this approach/attitude/method doesn’t always hinder learning of what is already known, but it inhibits the learner from looking into the unknown. Implications and solutions of this are deeper than the Times article makes it seem like.

    I totally agree with that.

  30. 24 – I think you misunderstood part of my post if that is what you are referring to. By old boy networks, I wasn’t talking about colleges/institutes that admit students based on merit. That schools such as IITs and other premium business and engg. schools in India have a good alumni network is wonderful. I used the term old boys network as gaining entry into an elite group through social status and family connections.

    For example Narsee Monji is a good business school, but on its board sit some industry heavies. If you belong to that social circle, getting in for an MBA is not a big deal. Also mirror your thoughts on your IIT experience. Mine was very similar although not at IIT but at a premium engg. school right next door to IIT so I was able to see first hand what the IITs have and how much of it was hagiography.

    Dug the library though. And the IIT parties had a bunch of guys and 2 girls whereas my school had a bunch of guys and 1 girl. Your parties were off the hook!

  31. And ask anyone that has a degree from IIT and IIM and is working for these consulting companies abroad or for the likes of Wipro and Infosys, what skills they acquired at their great schools and what they use.
    Infosys wants to pay teachers in different colleges so that they can up the ante. These days, deemed technical Universities (funky category in India) have big-name recruiters banging classrooms to hire people.

    I don’t think Infosys(etc.) employ a lot of IITians on the technical side. A few, usually with a lower GPA or in a not-so-popular engg specialization, are picked up during campus placements, but for the most part Indian software companies is not where most of them prefer to go. Of course you might find IITians on the management side, but they usually come in after getting an MBA or something, and their technical skills are not relevant anymore. Based on anecdotal experience, I’d say that Infosys is not very picky about the people it takes in, at least at the entry level. This may have changed recently- I am talking based on my experience from around two years ago. If you are from a ‘deemed university’, for example, and have a decent GPA/percentage, I think you would more than satisfy their requirements. And even if you are from a state college, I am sure you have a decent chance of getting in. Unless we are talking mom-and-pop private colleges here, I do not think Indian software firms are elitist.

  32. Being thrown in the midst of a bunch of suits at Goldman definitely had it’s advantages. It was pratical and hands on.

    Compared with what? Getting on a Harbor Line fasht at 7 every morning amidst a crowd of doodwallas, dhabawallas, and assorted mumbaiya freaks and geeks. And that is just inside the train….

    Life can be education enough.

  33. I don’t know if the concept of internships exists in India.

    Hazaar (thousands) of them. From TV channels to software companies.

    Infosys even hires gora Amreekans (white Americans) as interns.

    I second sakshi on his analysis on IITs. Ditto holds for Cornell, Princeton.

    One of the worst professors as lecturers are found at Cornell, Princeton, MIT – why? – because getting a grant is more important, and that is where most of the time and energy is spent. So much for elite institutes. It is the crowd (quality of people around) and networking.

    Like Jinal Shah said, India needs more basic infrastructure improvement re: education.

  34. I meant sashi (comment #.24).

    Also, sakshi is right. Most of infosys employee are IITians. IIT usually are headed for grad school in US or startups in India/ US.

    I just meet someone from HP here who liasons with HP Bangalore. He himself is an IITian but great words for non-IITians @ HP Bangalore. His words: “They are passionate, and that what matters

  35. Getting on a Harbor Line fasht at 7 every morning amidst a crowd of doodwallas, dhabawallas, and assorted mumbaiya freaks and geeks. And that is just inside the train…. Life can be education enough.

    OK but how does that teach you about the internal workings of a business environment?

    You are speaking about life education which I don’t deny but I’m talking about general applicable hands on education.

  36. internal workings of a business environment

    Where? in the US? Those standards will not apply much longer.

    Low level body shopping. Who ever taught that in Business School? Look at Infosys now.

  37. OK but how does that teach you about the internal workings of a business environment?

    Everyone in an IIM (or for that matter any management school) does a summer internship. Summer internships are compulsory (at the end of 3rd yr) in most of the top engineering colleges in India.

    Lots of IITians opt for summer internships in US, Europe and even Australia.

  38. Internal workings of a business environment 101

    Day 1 – Firm hand shakes all round. Find out where toilets are. D2 – Orientation meetings (this will stretch for a couple of weeks) when people get to tell you how important they are and how their bit fits into the “bigger picture”. A “bird’s eye view” of how the business operates (read, I’m just a cog and everything I do is meaningless and insignificant) D3 – Learn to say “I enjoy working in a fast paced environment”, “Hit the road running”, “out of the box thinking/solution” D4 – Practice that handshake again and find the best rest room in the company for a good dump, nap, shag etc. (this is very critical) D5 – Master the art of not listening when someone is talking to you but without the glazed look in your eyes (I did it on my 1st day, thats how good I am) D6 – Learnings of D5 are good but you need to clinch it with a smimle, a nod and then the most important. The follow up question. I usually go with “my concern is how does this affect the ————-”. If you can pick up one word from the conversation/meeting and insert it here, you can sail. If you can come up with a word that fits every situation, you are God. I go for sales/bottom line/brand/equity/competency. D7 – Learn the 2 or 3 camps that exist in the group, company and be aware of them. Nod and listen. D8 – Bring the VP’s admin flowers!!! D9 – Always have fingers on alt-tab, and something that looks very complicated (even if it does not pertain to what you do) handy. When someone walks in to say something, don’t respond right away. Stare at the screen for abt 10 secs, then address the person starting with an apology ofcourse. Also, in your cubicle, office have things that are considered intelligent, eclectic etc about. So a copy of Feynman’s lectures, right next to Fractals in Medieval art and Alice in Wonderland should be enough to confuse them for a while. You will get a comment which means it works. Even if you don’t get a comment it has worked. D10 – Never say the way things are being down now is wrong. Say you see “opportunities for growth/change”. And now somewhere toward the end of the second week lies the true lesson. That one idea that you have that is non-threatening but still somewhat intriguing and you know that it is not practical but they don’t. Drop the idea in a few ears. Let your boss take credit for it, just make sure the VP and admin know it was your idea.

