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Serious reservations

The licence raj may have withered away in industry but it continues to flourish in higher education in this country.

india Updated: Apr 25, 2006 02:01 IST

Although human capital is critical for business growth, our business leaders have been timid in pressing for change -- a striking myopia towards an issue critical to their long-term self-interest. A report chaired by one of the country’s most well-known scientists has argued that foreign universities should be barred from India because they would lure away our best faculty. By this logic, Microsoft should be barred from India lest it lure away bright people from Indian companies. But the reasoning is even more odd: it is blind to the billions of dollars spent by India’s elites in sending their children to study abroad.

It seems that it makes sense to allow our wealthy to spend India’s foreign exchange abroad, to let them pay for and support foreign educational institutions; yet it does not make sense to allow these foreign educational institutions the freedom to invest in institutions in our own country -- which in the long run would benefit more than just the wealthy elites.

Imagine for a moment what would happen if India’s elites were barred from sending their kids abroad for higher education. It is very likely we would quickly see increased pressure for reform of India’s higher education. But, as it stands, the wealthy have the option to secede from institutions that provide public goods -- and leave these to become fiefdoms for the personal advancement of our elected leaders.

Today the IITs and IIMs could potentially be flush with funds. If, as we believe they should be, they were cut off from the lifeline of government largesse, they would be free to expand by tapping their alumni and other supporters. We might see a revival of the era of private philanthropy that, in earlier decades, created so many of our great educational and public institutions. We would also see our top educational institutions being run more rationally, expanding to meet demand, while ensuring they maintained quality.

But to give India’s top educational institutions the freedom they so desperately need would mean that our elected leaders and their bureaucratic servitors would lose their grip over the one institutional resource that gives them powers of patronage.

Today, every aspect of these institutions -- from fees to faculty salaries, and even permission to their directors to travel abroad — is in the hands of bureaucrats and ministers. As the recent exodus of faculty from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences demonstrates, no institution of higher learning can grow if it cannot attract and keep quality faculty. In contrast to the situation a few decades ago, our best talent now has many other opportunities, both in the Indian private sector as well as abroad.

Look, for instance, at the current situation at the Delhi School of Economics and the Indian Statistical Institute, both of which had stronger faculty 50 years ago than they do today. It is a deeply troubling symptom of how we have managed our knowledge resources that today, in a country of over a billion, we cannot even sustain -- let alone expand -- two modestly sized world-class institutions for economic training and research.

At present, we have truly a curious situation: there has been an extraordinary growth in demand for the goods provided by India’s elite institutions, yet this is accompanied by a virtual stagnation in their size, in their capacity to supply. Why? In part, the reasons lie in lack of institutional imagination within the IITs and IIMs.

But it is also a direct consequence of supremely misguided government policies, which have curbed the autonomy of these institutions, and crippled their adaptive capacities. The licence raj may have withered in industry, yet it flourishes in higher education, making this the most politicised sector in India today -- precisely because it is one in which there exist severe imbalances in demand and supply, in quality and in access: a situation designed for extracting political rents.

It is time for the government to cut its controlling strings to these institutions, and allow them to make their own way -- which they are prepared to do. What the government should do is concentrate on primary and secondary education: on improving quality, delivery and access for those many millions of children who do come from groups who have historically been shut out of what they can rightfully claim from their fellow citizens.

(Concluded)

Correction

The sentence in the first part of this article published yesterday was printed as: “But the barely 3 per cent of the higher education budget that goes for IITs is a grim reminder of who we really care for.” It should have read: “But the barely 3 per cent of the higher education budget that goes for ITIs is a grim reminder of who we really care for.” The error is regretted.