Fixing Higher Education in India

Kapil Sibal is trying to fix education in India. Hard task, indeed, and a thankless one. Somehow, education never received the priority that it deserves in Independent India. Surprisingly so. When one looks at the nations emerging from colonialism, the most successful ones are always seen to have focused on education. India's recent success story also has a lot to do with its limited experiments with educational excellence with IITs and IIMs. But, then, Education, like every other country, is a political subject, and somehow it never got the political prominence it deserves.

Compare it against the South-East Asian countries and one knows that we never cared much for education. For example, almost all Malaysian Prime Ministers held the Education portfolio before they became prime ministers - education was always a politically sensitive, high profile portfolio. To draw a parallel, I wanted to search how many Indian Prime Ministers actually held the Education portfolio before they became Prime Ministers. I searched for and could not get a credible list of all education ministers. And, then, I tried to list all Indian Prime Ministers and looked into what portfolios they held before they became Prime Ministers. Here is the list I came up with:

Jawaharlal Nehru - None, he was inaugurated as Prime Minister
Lal Bahadur Shastri - Railways [Resigned] and Transport & Communication
Indira Gandhi - Information & Broadcasting
Morarji Desai - Finance & Deputy Prime Minister
Charan Singh - Finance Minister & Deputy Prime Minister
Rajiv Gandhi - None before he became Prime Minister
V P Singh - Finance & Defence
Chandra Sekhar - Not a cabinet position before he became PM
P V Narsimha Rao - External Affairs, a brief stint at HRD [he was India's first HRD Minister when the ministry was renamed], and Home [Indira Gandhi was assassinated under his watch]
Atal Bihari Vajpayee - External Affairs
H D Deve Gowda - No federal office before becoming PM
I K Gujral - External Affairs
Dr Manmohan Singh - Finance

No one, except the perennial PVN, even held the Education [or HRD, whichever name one prefers or uses] portfolio. One can also add to this list Pranab Mukherjee and L K Advani, two men who spent their lifetimes being the PM-in-Waiting, but none of them also ever aspired for anything like the HRD ministry. The point I am making is that it was never seen as a glamorous ministry. This is surprising, given the fact that India was emerging from two centuries of colonial rule, majority of its people were illiterate and we wanted to achieve thought leadership in the world.

One reason why education never held the centre-stage in the governance of India because this is a concurrent subject, the states have a say, and therefore, it is indeed a political minefield. Since various states, most notably West Bengal, are ruled by parties in opposition than the central government, they are perennially at loggerheads with any central initiative.

Besides, education policy in India, like many other countries, is governed by political motivations of whoever is in power in the states. Take West Bengal, for example. The education infrastructure here were abused by the Communist Party functionaries as schools of indoctrination for last three decades. The educational institutions in the state, universities downwards, were allowed to rot, and the meritocracy, crucial to the quality and efficacy of education, were replaced by a system of mediocrity and political patronage. And, of course, West Bengal government was always off the block first protesting against any central 'intervention', and the objective of partnership - the key reason to keep some areas in the concurrent list in the Constitution - has been completely lost in Education.

It did not help that the Union Government also treated the Ministry of Education [or HRD, as it was later renamed] as a status quo ministry, sending out political misfits and retirees to head the departments. The most glaring example was obviously Arjun Singh, the bumbling minister who saw his survival in blocking, rather than promoting, new ideas. He did slightly worse than Murli Manohar Joshi, the ideologue who wanted to change the history books and start the patronage system in IITs and IIMs, the only bright spots in the Indian education system.

Bringing Kapil Sibal into this ministry signals a change, but only a half-hearted one. Kapil Sibal is young [relatively speaking] and dynamic [definitely in contrast to Arjun Singh] and modern [in contrast to Murli Manohar Joshi]. He is seen as close to powers-that-be in Congress, has Prime Minister's confidence, an articulate, educated and successful man, and has been the party's public face for a long time. But, still, he is no heavyweight. He does not have the guile of a Pranab Mukherjee to shift things in the face of determined opposition, or the momentum of Rahul Gandhi. Of course, he is one of those who is acutely aware of the bigness of task at hand, and also eager to get on with it, but if one has to pick up the early signals, he may falter and he may fail - because fixing education is a political minefield and the government as a whole is not focused enough.

So, for example, when a trade-off has to be made, let's say between a crucial vote on whether there should be a subsidy on cow dung and whether the school system needs to be modernized, the government will secure support of various state parties, some of it part of the coalition, to vote the cow dung subsidy in, at the cost of shelving any modernization agenda of the school system. This will indeed be a strategy, but India's is a chaotic, here-and-now democracy and the government, or anyone else for that matter, may not have the bandwidth to do anything significant which only gets benefits long term.

But, then, Kapil Sibal is trying. One must give this to him - he has brought more new ideas within the first 100 days in office than Arjun Singh did in his whole tenure in the ministry [eight years, if one counts his years in the PVN cabinet in the early 1990s]. The openness that Mr. Sibal brings in is also refreshing - he seems to be open to listen to other ideas - and one can not stop being hopeful about progress.

One note of caution, though. I think the key debate about higher education in a developing country like India is still unresolved. There is a solution currently in fashion - let Private operators play! - but this corporatist solution is not fix-all as one is persuaded to believe. Besides, in India, the philanthropic institutions are weak and often built for corrupt purposes, and therefore, may not be able to take the lead, as in some other countries, in fixing the education system. I think handing over the responsibility to run the education system to private businessmen is actually an abdication of responsibility by the government, and expect that Mr. Sibal will understand the issues and not push for unilateral privatization of education. There are some signs that he believes that progress can come through getting FDI in education, but he has to balance it with the risk of creating even greater division in our already fractured country.

So, in the end, there is no easy solution in fixing education. Also, like leadership, a country gets the education it deserves. This is one area where the people themselves have to come forward and build and maintain the infrastructure. Not for profits, but for the sheer necessity and the pleasure of it. That's how it worked in any other country where it worked. I noticed the Times of India's movement of Teach India, but was soon dismayed to see that their Lead India, one that was to choose potent leaders and send them to Harvard for governance training, was far more successful and prominent. This is indeed the key problem in India today- everyone wants to lead, and no one wants to serve. And, paradoxically, it falls upon the HRD minister to lead, and not follow the precedent, and unmess the mess that we are in.


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