Across the world, middle class families are dealing with the consequences of competition to get into high-quality institutions, says Ajit Balakrishnan.
Earlier this week, on an early morning flight from Mumbai to Delhi, I sat next to a young woman with a worried look on her face.
I briefly smiled at her, not wanting to appear unfriendly, and buried my face into my book.
When the plane reached cruising speed I thought I'd look out of the window at the outline of Mahim Creek becoming hazier, when I noticed that the young woman's face looking even cloudier.
"Something seems to be worrying you -- can I help?" I asked.
"We just got our daughter admitted to junior KG (kindergarten) and prepaid the first year's fee of Rs 4 lakh," she said.
The size of the fee came as a surprise to me as well.
I do know that fees in schools in Bombay (and perhaps other metro cities) have been skyrocketing -- but a fee of Rs 4 lakh for the first year of school seemed a little over the top.
"My husband and I are both working and we can afford this, but the reason I am worried is that if her first year at school costs that much, what will it cost by the time our daughter gets to college?"
I clucked sympathetically, but did not tell her what lay ahead.
I have been seeing other young men and women -- not, perhaps, as young as my next-seat neighbour, but those with children just entering college -- grappling with questions such as this.
A daughter has just finished her high school from a prominent Mumbai school and is miserable that her parents are reluctant to send her to an American university at a cost of Rs 50 lakh a year for four years.
"All my friends are going, so why can't I?" is the question she confronts them with every day.
Then, there is the SOS call I received from a cousin.
He had sent his son to a one-year postgraduate course in engineering at a foreign university by borrowing Rs 15 lakh.
The son did get a job in that country, but was not earning enough to help with repayments .
So, my cousin had started defaulting on the repayments.
Penal interest had started mounting, and the amount he was confronted with was Rs 19 lakh.
He had pledged his ancestral house, a place I remember fondly from having spent many a summer holiday in my childhood, to get this loan from a public sector bank. And he was frightened that the bank would auction off this home.
But, nothing shocked me as much as an acquaintance in Bangalore who proudly announced that he had just paid a capitation fee of Rs 1.5 crore to secure his son admission in a medical college.
How could the son possibly earn enough as a doctor to justify this kind of cost of admission?
When I quizzed several acquaintances who have recently sent their children abroad for undergraduate education, paying Rs 50 lakh-plus, the standard answer I get is this: We don't think our son (or daughter) is good enough to crack the Indian Institute of Technology or Indian Institute of Management exams, and don't know what kind of jobs they will get. On the other hand, after a foreign degree, they may get a job abroad or perhaps a job with a multinational company in India. So, we would like to give our children that opportunity.
Before we conclude that all these attempts by Indian parents are just signs of the screwed-up Indian education system, here is evidence from the other side of the fence.
The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs and Incomes, a recent book by Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton, says that 'the competition for good, middle-class jobs is now a worldwide competition -- an auction for cut-priced brainpower -- fuelled by an explosion of higher education across the world and a fundamental power shift in favour of corporate bosses and emerging economies such as China and India... Fighting for a dwindling supply of good jobs will compel Americans to devote more time, money and effort to set themselves apart in a bare-knuckle competition that will leave many disappointed.'
So, the anxiety about competition is not just among Indian middle class parents.
They say there is a global auction for professional middle-class jobs and that middle class parents have no choice but to use their financial and cultural assets to get their children the marketable knowledge, certificates and networks that the credentials of a brand-name university provides.
If they don't do this, their children face the threat of downward social mobility.
To add to their anxieties, other filters apply as well.
In England, 90 per cent of students who enter Oxford or Cambridge are from privileged professional or managerial backgrounds.
In America's Ivy League universities, 60 per cent of seats are reserved for students from privileged families or those who can pay full fees -- merit-based candidates compete for only 40 per cent of seats.
Perhaps the apparently irrational actions that I described above -- the young fellow-passenger paying Rs 4 lakh a year for a junior KG seat for her daughter, friends who are putting out Rs 50 lakh a year to put their children through a four-year foreign undergraduate degree, the acquaintance from Bangalore who has just paid Rs 1.5 core for a medical college seat for his son... All hard working men and women who have come up to their current positions not through inheritance, but by unending hard work in college and beyond -- are not that irrational. They are all, in their individual ways, trying to solve this same puzzle and make a stable upper-middle-class life possible for their children.
In the meantime, schools throughout our country are racing to sign up for the International Board curriculum, hordes of Indian parents are remitting Rs 50 lakh-plus a year, and Indian banks are increasing their exposure to educational loans (undeclared dirty secret: The non-performing-asset ratio on educational loans in India is already at five per cent or more!).
I hope the newly-appointed Education Commission is worrying about all this.
Ajit Balakrishnan is the author of The Wave Rider, a Chronicle of the Information Age. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Lead image used for representational purposes only. Image courtesy: British High Commission, New Delhi/Creative Commons