[Long Read] Education Policy In India: Time For Some Uncomfortable Questions And Answers, Time For Change

by Gautam Desiraju - Mar 6, 2022 05:09 PM +05:30 IST
[Long Read] Education Policy In India: Time For Some Uncomfortable Questions And Answers, Time For Change An inside view of a medical library (Wikimedia Commons)
Snapshot
  • Given the nature of the problems facing the Indian education sector and the country at large, the time for piecemeal solutions is long gone.

This an excerpt from a graduation address given to students of the Madras Christian College on 25 February 2022.

I am very pleased to be in Madras Christian College to deliver this address today. MCC is an 185 year old, established educational institution. It has moved successfully with the times over its long and illustrious history. This is why it has retained its standing and has a brand value. It is ranked among the top liberal arts and sciences colleges in the country. Today there are new opportunities and the college will need to orient its programs in the scenario of a rapidly changing and aspirational India.

In this brief talk, I would like to tell you about why we need to rethink our strategies for education and research in India. COVID, in a way, should be the catalyst for a change in our thinking, because it has highlighted some of the problems we have been facing and trying to pretend didn't exist. I will start with higher education and then say a few things about education policies in general.

COVID, whatever havoc it has caused all over the world, and there is no doubt that it is a catastrophe, of a type not witnessed in our lifetimes, is also a perfect storm for deep reform in education and research. It provides the trigger for a completely new relook into these critical sectors.

The time for piecemeal solutions that are based on consensual arrangements and political calculations has long since passed. Any attempt to cling on to these old, safer, more comfortable ways of doing things will get us into serious trouble, and that too quite quickly. We must reform because there is now no alternative.

The shortcomings that have led us to the brink of this abyss are far too numerous to bear repeating in this lecture. Suffice it to say that these have been sins of omission and sins of commission and these have been committed literally non-stop by us since 1947 with the result that many young people, and let us not forget that these are the intended beneficiaries of any educational system, are a demoralised and disillusioned lot. They see no connection between merit and reward, between input and output, and between cause and effect.

The awakening of a new aspirational class is a welcome development but being aspirational, this large group of youngsters mostly from less privileged backgrounds and from the hinterland, are also impatient. They want education to bring tangible improvements into their lives, and too, quickly. If this is not forthcoming, there will be mass anger. This is something our politicians need to factor. Their old methodologies may not work in future.

How were education and research managed in India for the last 70 years?

Essentially higher education was mostly funded by the government. Government funding was small, but it was there and after that, the idea was to do something to the best of one's abilities and then to hope for the best based on the limited inputs that one was getting in terms of money. The population was huge, largely uneducated and there was no money.

Now naturally with this kind of a thing: weak funding, do something as best as you can, and then hope for the best, the results are bound to be limited. One cannot blame educationists, teachers and students for the lack of tangible or quantifiable earth-shaking outputs.

We have state universities which handle the largest number of students but have almost no funding and no research, then we have central universities which have a little more funding and a bit more research. In the end, there must be a certain amount of research in any post-graduate institution.

Separating teaching and research has been a foolish policy that has brought no gains to the country.

For science subjects we have the IITs which cater to two entirely different streams of students, the B.Tech and the M.Sc./Ph.D., and then the spin-offs from the IITs namely the IISERs that are still too new to pass a judgement on. CSIR is neither here nor there. It hands out PhD degrees too although it is not an educational institution.

In humanities and social sciences, the burden is placed on the poorly funded state universities. The course programs are also highly politicised, especially in the central government institutions, following from the cynical agreement between the government of Indira Gandhi and the leftist dispensation in the 1970s.

These socialistic economic models have lost currency everywhere in the world except in Indian academia where they thrive. Some of these social sciences departments just churn out aandolan jeevis, some of whom migrate abroad after a few years of professional agitations during their student days, and live respectable, law-abiding lives in far away foreign countries. Others think they will become successful politicians. Of course they don't and gradually they become troublesome bores who inflict their opinions on others in social media. What a waste of taxpayer money, educating these people!

After COVID we know that education cannot be treated independently from (1) the economy, (2) geopolitics, and (3) the constitution. I will take up these factors one by one.

Let us take the state of our economy.

