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'We lack original thinkers in academic institutions'

Last updated on: July 14, 2010 11:04 IST

'We lack original thinkers in academic institutions'



He left his first job at Pradhan, an NGO, because he could not directly communicate with his client -- the farmer. Today Nachiket Mor, president of ICICI Foundation, in the midst of a series of initiatives that have the farmer at its core. Associated with IFMR, he is also actively involved in management education.

He talks to B Mahesh Sarma about a number of issues -- from education, career, teaching in his mother tongue to the constant quest to push the needle further.

Is a sense of social responsibility the cause for your career shift?

The way I view it, I don't have this thing about social responsibility. At every stage of my career I have tried to evaluate 'Am I moving the needle, making a bit of an impact?' And, whenever I feel that I am in a space where many other people are doing great work, if I don't do it someone else will, I try to go to other empty spaces.

Does the need to push the needle drive all your choices?

My original plan had been to be a physicist. If I had been a Nobel prizewinning physicist, I would have been very satisfied and been moving the needle there. It's just that I felt firstly I was just not good enough, and secondly in India there were other things that I could move the needle with. I got a PhD in finance, because I did not feel sufficiently competent about doing what I was being asked to do by ICICI. Yes, it took me four years instead of four months. But I was young. I had enough time.

As a nation we keep using the term 'world-class institutions'. Should that be our guiding paradigm?

My sense is that you have to first decide 'What is the objective of teaching?'. If your view is that what you want to produce are 'skilled people' who can perform well-defined tasks, you need a certain framework of teaching which I would call the Lord Macaulay way.

But if you want people who can go out and develop original ideas, then they need to be taught by people with a questioning mind-set because only then are they able to transfer and teach you underlying principles.

Where we are lacking today is in the latter, we are not getting an adequate group of people that are original thinkers sitting inside academic institutions that are producing original work. I see the lack of this in India.

Image: Nachiket Mor
Photographs: G Sivaperumal

'We need to develop our own benchmarks'

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Is faculty a bottleneck in this?

I was a member of the National Knowledge Commission for management track. There are 1,700 schools for MBA studies in the country. They are not producing adequate number of graduates in terms of quality. There was an anxiety that a lot of it was because of the quality of faculty that was provided was not adequate.

If you are saying that I want a bright, extremely talented, creative individual to dedicate his life to the pursuit of the academic rigours of teaching, original thinking, then you have to pay people.

So low salaries are the culprit...?

I am a graduate from IIM Ahmedabad. I paid about Rs 15,000 as fees. Who subsidised my education? Not the government, but my teachers. They got paid so little, which is why I paid so little. We expect them to take our precious children and take care of them for longer than we do, eight sometimes nine hours a day. It's a shame.

You can't deny the fact that the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank is going to pay an MBA Rs 2 lakh a month. But, the institute that is planning to hire a PhD who will teach him, will be paid Rs 50,000 a month. It makes no sense.

What about the research output?

You might say that the US schools have the system of journals, to get publications in there is a mark of excellence. Maybe we can also develop our own benchmarks.

Is the US model, with multi-faculty, multi-campus university structure the way to go?

What the US universities have done is they have brought some of the lucrative professions in to the same schools. It is a bit of a cross subsidisation. If you look at Penn, the Wharton School is a lucrative school; the medical school is a lucrative school. Now, to some degree these schools bring in the dollars to the rest of the university. And why does Wharton not mind? Because, they benefit with a deeper exposure to a wider community. Just on there own, they might not have been as attractive. Maybe, that's the way to do it.

Producing more PhDs is another way. Every global school has this thought that our PhDs are teaching everywhere. Our sphere of reach is expanding and our way of thinking is the way that the world is thinking about it.

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'We fail to acknowledge the improtance of local languages'

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What else is a constraint in our system?

In my view we are the only country in the world that has built an education system not in our native language. Tiny countries like Austria teach up to the PhD level in Austrian. The large bulk of our country operates in a non-English
speaking frame and that's true of our teachers too.

If you are forcing everybody to hire faculty that can teach in English language, it's a challenge. Certainly, when you go further down, what you are getting is a mockery of the English language. And as a result, you are graduating a lot of children who are not familiar with any language. It's like a mixed, confused bag that is coming out.

But knowledge resources are substantially in English...

It is not difficult. I think the kind of thing that Google is doing in some ways are going to make some of these journeys
much easier. When Google translates, what it does is that it splits a page. So, you start with an English website, you
can just click on a number of languages. The quality of translation may not be the best, but what they say is if you don't like it, change it and it will become a part of our database.

They are getting millions of people to constantly correct the language. Google auto senses the language in which you originated the message and converts it to English. Language to English, English to language, one can build a seamless gateway.

You can appear to be the way the world wants you to but stay focussed on your local language.

And you think there is an economic opportunity here?

The Japanese to this day cannot speak a word of English. It has not held them back in any significant sense from growth. I now work in Chennai. The bulk of the managers I deal with including those that work in large companies
speak, read, write in Tamil. They do not use English as the main language of business. And definitely most of the
customers only speak Tamil.

It would be the same for any other state. And across the sector we need about two, two-and-a-half million people at credit officer level. Maybe we need thousands of senior officers. About 200 MFIs are starting up in the country. If everyone of them is to grow, to have 2-3 million clients, each of them will need 100-200 senior people. And most of them would need local language skills.

This is true of most other segments of the economy. Sadly, Cartoon Network has understood this, Pogo has understood this, and the Hollywood movie industry has understood this. For some reason, we fail to acknowledge this.

Image: Rediff Archives

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