All entries for July 2007

July 15, 2007

Widening Horizons

Rediff, 15.07.2007

What is the most beneficial aspect of acquiring a Western education? Is it the lucrative job that probably follows it?

Or is it the degree that not ridiculed by half of the developed world’s universities? Or is it, for some at least, the approval stamp of a foreign university that seems to be so much more alluring than an Indian one?

For me, however, studying in Britain for five years has been all about widening my horizons. From the moment I stepped off the plane at Heathrow in 2001, the world has suddenly seemed a much larger place. I seemed to be in a straitjacketing cocoon in India that cracked the very first day I spent alone in another country.

For one, you learn to be a lot more aware of your surroundings because you haven’t got your parents to cover your back. In 2007 - after finishing my A-levels, then a degree and then working for a year in the United Kingdom - I’m left with a far greater understanding and deeper appreciation of what the world around me is like.

Everyone invariably speaks from within the contours of his or her particular context and experiences. I am no different.

Much of what I feel are the strengths of Western education comes from the fact that I studied a joint honours degree in History and Politics, and not Information Technology or Medicine that most Indian students tend to prefer.

Aside from the possible availability of better research laboratories in the UK, I cannot comment on the merits of the education system in science-related subjects in the UK.

I remember one of the major things that alienated the Indian school education system to me was the expectation that students can memorise large chunks of information to reproduce in the examinations. Another was coercing students to study certain ‘compulsory subjects’ beyond a certain age.

I really didn’t want to grapple with the intricacies of Hindi linguistic theory beyond Class X, but as my first language I would have had to.

I didn’t feel the need to memorise even the finest details of the subjects I studied at A-level, although the points of Lord Asquith’s cabinet in the first decade of the 20th century, or European competition laws were taught in their finest detail.

The trick was to do plenty of real-life case studies and projects in the classroom, which automatically drilled the knowledge in the students by the time the exams came around at the end of the year. I could give the exam without even spending too much time on revision because of how deeply the knowledge had penetrated my intellect—and I still remember those details.

Half of my friends in India cannot remember a word of most of their study materials from Class XI or XII.

Moreover, it always occurred to me that classifying students by academic streams viz. science, arts and commerce was rather unnecessary and arbitrary. There is none of that in Britain, and students are free to choose whatever four subjects they want at A-level.

I chose Business Studies, Government and Politics, History and Information Technology. This would have been impossible in India. This allowed me - and all students - to focus on what I liked, and since the interest was already there, to genuinely care for what I was studying.

At the school, and later on a much greater scale at the university level, there were two key strengths of the British education system compared to the Indian one.

First, the focus on improving the students’ methodology was very strong. Indeed, strong historiography was rewarded much more than listing every single fact you knew about a topic.

Students could get top marks by listing 70% of the facts, but stitching together their answers in an academically sound manner. The converse was not applicable—all facts and a poor structure will not get you more than 60% (B).

I was noting down footnotes diligently while I was doing my school project on Indian independence. At university we were taught the intricacies of the Oxford and Harvard system of referencing and I adhered strictly to the former. My friends in Indian universities had no clue about the proper methodologies even after graduation.

The second thing was the emphasis on developing student-generated original research, particularly at the university level. Perhaps here is where the difference between a developed and developing country is blatantly obvious. Not many government departments in India, let alone universities, can boast of annual revenues of ₤300 million (Rs 230 crores) to upgrade university facilities.

Every single journal of repute in every single subject was available to us on our computers. Most books of note published in every subject were in our library, which was adding to its shelves on a daily basis. Books are being converted into e-books, journals are stored electronically to free up space for new entries and magazines were held dating back to the previous century. None of this is present in India.

All this helped students to be up to date in their opinions, and this in turn fostered their minds to devise original answers to questions on the basis of a strong research-oriented outlook. Answers with original content backed up by heavy research were handsomely rewarded, while mugging up won’t even earn you passing marks.

A wide number of workshops, projects, seminars and discussion sessions helped us bounce off ideas against each other. The actual curriculum stipulated one seminar discussion with a professor every week on each module, where students basically threw seething criticisms at their colleagues’ thesis while the sober academic calmly took notes of how each student defended his/her ideas.

This personalised treatment was present even in schools. Each answer of mine received details comments - positive and negative - by the teachers. I used to put my mugging up skills to good use initially, but after the structural defects were pointed out by my teachers, I slowly changed track and acquired those very important methodological techniques instead of writing whatever I knew about a subject.

On the other hand, I have always found that students - and adults - prefer to quote eminent personalities to defend their views. Is it because they lack views of their own?

I haven’t mentioned anything about extra-curricular facilities that are part of the holistic education system in the West. But you can get details of student union parties, impressive sports facilities at particular institutions and the local nightlife in any careers magazine in India these days.

I have instead focused on the core of what advantages there are of a Western education system apart from the added frills. Needless to say, some will scoff, saying that I am servile to the West. But dear reader, do you think the education system in India is actually Indian in nature? Hardly.

Our curriculum content, ideologies and structures within which we educate our students are bad emulations of Victorian England [Images]. There is nothing authentic about India’s education system, so we should stop defending it as if it’s the direct descendent of the gurukul system.

I have tried to portray how structural and methodological changes can greatly help our students without the need for installing expensive facilities, which seems to be a convenient excuse for the current stagnation.


