I write this with a sense of unfulfilled hopes. Last time, when Congress came to power, I was very excited to get a call from Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia one fine day, asking me if I was ok in becoming an advisor to the Education and Social Sector Consultative Committee being set up by the Planning Commission of India. A couple of days later, even before I received any official confirmation from them on the same, I read in the papers that I was indeed a part of it! As an educationist myself, as well as a passionate social sector thinker, I started preparing the suggestions I wanted the government to implement. However, as was the case with the entire Congress regime last time, very soon the blackmailing CPM created a huge noise on how could people from multinational consulting firms be part of the Indian planning process – and the consultative committees had to be abandoned! My suggestions remained with myself, though through my televised alternative budgets every year, in any case I have been trying to give those suggestions to the governments for the last nine years!
As the new government starts off with an unbelievable enthusiasm – this time free of any blackmailing forces – one of the areas where the action is perhaps highest is the education sector. And thank god for that. Unlike in the past – the less said about it the better – here we have this time an honest and educated minister at the helm of the ministry who means business (his interview in the next few pages will prove that)! And thus, with huge hopes, as someone who is in the field of education, first before anything else, I thought of summing up the key recommendations for him in ten simple points! And here they go...
- Sir, I need not tell you that after the right to health – a right which guarantees life – and the right to employment that guarantees living, it is right to education that is the most important duty of the government, as it guarantees the right to life and living with dignity. And thus, it is a must that the right to education is something that should be implemented in reality. Every child born in India should have access to good schooling and should have access to the means required to get educated. If there is anything that accounts for a level playing ground, it is education, education and education. An educated man is any day a more worthwhile resource for an economy than an uneducated man, and education, it must be said, is the cheapest service that any government can provide its citizens. And education has nothing to do with poverty. A poorer Kerala has almost double the literacy rate than a far richer Punjab; as is the case with a poorer Vietnam when compared to India. Sir, do make the right to education and access to it, a reality and not mere lip service.
- In your reform agenda, the topmost priority should be for primary education. Because what is important in achieving higher literacy rates in a nation is not just teaching a man how to sign his name. But giving functional literacy. That means the poor man should be educated enough so that he can be functionally literate. That means that he can, for example, read the instructions on a fertilizer pack – or for that matter the headlines of a newspaper – and understand it... And for this, it is primary education which is of prime importance. It is this that has, however, been most neglected in this country. While about 96 percent kids officially enroll for schools, 40 percent drop out even before the age of ten, with the dropout percentage being much higher in the case of women. Around 75,000 schools in India don’t have a single classroom, while another 100,000 schools have just a single class room. And that makes about 15 percent of total schools. Teacher absenteeism in the rest of the schools ranges between 15 percent in Maharashtra to 42 percent in Jharkhand. More than 15 percent of schools still don’t have more than two teachers. And UP struggles to provide even one teacher per school to 900 schools! The money being allocated to education as a percentage of GDP is 3.5%; this can obviously go up to 6. But let me tell you that even the current allocation is great. The problem is that the allocation is being mainly used to pay salaries to teachers who are never in school and are busy earning through private tuitions. Sir, you must change these ground level realities and it should be your first priority.
- While you do this sir, of course, it will be great if you can take – but in stages as the system improves – the money allocation of education to 6% of GDP. Even a capitalist America spends 5.3% of GDP on education at this high stage of development. And at our low levels of development, 6% is only the bare minimum. This additional resource shouldn’t go to higher education but to making a robust primary education system in this country.
- Sir, the primary education system suffers from India's immense poverty. So despite creating schools, you might see parents not sending their children to school or taking them out in the first few years itself. Also, these poor children suffer from the problem of illiteracy in the family and their upbringing is not conducive to studying at home. I would go till the extent of suggesting that every child sent to school should be accompanied by a compensation to the family through various incentives. However, the biggest incentive for education is giving free hostel accommodation to poor students in schools. This will guarantee a conducive atmosphere to poor children to study – though, as a father, I am quite against sending my son to a hostel, if given a choice. However, the situation in poor families is quite the reverse. The cost of providing free hostels is again quite minimal, as I – along with Dr. Malay Chaudhuri – had worked out in my book, The Great Indian Dream.
- As you give greater access to primary education to the children of India, you must have a proper policy to phase out the reservation system in India. Reservations are required only till the time the playing field is not level. Good primary education will guarantee a level playing field; and then, students must compete on merit. And assuming you take two years to set the system right, then reservation should be out of the Indian economic system in the 12 years post that. Because students, after 14 years hereon, would be passing out with equal opportunities at primary level and be ready to compete properly with others in a healthy manner. However, till then, reservations – which should have ideally been done away with within the first fifteen years after independence – will be required without debate.
