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Rediff article on Education
Following is a summary of Shalabh Kumar’s article in Rediff some time back.
The entire article is worth reading. It is up to the intellectuals in the
IP group to debate and decide if there is any thing worthwhile in Shalabh’s
article, which is copied at the end.
So far we have diluted out effort by making available limited government
resources to support a very broadly available higher education. This has
resulted in lack of funds to support a broader all pervasive primary
education system as well as a system of practical training education. The
result is that people with multiple college degrees end up doing clerical
and other jobs requiring very limited application of higher education.
The author advocates the following :-
1. Quality primary education must reach every individual. This is needed
to enable every one to communicate effectively leading to awareness and
2. To power our growth we need people with skills suited to economic
3. Also needed are people who push the frontiers of knowledge - people who
will guarantee our future and our rightful place in the global community.
After end of primary education (class 4 or class 5), an evaluation should
occur to decide the two streams - one for skill based education and the
other for "higher education".
Considering the limitation on our present resources, we can only afford
to provide free education up to primary level. Long term goal should be to
provide free education till class 12.
In the meantime we should devise a merit-cum-means system to ensure that
‘needy’ students with academic or other potential are able to achieve their
Second screening should occur at Class 12 level. Presently a screening
does occur as all the premier institutions. (IITs., Medical Colleges, etc.)
have a screening system. The system however fails for the following
1. Not enough of institutions of "academic excellence" to accommodate all
deserving cases; and
2. The system does not differentiate between students who deserve practical
skills and others who should be heading for a culture of academic and
The author feels that the US model of higher education is worth
emulating. Key features of the system are :-
1. completely merit based, with scholarships for the deserving;
3. Expensive; and
4. Open to all nationalities.
The author recommends limited number of colleges in all the needed fields
- each completely independent and autonomous, but linked by a common
selection process and governing body. Colleges to be self funded with
The system should be open to foreign nationals. Foreign students
will add to intellectual vibrancy and diversity. They will also be the
future important ambassadors for India in their own countries.
If we invest wisely, India could be one of the powerhouses of the
Now the full article :-
When the reforms process was initiated in the early 1990s, there was
some discussion by the Indian
intelligentsia on the core areas that India could focus
on for rapid growth. That discussion died as the euphoria of the early days
of reforms was tempered by reality.
Yet, the basic premise of that discussion remains valid. We, as a country,
are playing a catching-up game. It makes sense, hence, to learn from the
experience of other
countries who have played this game successfully. Focussing on a few areas,
where the country has intrinsic strengths and/or future possibilities, is
clearly one of these lessons.
Through this article, I would like to re-start the
discussion on areas that we need to concentrate on.Education is not often
discussed as a core economic area because the commercial benefits are not
obvious, while the social benefits are. Yet education and the building of
intellectual capital remain a corner stone of a strong and developed country.
Japan's rapid rise as an economic power was aided by an
education system which 'mothered' its technological and
process engineering strengths. The German education
system has for long been the envy of other countries, for its ability to
educate and train citizens for all level of economic and social activities.
Sweden, another success story of the 20th century, puts education at the
top of the things that the government must provide for its citizens.
Finally, we have the examples of Great Britain in the 19th century and the
US in the 20th century. It is a moot point whether either of these
countries would have built themselves into such powerhouses if it
were not for their education systems.
The education model in these two countries provided not
just basic education for everyone but also supported, in
the fullest measure, advanced education which pushed the
frontiers of human knowledge in all fields. In fact, the
resurgence of the US economy in the 1990s, powered by the
developments in the IT industry, remains the best
advertisement for the support and building of higher
Interestingly, most countries treat education as a
restricted field, directed to their own citizens and
shaped by their own economic requirements. As we enter
the 21st century, the USA stands alone among the
countries of the world, with infrastructure and support
for the pure pursuit of knowledge and learning . When you
think of higher education, you think of the US. It is no
surprise then that most major inventions and innovations
seem to be coming from the US. It is also one of the
fundamental reasons for the continuing pre-eminence of
the US in the world today.
The absence of an alternative to the US is an opportunity
India has a chequered history as a centre for higher
learning. We all know the stories about Nalanda and
Takshila. More importantly, even in current times we have
demonstrated, on a limited scale, our ability to build
excellent institutions of education -- the IITs, the
premier medical schools, the IIMs are all indicators of
this ability. There are two other factors which can help
us build India as a favoured destination for higher
education. There is, in India and abroad, a massive pool
of Indians in the teaching and research professions.
Maybe it is something that we do well as a race. Then
there is the dominance of English in our higher
education. The spread of English as a world language will
continue to work in our favour.
We have an opportunity staring us at our face. The cost
of education in the US is high and the students from
developing countries face great difficulty in getting
admissions. To the world community of developing
countries, India could become the destination for higher
education. There are two caveats to this -- one, the aim
is to become a centre for excellence which means it is
not just a cheaper alternative that one is talking about.
