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Meddling with education

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-06-02

NEW DELHI - Shortly after he assumed office as India's new Minister for Human Resources Development, Mr Arjun Singh of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance summoned leading educators from around the country for an emergency meeting. He had a problem on his hands, one with implications domestically as well as internationally.

The problem was this: Mr Singh's predecessor, Mr Murli Manohar Joshi of the National Democratic Alliance - and a man noted for his rabid, rightwing and Hindu-centric views - had slashed by 80 percent the annual US$1,500 tuition and room-and-board fee that each student pays at the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management. Moreover, Mr Joshi was determined to calibrate the curriculums of these institutions in order to reflect India's Hindu heritage. And Mr Joshi had wanted to dilute the strenuous entrance exams so that more students from backward communities could enter these institutions.

Mr Joshi's actions had stirred a huge controversy because, since their establishment some 54 years ago, the IITs and IIMs have traditionally produced world-class graduates. They have nourished not only Indian industry, manufacturing, and business but also technological communities overseas - such as Silicon Valley in the United States, where Indians have distinguished themselves by their innovativeness and enterprise, becoming exceedingly wealthy in the process. In fact, Indians in Silicon Valley are estimated to have a net worth of more than US$50 billion.

Mr Joshi's actions represented the very sort of political interference that Indian educators dreaded. They feared that the quality of education would suffer at the IITs and IIMs, subsequently affecting the prospects of graduates in the global marketplace at a time when they were being increasingly sought for their sturdy skills. And because India has quite possibly the world's largest reservoir of trained manpower, foreign companies are increasingly coming to set up their back offices here, thereby generating jobs and the consequent social and economic well-being in local communities.

And now Mr Singh needed to bring a more benign kind of political intervention in order to calm the waters. His solution was to leave it up to the administrators of the seven IITs and six IIMs whether to reduce fees. Institutes like IIM Kozhikode have already implemented the 80 percent fee cut order given by Mr Joshi. On Monday, the government asked the IIMs to come out with a common fee structure.

The question of fee reduction, while aimed at inviting applause from the masses in a country of 1.1 billion overwhelmingly poor people, was actually irrelevant to the two institutions. For one, only 2,000 of the 200,000 annual applicants are accepted at the IITs, and roughly a similar number at the IIMs. In fact, banks and financial institutions line up in front of students, offering cheap loans because they know that every graduate is guaranteed a job that often fetches a starting salary of US$20,000 - extraordinarily high by Indian standards.

While each student pays US$1,500 annually, it costs the government twice as much to provide for education at the IITs and IIMs. The annual governmental subsidy to these institutions is around US$50 million. But this money isn't given grudgingly. Higher technical education has been an article of faith in India, ever since a 22-member official committee headed by Mr N. R. Sarkar submitted a report in 1946 on the development of higher technical institutions to the government.

The Sarkar Committee recommended the creation of four higher technical institutions of international standard, one each in the north, south, east and west, modelled possibly along the lines of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In May 1950, the first in the series was established in Kharagpur at the site of the Hijli Detention Camp, where the British had incarcerated political prisoners; the institution was named the "Indian Institute of Technology'' before its formal inauguration on August 18, 1951.

Indeed, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, was determined that science and technology should play a prominent role in modernising India. He envisioned that the IIT system would over time "provide scientists and technologists of the highest calibre who would engage in research, design and development to help building the nation towards self-reliance in her technological needs." (Each Indian Five-Year Plan has typically allocated more money to higher technical education than to primary or secondary education, which may explain why the country's literacy rate is still below 50 percent.)

In addition to the IITs and IIMs, the Nehruvian vision of a technologically competent society has resulted in a network today of more than a thousand engineering colleges, another thousand colleges offering master's degrees in computer applications, 291 universities, and 12,000 undergraduate colleges. Together, they turn out two million graduates each year, 125,000 of them in engineering alone.

But apart from the elite IIT and IIM graduates, there aren't enough jobs for all graduates. This has resulted in an exodus of highly skilled Indians to countries like the U.S., Britain, Australia and Canada. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 30,000 IIT graduates, and their per capita income has been put at US$2 million. The combined net worth of IIT graduates in the U.S. alone is estimated at US$35 billion. Several studies have suggested that Indian professionals abroad have a cumulative net worth of US$200 billion. (Prosperous overseas Indians don't forget their homeland, however: each year, they remit around US$20 billion.)

According to the New York-based International Council on Education, 50 percent of graduates of the IITs and IIMs, and the top 20 percent of medical school graduates, plus the top 15 percent of graduates of humanities colleges leave India each year. Some 75 percent of computer professionals also emigrate to the West each year.

This means that India itself is facing a shortage of high-level professionals. The National Association of Software and Service Companies says that each year India needs 140,000 expert workers in technology, but only 100,000 are available because 45,000 go abroad for better paying jobs. According to a study by the United Nations Development Programme, the net loss to India each year through such emigration is US$2 billion.

Emigration is a price that free societies must pay, especially in today's world of rapid globalization. Minister Arjun Singh indeed has a problem on his hands, notwithstanding his resolution of the more immediate fee situation: How do you persuade skilled graduates to stay behind and help out in enlarging the Indian economy? What does one offer them? Better pay? More perks? More health-care and leisure benefits? India's quest to become an economic superpower may well be defined by how - and how quickly -- it comes up with answers to such questions.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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