    You can coast for the next 3-4 years without really doing anything and you will learn stuff and even accidentally end up doing stuff (when the phone rings, you may accidentally answer it and speak). Then it is time to move to the next company and repeat.

    Shorten the cycle.

  39. Summer internships are compulsory (at the end of 3rd yr) in most of the top engineering colleges in India.

    Yes. They even are America-like engineering coop programs now. In fact, IIT (Kharagpur) has signed a partnership with Cornell. I am sure many other examples.

    I was recently looking @ some young fella’s CV from India. He had interned in US.

    All this said, Dhirubhai Ambani of Ambani Industries got his education as a dispatch clerk in Aden. His sons, however in Amreeka @ U. Penn/ Wharton and all.

  40. re #40. that sounds like the business version of agastya sen’s life in “english, august.” :)

  41. Re: maytake @ comment # 30,

    I agree with your contention that people who went to an IIT necessarily aren’t the only bright lights in the tool shed; there are talented others whom I have known before and after my sojurn at an IIT. But as someone said here, businesses by their nature (reflecting human nature I suppose) tend to be conservative beasts that go with what is considered familiar, and thus can show marked brand loyalities. This why I think people go to certain business or law schools here: for their alumni networks. I, for one, would hire more literary and philosophical types vs. classic IIT geeks if I ever ran a business. :)

  42. dabba, you are a genius.

    i knew someone in an oil company, she had a nude pencil sketch of herself (you know a drawing, not a picture), and a guitar in her office. Everyone really liked her.

  43. I agree that the Indian education sytem for the most part sucks, but it does something right apparently. I am not sure what.But something is working, at least for middle clas students in cities with fair oppurtunities, you can ‘make it’ in 1 generation based on your hard work.

    Meanwhile in the US,the drop out rates out of high school are pretty high. And apparently its possible to graduate high school in the US without knowing how to read (saw it on Oprah!). I mean, in India, this person would fail 1st grade…

    The hypercompetitive environment is brutal, with even entrance tests to KG…there is no sense of entitlement, its a struggle for the middle class, perform or perish.

  44. I am sure some of us FOBs are sounding defensive about our Indian education.

    Considering the fact we are paying our rents on time and don’t have rap sheets,and given that we had a so-called deplorable education,there must be something to be said about our life in India that had a positive effect. If success is gauged only by what kind of college you went to, it discounts a big part of our personal make up – the learning of patience, tolerance, thinking on our feet, heuristically (without even knowing it), maneuvering of heirarchies.

    Which brings me back to the imbalance in the article. The tone should have been more like Inspite of the imperfect education…yaddi yadda,

    And yes, let us not make IIT=India and working at investing banking = average job. Some of us still compile and run :-)

  45. Neale:

    Which brings me back to the imbalance in the article. The tone should have been more like Inspite of the imperfect education…yaddi yadda

    I strongly agree. Infosys and TCS together hired 55,000 new employees last year. Not more than 5000 of them could be from IITs and other upper tier colleges (BITS, NITs/RECs , PEC, etc). The other 50,000 people must still be doing a reasonably good job, for the industry to be doing so well, despite the bad cards life handed them out in terms of background, education, etc.

  46. Infosys and TCS together hired 55,000 new employees last year

    Ah, Sakshi, do not forget HP, IBM, Microsoft and all their hiring.

    All the IITs produce less than 5,000 graduates a year as you correctly pointed out. Out of them more than half (close to 75 %) go to graduate school in USA/ MBAs in India, USA, UK, and remainder to investment banks in Hong Kong.

    Indian IT revolution backbone is non-IIT/ BITS.

  47. Indian IT revolution backbone is non-IIT/ BITS.

    That’s true in todays context, but things haven’t been the same all through the last decade. In the mid 90′s (when all TCS, Wipro weren’t that big), these companies mainly hired IIT graduates. Most of the middle and top management positions in these companies are full of IIT grads.

    As you noted before, the situation today is quite different. Its the ‘junta’ from lower rung engineering colleges who are sustaining the IT boom in India. IIT junta usually opts for MS/PhD or MBA.

  48. Sashi, I’m not sure where you found the snark/hate on IIT’s here. Everyone on SM loves themselves an IIT.

    Kush,

    One of the worst professors as lecturers are found at Cornell, Princeton, MIT – why? – because getting a grant is more important, and that is where most of the time and energy is spent. So much for elite institutes.

    Send me your address so that I can have a cake or something delivered to your door for this comment :-) . This is so true and everyone knows it but so not acceptable to say in the research world.