Indian education under the British empire

by on April 10, 2012 at 5:34 am in Education, History | Permalink

It turns out it was worse than I had thought.  I’ve been reading some papers by Latika Chaudhary on this topic, and I learned that educational expenditures in India, under the British empire, never exceeded one percent of gdp.  To put that in perspective, for 1860-1912 in per capita terms the independent “Princely states” were spending about twice as much on education as India under the British.  Mexico and Brazil, hardly marvels of successful education, were spending about five times as much.  Other parts of the British empire, again per capita, were spending about eighteen times as much.

Obviously, there is a “small number of British just couldn’t reach those hundreds of millions of Indians in the countryside” effect going on here.  Still, from what I am seeing education simply was not much of a priority.  There was some ruling, some building of infrastructure, and some resource extraction going on.  Education ended up as a side show, and ultimately the gears of empire were attuned toward self-maintenance and that meant only a minimal emphasis on education.

Primary schools were especially weak, as was education for girls, no surprise on either count.  In per capita terms, spending on education in Bombay was ten times higher than in Orissa.

1 Rahul April 10, 2012 at 5:58 am

While comparing Mexico / Brazil versus India in the educational context it might be relevant to consider the difference in the percent of indigenous people in their modern populations. It’s the difference between educating the natives and replacing them with a colonial influx.

2 SouthCarolinian April 10, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Who counts as indigenous in the Indian context? Only the tribals? Dravidians but not North Indians?

3 Steve Sailer April 10, 2012 at 6:08 am

The British goal was to hang on to India without having to shoot all that many people, because soldiers are expensive and require higher taxes. Educating people just makes them uppity. The Indians were the easiest people on earth to imperialize, and the Brits weren’t in any hurry to change that by teaching them to read.

However, it has been 65 years since the Raj, and Indians need to stop patting themselves on the back and start taking seriously their shamefully bad PISA and TIMSS scores. The Chinese inland provinces apparently outscored two Indian states by 1 to 2 standard deviations on the 2009 PISA. If you look at how well Indians do abroad (and not just selected immigrants in America, but broader demographics in various countries), it appears that bad nurture is knocking perhaps a standard deviation off what Indians in India are genetically capable of.

4 So Much For Subtlety April 10, 2012 at 7:30 pm

I really don’t know what to say to something like this. I often enjoy Steve Sailor’s contributions, but not this time. Yes, the Indians need to stop complaining about the Raj. But.

First of all, it is a mistake to talk about the British. The British in India were a diverse and complex group. The Indian National Congress, for instance, being founded by a British civil servant, Octavian Hume, with a clear program to achieve Indian independence. Take British missionaries as an example. Definitely British. But their goal was to educate. And convert. Which they did. A lot of education, not much conversion.

Take the Liberal Imperialists like Mill. If the British wanted to rule India indefinitely they would have kept them poor, uneducated and so on. That is not what Mill recommended or what the British government subsequently did. They famously introduced English as a medium of instruction in India and replaced Persian and the vernaculars. They did so because their aim was to “uplift” the Indians. That is, teach them modern science and technology. If they wanted to keep India indefinitely, they would not have encouraged a de facto national language. That way, Tamils could never have made a common cause with Bengalis or Punjabis and so on. Notice this is usually criticized these days by the academic left, especially those that have been influenced by Said.

Added to this there were British conservatives who thought traditional Indian society, especially among the Martial peoples, was just fine. They liked it. They wanted to preserve it. And so they opposed modern education. This is more common in Africa where the British went on about how mission education ruined Africans. But it occurred most places. Some times they were strongly supportive of the British Empire. Some times they were not.

So when you get to something like Lord Curzon’s attempted reform of the Indian education system, you have a very complex set of issues. Yes, he wanted to reduce the number of useless graduates who had no jobs. On the other hand he wanted to increase the number of Indian students learning useful skills, especially in the STEM subjects. Anyone with the remotest interest in Bengal’s education system can only agree the last thing India needs is more people with MAs in philosophy while more engineers might be nice. This is exactly the same decision that various Communist governments have made after they took power. In China for instance. So it is not unreasonable. Now did Curzon make the link between useless soft subjects and opposition to British rule? Yes he did. But did he intend to keep India backward? No he did not. It is a complex issue and it should not be reduced to sound bites.

5 OK April 11, 2012 at 1:35 am

What exactly is your point? India has been a sovereign nation for decades now. The time for historical explanations a.k.a. excuses has run out. It’s nice enough for you to explain the reasons for the utter backwardness of the system in its historical detail but seriously get your act together or remain a third-world nation with poverty rates Rwanda would be ashamed of.

6 So Much For Subtlety April 11, 2012 at 4:18 am

I am sorry I did not realise I should have provided a summary for the tl;dr crowd. That the reality was more complex than Steve Sailor is claiming. Happy?

I agree it is time for the Indians to stop blaming the British. You might have noticed I said so. If you bothered to read what I said. It was in the first paragraph.

Nor is it my act they need to get together.

7 OK April 11, 2012 at 10:58 am

Like I said before, explanations no matter how sophisticated are no excuses. The reality may be more complex but there are a good number of business people who would have shut you out of the room before you could have finished a third of your essay… It’s been decades, all that counts are results now, there is no time for a history lesson.

8 So Much For Subtlety April 12, 2012 at 5:14 am

Who is even trying to make an excuse? Especially for the performance of the Indians post-1947. You know, we would get along much better if you read what I said and only replied to that. Who gives a damn what any number of Business people would have done? This is a blog and I am not trying to sell anything.

9 Tom Davis April 10, 2012 at 6:35 am

What was the expenditure on food and shelter? With regard to education you presume that the only valid education is that supported by government expenditures, whereas no one expects any government to provide food and shelter for the people living within its jurisdiction.

The idea that it’s the government which should be concerned with and finance the education of children rather than parents directly is a recent development. Given that money which could be used directly by parents must necessarily be taken from them as taxes before a government may spend it on education it could be that better education was obtained by not taxing parents as highly.

Without additional information your statistics are meaningless and certainly don’t prove your point.

10 Randy McDonald April 10, 2012 at 9:52 am

“The idea that it’s the government which should be concerned with and finance the education of children rather than parents directly is a recent development.”

In the contemporary United Kingdom, the Elementary Education Act 1870 mandated compulsory education for all children between 5 and 12 years of age.

11 dearieme April 10, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Put otherwise, it wasn’t until 1870 that….

Of course the Reformers wanted to do that in Scotland in the mid-16th century, but unfortunately the nobles had purloined most of the capital available from the abolition of the Roman Catholic church that would have funded it.

12 georgesdelatour April 10, 2012 at 4:24 pm


The impetus for the Education Act of 1870 came from the 1867 Reform Act, which extended the franchise. The idea was, if we’re going to let these people vote, we’ve got to educate them. And the reverse assumption probably applied too – if we educate these people, we’re going to have to give them the vote…

13 Charlie April 10, 2012 at 8:23 am

Even within princely states, huge divirgences.

Go travencore! Go Cochin! Go Mysore!

14 Large Literature April 10, 2012 at 8:40 am

So, there is a large (and quite old) literature on the costs and benefits of the British Raj in India.

Some of the best of that literature avoids the most significant pitfall into which you have fallen by thoughtfully outlining the counterfactual against which you should compare the observed outcomes of the Raj.

I urge you to read some of that literature before putting out facile posts.

For example, do you really believe the data you cite purporting to show that the “princely states” were spending more on education than the British did?

How do you reconcile that assertion with the simple observed fact that more engineers etc. were produced during the Raj than in the era of the “princely states”?

You scoff that much more was spent on education in urban areas than in rural areas. What is the counterfactual? What has happened in independent India (and here, please be careful to include private expenditures on education as well — all but the poorest in India go to private schools).

You also very dismissively say there was “some ruling, some building of infrastructure”. Again, I urge you to familiarize yourself with this very large literature before you so quickly dismiss the benefits associated with institutional regimes that the Raj brought to India.

15 Tyler Cowen April 10, 2012 at 9:09 am

Per capita income didn’t go up during the Raj.

16 Ritwik April 10, 2012 at 2:58 pm

The ruin of India’s economy between 1820 and 1950, bookended by the Churchill famine, is probably one of the 2 or 3 the greatest cumulative human disasters of all time.

17 SouthCarolinian April 10, 2012 at 4:08 pm

With the other being the Muslim invasions of the Middle Ages–lots of enslavement (Hindu Kush = Hindu-killer), temple destruction, etc.

18 So Much For Subtlety April 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm

What disaster? The Indian economy reversed its long decline under various Muslim governments. There was economic growth. There was the foundation of the modern Indian economy – companies like Tata got their start under protective tariffs imposed by the British. There was the start of a solid basis of educated people. Look how quickly India, for instance, produced its first jet fighter or its first nuclear “device”.

You would have a better case to claim that the Nehruvian Permit Raj was the greatest human disaster of all time. Someone has tried to calculate how many millions of people died needlessly because the Indian government would not allow economic growth. A death toll that include Bhopal given they would not let Union Carbide use the safety equipment they wanted to and forced them to use locally-produced materials instead.

And calling it the Churchill famine when it appears to be not a crop failure but the result of hoarding by Bengali merchants is question begging at its worst.

19 Ricardo April 10, 2012 at 10:15 pm

As Tyler already asked, show us the money. What is the evidence that the overall economy prospered over this time period?

Angus Maddison estimates GDP per capita increased by 12% total between 1884 and 1947. That works out to an annualized growth rate of 0.2% per year. His estimates are not the last word, of course, but if you are going to argue that there was economic growth during the period of British rule, it is incumbent on you to provide the data supporting that assertion.

20 So Much For Subtlety April 11, 2012 at 4:15 am

I must be a little slow this morning. If Angus Maddison estimates GDP per capita increased at about 0.2% per year that means the Indian economy grew. As I said. What is your objection to the claim that the Indian economy grew? What is more I am objecting to someone else’s claim that the British ruined India’s economy. They did not. Even if they did, it is up to the person claiming it to provide evidence for it. Not on me to support my objection to that claim.

Odd you missed that.

And again I note the economy grew, but so did the population. A sign of the economy doing well. But it did eat into that per capita figure.

21 Curious Desi April 11, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Please provide citation to support your statement that Union Carbide was forced to use locally made safety materials

22 So Much For Subtlety April 12, 2012 at 5:16 am

Come on. This is known well enough that even reading Wikipedia would show it. Nehru’s policy was to force everyone to use local materials wherever possible. As they had to at Bhopal.

23 Large Literature April 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Well said, SMFS.

The Nehru “permit raj” was a serious crime against humanity. It’s shocking to think of how much economic growth was left unrealized by that approach, especially when you think of the dire circumstances of the people in that country at that time.

24 So Much For Subtlety April 10, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Last I checked it did, but not by much. Largely because Indians preferred larger families.

Which I admit female education may have helped with, but they did not know that at the time.

25 georgesdelatour April 12, 2012 at 5:12 am

Is India in this period simply a classic “Malthusian trap”, pre-Promethean takeoff economy? Ashraf & Galor have shown that there was very little improvement in the average standard of living anywhere in the world between 1 and 1500 CE; technological improvement simply increased the population, which used up the resulting surplus. Where living standards rose, it was usually because of catastrophes like the Black Death; in England it halved the population, thereby increasing the wages of the surviving agricultural workers.

It’s important to remember that the economic growth rates we’ve got used to since the Industrial Revolution represent a radical break from the previous situation. The correct criticism of British administrations may well be that they failed to make India more economically British.

26 Large Literature April 12, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Well, you’ve either totally misunderstood my point, or you’re very disingenously trying to create a distraction.

Saying that “per capita income didn’t go up during the Raj” does absolutely nothing in the way of formulating the counterfactual of what India’s trajectory would have looked like but for the Raj.

What would human capital and institutional capital have looked like by the time of independence but for the Raj — that’s the question.

27 Ryan April 10, 2012 at 8:52 am

By comparison, I would guess that the market for education is hyper-saturated in India these days. Next stop: happy medium.

28 bleh April 10, 2012 at 10:04 am

I was going to mockingly suggest that perhaps this only shows how efficiently Britain was providing education to its Indian subjects through the private sector. Of course, this opinion has already been alluded in earnest above, because obviously socialized education is wrong, wasteful and has held back progress…

29 So Much For Subtlety April 10, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Anyone who has any experience of the Indian state-run education system whatsoever would know that Indian socialized education is wrong, wasteful and has held back progress. This is not even a controversial opinion. It is a simple statement of fact. The ruin of once good institutions, mainly under the Communists, has been a tragedy.

30 Adrian Ratnapala April 10, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Are these numbers just for government expenditure or do they also include money spent by natives on weestern education? The latter is much more imporant because

1) It means that some of the wealth spent teaching young noblemen how to hunt and quote the Vedas was redirected towards teaching them about law and medicine.

2) Even more importantly, it meant that many commoners who happened to get rich, could turn their children into doctors and lawyers, i.e. members of the future ruling elite.

31 Dhruv Sharma April 10, 2012 at 3:04 pm

The paper highlights the historical trend of illiteracy in certain backward states.

Under the British Raj, India served as commodity exporter and manufacturing importer. Education would spoil the Mercantilist party.

32 So Much For Subtlety April 10, 2012 at 6:04 pm

The idea that India served as a commodity exporter and a manufacturing importer may have been true of the early 19th century, although I suspect it is mostly a Marxist fantasy rather than a reality. It certainly wasn’t true of India as a whole over the entire period. After all, the British Indian administration actively encouraged Indian industry through the early 20th century. That is why, allegedly, in 1939 the largest steel mill in the British Empire was in India – owned by the Tata group. Not a British company. Tata Motors, like Tata Steel, started under the British and received active support from the British Indian administration. Including protectionist tariff barriers. As did an organisation like Hindustan Aeronautics.

What Mercantilist party by the way?

33 Sid April 23, 2012 at 3:22 am

It’s amusingly ironic how you use Tata as an example of patronising English encouragement of indigenous Indian industry.

The output of the largest steel mill you speak of was to Allied states in WW1 to support the war effort. The reason it was built in India was because of cheap and abundant iron ore and coke.

It’s well documented how Tata was a patsy to the British. Even his Tata Steel enterprise had to be approved by Secretary of State for India, Lord George Hamilton.;-Steel-Co-Ltd-company-History.html

You do your argument no good by continually raising Tata as an example of “indigenous” Indian industry.

The British actively encouraged a divide and rule mentality amongst Indians after the Sepoy Mutiny (e.g. the inexplicable separation of Calcutta from its hinterland – now Bangladesh – by Lord Curzon just because of religion). The parsis of Tata played their hand brilliantly in this political milieu.

34 Ian April 10, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Isn’t Chaudhary’s account more nuanced than your summary?
Take for example the striking difference between primary schooling and secondary schooling. Chaudhary reports that “in 1916/17 British India had a larger share of the population enrolled in secondary schools than either France
or Japan and it was only marginally below England and Wales.”

35 Veracitor April 10, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Chaudhary specifically discusses, in more than one paper, the tendency of Indian elites/upper-castes to minimize education for the lower castes. The British may have tolerated that approach but can hardly take all the blame for it. Chaudhary writes that having made a general provision for state schooling, the British then left the administration of funds and so-forth largely to local elites, who– being also the taxpayers funding the system– proceeded to spend relatively little and most of that on their own castes. Chaudhary points out that even if lower castes wanted more primary education, the British weren’t likely to hear them very well because of language barriers and so-forth.

In a rich country perhaps all parents can afford to send their children to private school. In a poor country, only rich parents can afford extensive schooling for their children, unless the state coerces taxpayers to fund the education of poor-parents’ children. When the state is not democratic, it may not feel much need to tax some people to educate others. On Chaudhary’s evidence, neither the Raj nor independent India (run by and for the elite castes, with precious little “democratic” influence from the lower castes for its first few decades) felt much need to operate fancy schools for the children of poor parents at the expense of elite taxpayers.

At any rate, the British are long gone from India and if Indians today are suffering from a want of education, most of the blame must attach to Indians themselves.

36 john malpas April 11, 2012 at 12:43 am

The British did make a mistake in wining the battle of Kohima – if they had let the Japanese flood into india – then the local populace would have had a chance to experience the warmth of an alternate ruler in the rising sun.
And the japanese army would have been more diluted this enabling their eventual defeat.
One wonder why though if you want to badmouth the British why you still use their language?

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