Managerial staff is the hidden backbone of the modern economy. Along with machinery, it is the presence of this managerial class that chiefly distinguishes the current economy from the pre-modern world of production. Without these white-collared saints answering emails and managing excel sheets – trading, production and marketing on a massive scale, which is so characteristic of our world – will not be possible.
Yet, as any chief executive or business-owner in India will tell you, the quality of managers in the market is appallingly low. If a business owner were to float an advertisement for a senior manager, or pick a run-of-the-mill business school on, say, the Delhi-Jaipur highway for prospective employees, she or he would meet MBA graduates specialising in Human Resources or Finance who can barely put together a decent letter to a client, or even orally communicate ideas clearly. Their learning is all too often about rote-memorising the “three key features of HR” and not any real problem solving.
The latest Assocham survey that notes that only 7% of India’s business school graduates are employable merely confirms what is evident to most chief executives in India – our managerial class is analytically handicapped. For any real responsibility or management, senior executives usually turn to graduates of the Indian Institutes of Management, the Indian School of Business, or the substantial mass of students returning from American business schools. Perhaps this is the reason why, in spite of pitiful average wages in India, the graduates from these schools are paid astronomical salaries. Short supply always attracts high prices. Also, this is not to suggest that star-performers cannot come out of the average Indian business school. If they do, it shall be in spite of their education – not because of it.
So what really ails Indian business education? I could, after the fashion of many a columnist, put the blame on the usual suspects – rote-learning, lack of development of soft skills, little teaching of problem-solving skills, and so on. However, there is a more structural cause underlying most of these issues, and that is the use of English as the language of business, law, government and bureaucracy, which is forced on a population that mostly does not grow up speaking it at home.
The essence of a dependable manager is her ability to solve problems through analytical thinking and be able to work in – or lead – teams through reliable modes of communication (written and oral). This means she must be able to systematically identify why, for instance, the costs of manufacturing suddenly shot up in the past financial year, or why the company is not able to make headway in a certain market segment in the past quarter, and work with her team towards executing the solution.
A certain level of literacy skills are needed in order to be able to do any of the tasks mentioned above properly. You can’t jot down a cohesive branding strategy if you can’t piece together grammatically correct sentences. And if written documentation and communication become a daily obstacle, then as any writer will tell you, stray ideas in the mind remain stray – not detailed frameworks for problem-solving or reliable action-plans for teams to follow. Thus, harming employability.
The majority of graduates who enter business schools in India already lack the needed felicity in the English language in order to start a business education. This severely hampers their ability to grasp concepts or put their minds through the analytical rigour of understanding a business case. Yet the logic of the country’s private education boom – which characterises most business schools in the country today – ensures that business schools accept, and graduate, such students every year.
When the elites win
Therefore, the problem of India’s MBA graduates is similar to the problem with its engineering or law graduates – who, unable to perform the basics of written or oral communication in English, throw themselves at complex tasks of engineering or law and produce shoddy outcomes at best. And like the strange demarcation in the MBA market between sharply skilled elite educated graduates and the vast majority of poorly trained ones, there exist elite lawyers and engineers from institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the National Law Schools too. Similar to their elite business school counterparts, these graduates are paid exorbitant starting salaries even while the vast oversupply at the bottom often end up applying for posts of government peons in order to find jobs.
While I haven’t touched other possible reasons behind such a divide – the general glut, for instance, of graduates, thanks to the private education boom of the past decade-and-a-half – the perverse dominance of English in India’s professional life remains the chief cause. The ideal solution to this is to educate our lawyers, doctors, bureaucrats and corporate executives – like the Japanese, Russians, Chinese and Germans do – in the language they speak at home. But that, due to reasons that require another op-ed, is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
But the dominance of English largely ensures that elite institutions end up hiring graduates who have studied in India’s best schools, while many young people, already handicapped by the appalling English taught at the schools in their towns or villages, continue to get degrees after degrees to no avail.
Akshat Khandelwal's Twitter handle is @akshat_khan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.