July 12, 2007

The Immortal Bard

The Telegraph, 12.07.2007

Ramachandra Guha has delivered a rallying call to shift Rabindranath Tagore from the regional to the national pedestal. Guha could not have been more right at a time when India seems to be so fascinated by everything Western. In his address at the inauguration ceremony of Cheena-Bhavan in Visva-Bharati on April 14 1937, Tagore said, “We had, for over a century, been so successfully hypnotised and dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot that, though choked by the dust, deafened by the noise, humbled by our helplessness, overwhelmed by speed, we yet agreed to acknowledge that this chariot-drive was progress, and that progress was civilization. If we ever ventured to ask, however humbly: Progress towards what, and progress for whom? It was considered to be peculiarly and ridiculously oriental to entertain such doubts about the absoluteness of progress. It is only of late that a voice has been heeded by us, bidding us take account not only of the scientific perfection of the chariot, but of the depth of ditches lying across its path.”

Fortunately for Tagore, he found Gandhi, who did question the speed and direction of the chariot’s progress. Since we have neither Gandhi nor Tagore today, we must look up to their words to avoid those ditches.


July 08, 2007

Never on Time

Boloji, 07.07.07

“Date- 04.05.2007, Amount Paid Out- £24.30, Recipient- “X” Ltd, Mumbai (India)”

On the morning of the 5th I found this on my online bank statement. A couple of hours later, I was found yelling, “Do you think this is some kind of a joke?” to a surprisingly brazen customer service representative of a reputed online portal based in India who told me point blank that they had not charged my card for this transaction.

“You will have to fax us a copy of your bank statement, sir. Your order is not confirmed and so we have not charged you for this.”

“Are you telling me I’m lying? I can see the outgoing sum on my statement right here. And I am not faxing anything over to you, particularly sensitive details such as these.”

Did I sound rude and uncooperative? I had a reason to be. This precise thing happened last time when my friend was using my card to send a birthday cake to her mother and I had to fax these documents to authorize the payment and was told 48 hours later that I had in fact forgotten to fax them. The audacity! I expected better from a leading company in a country that claims to be on the advanced frontiers of information technology. Why couldn’t someone else pay for a product for another person online? It happens on all reputed websites all over the world.

“So will the item be delivered on the 11th, as I requested when I placed the order?”

“No sir. Since you have not confirmed the order, we cannot make this delivery date. And you have not requested any delivery date.”

“Actually I did mention the 11th. Also, once I have placed the order why do I need to confirm again? And how should I know I had to? And excuse me, you HAVE charged me.”

“No sir we need proof. And we have sent you the confirmation e-mail.”

“Well, check your bloody bank account ‘coz you’ve taken the money from mine. And no, you haven’t sent me anything”

I was getting nowhere. This was ludicrous. A few minutes later I was given the supplier’s number to ring and request the item to be delivered on time. I was wondering whether it was really the customer’s business to chase up suppliers for the seller. When I did get through to the supplier, he told me that the item had already been dispatched and will reach on time.

It didn’t. So I called on the 13th and was told that the courier has got it and the supplier had no clue why it hadn’t been delivered. After another round of banging my head against the wall, the item arrived on the 18th. Am I missing a point, or should a birthday gift actually arrive on the birthday?

Last week I bought a phone from Amazon.co.uk which arrived in faulty condition. I e-mailed the seller who appeared to be dragging his feet about the refund. I sent an e-mail to Amazon customer service. 12 hours later I received a response saying that have contacted the seller and will credit my account with the refund as soon as possible.

This was all the more impressive because I bought the phone from a seller, and not one of Amazon’s own suppliers. But it really is the norm here, and it is so very disappointing to see Indian companies who aspire to be world beaters to fail so miserably in putting the customer first. The arbitration process in India is notoriously opaque, and I felt extremely helpless as the customer who’s shelled out the cash for the product.

Please don’t take me for an arrogant buffoon who unfairly compares the infrastructure of a developed country with a developing one. The point is that online technology is widespread in India, and I am not even talking cutting edge and expensive gizmos here. Simple project management, efficiency, transparency and empathy will do the trick.

Capitalism would have us believe that customer is king. In India instead of getting value for money, the customer has to pay the money and pray that the value comes with the order.


July 06, 2007

Parting Shot

The Telegraph, 06.07.2007

S.L. Rao has completely missed the ground reality in “Triumph of Choice” (July 2) in which he brazenly crowns the consumer to be the supreme factor in Indian economy. A visit to a multiplex in the city would prove him wrong. Here, an average movie ticket costs Rs 150 while a small box of popcorn can set you back by Rs 70. A similar experience in the UK is cheaper. Given that the ratio of average income of a Brit to an Indian is about 45:1, it can easily be noted where the value for money lies. Moreover, the widespread hankering for everything Western has led to undeserved elevation of non-exclusive brands to an elite status in India. This has more to do with consumer mentalities and their blind emulation of the West than with squeezed profit margins of the manufacturers and retailers. A typical anomaly is that in the West, local stores cannot offer economies of scale whereas supermarkets can. However, in India the corner shop offers a better deal on a wide array of products vis-à-vis the supermarket. Thus, to suggest that the Indian consumer has real choices in a marketplace that offers him value for money is nothing but fallacious.


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