When a friend said, “It must feel like a close-knit family in Cambridge since you all seem to come from the same schools, I experience the same with my community,” it made me pause and think. There was a difference between the population of Hong Kong (7.3 million), where my friend comes from, and India (1.3 billion). There is truth to what she said. While generalisations can never be made, what she expressed was mostly true of my undergraduate experience at Cambridge, where most undergraduate Indian students come from two or three elite schools.
People often find it strange when I mention that I found it hard to step in the shoes of many Indian students in Cambridge. After all, it was where Nehruji studied and has a rich history of famous Indian alumnus. However, I found myself connecting more with middle-class British students than Indians who hailed from upper and business class backgrounds. Perhaps it was the discussions of holidays in Europe, luxury brands or exposure to popular childhood english TV shows that was completely alien to me.
What hit me the most, however, was our different concepts of home. The India that they described with golf courses and lavish parties was miles apart from the India I grew up in as a child or witness when I visit family back home. I know of an India where life seems to be a constant struggle, with dysfunctional public infrastructure and insecure futures, especially for the old. Conversely, despite the cultural barriers, the childhood of British friends was much more relatable, with family picnics in nearby parks, routine chores at home and having parents whose biggest financial investment in life was sending us here. I was fortunate enough to have my father’s company sponsor my education, and later on, a scholarship from the university, which made it possible to attend Cambridge. All of this made me stop and think whether Nehruji himself would have attended Cambridge, were it not for his schooling at Harrow, one of UK’s elite public schools.
Some find it convenient to single out the class system or wealth inequality for perpetuating such barriers to education. Others might enquire the names of schools my Indian friends attended, hoping that if they somehow enrol their children there, they too can secure a bright future. While these are facets of the problem, deeper still lies a broken Indian education system and missed opportunities various students do not get.
It is easy to blame the rich, and their expensive tutors, who enable their children to maximise their potential, but one must start by questioning the poor quality of the public education students receive. The financial and social hurdles families face start from primary school, let alone higher education, ranging from the neighbourhood they live in, the language they speak and the environment their children are exposed to. And those who can overcome these hurdles, many times have the means to seek education elsewhere. For instance, those born in India constitute the biggest foreign-born population in London, with many of the sharpest minds working in science, technology and finance. The result has a stark irony. The country which produces this bubbling gene pool of talent also has the highest illiterate population in the world.
Where had it all gone wrong? I vividly remember an Indian female student studying in another elite British university championing the cause of empowerment. The group she was a member of demanded better representation of women (albeit mostly coming from elite universities) in top UK financial institutions. The group had a highly successful year, with the girls having an afterparty in Spain. While they too fight for a genuine cause, as women’s empowerment is required at various levels, it made me question what my role to help girls back home may be.
What did empowerment for an average Indian girl mean? Perhaps it would be the freedom to obtain a decent education, regardless of who she is or where she comes from. Or the independence to pursue a hobby, without any prejudice.
Independence may not come overnight. Nor would an overhaul of the education system. But the education she gets from those around her and the attitudes she is engulfed in can change. While there are more questions than answers to be found, posing questions might be the first step to independence. The independence to ponder over what she aspires to be. Could it come in coming to an institution like Cambridge, which is said to have shaped her nation’s founder, will ultimately make her, and her people free? Can we build an education system as strong as Cambridge’s to ensure she doesn’t have to leave home to gain her own independence?