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How India’s Elite Undergraduate Institutions Are Suppressing Innovation And Leadership

Posted on July 31, 2014 in Education

By Aakash Pydi:

India’s elite undergraduate institutions are hurting the country by having admissions processes which cause a systemic suppression of innovation, leadership and thoughtfulness in a majority of the high schools in the country.

One of the first things you read in any introductory economics text book is that people respond to incentives. The curriculum of a bulk of the high schools in any country is typically designed to help students secure admission to the most sought after undergraduate institutions in the country. In India, admissions to the most selective undergraduate colleges are based on exactly one set of examinations (the 12th standard final exams and typically some entrance exam like the IIT JEE). So the entire incentive structure of our higher education system is such that it only encourages students to develop the ability to take an exam well.

Indian edu

So the obvious consequence of this incentive structure is that “cracking” those crucial exams increasingly becomes the sole objective of most high schools. At the extreme end of this phenomenon we have the ubiquitous “coaching institutions” that masquerade as schools and butcher the educational experience of thousands of students by not laying any emphasis on passion, curiosity and thoughtfulness. The Executive Chairman of Infosys Narayana Murthy captured this worsening reality by noting, “Thanks to the coaching classes today, the quality of students entering IITs has gone lower and lower.”

There is a huge unappreciated collateral damage in the country caused by this induction of an exam-centric learning environment in most of the nation’s high schools. There is abundant data to back this assertion. According to the 2011 National Employability Report, only 2.68 percent of engineers in India are job ready. A study published in the journal Health Affairs said that the rate of correct diagnosis by doctors in Delhi is around 22 percent and correct treatment around 45.6 percent. An ASSOCHAM paper says that “barring graduates from IIM’s, the B-schools are losing shine …(as) only 10% of the graduates are actually employable despite the robust demand for MBAs.” The number of patent applications from India was 43,955 in 2012, far behind China (652,777) and the United States (542,815). India has abysmal scores in the World Innovation Index Report released by Cornell University, the Insead Business School and the World Intellectual Property Organization in 2013. The following table contrasts India’s scores in various metrics of innovation with the four largest economies in the world by GDP.


Source:  Global Innovation Index 2013 and  SCImago Journal & Country Rank

The point here is that the state of our economy and society is directly linked to the incentive structure of our education system. It should be evident that these elite colleges thereby indirectly cause the regressive learning environment in most of the high schools in our country by setting the goal posts for students on the wrong end of the field.

This is why we read paradoxical news items about students who are nowhere near DU’s 100 percent cut off or the top ranks of the IIT JEE but are offered huge amounts of scholarship money in American institutions that are home to Nobel laureates, Fields medal winners and Turing prize winners. You could design a revolutionary app, contribute significantly to the local community, showcase inspiring individual calibre in the face of overwhelming adversity, and have brilliant ideological insights, but none of these attributes will be rewarded by our education system. Therefore some of the finest students either leave the country or fall prey to deprived opportunity. More importantly the education system actively prevents students from developing a multitude of necessary traits that will lead to these positive outcomes.

When I needed to decide the type of high school to attend in India, one of my relatives who was at a western institution after going through the Indian education system said, “If financing a western education isn’t a problem, don’t waste your time on curriculums based on ridiculous cram fests. Instead go to a school that gives you the space to volunteer in some local organization, work on a research project, and exhaustively explore the subjects that interest you, do an internship, explore the world around you, and read the paper every morning and some book every night. Make sure you head out West after high school because the colleges here reward and allow you to work on the right combination of positive traits and not just one positive trait. Besides even some of the least selective schools in the west, rank miles ahead of the most selective schools in India by most indicators.”

He seems to have captured the prevailing sentiment amongst individuals in the top rungs of the economic ladder of Indian society as the number of Indian students applying to Western Universities has been increasing at a staggering rate[1].

We typically associate “brain drain” to the exclusive pursuit of economic opportunity. However we can’t forget that innovation and ingenuity are the main engines of the most robust economies. So India is losing some of its finest students and has a lumbering economy because of an underlying flaw in its systems that don’t adequately reward innovation and ingenuity.

India needs a new wave of inspired and informed businessmen, innovators, politicians, bureaucrats and citizens to make positive economic and social change a reality. This is simply not feasible if there is a systemic hostility to nurturing most of the crucial traits that such individuals need to develop.

This is why there is a need for India’s elite colleges to adopt a holistic admission system that factors in a student’s leadership roles, thoughtfulness, community involvement, personal circumstances, extra-curricular research/project contributions, discipline and exam scores. They should thereby look to design an Indian version of the admission processes of the finest universities in the world (like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, LSE and so on). This will create an incentive structure that will initiate the end of the ludicrous exam centric schools and the rise of schools whose administrations are committed to providing a comprehensive learning environment to students. The idea is that changing the incentive structure of our education system should be an absolute imperative in order to significantly improve the educational experiences of children in India who have the privilege of going to school.

College administrations can easily ensure that holistic admission systems will not affect existing reservation quotas. How the reservation quotas should be established (or whether they should be established) is a separate issue that is not the focus of this article.

But there are serious challenges and dangers to consider. The first challenge is generating both the administrative will and public support to initiate such a move. A majority of us have somehow been convinced that the current exam-centric system works well despite overwhelming anecdotal and statistical evidence indicating otherwise. We need to remember that examinations are simply a manner through which one can assess a student’s ability to develop discipline and basic processing capacity. There is no denying that discipline is an important trait that will equip a student to achieve various individual and societal goals. But we cannot forget that it is only one of the many traits that need to be developed for an individual to achieve personal and professional success.

The second challenge will be overcoming the forces of the vested interests that benefit from the existing education system. Existing players who exploit this broken system make staggering amounts of money without investing adequate money in school infrastructure, teacher salaries and training programs, and student activities/programs. They are able to make a lot of money without ensuring the quality of their service or generating any real value in the Indian economy. They might use all their financial and political clout to lobby against positive change that could hurt their profit margins.

If we do manage to experiment with holistic admissions in India, the single biggest potential danger is our culture of corruption. This system will easily be undermined if individuals with political and financial clout can bypass the admission process and corrupt the system.

However I’m convinced that the benefits offered by a move to holistic admissions systems are enormous and necessary. So India’s elite undergraduate institutions need to find the will to overcome these challenges and make it happen.

If we truly aspire to be the transformative generation who will collectively facilitate India’s rise as an economic superpower and an epitome of moral tenacity, we need to develop a culture that celebrates discipline, innovation, leadership and thoughtfulness. Elite undergraduate institutions adopting holistic admissions that reward these traits in a transparent manner, in the place of exclusively exam based admissions will be a step in the right direction.