Thursday, 8 November 2012

An Indian education

Last week I was in Bangalore for a week's training. I'm a policy wonk by background, and that's very much my focus in my job here, but I am also a member of the management board of the UK-Indian joint venture company I work for. Which means, horror of horrors, that I have to show some kind of insight into business matters as well as making earnest statements about evidence-based approaches and public goods.

Most of the time this isn't a problem. I actually quite enjoy switching from policy to business mode, thinking strategically about business issues and spotting where the new opportunities are (clue: in the skills business in India, they are everywhere, but finding the ones that will actually allow you to break even is trickier). Besides, in my line of work the line between business and policy is very blurred: education businesses have to keep public benefits at the heart of what they do or they quickly lose the faith of their customers; conversely, they have to be businesslike or the market will simply eat them alive. So policy affects business, and business affects policy. That's even more the case in India, where training is just taking off and the gold rush is just beginning.

Anyway, I digress. My point was that I was mostly fine tackling business issues, except for one rather important point: numbers.

I don't mean I can't do maths. My maths is actually pretty OK, although algebra beyond x=2y can still sometimes induce mild hysteria if I don't take some deep breaths first. What I struggle with is finance. As soon as those enormous spreadsheets appear on the power point, with lots of months and decimal points and terms like EBIDTA, something tends to switch off in my brain. I know I should follow it. I know the numbers aren't that difficult. But the spreadsheets are just so big. And there are so many columns. And can't we just talk about how policy fails to incentivise enough employers to offer apprenticeships? Please?

So to cut a long story short I decided I needed to find a course on finance for people who will never - god forbid - actually work in the field, but who need to be able to go to a board meeting and talk intelligently about performance against AOP and so on, without being reduced to a quivering pile of jelly. And so it was that I spent last week putting in 11 hour study  days at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.

If you want to see how serious India is about business, go to IIMB. I went to a pretty good university and I have some very, very clever friends, but this was some of the best teaching by some of the smartest people I've ever come across. It was intense, it was exhausting, it left me feeling like my eyes were propped open with sandpaper - but god, it was good. And to my enormous astonishment, it also managed to be really, really interesting. I can't say I can now confidently reel off all the principles of financial management, but I am fairly sure that the next time I'm in the board room it'll be with my head a lot higher than before.

Let me just say this again: these people made me find finance interesting. That's rather like managing to convince Ann Coulter that actually, Barack Obama isn't such a bad old stick.

Sitting in classrooms like those at IIMB it's hard to imagine that India isn't following a manifest destiny to become the most successful and largest economy in the world. But the fact is that, on current trends, it isn't. The pockets of superb quality education like IIMB exist in a sea of educational underachievement; the brilliance of the faculty (and some of my fellow students) has to be set against a system where vast numbers complete their education without sufficient capabilities to be employable. India excels at excellence, but it currently fails at adequacy.

In my last post I commented that some of the social patterns in India remind me of some of the damaging trends seen in my own country and in the USA, trends that are associated with high levels of inequality. This strikes me as another one: in all three countries there are pockets of academic brilliance, with truly world class people and incredible results, but swathes of the population are left behind completely. And the problem is that academic brilliance alone isn't enough. Sooner or later all those people will need people who are brilliant in other ways. The people who probably won't ever lecture a room full of businessmen about macroecnomics or create innovations in nanotechnology, but who will make sure the people that do those things live in a world that works - and will do so by achieving high level skills that may lack glamour, but that are sorely needed.

All three countries are committed to developing skills at all levels and to offering opportunities to all. But sometimes I wonder if that's enough. In a world that idolises a privileged minority of celebrities and business leaders, and emphasises material gain as the way to happiness, who'd want to become a hotelier or a plumber? Who'd want to settle for just being an ordinary, successful person? And who, when they realise they'll never earn a seven figure salary or appear in Hello!, wouldn't be tempted to just throw in the towel altogether? Policy commitment to diversity of skills and opportunity may not be enough in the face of a modern culture that sometimes seems geared in entirely the opposite direction.

The more unequal we get, the more aspiration is narrowly defined, the more the middle is hollowed out, and the less liveable our societies become. And that's a challenge India has in common with a lot of places that, superficially at least, it looks nothing like.


Elizabeth P. aka Campobello said...

I am so happy to have found your blog (through White Indian Housewife)--it is intelligent and erudite, and I am enjoying your informed insights into this complex and fascinating country. I shall be a regular visitor!

Chris said...

Thank you very much! Mine is but a single, very partial view of course, and when it comes to India "complex" is something of an understatement. But it's good to know my ramblings make some kind of sense at least!

Boris said...

Dear Chris. I have never been in India. However, in a couple of weeks I shall move to Delhi, and to prepare myself, I have during some months, among other things, read your blog carefully, and enjoyed it very much. Keep it up, I will continue to read even when I get some practical insights of the city myself.

Kay in India said...

Hey! Since I couldn't find your email ID on the website, I decided to take matters into my own hand.

You...don't by any chance work for the British Council in New Delhi do you?

I have a bit of a problem with them in that they took forever to fix an exam of mine (taking place this Sat) and they're saying that I should pay them in cash before the exam--which would be great, were I to live in Delhi (I'm in gurgaon) or even if I had a driver (mine stole some 11,000 and ran away.

So do they just frown at you for paying your fees just before the exam on the same day, or do they actually disqualify you?

Chris said...

Hi Kay - sorry, nope I'm not with the British Council (and I've missed the boat on helping you anyway)...hope it worked out in the end?

Chris said...

Thanks Boris - glad you have enjoyed the blog. Are you in Delhi now? How are you finding it?

Kay in India said...

Hey Chris! Thanks for the reply! I was really at the end of my rope at that time! I did get through to the British Council and finally got to write my exam...though it was really far more disorganized than I thought it would be! Almost like the BC got Indianized somehow, lol!