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Pradeep Kumar Choudhury, the Mittal Institute’s new Jamnalal Kaniram Bajaj Trust Visiting Research Fellow, has been working as an Assistant Professor of Economics at Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, since 2015. He works in the area of applied development economics with a specific focus on education. Much of his work harnesses the empirical relationship between education and development using large household and institutional data sets in developing economies. He also wrote a volume on “Contextualizing Educational Studies in India,” published by Routledge. We spoke with Pradeep about his research and impressions of life in Cambridge.

Mittal Institute: Pradeep, welcome! What drove you to apply for a fellowship with the Mittal Institute?

Pradeep Kumar Choudhury: I have been following the research and outreach activities of the Mittal Institute (through its very well-informed and comprehensive weekly newsletter) for a long time. This is an important and useful source of knowing the enriching academic activities of the Mittal Institute. The Institute connects South Asia with the developed world, specifically with the intellectual community of Harvard University – a unique place of higher learning. I was looking for these opportunities and felt the fellowship would help me.

The Mittal Institute’s clear interdisciplinary research focus on contemporary developmental and policy issues in South Asia encouraged me to apply for this fellowship. Over the past, the Institute has attracted several great minds from different countries in South Asia as fellows, and therefore, it is always an honor and privilege to learn from their groundbreaking research. A tremendous amount of research is conducted in the area of education and development by the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Harvard Kennedy School, the Harvard Business School, the Department of Economics and the Department of Sociology at Harvard University. I was interested in connecting with the faculty and their research from these schools and departments, and the fellowship has helped me obtain such opportunities.  

Mittal Institute: Can you give our readers an overview of your research interests? How did you first become interested in the relationship between education and development?

Pradeep Kumar Choudhury: My work focuses on the interplay between education and economic and social development in developing countries, focusing on India, China and the Asia-Pacific. My interests are economics of education, education financing, private provisioning of education and market policies, learning inequality, school choice, and returns to education. I raise empirical questions on how education brings human development and social mobility in society and why it differs considerably for individuals from different socioeconomic and cultural settings. I attempt to get answers to these questions using large-scale household and institutional survey datasets. Recent research topics include understanding the changing relationship between education, economic inequality, and social mobility in India, how the withdrawal of the state and the increasing intervention of the private sector in education impacts access to schooling and family investment in human capital.

Some of my research focuses on gender inequality in education: in particular, why boys perform better in math than girls, pro-male bias in family investment in education, and missing women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses. In one of the recent research collaborations with the Centre de Sciences Humaines (CSH), we are looking at the gender inequalities in scientific careers among engineering and medicine graduates in India. I have also worked on the relationship between education and health: explaining the role of parental education on infant mortality and how the expansion of medical education through private sector has widened regional inequality in human resource development for health. As part of the China-India Visiting Scholars Fellowship (2021-22) of Ashoka University, I analysed industrial engagement of the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector between China and India. I am coediting a volume for Routledge that examines how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted access, inclusion, and student learning in India. This work problematizes the state’s response to the education crisis, outlines strategies to minimize disruptions in the education sector and builds a resilient education system in India.  

How accessing quality schools and colleges bring social mobility and directs new paths for life is a question that I always ponder

How accessing quality schools and colleges bring social mobility and directs new paths for life is a question that I always ponder. During my high school and early college days, I often connect an individual’s achievement with her/his educational attainment. This guided me to join the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), an internationally-acclaimed center for higher learning in educational policy and planning, for my Ph.D program. After joining NUEPA (now NIEPA), I was influenced and motivated by the enormous research evidence on education and development produced by my mentor Prof. Jandhyala B. G. Tilak. The skills and competencies I learned during my doctoral journey eventually shaped my academic and research interests in education. I am fortunate enough to join as a faculty at Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies (ZHCES), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) within two years of completing my Ph.D.  This is an advanced interdisciplinary teaching and research center in educational studies in India, with faculty and students from four major social science disciplines – economics, sociology, psychology and history. My exposure to this center in the early part of my academic life has helped me considerably in focusing my research in the area of education, inequality and development. My academic training so far (as a student at NUEPA and as a faculty at ZHCES, JNU) is quite focused on education and development, and I will be continuing my research in this field.   

