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FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
- Higher education institutions cannot easily be self-financing in India

All its sycophants, ones that wait with bated breath and whispering humbleness for the hyenas’ shares of the leftovers, must pursue with diligence whatever edicts emerge from the superpower. The society we live in is no exception to this. As soon as the United States of America declared the need for higher education to be self-financing, we decided to join the bandwagon without a slightest thought about the attributes that distinguish the two societies. And one of the most important differences between them lies in the quality of education that an average individual has received. One does not need to quote statistics to prove that the US or other similarly placed countries have a population that is incomparably superior in terms of its educational characteristics.

Thus, recession induced cuts in the state university budgets cause little harm in the US compared to the devastation it leads to in poorer countries. There are at least two reasons why a deceleration in the growth of institutions of higher education in India will precipitate long-term damages in this country. The first of these will harm its social fabric irreparably, while the second will precipitate an economic ruin of absurd proportions.

To start with the social phenomenon, one feels tempted to quote from the celebrated court scene in The Merchant of Venice: “As there is no firm reason to be render’d,/...So can I give no reason, nor I will not...” Shylock said this in rage when called upon to justify his maniacal preference for a pound of Antonio’s flesh over the three thousand ducats that the latter owed him, merely because the payment had not been made on time. However abused by the Christian community, a part of Shylock’s ultimate tragedy lay surely in his refusal to listen to the voice of reason. But passion, engendered by a lack of education, is a force that finds expression in the destruction of all and sundry and, unlike the finale in Shylock’s story, can smother to extinction centuries of creativity that reason alone can foster.

Passion leads to mindless destruction. Or else, why should the magnificent library and museum at Alexandria have perished in a civil war' The Greeks lost their geometry to the Barbarians, to be retrieved by the Arabs, but only fortuitously. And closer to home, both in space and time, could primary education alone, which in this society may not amount to much more than a vague knowledge of the alphabet, prevent the Gujarat outrage' Right now, lunacy reigns supreme in Ayodhya. The Archeological Survey of India is engaged in a journey to the centre of the earth to substantiate mortal claims about godly hierarchies.

The coffers are declared, however, to be empty when it comes to educating people, though the most important product of education is reason. Imparting higher education is an activity that is rapidly acquiring the complexion of sinful luxury. The logic indeed is imported from the Yankee world. A beauty parlour gives a haircut to improve your appearance, an extravagance only the rich can afford. An orthodontist gives your teeth a texture as smooth as alabaster, a need that may be felt by the likes of Karisma Kapoor. All such services lead to observable and verifiable personal gains and must be paid for.

Unfortunately though, the personal gains are less palpable for the services rendered by a college or a university teacher. A professor of history analyses for you events that occurred in the distant past. A mathematician expounds on the wonders of logical paradoxes. Like the barber and the dentist, the professor is also supplying a service, which amounts to selling to the customer a right to a claim on his expertise. The benefit, however, that it imparts to society at large is not readily measurable by means of a pair of scales. Yet, it is only a well-educated society that can appreciate the worth of human learning.

An interesting anecdote concerning Euclid illustrates the point. To quote from Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, “It is said that a pupil, after listening to a demonstration, asked what he would gain by learning geometry, whereupon Euclid called a slave and said ‘Give the young man three-pence, since he must needs make a gain out of what he learns.’ ... No one in Greek times, supposed that conic sections had any utility; at last, in the seventeenth century, Galileo discovered that projectiles move in parabolas, and Kepler discovered that planets moved in ellipses.”

The Euclid story demonstrates that the love for pure knowledge is not as sinful as it is currently being made out to be. Indeed, there is a curious similarity between business investments and academic research. In both cases the result is uncertain. Only, in the first case, the gains and the losses show up within a reasonably short duration of time. In the latter case, it could take years. The trouble of course is that politicians, like business houses, are concerned with the short run. No one understands better than a politician the meaning of Keynes’ dictum, “In the long run we are all dead”.

Coming over to the economic gains of higher education, ministers cry themselves hoarse over the growth rate of economies. Recent research in economic theory has demonstrated beyond doubt that the growth rate of an economy depends as much on investment in physical capital accumulation as on the development of an educated labour force. The same physical capital equipment is more productive in the hands of a highly skilled individual than it is in the hands of an unskilled worker.

Societies progress economically not merely through the accumulation of physical capital, but also through what has now been widely recognized as human capital. As the Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas pointed out, productivity of capital is low in societies where the quality of the labour force is poor. If this were not the case, then capital deficient economies could gain significantly from the flow of capital from richer societies. The fact, however, is that poorer societies do not attract capital on account of the low performance of their labour force.

However indirect and delayed may be the intended effects of higher education, a government fails in its duty if it accords to it a priority that is less than what it deserves. On the other hand, it is also a fact that government finances are in the doldrums all over the world. The announced policies requiring institutions of higher education to collaborate with the private sector by inviting income-generating projects for the institutions seem to be of dubious value.

First of all, do college or university teachers have the time available to work on income-earning projects after performing their teaching responsibilities' Particularly so for undergraduate colleges, where the norm during peak seasons is that a teacher deliver twenty-four lectures a week'

Secondly, academic research is more often than not as far removed from projects offered by business houses to calculate the expected profitability of their contemplated ventures. Indeed, a college teacher or a university professor may turn out to be highly successful in generating funds through business projects, without adding an iota to the creation of knowledge for the youngsters who attend the classes.

Can capital markets help' Unlikely, for banks stand ready to lend to would-be MBAs, but not to others. For them, higher education is too risky an investment. For the government, on the other hand, it is a vice that a developing economy can ill afford. Universities had therefore started to charge capitation fees, which the Supreme Court has now banned. Can institutions of higher education survive in this scenario'

Perhaps the rich will find a solution for their children. Send them abroad. In the meantime what sort of a society shall we be heading towards' For whom indeed are the bells tolling'

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