There are huge money cuts now. The budget of the entire Education Ministry is just around Rs 100,000 crore. It should be six times this amount. Considering that the salary and pension budget is almost 55 per cent and upwards of the whole kitty in government educational institutions, this leaves very little to do any kind of research.

In this situation, the entry of the private sector into the educational system becomes a must. The private sector has already entered the field of higher education. How much control should the government exercise over private institutions? Some are little more than money spinning businesses. Of course, MCC is not in this group.

What about foreign universities?

Should they be allowed to open campuses in India?

Should our institutions hire foreign faculty?

How do you fit them into our scheme of reservations in employment?

Suppose a private university or a foreign university wants to have courses only in certain subjects?

Suppose they say we want to start a program in pharmaceutical sciences but not in African studies?

Do we allow them?

Suppose they say they do not want to follow reservation policies?

Suppose they say we want to admit foreign students in large numbers because they can be asked to pay higher fees?

Do we prohibit them from entering because they make this demand? By prohibiting them, we are effectively saying that foreign students cannot study in Indian colleges and universities. This may be bad for our international image.

If an Indian government institution runs a foreign campus, as is being talked about today, will it have reservations there?

If MCC wants to start a campus in Singapore, because it feels it will be economically profitable to do so, would it be willing to do so without reserving places for Christians?

What is the long term future of minority educational institutions in India? Will they be allowed to keep the many privileges they have in the name of secularism, an idea that nobody really understands anymore, assuming we understood it at all in the past 75 years.

Suppose the government runs out of money, which is already happening, and there is no alternative but to accept money from private and foreign institutions that lay down certain conditions? What will we do then? Taking to the streets, stone pelting and rioting as we are now doing for hijabs and namaz is not an option because for too long we have lived as if there was no tomorrow.

I realise that I am asking many uncomfortable questions. I am not ashamed of doing so. It's easy to talk about nice comfortable things. But comfortable things don't give you answers to uncomfortable problems like getting jobs after you graduate. That's the point.

Let us go to the second issue, namely geopolitics.

Geo-strategies are going to be very important because countries are now, post-COVID, going to become more isolationist, they are going to withdraw into themselves.

Ukraine is very much in the news and there is a Ukrainian proverb that says a thread from many looms makes a shirt for a naked man. The long and short of this is that we must solve our own problems ourselves. We cannot use borrowed models. Withdrawing into oneself is not so bad in times of crisis.

For geo-strategy, let us take an example from the pharmaceutical sector. Till 1990, we were doing quite well in making pharmaceutical compounds in India because of the liberal policies that the various governments adopted between 1970 and 1990 and we developed good expertise in making these compounds. We were doing our things by ourselves for ourselves. The shirt was being made from thread from a single loom.

By 1990, however, cheaper Chinese imports started flooding the market. The cost differential is roughly 10-30 per cent between these imports and local products. If the government had encouraged the pharma industry and made up that balance, we would not have been in a soup today.

This dependence on imports caused us to lose our scientific edge in making these drugs. We also lost the technical competence in synthesis we had. Industries took to formulations rather than synthesis.

Formulation means taking the pure drug and making it into tablets, capsules, syrups, injections and ointments. We are world leaders in formulation but it is dangerous to depend too much on formulations. Generally the share of formulations in a healthy pharma industry is 25 per cent. For us it is 75 per cent. Why is it dangerous? Formulation depends on getting the pure drug from somewhere, either domestic synthesis or Chinese imports. What happens if China denies us those imports? Our pharma industry which is over dependent on formulations will collapse.

Yes, it may hurt the Chinese temporarily to deny us their exports but tomorrow they may decide that they want to hurt India and cover that sum through subsidies to their industry to offset their loss. Then where do we go? We have 70 million type-2 diabetics and probably 150 million hypertensives in this country. Where will all these people go? Chinese drug exports to India are around 10 per cent of their total exports. Our Chinese imports account for 90 per cent of our total imports. In short, we need them. They do not need us. They are a powerful country. We are not.

COVID caused a sudden awareness of our dangerous over-dependence on China for drugs among the political and bureaucratic classes, an awareness that was widely prevalent in scientific circles for at least 15 years. Politicians and bureaucrats simply did not listen to these strategic concerns expressed by our scientists.

