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14 August 2013, Gateway House

For a liberal India, liberate education

Education is the most in-demand commodity amongst both the rich and the poor in India. Yet, the state is unable to ride this wave to create a more liberal society. If education is the gateway to taking India’s liberal agenda forward, then educational institutions must be free to pursue their own paths

Management consultant and Member, Board of Governors, IIM Ahmedabad

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India has the lion’s share of the world’s young people, and that makes it a key custodian of the values of the world of the future. It has chosen the path of knowledge and ideas and liberalism, rather than military might or economic brute force to get there.

Yet, the very cradle of its chosen path – the education system – is highly state-controlled. Its affirmative action is based on quotas for caste and community, both of which are labels that tend to stick to the person for the rest of his life – ironic because the very purpose of quotas in education is to enable a person to move beyond the circumstances of birth. Its education “licensing” policy is such that it tends to attract “bad capital.”

The politicians in every state have a large market share and control of private educational institutions of higher learning, presumably because of land grants from the government and cheap loans from public sector banks. Yet, much of their capacity lies underutilised; instead the objective with which these institutions are run is the maximisation of economic returns beyond what most civilised societies would consider acceptable in businesses involving “public goods.”

There are, of course, shining examples of private institutions that have been created by education entrepreneurs or enlightened family groups. They have shown how it is possible to combine institutional excellence with healthy profit. But these too have not escaped periodic harassment from the state.

The tragedy is that education is the most in-demand commodity amongst both the rich and the poor. It is seen as the instrument that will give our children escape velocity to move to a much higher orbit of living, and the ability to progress based on their individual merits rather than their birth. Yet, the state is unable to ride this wave to create a more liberal society.

At the primary and secondary levels, where the state directly runs a large number of schools, it has not delivered. How else can we explain the fact that even lower income parents, who can barely afford it, especially in urban areas, have chosen to move their children out of government schools and into private schools? The refrain is the same: “Our child doesn’t learn anything there, the teachers don’t come regularly, they don’t care, English and computers are not taught.”

The state has responded with a move which nukes several of these small private schools out of existence – it has enacted the Right to Education Act, which once again makes the government the arbiter of what is quality education, in a directive-oriented manner.

It is indeed a liberal move to guarantee, by law, the right of every child to be educated, and to compel the larger private schools to open their doors to children from the lower socio-economic groups. But it takes away the option of the small “mom and pop” neighbourhood school, which have been the customer-preferred part of the education ecosystem in Indian cities. Parents say these schools are not intimidating, have fees that are not unaffordable, and deliver, in many cases, an education better than that proffered by government schools. A lot could have been done through incentives and support to work with such schools and help them to upgrade their quality, instead of making them fit the template or shut shop

As of now, the government treats all individuals working in the field of education and all educational institutions with suspicion – with the assumption that they are bad and need to be directed and controlled. Sadly, the reverse is also true. There are not too many takers for government funding of schools and colleges because in the case of government-funded or even government-founded institutions, the government view is that “He who paid the piper must call the tune.”

Unfortunately, the government does not see its role as that of a regulator of a public goods and as a protector of consumers, but rather as the owner and chief arbiter of how educational institutions must be run, which text books should be used, what the syllabus should be, which subjects should and should not be taught. They bring politics into education, NCERT text books are altered according to ruling parties’ views on history, and so on.

This extends to the post-graduate education realm. For example, the Director of an Indian Institute of Management (IIM), even one that does not take a government grant, has to be approved by none other than the appointments committee of the Cabinet, and a three-name lottery still exists – the selection committee has to give three names for the government to choose from, after which hectic lobbying begins.

In fact, a new move is being discussed that could bring the IIMs under an act of Parliament – giving the government ever more control, but this time, with Parliament on its side. Periodic interim moves have been proposed to bring all the IIMs under a single banner, transferring faculty at will, keeping faculty salaries absurdly low, bearing the many consequences of doing that, and making all the institutions, big and small, established and fledgling, toe the line of the lowest common denominator of strategy, pedagogy, and human resources management.

Instead, think how different it would be if such institutes were encouraged to be autonomous and to choose their own vision and strategy. Wouldn’t different flowers bloom, different international alliances be struck, different areas of expertise be developed, different visions be pursued. Wouldn’t a much stronger set of institutions exist?

The question that remains unanswered is this: Why does the government want more control? Have these institutions malfunctioned? No, they have not. On the contrary, their faculty have demonstrated enormous maturity and a drive for excellence, despite periodic diktats from the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

Human Resource Development ministers have come and gone. Some have been benign, marking time for better jobs; some have been excessively meddlesome; others have been political; and some utterly dogmatic. Each has put his own stamp of chaos and meddling on higher education institutions, but none has proposed a comprehensive futuristic education policy or spelt out guidelines and road maps for a future that they have envisioned. Nor have they given skill development and vocational training the boost that it has needed, given the high degree of school drop-outs and young people, and the many new skill requirements and job opportunities in a growing economy. None has managed to even begin a dialogue with the financial sector on student loan support, so that need-blind admissions are possible. The ministers have instead chosen to fund the institutions directly and then use that power to control the institutions.

In the world’s most youthful country, housing over 240 million families desperate and thirsty to educate their children, there has not been a professional educator, after Nurul Hasan in the 1970s, at the helm of the education ministry. The debate on liberalising education, which can eventually pave the way for a more liberal, diverse, and free-thinking society, has not even begun.

In fact, the reverse has happened; the shackles have increased, and education policy has become illiberal. The government-appointed “autonomous” boards are usually packed with those who are dependent directly or indirectly on the government in their day jobs, and are not likely to choose building and nurturing a liberal society over their business interests. Businessmen on IIM boards are often reluctant to debate or decide issues through the lens of the educational institution and what is beneficial for it. They decide on the basis of what will make the minister or bureaucrats happy or unhappy and what the collateral damage to their own businesses might be.

Will the government hand these institutions to academicians and alumni as the real trustees of what’s good for the institution? Probably never.

The government, to give it its due, has done a good job of the Sarva Shiksha Abhyaan, which has improved literacy, kept girls in school much longer, especially in rural India, and taken the liberal agenda of equal opportunity for all much further. All this though, is still far from where it needs to be.

The same cannot be said for higher education, where affirmative action in central government-funded institutions has come with a bang and, because it is caste-based, has brought mixed blessings. Instead of improving capabilities at the high school and college levels for socio-economically disadvantaged students to enable them to compete and qualify for higher education, the government has opted for the easy route of 50% reservations in higher education itself.

Education is the gateway to equal opportunity as every Indian citizen, rich or poor, will testify. It is therefore the key to taking India’s liberal agenda forward.

In a liberal society, educational institutions are seen to be a public good, regulated and held accountable on several parameters – academic quality, social responsibility, use of public funds and so on. They must be free to pursue their own paths, governed by boards drawn from academia and society at large, which are capable of performing, with maturity, the function of this critical trusteeship.

Rama Bijapurkar is a management consultant and a member of the Board of Governors of IIM, Ahmedabad.

This article was written exclusively for Gateway House’s Independence Day special report, ‘India’s Liberal Agenda. You can read more exclusive content from Gateway House here.

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