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Don’t jump the queue

Instead of investing heavily in higher education, the UPA must first ensure schooling for every child, says Sukanta Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Feb 07, 2010 22:17 IST

Last week’s newspapers carried two reports: polar opposites, but (like all poles) linked by a common axis. One announced Sam Pitroda’s proposal for huge funds to attract foreign academics. The other predicted the shutdown of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, through which children denied regular schooling receive bargain-basement education.

The juxtaposition typifies our recent educational planning. Almost every week, we hear of a new showpiece scheme for higher education, protected from janata outfits and wooing scholars stationed abroad; while the silence about basic education for the poor grows more and more deafening.

This was not what we expected. In the first heady weeks after Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal’s investiture, his pronouncements held out hope of radical change, whereby all Indian citizens might truly exercise their new-found right to education. Since then, he has selectively advocated privileged and super-privileged universities. The one major decision at the school level, abolishing Class X exams, primarily affected the Central Board of Secondary Education and drew predictable opposition from its relatively secure, ambitious clientele. Such a move would have made sense as part of an innovative package for the children of the poor.

Clearly, the paramount aim of the HRD ministry is not quality education for all Indians, still less their empowerment through that means. There seem to be two aims: to train the upper and middle classes for India’s short-term employment needs (read career dreams), and to display a handful of showpiece institutes to impress the sahibs and provide well-lined berths for the academically-inclined among ‘our’ children. For this, the Union government will disburse, to

a select few, sums hitherto undreamt-of in education budgets. Differently spent, that money could transform the entire system. But that would be a messy and exhausting task — an India-sized task. How much simpler to address the Australia or Canada-sized upper orders to which we belong.

Through preferential funding and governmental rhetoric, the State-controlled universities (to which most Indian students belong) have been effectively downgraded vis-à-vis the central universities. The Yash Pal Committee observed that State universities ‘have been treated very shabbily [over] allocation of funds or creation of more facilities’. India’s potential base for quality higher education is being reduced from some 300 to 35 institutions, including 12 new ones. The last include Koraput (district literacy rate: 36 per cent in 2001), while Bihar (47 per cent literacy in 2001) and Jharkhand (60 per cent literacy in 2007) have not even settled on the sites. It’s insane to imagine that these universities will either benefit their impoverished hinterlands or draw distinguished faculty from elsewhere.

Even the central universities will be outshone by 14 ‘innovation universities’ as yet unborn. Their faculty will be bound by no checks on qualifications, output or expenditure. They will preferentially be drawn from abroad. To crown this custom-built formula for indulgence without accountability, we now have Pitroda’s proposal.

We must realise the magnitude of the sums involved. The ‘innovation universities’ will enjoy Rs 2, 800 crore per annum in research funds alone. Each new central university needs Rs 400 crore as a start-up grant. The foreign academics scheme is viewing Rs 2,300-plus crore per annum: nearly double the Rs 1,241 crore over five years of the Xth Plan for the National Literacy Mission (NLM) founded by the same Pitroda. The XIth Plan allocation is not posted on the NLM website. The dismal state of Union government websites relating to school education (like the contrast between the sections on school and higher education on the ministry website) reflects the poor value placed on basic education for all.

India’s entire higher education budget increased by only Rs 2,000 crore in 2009-10. If the trend continues — and it seems set to grow — lavish funding of a few institutions will mean that much less for the other 280 or so universities, never mind thousands of colleges. Not to worry: the Union government will also set up a new college in every district at Rs 25 crore each. In no district in India does the total development grant, for all its extant colleges, remotely approach this sum.

There are about one crore students receiving higher education in India. Roughly as many children have never attended school for a day. The NLM aimed at a sustainable literacy level of 75 per cent (quaintly called ‘full literacy’) by 2007. By end-2009, we had attained hardly 73 per cent. I am talking of literacy, however measured: a 2006 survey found that 44 per cent of children between seven and ten years lacked effective reading skills. An enabling and empowering education is another matter altogether. Only 50 per cent of children cross Class VIII. Sibal allows till 2020 to make it 100 per cent, and 2015 to reach 85 per cent sustainable literacy. A third of the world’s illiterates live in India; the proportion might rise to half by 2020. The educated Indian is not shamed by these statistics.

So, the bid to double college enrolment may seem a bizarre indulgence in quick-fix. Where will these entrants come from? What courses can they profitably study? Even India’s middle-class Australia can only feed so many private schools and no more. If the State school system hobbles most of the nation’s youth, university entrance will soon cross the point of diminishing returns, even in privileged institutions. Educational impoverishment makes for economic impoverishment. The educationally deprived majority will neither contribute adequate human resources to the economy, nor (given low income levels) create demand for productive growth. They will remain, and keep the nation, poor.

In such a scenario, the world’s leading scholars and researchers — as opposed to those with an eye on the main chance — will not take India as a serious force in the global knowledge order simply because the government throws money at them. They will go on doing what they already do: pay short-term visits to our campuses, trawl them for high-grade researchers and professionals, and interact with the outstanding academics who remain there against the odds. We can optimise these benefits without burning thousands of crores every year. The best way would be to invest that money to improve the existing order, as far as possible, across the board. This would involve restraining or junking many institutions — but as a meaningful policy of improvement, not a suicidal dismissal of real and potential resources.

The most crucial input for higher education is effective schooling for every child: to ensure this must be the first object of the State’s bounty. The current schemes would rob Indian education of food to keep it going on costly imported vitamins. That malnourishment, no less than the physical, is depriving India of the sustenance one-half of its children could provide it. We who belong to the other half think this might work to our advantage. We are only depriving and hoodwinking ourselves.

Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor of English and Director, School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University

The views expressed by the author are personal.