Two, to be a world renowned place, we will need to look
outwards and actively encourage deserving students from
When I first discussed this idea with people, a very
valid objection was brought up -- shouldn't primary
education be the priority area, given our high levels of
illiteracy? Of course, it should be. But focus on
widespread primary education and building world-class
centres of excellence in higher education can go hand in
Any education system needs to cater to three levels:
primary education for every individual, skills training
for a significant sub-set and advanced education for the
other sub-set. Since the system on first glance appears
unfair or 'elitist', we have chosen in India a system
where higher education is also broadly available and
The broad availability of higher education creates
multiple problems. It drains resources. That's one of the
reasons why we do not have funds to support a broader,
all pervasive primary education system. It is also the
reason why we have not been able to build a system of
practical training education, an idea which has been
around for some time. A bigger problem is that it is such
a waste of individual time and energy. In my own extended
family, I have examples of people with multiple college
degrees -- BA and two MAs, BA and LLB, MSc, etc -- with
jobs which can at best be described clerical. I fail to
see the value that an MA in History brings to an
administrative assistant's job in LIC or an MA in
Economics to a police job. The cost to the nation of the
number of productive years wasted by its youth is high.
The cost of the frustration that it builds in the youth
The education system that the country needs is clearly
different from what we have. Let us recognise first a few
indisputables: we do need a primary education system
which reaches every individual. We will never be able to
pull ourselves out of the economic and social morass that
we are in with 50% of the population illiterate. The
purpose of primary education is basic -- literacy allows
people to communicate more effectively with each other.
Effective communication leads to awareness, awareness
leads to progress. Ergo, we need primary education for
Yet, 100% literacy is only a necessary condition not a
sufficient one. To power our growth and to secure our
future, we need both people with 'skills' suited to
economic requirements as well as those who push the
frontiers of knowledge. The second tier of education has
to impart 'skills' to people -- a lathe operator needs
training on the lathe, an administrative assistant needs
typing, filing and office software training, a service
representative needs technical training, a primary school
teacher needs education training. None of these people
need a BA in History or a BSc in Physics. If we could
change the curriculum in the vast majority of colleges in
the country to imparting functional skills, one of the
fundamental stumbling blocks in our economic development
will be removed.
A revamp must be preceded by a number of questions -- if
primary education (the education required to make a
individual know the three Rs) is till Class 4, how many
further years will complete the basic education? Class
10? Class 12? Bachelor's? The German education model
actually evaluates students at the Grade 4 level. One set
is identified for higher education and go through
different schools, while the other set is moved into
skills training through the 'apprentice' programme after
high school. So, could we also define basic education to
be complete after Class 12?
Given our economic situation, the participation of a
large number of children will be dependent on the
government support provided. Let us start with the
assumption that primary education, till class 4, should
be made available free-of-cost through government
schools. The country does not have currently the
resources to make basic education free till Class 12, but
that should be the long-term goal. In the interim, a
merit-cum-means system which ensures that 'needy'
students, with academic or other potential, continue
their education will need to be instituted.
The first level of screening should happen after Class
12. We already have an ad-hoc screening system working in
the country. The IITs and the medical schools have
entrance examinations, while the premier colleges recruit
on the basis of the performance in the Class 12
examination. The top academic performers actually get
selected for higher education. But the system fails at
this point because of two reasons.
First, there are very few of these institutions of
'academic excellence', not enough to accommodate all the
students who should be in such institutions and not
enough to build a strong culture of academic and
intellectual vibrancy. It also fails with the second rung
of individuals -- it provides for them also a similar
educational curricula, or at least the same
qualification, in colleges of dubious value. It is this
second rung of individuals who need to be directed to the
centres for building practical skills. There are a number
of ways in which this can be achieved. These centres
should be partly subsidised to start with, making them
economically attractive. In addition, conversion of the
current colleges into such centres will lead to an
We are, however, still nowhere close to building
ourselves as an intellectual powerhouse. To do that we
will need to strengthen the few academic institutions of
excellence that we have and to significantly expand their
numbers. While primary education is the foundation stone
and practical training a key element in building our
economic prowess, higher education will guarantee our
future and our rightful place in the global community.
The US model for higher education is worth emulating. The
key features of the system are:
* Completely merit based, with scholarships for deserving
* Open to all nationalities
There are only few changes that we will need to make. The
US higher education system covers every possible area of
human curiosity -- we will need to focus. Some areas of
focus select themselves -- engineering, medicine (western
and traditional), pure sciences, agricultural technology,
management. These are also areas which developing
countries in general will be interested in.
A model, not very different from the IIT model, could be
adopted for each of the fields. That means a limited
number of colleges in each field, each completely
autonomous and independent, but linked by a common name,
a joint selection process and a governing body. The
colleges will be self-funded and private capital should
be encouraged. In engineering, with the already
established equity, one could consider a second chain of
colleges, to complement the existing IITs. A selected set
of existing RECs could be identified for development.
Similarly, in medicine, two separate chains for Western
and traditional medicine could be set up.
The key change to the system will be in opening
admissions to foreign nationals. It is a difficult
decision. Seats will be restricted in such institutions
-- to give them to foreigners, instead of Indians, seems
to run counter to the concept of building the nation. It
is not. Foreign students will never be a dominant group.
However, the small numbers who will be selected will add
substantially to the intellectual vibrancy and diversity
of the system. They will also be in the future important
ambassadors for India in their own countries --
economically and politically. To initiate the process,
the government could enter into a 'preferred partners'
scheme with a few countries. Once the process starts, it
has its own momentum.
It is difficult to say what the driving technology or
phenomenon of the 21st century will be. It might be IT --
in which case we may see another century of US eminence.
But I am willing to bet that the future will see
something even more powerful, even more fundamental
develop. Such developments will come from countries who
invest in human learning. These countries will be the
powerhouses of the 21st century. India could be one of
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