Two recent advertisements in India’s newspapers have caught my attention lately. One is an ad by a well-known American university inviting Indian students to consider applying for post-secondary education. Another is an ad by an upcoming private Indian university doing the same. The first ad is couched in the language of the game of cricket; the second is presenting a well-known Bollywood star as an iconic host.
These ads have puzzled me somewhat. It is clear that the Indian market for post-secondary education is an important attraction for this prestigious American university to consider putting big ads for attracting applications; it is an expensive proposition to do undergraduate studies in such a University, costing nearly $250,000 ( a sum of Rs 1 crore). Clearly, the university thinks that there is a large market in India— the number of families who can afford such an expensive education must be running into thousands or more? Even more curious is the message being communicated that somehow an American university ‘understands’ the passion of India’s youth for the game of cricket, notwithstanding the fact that the game of cricket is not a common sport in America, as yet. The promotion of second university with iconic support of a Bollywood star is based on the assumption that the youth in India hold Bollywood celebrities in such high esteem.
What are the underlying assumptions behind such high profile advertising? How come neither university has chosen any educationist or scholar or Nobel laureate to profile in their advertisements? Does it imply that the cricket and cinema stars are future role models of India’s youth? Does it assume that academic excellence is closely linked to playing cricket and watching films, somehow?
These are puzzling questions; these questions raise concerns about the value of post-secondary education as a passport to certain life-styles which are distinctively high profile. This trend seems to indicate that the intrinsic value of post-secondary education for promotion of a critical understanding of society and a liberal outlook is somehow declining. It further suggests that economic value of post-secondary education for achieving a certain status in society is gaining ascendancy. Learning and knowledge for the holistic development of citizens is loosing its appeal; instead, instrumental use of knowledge is being promoted.
One of the most glaring bases of inequality in India, and other emerging economies, is the inequality in access and quality of education. While income inequality has increased substantially as rapid economic growth has taken place in many of these countries, policy-makers in India still seem to consider Gini coefficient as the sole indicator of inequality (which in case of India is still lower than China and Brasil, for instance). But, income inequality today is a mere reflection of differentials in access to and control over economic assets of the past; the past differentials in educational levels are further getting reinforced in the present. It is this dynamics that is likely to create further inequalities in the future as well, unless substantial investments in education, specially at post-secondary levels, are made in such societies.
Given the nature of messages emanating from above types of advertisements, which strata of society can actually make such substantial investments? It begs the question if post-secondary education is a public good or not, worthy of public investments or not?
Neither of the two universities mentioned above are accessible to nearly 300 million youth of India who would be ready to enter post-secondary education in the coming decade; what about other options? Will those options also be attracting India’s youth to pursue post-secondary education through the calling of cricket and film stars?
The above trends are symptomatic of the current consensus among policy-makers that market-driven mechanisms are most appropriate to enhancing the supply of post-secondary education; it is this approach that has been driving PPP (public-private-partnership) models in countries like India today. It is unclear if such approaches would arrest the trends towards growing educational inequality in society.
There is an urgent need to open a public debate on the value of post-secondary education for all; as service sector becomes the dominant part of GDP, it is even more urgent that the next generation is better ‘educated’ in knowledge, attitudes and skills to be able to gain productive livelihoods. The provision of multiple forms and channels of post-secondary education, responsive to the diverse needs of learners and their aspirations in the country, needs to be the focus of public policy. Such policies can then ‘steer’ the market mechanisms to generate more inclusive options and provisions; without such policies, we will be witnessing more advertisements of the variety mentioned at the beginning of this article.
February 23, 2011