Mittal Institute: What specific project will you focus on while here at Harvard?

Pradeep Kumar Choudhury: A wealth of research, particularly in developed countries context, has demonstrated that investment in the early years of education can have long-lasting benefits for children’s cognitive development, help them get better employment opportunities, and is considered an indispensable foundation for lifelong development and learning. It is evident that children equipped with quality early childhood education (ECE) are better prepared for the transition to primary school, which sets the stage for a positive transformation in learning outcomes throughout a child’s lifetime, and children from disadvantaged groups stand to benefit the most from this. The global education policy debates have increasingly focused on providing quality pre-primary education to retain more students in primary education and improve their learning outcomes. For instance, target 4.2 of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) aims to ensure universal “quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education” to prepare children for primary education by 2030. In India, the National Education Policy 2020 recommends ensuring universal access to high-quality early childhood care and education for children aged 3 to 6 years by 2030.

A wealth of research has demonstrated that investment in the early years of education can have long-lasting benefits for children’s cognitive development … My research at Harvard aims to examine the changing contours of the preschool education market in India

In this context, my research at Harvard aims to examine the changing contours of the preschool education market in India. Three specific objectives of the study are (a) to examine the regional and socioeconomic inequalities in access to pre-primary education and how a household’s socioeconomic status explains these inequalities, (b) to analyze the effect of exposure to preschool education on children’s learning outcomes at the later part of their schooling, and how the nature and duration of preschool exposure impacts differently, (c) to find out the extent of heterogeneity in the quality and accessibility of ECE across India, and to what extent such variations are understood by the parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds who send their offspring to access ECE. What are the parental aspirations and strategies for their children’s early human capital formulation and, thereby, their investment decisions? We hope this study’s findings will help us to understand the complexities of educational inequalities better and pave the way for sustainable human capital development in India.

I am lucky to have Prof. Aisha Khizar Yousafzai, Professor of Child Development and Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as my mentor for the fellowship. She has worked extensively in early childhood development in developing countries, including India. We had a couple of meetings to discuss our work, and with her guidance, I look forward to producing a new piece of scholarship on early education in India.

Mittal Institute: You have been in Cambridge since July, which has given you some time to become acquainted with the city. What were your first impressions of Harvard, and what have been some memorable experiences thus far?

Pradeep Kumar Choudhury: Being new to the place, I was very excited about my visit to Cambridge and Harvard University. After arriving, I took over a week to locate myself in Harvard Square, a place of excitement and happenings. Slowly, I became acquainted with the site, specifically with the locations of the academic buildings. Harvard gives me a new understanding of the university as a learning space. Every academic building you enter, you will learn something new. I have attended a few ‘open house’ programs for different departments, research centers and schools – a great platform to get information about teaching and research programs, new initiatives, meet the faculty, and make professional and personal connections. It’s amazing to see the students and intellectual community from around the world in this place. In the morning, you will see the chaotic movements of students from their residences (mainly from Harvard Yard) to classrooms as the Fall 2023 classes have started. I was quite interested in visiting the museums at Harvard, and I did that soon after arriving. Also, on weekends, I keep exploring Boston City (Boston Common, Revere Beach, Boston Harbor, USS Constitution Museum etc.) and find it amazing and beautiful. I also visited MIT campus and its museum. My experience here has been fantastic, and I look forward to exploring more during my stay.

Mittal Institute: What are your plans post-fellowship?

Pradeep Kumar Choudhury: I plan to write a book proposal on the issue of new educational aspirations of the middle class in India. I am discussing my preliminary ideas for the book proposal with a few faculty colleagues at Harvard, and I hope to improve my thoughts in the coming days. In addition, I plan to continue my research on early childhood education when I return to India, specifically to undertake an experimental study on how early exposure to schooling benefits children’s lifetime opportunities and how it varies among children from different socioeconomic positions.

Harvard, through Pradeep’s Eyes

Pradeep has taken a number of photos since arriving in Cambridge, and shared a few of his adventures with us.