The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Education as a crucial economic activity

The 'knowledge market' is just a name I have chosen ' it has not made the dictionary yet. However, it does not describe an entirely hypothetical or even unknown animal. Bringing supply (of teaching) and demand (for learning) face to face must have been a known phenomenon for a pretty long time or the children of the Homo sapiens would not have remained sapient. I suspect even before the other basically simpler organisms arrived ' like the fish market, the labour market, the capital market (that eventually would become the most dangerous predator of them all, the stock market), learning and teaching to mutual advantage of the people concerned must have existed. Some degree of rigorous education outside the immediate surroundings of one's family cave-dwelling must have been going on between warring, hunting and other games. Education as an economic activity could well have given the kick-start to Modern Man's progress on the Adam Smith Path of division of labour and the first quantum jumps in the gross domestic product.

All markets were created by men and women in the pursuit of their 'ordinary business of life', to use Alfred Marshall's phrase. But the complexity of the supply-demand mechanism of what arguably was the earliest form, the knowledge market, has not been fully understood by man to this day. Yet, attempts to 'reform' this market had been made throughout the ages and in all countries, mostly by ignorant men in power who would not dare try anything similar with even the simpler market forms except under absolutely despotic regimes.

The interferences in the knowledge market usually came in the past in different guises ' preservation of public morals, pursuit of high social values, spreading of cherished religious principles and every other pretext that came to mind. At least some of these, as later historians would find, were actually prompted by the exigencies of supply and demand conditions arising in the other markets. Today, funnily enough, the pressures for destabilizing the knowledge market seems to be coming mostly from, of all people, the advocates of market freedom itself.

Usually several generations have to pay the price for the follies perpetrated in a single year by a handful of powerful men in positions of decision-making in the sector of education. Not being a firm enough believer in conspiracy theories, I can only imagine these decision-makers would be normal people like ourselves ' politicians, administrators and educationists ' who probably did not do their homework thoroughly over that year and the rest of the people were not asked to be involved in the implicit social choice questions at all. It is this thought that mainly prompts me to talk here about one small, but in my opinion, crucial, aspect of the operation of the knowledge market in the modern education system in all countries.

It is all about the time-horizon that the investors in education have in mind while thinking of the outcomes of their investments. To an extent it is also about their perceptions of the future of their society and economy (in the futurologist's and not the astrologist's sense) and their own personal dreams associated with that future.

First, who are the investors in the knowledge market' Let me give you a quick count without going into some of the real-life complications arising from overlap and mismatch of investments that can only be dealt with in longer discussions. Foremost among the investors are the students themselves (in most cases backed by parents ' one reason for the overlap of interests and mismatch of investments I have hinted at). Of course, they have to make some investments in money, but more importantly, they have to invest in well-directed effort and, irrevocably, their youth.

Second, in every modern society you will have to count another large class of people who invest in acquiring professional knowledge for (and through) teaching the students. At least some of them go into research along with teaching ' in some cases or for some part of their life, into whole-time research.

Each one investing in the knowledge market belonging to these two classes spends money, effort and what is much more, an irreversible period of one's life, to enriching the human endowment one was born with, turning it into valuable human capital. But normally a systematic process of such enrichment is possible only if counterpart investments are also made by the 'providers' ' the education system comprising, besides the government itself, schools, colleges, universities and research institutes run by public and private 'enterprises' motivated by widely differing objectives from genuine philanthropy to plain profit-making to simply grabbing social limelight.

Another group of stakeholders, though not necessarily direct investors in the knowledge market, has recently emerged. This comprises corporate houses taking active interest in the reform of the organization of learning and teaching in the school and higher-education sectors. They have not yet taken to financing capacity-building and high-level research in their own preferred areas of physics, chemistry, the bio-sciences and information technology, on a scale seen in America, Canada or Britain, but it is only a question of time before this entirely new genre of investors will make its presence felt in the knowledge market with its own corporate agenda seeking to crowd out other investment interests of students, teachers and research workers.

The most powerful provider in our knowledge market at the moment, however, remains society itself, or rather the state functioning at its three levels of constitutional governance, the Central, the state and the district (with its own three-tier panchayati raj structure). The state, therefore, still has an important role to play and it cannot be wished away.

One important thing to notice about these investors in the knowledge market is that they are basically individuals or social groups (or government-like constructs) typically with different aspirations based on their perceptions of what investment in knowledge is all about. They operate in their own distinct domains and pursue goals set by themselves and choose their own time horizons. Any one individual or group will not, therefore, necessarily recognize the legitimacy of another's definition of what constitutes the 'market' or accept the constraints of such a definition. As for the set of 'knowledge wares' they are looking to produce or buy in the market, each group defines not only what such wares are but also for whom the wares are to be produced.

Some groups would be investing for themselves, some for unborn generations. Some would think of what will sell today, some others what would be important ten years from now. Some groups (like teachers, researchers, poets and playwrights) would conjure up markets even further down the line according to their visions of and expectations from imagined markets of the future.

In fact, history tells us that investments in human capital that are remembered most had not always targeted the present; often these were addressed to future man. Whether Sanskrit or Fuzzy Logic will sell today or hereafter many years later; whether in this country or in some other ' these will remain questions always open to worthwhile speculation.

Let me end with a story. An ancient writer of this land whose works drew little attention in his day was asked by his friends, 'Why do you have to go on writing' Nobody ever reads you!' The writer said he was only waiting for his dear readers, and had excellent reasons for hope too, for 'people have different tastes; time is infinite; and the earth is vast'. So it stands to reason that society only shows prudence by not accepting pressing current and local demand as the only reliable guide to investment in human knowledge.

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