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FINALLY, going by the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech, education in India is slated for a makeover. Disturbed by the fact that only around ten per cent of those who pass out of school access higher education (as compared to a quarter in other Asian countries), he has promised funds for 30 new central universities, eight IITs and 7 IIMs as also, hold your breath, 1600 polytechnics, 10,000 vocational institutions and a staggering 5000 navodaya vidyalayas. After decades, so it appears, the Indian policy-makers are seriously engaging with the spectre of a growing shortage of trained personnel, critical if we are to ever become a knowledge super power.

As intention, there can be no disagreement with the vision statement. Ever since the eighties, though school enrolment and graduation figures have improved, helped in no small measure by higher public and external infusion of resources, the post-school sector has been stagnating. Few realize that the proportion of official education expenditure on higher and technical education has actually dipped. And while the first claim on public resources has to be that of literacy and basic education, the combination of resource scarcity and archaic rules governing the running of educational enterprises has resulted in a virtual collapse of our higher education.

Forget the average, today even the best institutions are run down. They find it difficult to retain and attract faculty, the quality of training and research has dipped, and most centres appear trapped in endless wrangling and conflict between their different constituents – faculty, students and administration – be it on whom to admit, what and how to teach, or material concerns about salaries and working conditions. With entry into the few ‘in-demand’ institutions becoming near impossible, a staggering number of students are turning to either private educational providers which charge high fees or seek admission abroad. It is estimated that Indians are spending close to four billion dollars annually in foreign institutions – this despite no quality assurance – to upgrade their skills and employment prospects.

So what are the options before an aspiring student? The quality public institutions are inaccessible given intense competition, a situation further worsened by imposition of quotas, and private institutions are both expensive and variable in quality. Incidentally, in the last two decades nearly all capacity expansion has taken place in the private sector, a market response to escalated demand. In itself this might not be so worrying, but given the absence of an appropriate regulatory frame and worse, of reliable data on all relevant parameters – number of institutions by courses offered, students, faculty qualifications, fees charged, and the list goes on – we may only be adding to the number of poor quality institutions churning out ill-trained products.

So what are we to make of the PMs pronouncements? The education policy apparatus seems locked in turf battles, unable to even issue a white paper for larger discussion, much less decide upon the proposed legislations governing private and foreign education providers. As a result, we seem to be in a log jam – the public providers trapped in old problems, unable to expand supply of acceptable quality while new providers – domestic private or foreign – wait endlessly for a stable and enabling policy regime. Are we surprised that potential employers, corporate or academic, bemoan the lack of skilled personnel and have to incur huge costs in selecting and training employees, while students (and their families) incur debts to access foreign and private institutions.

Contrast this with the situation in China. Once their authorities decided that they needed a massive increase in skilled personnel, they acted with resolve across the board. From sending thousands abroad for training, to opening up dozens of new institutions – often by involving foreign experts – the Chinese have in less than a decade and a half managed to set up dozens of high quality education centres. Clearly, they are not held back by ‘self-serving’ arguments about ‘cultural and academic imperialism’ or the decline in public purpose. Thousands of foreigners, including Indians, both study and teach in China. Can we even imagine a similar situation in any of our public institutions?

For those uneasy about comparative lessons from across the world, it might be instructive to revisit the India of the late 1950s and early 1960s – the golden years for our higher education. Our then leadership did not let itself be tied down by shibboleths as it galvanized resources – human and material, internal and external, public and private – to lay down the foundations of our educational system. It is this that has carried us so far. To convert the PMs dream into reality, it is time that we eschew our ‘frog in the well’ attitude and let a hundred flowers bloom.

Harsh Sethi