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

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.

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