Archive for August 7th, 2015

What Does an MA Know? Postgraduate Learning Deficits and the Diploma Disease in Social Sciences

August 7, 2015

A must read paper which makes Indian education scene more depressing. There is some talk on quality of primary education via the Pratham surveys. But then it would be difficult to imagine things are going to be any better in higher education.

Here is a scene the paper reflects from a MA class in economics:

In a classroom of second-year MA (Economics) students, an introductory lecture on international economics was under way. The topic being discussed was the growth of post-war international trade and the following is a brief account of how it unfolded. “World exports grew from … billion dollars odd in 1960 to … billion in 2010,” said the teacher. Some of the students promptly noted down the numbers. “Don’t you think the numbers are mind-boggling?” the teacher a dded, trying to make them appreciate their magnitude. “Try comparing them with India’s GDP … roughly speaking, what do you think is India’s GDP?”

The class remained silent. “7%,” said one of the students taking the initiative, mistaking it for gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate. “1,000 million,” shouted another boy immediately, steering the response in the right direction. The answer paved way to every student voicing a number. “250 billion,” said one. “No, 250 billion is very high. It could be around 250 million,” shouted another.

Some of the students tried to be more exact. “I think it is 3,800 crore.” “19,000 crore.” “870 million.” “92 billion.” “Not 92 billion, it is 92 trillion.” “Are these in dollars or rupees?” enquired the teacher.

The class appeared divided with the rupee ayes outshouting the dollar ones in patriotic fervour. What happened further in the class need not be taken up here. But at the end of the lecture, one of the girls walked up to the teacher. She had an honest query that she felt embarrassed to ask openly. “Madam, what is a million?”

Phew..This bad huh?


In this paper, we present the results of a survey conducted among postgraduate students of economics in a reputed, state-run Indian university. The objective was to assess their understanding of basic arithmetic operations and some primary economic principles/indicators. The results were very Pratham-like. But, as we suspect, neither the discipline nor the university concerned are unique in this. When a Class VII student cannot solve arithmetic operations meant for Class IV, it reveals the poor state of schooling.

But when a postgraduate cannot solve an arithmetic problem meant for Class VII, what is to be inferred? The answer is not so straightforward. In higher education in the social sciences, there are channels/ pathways—perhaps even deliberately created—that do not require knowing any arithmetic. In a subject such as economics that has acquired a mathematical orientation globally, a lack of numerical familiarity among students has serious implications on how the subject is being shaped domestically—how syllabi are framed, classes conducted, and examinations evaluated. At the risk of generalisation, it leads to introspection on what a typical MA (Economics) student really knows. At the same time, the survey results become a point of departure for a larger enquiry.

How does a longer continuum of ignorance/mediocrity form, stretching beyond schools into higher education? What are the institutional mechanisms in place to sustain it? Dore (1976) in his seminal work on the “ diploma disease” fi rst diagnosed the disturbing trend of education getting reduced to a “ritualised process of qualifi cationearning.” As summarised by James (1998: 356), the disease was not as much about “individuals pursuing qualifi cations … rather it was about how pedagogy became pathologically infected by the pressure to ensure good examination results … it was not individuals who caught the disease, it was school systems.”

On one hand there is a surge to be educated (take diplomas) and on the other there is such wide learning deficit. India is all about dilemmas most of the time:

How do these seemingly contradictory tendencies co-exist, chronic learning deficits on the one hand and the quest for better examination results on the other? Are these two processes functioning independently and in separate pools of students? Or alternatively, is it possible to not know much and still be able to score high? As we reckon, the diploma disease manifests itself in strong faculty-wise segregation in India. We remain concerned about its social sciences mutations, particularly where the disease combines with learning defi cits.