The government initiated a program in March 2020 to develop domestic production, but the amount earmarked was a measly Rs 10,000 crore in an industry which is worth Rs 4,00,000 crore annually today. This is where the strategic interest must come into our educational programs. Our students must understand that research today must be strategically oriented. It is areas like pharma where there will be jobs and where they should concentrate. It is no point reacting after the danger has come to your doorstep. Maybe pharmaceutical sciences gives you a job easier than African studies. Maybe it’s not your right to pursue African studies in a cash starved Indian university. Where does the free lunch stop?

For the final matter linked to education policy changes, let us go to the constitutional aspects.

I will touch on three areas where constitutional intervention is becoming important. The first is whether education should belong to the central list, the state list, or to the concurrent list where it is today.

These are serious questions because there are plus points and minus points of having education in each of these three categories. Let us not forget, in 1975, at the controversial time of the Emergency, education was pushed into the concurrent list from the state list where it had been since 1950.

Should it go back to the state list? Should it go to the central list? Or should it remain where it is? These are questions I ask you to ponder over.

Concurrent list should not be an option simply because there is disagreement between centre and states. There must be a positive reason for a topic to be in the concurrent list.

Today, there is a lot of discussion on NEET in Tamil Nadu. This is connected with the concurrent list matter. Why are other states not agitating about NEET? Is the state government effectively admitting that its own colleges have not delivered the goods? How long will the state government maintain that social backwardness is the only reason Tamil Nadu students might not be doing well in NEET? Has social backwardness been removed in states that are following NEET? Is this an educational question, a social question or just rank political opportunism? Students must ask these questions to those in power. These are the things you should be questioning, not agitating about the right to practise your religion in the classroom.

When you have no money and minimal geopolitical influence, you cannot indulge yourself in fancies and fantasies. If you do not have money, you cannot indulge yourself, for example, in reservations.

The idea underlying reservations is undoubtedly noble, but how can we implement these things within an economically sound model?

And how long should reservations continue? Ambedkar himself said that a reservation is no longer a reservation if it applies to 70 per cent of the population. He said this during the constitutional assembly debates. Reservations cannot go on forever because this would mean that they were not successful. There must be a balance between equity and equality.

Basically, the quality of teaching and research must be such that the need for reservations becomes less and less as we go along. Throughout the country, however, reservations have become linked to political vote banks. Many political parties maintain their vote banks by keeping people uneducated.

In any case, no government can afford reservations in education and employment indefinitely because the government does not have the kind of money to deliver education to all the people it is giving seats to.

Another problem we have is that we are overproducing people with degrees in subjects that are not going to give them jobs. The situation in humanities and social sciences is very bad. In north India the percentage of unemployable graduates is extremely high. In the south, it is slightly better but still not any cause for satisfaction at least in my opinion.

Clearly, there is no money. I mean, the budget of Yale University last year was $3.4 billion. This is equal to Rs 28,000 crores, and even if you convert it into PPP dollars you get around Rs 8,000 crore rupees which is more than the budget of DST. So, one university in the USA has more than a whole science department in India.

Money cannot come from the government. Money must come from industry, from start-ups and the private sector must be encouraged to increase its involvement with education.

The private sector is not a bad word, as the Prime Minister has emphasized last year on the floor of the parliament. But the private sector is not going to support science and start-ups unconditionally if it is linked with reservations, caste and religion.

What is the solution? Some state governments are saying let us introduce reservations in the private sector. Now we have come to the stage where the medicine is worse than the disease, and this can lead to the most frightening scenario, namely balkanisation of India, which quite a few powerful foreign countries may welcome, and dare I say vested interests within this country too?

The Prime Minister has mentioned the tukde tukde gang in his recent speech in the Lok Sabha. Please understand the seriousness of a Prime Minister saying something in parliament. It is recorded and remains official forever. It is part of the record. He went further. He said the Congress party is the leader of this gang. This was not something said in the heat of an electoral rally. This was in parliament in the motion of thanks to the President's address. It cannot get more formal. Merely saying you hate the Prime Minister is not the response of an educated person. No Prime Minister says something like this in parliament without a serious reason.

In the name of democracy, free speech and human rights, we cannot move towards anarchy.