- Your suggestions around scrapping the tenth board exams are brilliant and just mindboggling. I would go to the extent of suggesting that you open additional debates, not just about scrapping the twelfth boards as well, but even about scrapping the concept of class twelfth being the final school year (and instead, making class tenth the final school year). As a teacher and student, I have realised that the way we repeat the curriculum from 6th to 8th, then from 9th to 10th, and then 11th and 12th is a joke. By studying Newton’s law four times, the law doesn’t change for heaven’s sake!!! The current generation of children are ahead of our times by at least two to three years. Make the current graduation compressed into two years and call it high school, if you may. And make graduation studies more serious, unlike the flippant way it is taken currently – a three year picnic time where one goes to college to have fun and not attend classes. It will also make a huge psychological difference to poorer people who can afford education only till tenth, as they would then be ‘school-pass’, and it will reduce the entire cost of schooling straightaway by about 20 percent. I know I might be sounding extreme, but you have shown the courage to speak out radical concepts, so as an educationist, I thought this was a radical idea at least worth sharing. It’s something that the Think Tank at IIPM has been working upon.
- Your suggestion for allowing FDI into higher education and privatisation are more than welcome; and so is the super idea of scrapping UGC and AICTE. At IIPM, we have been very proud that we were never a part of that system that we never believed in and were openly highly critical about. However Sir, it is important that you see to it that the new body of accreditation is truly a competent body of literates who share your vision for education in this country; and not another form of a corrupt, illiterate body like AICTE. I am sure you knew that AICTE and UGC had almost fixed rates for various forms of recognitions on sale through their agents, depending upon the state and location of the institute/university. When someone would refuse to be a part of their corrupt system, they specialised in sending illegal and clearly false notices to such institutes in order to extract money from them. You can’t have privatisation with this kind of corruption. I do hope you make the new body totally transparent so that even someone like me feels motivated to be part of the system, than be proud to be away from it.
- It is a must that you break the false monopoly of government supported institutions like the IITs and IIMs.. While in IIMs, the education imparted is at least of a world class level, the fact is that in IITs, the education standards are no way comparable to the best in the world. The idea of having any government backed institution at a higher level is two folds. One is to provide world class education – else the government need not be present in this sector, having once given great education at the primary level. And the second motive is to see to it that the maximum number of students get access to this kind of subsidised education. The idea should not be to make elitist hubs where a few get admission and enjoy the public money to make a false snob value around themselves. The best case is that of the IIMs. It imparts basic, commonsense education that can be imparted to almost anyone after class twelfth. But instead of reaching out to masses, it teaches only an average of 150-200 students in its 70-100 acre campus on an average. This is such a shame. And the only reason to limit this commonsense education is to create a snob value around it, through garnering higher packages for their students. The fact is that even if they were to increase the number of seats they have, to 300 on an average, their packages will come crashing down to about Rs.6 lacs on an average from their current Rs. 9 lacs. The idea is not to provide a few higher packages at the cost of giving education to many more.
- Nor should the idea be to have a massive waste of resources at the IIT level, where students don’t become engineers but join management. And then again, investing so much at the IIMs where students look for foreign jobs instead of helping India grow. At every stage, people changing their fields must be made to pay back to the country what the country invested on them. And those leaving the country should be made to pay back to the country again or impart service to the public and government sector for a stipulated minimum number of years before going abroad. The current system of subsidising higher education in India though elitist institutions is nothing but a waste of public money to create a bunch of semi-educated primarily unpatriotic selfish snobs that the system unknowingly makes out of the students studying there.
- Finally Mr. Sibal, in the US today, a much higher proportion of students from poorer sections are pursuing their higher education than the proportion from the richer sections. US has in the past and is now changing tomorrow’s gap between the rich and poor. It is leaving much lesser people marginalised out of the mainstream society and therefore, has ensured much lesser cases of evils like religious terrorism or extremist movements (like, say, the Naxalite movement in India). And Sir, this higher proportion of access to higher education is not just because of access to great primary education. It’s because at higher education where costs are higher, prospective students have access to education loans. Instead of talking reservations like many of uninitiated leaders of the past, the need of the hour, I again say, is great primary education; and then once everyone is able to compete, great access to education loans regardless of the financial background of the students. This is what will help poorer students finally have access to great higher education.
And this is what will finally lead to an educated civilised India without the current humongous ill of having such mass scale illiteracy. Interestingly, this will also be the sure shot way to stay in power in the long run!
While we thoroughly enjoyed your interview and got inspired by it, we do hope you enjoy our suggestions as much and feel they’re worth it!