The social sciences are not only witnessing an escalation/inflation of qualifications, a typical symptom of the diploma disease, but also, worryingly, qualifi cations being acquired at very low thresholds of quality, undermining both the degree and the person acquiring it. How else does one explain an elementary algebraic question “5y = 100. Solve for y,” first found in textbooks of Class VI, resurfacing at a much senior level in a third-year Bachelor of Arts (BA) (Economics) university-level paper under the title “Quantitative Techniques”? While the question may appear to be an “easy” one, it hints at a systemic awareness of the low academic attainments of students who are going to attempt it.1 With the understanding that a majority are going to fi nd it difficult, a mathematical question comes with a generic, nonmathematical option, “Explain the importance of research methodology (in 100 words),” for which an equally generic, standardised answer is available in guides, or printed notes. Examples such as these are illustrative of deep-rooted learning deficits being systemically carried forward.

Does not read well at all. Leave math skills, even basic economic reasoning is missing in most students.

Finding the silver bullet for Japan’s train dilemma

August 7, 2015

Interesting article on Japanese train industry. It also helps in understanding the overall structure of train/railways.

The problem with Japanese billet trains is that they are single lines between two key stations. Such lines are closed systems as in they cannot be used by other train lines. This makes the system expensive but still is much safer than the open system alternative:


How many can pass this Prof. Milton Friedman’s exam on money and banking (1932)?

August 7, 2015

This blog had earlier pointed about a Harvard economics exam in 1953. Most reacted to the post wondering how many economics students and today’s economics pros can pass this exam today?

Similarly, Rear view mirror blog points through this post Prof Friedman’s exam on money and banking in 1932:

Write on any four questions.

  1. “The banks could either keep the demand for real capital within the limits set by the supply of savings or keep the price level steady; but they cannot perform both functions at once.” (Hayek) Discuss this statement critically
  2. “Only the purely static quantity theory needs no index number, for its comparisons assume relative prices to be unchanged inter se. The objections to Professor Fisher’s Equation of Exchange arise mainly from the faults of the price index implied in it.” (Hawtrey) Explain and evaluate this statement.
  3. The criticism is sometimes made of the quantity theory that it assumes other things to be equal, whereas in fact they are not. Discuss this criticism. What “other things” are referred to?
  4. Discuss the relation between the k of Keynes’ earlier equation and the velocity of circulation.
    b. Discuss the statement that changes in the velocity of circulation of goods cannot bring about changes in the price level because of the fact that they necessarily bring about compensating changes in the velocity of circulation of money.
  5.  According to Keynes’ analysis what would it be necessary to do in order to eliminate the business cycle? State and support your opinion of Keynes’ conclusion.

How many can pass this either? How many have even heard of these statements? Where is the equation/model here? It ain’t economics man!!

A must follow blog: Economics in the rear view mirror

August 7, 2015

There is this really super blog called Economics in the rear view mirror. It is on history of economic thought. It presents history really differently. It looks at how economics teaching has evolved over the years in US’s elite departments.

Its author Prof. Irving Collier of Freie Universitat Berlin explains the idea:


EPFO makes a stock market debut..

August 7, 2015

After Tirupati Balaji, another new kid enters the stock market game.

EPFO plans to invest in stocks for the first time in its 65 year old history. A percent of new inflows will be invested in index funds this year:


RBI is not a free agent. It never has been, nor should it ever be

August 7, 2015

The debate over India’s central bank independence continues. In many ways, the term central bank independence is an oxymoron. How cam an entity which gets monpolised priveleges to circulate fiat currency be independent from the govt? Why will govt allow such an entity to be free of it? Moreover, any central bank’s legitimacy comes from the government. It is fully dependent on the govt for all the privileges accorded to it.

Economists famous for creating imaginary (and wrong) ideas, have been quite successful at creating this notion as well. By removing economic history from textbooks, they have succeeded in blinding people towards this idea of CB independence.  If history is taught, students will learn why these centralised institutions were created mainly to serve the govt. At best a central bank can be autonomous to make decisions but even here make no mistake, the govt is in full control. I mean all these guys from the west who lecture emerging markets on the need for CB autonomy, fail to look at their own countries and their histories.

TCA Raghavan has a piece on RBI and brings its history to make his point on independence talk. He calls the central bank a fly in a bottle:


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