To summarise, we need a complete restructuring of the education system. For a start, we must begin a discussion on reservations. We cannot avoid it. One of the things the government can seriously think about is to have equitable reservations at the primary level because this is where a child’s attitudes are shaped and to phase them out as you climb the educational ladder. In the end, reservations are meant to help the people who are socially disadvantaged, not to create vote banks for politicians.

The issue of medium of instruction in primary and higher education continues to seize the imagination of students, teachers, parents and educationists. It is a matter fraught with political connotations. The National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020 identifies issues and analyzes various schemes that have been operating so far. Rather vaguely it says that “the three-language formula will continue to be implemented while keeping in mind the constitutional provisions, aspirations of the people, regions, and the Union, and the need to promote multilingualism as well as promote national unity.” What does this mean? To me, it sounds like nonsense. Is it some kind of backdoor imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi speaking states?

India does not have a national language and rightly so. A polyglot country like ours does not need one. Our Constitution recognises 22 official languages and some combination of these is used by the Union and state governments in their work.

As India strives to ascend in the comity of nations, it is clear that our huge numbers of children and young adults of school- and college-going age should be optimally advantaged in order that they are able to cope and compete within their state, country and internationally. This leveraging is most effectively done linguistically: a child should be taught basic concepts in the language in which he or she can best emote and can give free rein to imagination.

English is our pathway to the world. It is also a sort of link language within the country although Hindi is fast replacing it in this regard.

The need for a link language is, however, not as acute as it was in say 1950 when linguistic groups were sharply demarcated. TV, movies and social media, and also the migration of people across the country have ensured that many residents in urban and semi-urban areas have some sort of working knowledge of English and Hindi. People from outside a state also seem to be readily picking up the local language even when it is quite distinct from their mother tongue.

One hears a lot more Hindi in Chennai today than one did ten years ago. At the same time, I hear north Indians in Chennai speaking Tamil in say, shops and restaurants. Languages are no longer impenetrable silos that divide people. Languages unite. Languages do not divide.

There is little doubt that the imaginative skill of an individual is enhanced if basic education is imparted in the mother tongue.

The NEP discreetly speaks of “home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language”. Let us not forget that for the vast majority, all these languages are one and the same. It is important that our young people are equipped to excel in imaginative skills because it is such skills that are sorely lacking in our outmoded rote learning method of education today.

Accordingly, there can be no doubt that education in the foundational stage, as defined in NEP, namely ages 3 to 8, must be in the local language with no exception. By no exception I mean no exception. Don't speak about children of transferable central government employees. They are a miniscule minority for which a special solution can be worked out. The minority should not dictate to the majority who belong to the state, were born in the state and will live in their state for most of their lives.

Ideally, education in the local language should also continue into the preparatory (8-11), middle (11-14) and secondary (14-18) stages. Even more ideally, higher education should also be conducted in the local language as an alternative to English. Both choices should be allowed.

English is still essential, however, and increased felicity in this wonderful international language needs to be developed in order that we can compete aggressively in the metropolitan and international arenas. It can and should come in as the second language everywhere at the preparatory stage (age 8) while a third language, say Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu could enter at the middle stage (age 11) without the need for passing an examination.

The entire issue of language should be moved from the emotional to the pragmatic. There is no need to invoke either patriotism or regional pride in this regard. Language is a matter of utility, communicability and practicality. Our educational policies should be framed accordingly. In short, our so-called three-language formula, two-language formula and other formulae may be gently allowed to lapse. They were useful in the interim but will hardly be so in the long run.

A few words about science and technology are in order before I conclude. Science is strategic. The Western countries have shown us that good science leads to more money which in turn leads to better science. It is only because of S&T that the West has dominated the rest of the world for so long and the only way to facilitate S&T is to improve the education system. Education is all important but remember, it is a slow investment. It is not like building roads and bridges. What you sow, you only reap after 50 years.

Education has been neglected or distorted in a profound way in our country. The present time is, I believe, where we, as a people, must work together to put it in a proper and higher setting so that India may find its true place in a changing world. The future belongs to you youngsters. Our generation has been unable to provide answers. It is up to you to pose the right questions.

Jai Hind!

Gautam Desiraju is a Professor of Chemistry. He was in the University of Hyderabad between 1979 and 2009 and in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore since then. He was the President of the International Union of Crystallography between 2011 and 2014.

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