Upside Of Scaling Down

Upside Of Scaling Down

India must offer unique services, not just depend on low-cost production

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In passing, student/teacher ratios are generally lower in relatively rich countries and higher in relatively poor countries.

“Those who can do, those who can’t teach.” This quote has been ascribed to many people. No, Woody Allen’s punchline in Annie Hall isn’t the first reference. If credit is to be given, we should stick to George Bernard Shaw, in Man and Superman. The idea/line occurs in the main text of the play, as well as in the appended Maxims for Revolutionists. In the former, “Don’t listen to her Bob. Remember those who can, do; those who can’t teach.” In the latter, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” There is no reason to presume these were Shaw’s views, as opposed to a clever witticism pronounced by a protagonist in a play. For example, on education, the Maxims also include the following. “When a man teaches something he does not know to somebody who has no aptitude for it, and gives him a certificate of proficiency, the latter has completed the education of a gentleman.” The word “teacher” (teach) has an etymological origin such that a teacher means someone who shows a direction. This requires interaction between teacher and student, guru and shishya. Successful teaching is individual-specific and a successful teacher adapts according to capacity and receptivity of recipient. That’s the reason we harp on low student/teacher ratios, if we talk about a class. Lower the ratio, more individualised the attention. Ideally, the figure should be 1:1. But with too many students and too few teachers, we must have classes, not individuals. Thus, deviations from 1:1.

In passing, student/teacher ratios are generally lower in relatively rich countries and higher in relatively poor countries. Without getting into the specifics of regulatory norms, we have implicitly assumed the ratios will decline as we move up the education ladder. Therefore, 30:1 or 35:1 is acceptable in schools, but it must decline to 25:1 for under-graduate and 10:1 for post-graduate or professional courses. At the PhD level, it will clearly be 1:1. In other words, we recognise the 1:1 guru-shishya interaction as ideal, but deviate on grounds of scarce resources — too many students, too few teachers. The lower range of the education spectrum is like an assembly line, individuality is left for the upper range.

For students, we increasingly repress individuality — in curricula, teaching and examination methods. The lower down the education ladder, the more accentuated this is. Therefore, at the school level, gone are the days when students wrote essays with subjectivity built into answers and evaluation. Instead, we must approximate multiple-choice type objective questions, where computers can also perform evaluation. But, as we move up the education ladder and progress towards jobs, we want some criteria to gauge the applicant’s individuality. However, since we have progressively reduced students to commodities, there is no option but to raise the bar or filter higher. Earlier, an undergraduate degree ensured differentiation. That role shifted to post-graduate degrees. In academia, that role later shifted to PhDs. Subsequently, it shifted to publications. Still later, it shifted to citations.

Teachers have also been reduced to commodities. There is a difference between a good and a service, even though technology blurs the difference. A service requires direct interface between the producer and the consumer. A typical service cannot be stored and teaching is a service, though a video of a teacher delivering a lecture can be reduced to a good. Despite excitement about technology, I think good teaching, or good anything that is a service, is intrinsically interactive. It is 1:1. A least common denominator can be replicated, as a template. But anything beyond cannot be standardised. Superior service is not about the industrial revolution and producing the service at least possible cost. Yet, for teachers, and for others, we now have the phenomena of power point presentations. Typically, this means a standardised template, devoid of interaction and uniqueness. In the PPT mode, we don’t really need the teacher — it is meant to eliminate the teacher, instead.

This is not just about teaching. Teaching is an example of a service. If India’s strength is in services, and not in classic manufacturing, we should celebrate uniqueness and not seek to standardise, trying to produce Model T-s cheaply. I do not wish to posit this as either/or. It isn’t. But I think in branding India and musing about Make in India, we have focused inordinately on low-cost production. A brand distinguishes itself from a commodity by commanding a premium. It commands a premium because of quality and by virtue of being rarer, not generic. Traditionally, we haven’t produced generic items. There weren’t hundreds of pieces of muslin that could pass through a ring. Pieces were unique. With quality ensured, let’s not always worry about the economies of scale and scope. There is scope for scaling down.


(The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal)