A 200-year-old American publisher is completing the circle of knowledge. Peter Booth Wiley, chairman of the Hoboken, New Jersey-based John Wiley & Sons Inc., has academics in India developing a new series of customized, electronic books that may one day become remedial text in US universities.
Outsourcing isn’t new to the global publishing industry.
In 1976, long before Bangalore became the world’s outsourcing capital, Harold Macmillan, the former British prime minister, used the southern Indian city to offer Macmillan Publishers Ltd’s typesetting services to others.
However, it’s only now that the content—especially in culturally neutral fields like science and technology—is going global, reflecting the new economic reality.
It isn’t that US or UK professors’ royalties are under threat. As long as demographics in India and China remain favourable and quick economic growth keeps boosting returns on higher education in these two nations, the textbook market in Asia will continue to expand rapidly, driving global growth.
Books used in postgraduate research and teaching will be dominated by content created in the developed world, thanks to its entrenched leadership position in technological innovation.
At the undergraduate level, however, hard distinctions between producing and consuming economies will disappear.
In India’s case, because the medium for scientific education is English, a chunk of what’s being produced for the home market is also readily exportable.
This wasn’t always so.
Back in the 1950s and the 1960s, the flow of scientific knowledge between the West and India was strictly unidirectional. Popular American books, such as College Chemistry by Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, were republished in India—at one-fifth of their original price—under a US aid programme called PL 480.
British titles came to India under the English Language Book Society (ELBS) programme. The ELBS books, which cost a third of the original, had “Low-Priced Edition” emblazoned across the cover.
Prentice Hall’s incredibly cheap Eastern Economy Edition in those days was nothing more than black-and-white reproductions of American titles.
Of course, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, too, was a big force in the cheap textbook game as it sought out friends in the Third World. And apart from everything else, Soviet books were printed on amazingly good-quality paper.
The efficacy of foreign aid to developing countries is a debatable subject today. But there isn’t a doubt that cheap Western textbooks—not to mention the first IBM computer that arrived in an Indian university in a bullock cart—triggered a transformation of the economy.
“When a generation of engineers was educated in India, it was educated on our books,” Wiley said in an interview in Singapore. “And you see now what that generation has done.”
India’s prowess in computer software services and generic drug discovery is well documented. Earlier this month, the journal Nature Biotechnology reported that India will also be a large player in research and manufacturing of biotech medicines. None of this would have been possible without investments in higher education.
The narrowing of India’s education deficit—to a point where knowledge can begin to flow both in and out—can be seen from the sales pattern of academic publishers.
India today represents Wiley’s fastest growing market, expanding at an annual 25% pace. That compares with a two-year average growth rate of 4% in Wiley’s US sales.
India is also emerging as a key centre for developing educational content. “It’s no longer just the West educating the rest,” Wiley said. “It’s all of us educating each of us together. The knowledge revolution is fascinating to me because it is multicentric and global.”
Oxford University Press, which has been publishing textbooks in India since 1912, is already playing a role in taking Indian-based academic authors overseas.
Homegrown Indian companies, such as New Delhi-based Narosa Publishing House, are also working with professors at the Indian Institutes of Technology and other top local universities to create scientific content for a global audience.
Wiley’s new series of textbooks will be delivered electronically—as PDF (portable document format) files. They will be tested initially at second-rung engineering universities in India before being taken to China. If the experiment succeeds, the US market may be the next destination, Wiley said.
Each of these books, tailored to meet very specific learning requirements, could potentially replace bulky standard textbooks. The final cost to the student would be less than $10 (Rs420).
Textbooks and supplies cost as much as $900, or 26% of the tuition and fees at a four-year public institution in the US, according to data reported in a July 2005 study by the US Government Accountability Office.
If low-income students in the US are one day able to benefit from Indian-created books, just as generations of Indians have from American content, it will be a victory for globalization. The circle of knowledge will be complete.