How often have I seen a situation, for example, that of having to choose a professor for a higher educational institution, or a senior manager for business organisation, when people around me urgently advise to pick the candidate who has a foreign degree or foreign work experience. When I ask them, why, they look back at me with a puzzled look, as if I have raised a question about something that is so self-evident.
When the decision in question is about choosing “just another” professor or manager, it could be rationally justified as an attempt to provide a cultural mix that can only be for the good. But when it is for the head of an Indian Institute of Management
(IIM) or the head of a policy-making national institution, I again raise the question, why, and again, I get greeted with that puzzled look.
It’s not that persons so enamoured with a foreign degree or foreign work experience are a run-of-the-mill folk: I have seen current or former secretaries to government or managing directors of successful businesses show those inclinations for things that are foreign.
Some professional disciplines, such as economics, appear to be more prone to it than others. Roles like governors of the Reserve Bank of India
(RBI), or economic advisors to state or central governments must brandish a foreign degree/work experience (the current RBI governor
is an unusual exception to this hallowed rule). It’s almost as if, after so many years of independence and investment in higher education, we just cannot seem to believe that our universities can produce an economic thinker good enough.
I have seen this personally, most acutely in the choice of directors of the IIMs. Even if there are excellent and proven India-based internal candidates, the push from other Board members is to find a person who is currently a professor in a foreign (often an American) university. And this push is irresistibly strong when the chairman of the IIM
which is looking for a director has had no education at an IIM
or Indian Institute of Technology
(IIT), but is otherwise a successful business executive.
I can, by now, predict what happens when such a non-resident Indian (NRI) candidate is chosen: He or she is by then in the final stages of his or her career, often with a mere six years to go for retirement in, for example, an American university and does not want, under any circumstances, to jeopardise retirement benefits from there. Secondly, the families are firmly settled in America, and cannot relocate to India. All this results in the chosen director performing as a guest artist — visiting their Indian campus occasionally.
Again, it’s not this guest artiste role that causes the damage. Such visiting NRI directors don’t have the time to make the five- or ten-year emotional commitment to create any truly innovative research centre or a revolutionary curriculum change.
I have seen otherwise great IIMs flounder for a decade after such an NRI guest artist director’s choice.
And at the policy-making level, such policy-making guest artistes, during their tenure in India, propagate the Western fashion of the day, be it the ideology of Socialism-public-sector-primacy in the 1950-70 period or the low-interest- rates-shareholder-value-maximisation in the current era.
Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
At a more macro level, I have found something disturbing about Indians, who pine to go to college abroad. Some of this passion for going abroad is part of being just practical: Because entry into the top Indian post-grad institutions like the IIMs or the IITs or medical colleges (to name a few institution types) is extremely competitive. So, if your parents are well-to-do, all you need to get into a Harvard or Harvard-like prestigious educational institution is to ask your dad to write a fat cheque for your admission. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book in 2005, The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates by Daniel Golden spells out how this is done extensively.
The fervent desire to go abroad after an IIM
or IIT degree is driven partly by a deeply-held belief in some Indian families and communities that life abroad will be both fairer and materially more rewarding for them. And considering that practically all large Indian businesses are run by families, it has become practically an iron-clad rule that they will be educated abroad, and come back to run their family businesses. And since this foreign-education stint is most often in the arts and commerce field, they return back to India with the entrenched belief that all technology-based innovation in business is best left to the West. Their role is to manage business through contacts and relationships.
All this has created a nationwide culture that any kind of India-based innovation and thinking is not something that Indians can do. All intellectual creations are best left to the West. This complete distrust in any India-based innovation is rampant, even among the current senior civil servants.
Is all this because of the several hundred years of British colonialisation? Has that put a virus inside us, Indians, that leads to a distrust of things Indian, particularly in matters of science and technology? This is clearly a virus more dangerous and more long-lasting than Covid-19, so, should we launch an equally vigorous struggle to eliminate this virus?