His next class act

In his first innings as a politician, Dr Manmohan Singh liberated our economy. In his second, as prime minister, he brought about a paradigm shift in not only our foreign policy, but also our entire worldview. In each case, he persisted with change at great risk to his neck, and reputation. So what will be the change in his third stint in public office? Or, rather, what should he?

Our guess, and wish, is that he now does to our higher education what he did to our economy and foreign policy in 1991 and 2008, respectively. It is fashionable in India now to talk of our demographic dividend. By 2020, we will be probably the youngest nation in the world with an average age of 29. Our dependency ratio, the number of healthy breadwinners for each dependent — someone too old (above 65) or too young (below 15) to earn — is already near a healthy 1.8. By 2030, at 2.1, it will be nearly the highest in the world. (China's will have declined steeply to about 1.7 by then.) Unless our totally moribund system of higher, technical and vocational education is totally revolutionised, this dividend will become a curse. India would then end up having the largest population of angry, unemployable young lumpens in the history of mankind. Even a society as resilient as India will not survive that calamity. On the other hand, if he can now revolutionise our education, the same young India will be a qualified, productive, creative and joyful pride of the global community. If 1991 unleashed Indian entrepreneurship and 2008 liberated us from a six-decade fear of Westoxification, this is a real opportunity to take a crack at discrimination, deprivation, inequality and even at caste and communalism.

Just as the licence-quota raj created self-inflicted scarcities of telephones, scooters and cooking gas, our utterly authoritarian, cynical and intellectually bankrupt higher education policy has created humongous shortages. We all know the odds for a candidate to qualify for premier engineering, management and medical colleges. Those with means now pay their way to colleges in Australia, Singapore, Qatar, besides indeed the traditional "exporters" of education to India, the US and the UK. Various estimates put just the cost on Indian parents of educating their children abroad between $5 billion and $6 billion per year. This is an entirely one-way trade, as very few foreign students come to study in India, and some of those who wish to, like researchers, even Fulbright scholars, are given hell by our Orwellian (or you could coin an Indian equivalent, Arjunian, Murlimanoharian) HRD establishment. Where does it leave the poor who can't afford to buy their children seats overseas? Where does it leave Indian enterprise and industry — even the government, its armed forces, hospitals, PSUs — which can't find enough skilled manpower and therefore have to pay exaggerated wages, distorting all economics?

Yet, do advertise for a security guard on naukri.com and see how many applications you get from MAs, MScs, even PhDs. These are young Indians who have invested the most valuable years of their lives collecting degrees but no knowledge, education but no skills. Unless this disaster is stemmed now, these numbers will multiply faster than you can imagine, and they will be angrier than you wish to imagine. But if you can fix it, the dividend you reap will be not merely demographic, but even economic and political.

While our army of the unemployable increases we suffer from crippling shortages of not just engineers, doctors and managers, but also of nurses, welders, electricians, plumbers, masons, carpenters, teachers and of course social scientists. Engineering, management and medicine at least have their IITs, IIMs and AIIMS. What brand name can Indian social sciences and the liberal arts boast of? They, in fact, have a bigger problem than lack of resources: lack of intellectual freedom, diversity of thought and opinion. The few social science centres that we have, therefore, produce clones. Usually these are clones of professors steeped in the heady ideologies of the '70s incapable or unwilling to notice that the "revolution" has passed them by. JNU is a perfect example.

It is known that education liberates. But it also follows that better education, particularly greater access to higher education, creates a virtuous cycle of improved collective self-esteem, equality, ambition and satisfaction that dovetails so nicely in this new resurgent India that is choosing politics of aspiration over politics of grievance, and which will continue to get only younger for another 25 years. It is only because of increased opportunity that a paanwala's son now can get to IIT, or one modest coaching centre run by one motivated individual in Patna can send 70 Bihar kids to our topmost engineering colleges. And this opportunity has arisen when our IIT-JEE system now provides 8000 seats. This looks like a lot now, compared to just 2000-plus in 1988. But given the needs of our young people, and of our economy and industry, it is way too little. Compare this to UCLA (25,000 undergrad and 11,000 postgrad), MIT (4,172 undergrad, 6048 PG), Harvard (6,714 undergrad and 12,442 PG) and a total student strength of 11,250 at Yale. In comparison, our venerable JNU has 5000 and it is the only one of its kind in all of India, while there are 10 UCs (Universities of California).

This shortage, this criminal undersupply of quality education, is the most cruel atrocity on a society blessed with so much intellect, and such respect and longing for education. Dr Devi Shetty of Bangalore's Narayana Hrudayalaya points out to me that given the diabetes epidemic, India is now the kidney disease capital of the world. Yet, do you know how many nephrology MDs our medical colleges produce in a year? It is only 70. Neurology does worse, with 63, cardiology a little better with 88 and oncology, the specialisation to treat cancers, only 15. And we hope to earn foreign exchange from medical tourism! In each of these specialisations, India could absorb, and needs, at least 10 times as many per year. Can you imagine a country of 110 crores producing just 7332 MDs per year? America produces 16,000 and little UK 4200.

This undersupply of quality education at all levels is entirely self-inflicted, and unnecessary. Every year we see a scramble for private and even central schools admissions, court cases, madness of 90 percenters failing to get into even economics and English honours in our better colleges (actually just about 10 all over India). And the definition of "better" college here is where at least classes are held regularly since the UGC, a three-letter word from hell or Kim Il-Sung's North Korea, won't even let a college charge its pupils more if they were willing to pay, or pay its teachers more than the salaries it mandates. The result then is the phenomenon you see on your TV screen all day. The advertisement telling you that India's largest private university is Lovely Professional University in Punjab, of course with UGC certification. Now, why pick on a name, you might ask? The Americans have business schools named after Kellogg and, who knows, perhaps Mickey Mouse. But comparisons should stop about here.

This is what Manmohan Singh now has the opportunity, time and political space to change. He has made a good beginning by choosing Kapil Sibal, our first "modern" HRD minister in two decades. This is an issue Rahul Gandhi feels strongly about. There is no real opposition from the BJP which should be as embarrassed of the record of its Murli Manohar Joshi in HRD as the Congress should be of Arjun Singh's. So if 1991's near- bankruptcy created the justification for economic reforms, and a new intellectual-philosophical urge fuelled the nuclear deal and thereby a generational foreign policy shift, the new demographic reality and politics have both created the space for a revolution in education and HRD. On this one now, there are no excuses. No Dr Joshi, no Arjun Singh, no fake ideology, no Left.


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