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ALL IS NOT WELL WITH HIGHER EDUCATION IN INDIA

Five higher education bills are currently awaiting parliamentary ratification: the foreign educational institutions bill, 2010; the educational tribunals bill, 2010; the national accreditation bill, 2010; the prohibition of unfair practices bill, 2010 and the national council for higher education and research bill, 2011. The much touted rationale for these bills is that the State is poor and so private funding (including foreign resources) of education is the need of the hour. Moreover, in this age of globalization , education is just like any other commodity and so needs to evolve by the laws of the market and should be controlled and determined by market players. Hence, good education should come with a premium and the societal needs of a developing nation with a large number of impoverished people are irrelevant.

It is against this background that we should confront the spectre that is haunting India. Slowly but surely, sweeping changes are engulfing all levels of primary, secondary and higher education. We shall discuss these changes with respect to the apparent glorification of the sciences and the simultaneous devaluation of studies related to the humanities, the undermining of research and training in the basic and fundamental sciences, and the usurping of the role of universities by Central government-funded science research institutions.

Science versus Humanities — the educational apartheid

Certain disturbing facts are gaining permanency in our education system.

In most of the Indian Council of Secondary Education and Indian School Certificate schools (boys’ section) in Calcutta, the humanities stream has been done away with. In classes XI-XII, a child can register for either the science or commerce streams. The girls’ schools are still free from this disease but are bound to be infected soon. In other states, particularly those in the South, the disease has reached epidemic proportions. Bengal’s vernacular medium schools have not contracted this disease yet. The same cannot be said of vernacular medium schools elsewhere.

It has been quite some time since the ICSE and ISC boards have made the choice of second language optional. Today, most schools under these boards follow the policy. In bygone times the second language was compulsory. Initially the schools were a bit careful as admission to the University of Calcutta requires that the student have a second language. However, as there is now an exodus of students from West Bengal for undergraduate studies, the situation is changing fast. This change has been accelerated by the fact that private engineering colleges do not require any second language for admissions.

The Central Board of Secondary Education first made the second language optional years ago. The last decade has seen the Central government aggressively pushing the study of Hindi in schools and devaluing studies of the vernacular. In many Calcutta schools, Bengali students opt for Hindi as a second language because there are monetary incentives for getting good marks in Hindi. A similar situation prevails in other states. The CBSE is being perceived by many people in powerful positions as the model for the envisaged standardization of education in India. The effect would be of steam-rolling.

Historical and economic reasons have made English the most preferred language of the ‘free market’ worldwide. That is why English is the language of the sciences. The Union human resources development ministry is keen to promote the teaching of “functional English” in schools. The CBSE was the first to make the teaching of functional English compulsory. Gradually, this ideology spread to other boards. In the ISC board there is a subject called elective English, based on English literary classics. It is also perhaps one of the most difficult subjects at the class XII level. Amusingly, for undergraduate admissions to English honours, marks obtained in this subject are irrelevant for admission. The message is rather bizarre: for university studies in English literature, functional English marks are important and proficiency in English literature redundant — and this in a city boasting some of the finest scholars of English in the country. This pathetic situation has contributed to elective English being gradually banished from the curricula of most ISC schools in the city. This year one more school has abolished elective English from its curriculum.

In most schools, subject teachers exist only for science subjects. The humanities stream rarely has subject teachers, that is, a mathematics teacher may be asked to teach geography, teachers of Bengali double up as history teachers, history teachers may also teach political science, and so on. Thus only a handful of teachers suffice for the humanities stream. At the secondary level, when the love for and perception of a subject starts blooming, children reading humanities are deprived of good teachers. Naturally, serious students move away from humanities and opt for more mundane but economically profitable subjects. Others set their sights abroad. There is also another ominous social pressure: the idea that good students study science. Studying humanities is frowned upon as intellectually demeaning.

Science universities have been coming up in various parts of the country over the past few years as part of Central government policy. It may be pertinent to ask whether this violates the sacred constitutional right to equal opportunity. Why should science aspirants be given special privileges and opportunities with tax payers’ money and students opting for the humanities be deprived? Are there purely science universities on such a grand scale anywhere in the world? Many academic luminaries are now adorning the various committees relating to education in Bengal and most of them have had substantial foreign exposure. It is time they spoke out against this gross violation of a child’s constitutional right to equal opportunity.

Studying science has pecuniary benefits. There are a slew of scholarships and grants right from high school levels. A novel scheme was introduced some years back. Science candidates with moderately good marks in classes XI-XII can apply for scholarships worth more than Rs 70,000 per annum. One does not have to sit for any examination to receive this scholarship. The scholarships can be renewed every year by doing some project work in any Central government-funded research institution. The scholarships continue right upto the end of the master’s degree and, under certain conditions, can also be obtained for a doctorate degree. The number of such scholarships is so large (about 10,000 each year) that an application (first-come-first-served basis) is sufficient. In certain science research institutes in Calcutta, Rs 12,000 are paid monthly to students studying in their MSc programmes. This is not a stipend, as payments continue even if the student fails in examinations. Why should humanities students doing their MA not have similar opportunities? Why should tax payers’ money be paid to third-grade science students while brilliant humanities aspirants do not have similar opportunities? Unwittingly, the government is becoming a party to the creation of an educational apartheid.

The raison d’être has to do with our science managers. The basic roadmap of secondary and higher education is determined by science advisers to the Central government. These people also control most of the funds in higher education. They help create a vast labour force of science graduates whose large number and modest academic qualifications ensure that their salaries are not very high. This suits the multinational corporations which have come to India to cut costs in production. India has always been a supplier of trained technical workforces for the West. In the 1960s, Kennedy requested Nehru to give him engineers. In the early 1970s, the batch of engineers leaving the Jessop company in Calcutta for the United States of America was given the analogue of the green card at Dum Dum airport. The difference today is that we can serve the West from here, we need not go there.

The new universities teach science only. On a different plane, the entire education system is gradually being geared to preach the irrelevance of humanities. In south India, it is difficult for a child to pursue humanities in colleges as the relevant departments simply do not exist. A child fears ostracism on the ground of a lack of intellect and is de-motivated from studying humanities. His life is seen as meaningless if he cannot make it to the Indian institutes of technology, or the engineering or medical colleges. Incidentally, the IITs have produced, with certain exceptions, a bunch of professionals who serve as cheap labour to transnational companies. The spectacular turnaround of the public sector navratna companies are because of engineers produced in less fashionable regional engineering colleges and not the IITs. With all the hype and public subsidy, the IITs are basically production houses for an anti-science diaspora which runs after masters of business administration degrees to seek careers abroad.

Regarding the arts, the less said the better. In contrast to more civilized countries, how many higher educational institutions give such training? There is one Government College of Art and Craft in Calcutta and a few similar centres in other cities. But the money allotted to them is not worth recording.

What about the performing arts and dramatics? What about music? Most institutions that teach these are private and survive solely on donations. Old institutions like the Bhatkhande Music Institute and the Prayag foundations are gradually becoming irrelevant owing to a lack of funds. The late Ali Akbar Khan wanted a plot of land in Calcutta to build a music school. He was never given one by the earlier government. The same government gave nearly 100 acres for a nano-tech laboratory and about Rs 100 crore were made available by a central funding authority to build that laboratory.

Let us consider the ethos of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. There are four schools: natural sciences, mathematics, social sciences and historical studies. The latter was established in 1949 with the merging of the school of economics and politics and the school of humanistic studies. In its purview are included socio-economic developments, political theory, modern international relations, art, science, philosophy, music and literature. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist and director at IAS, brought in T.S. Eliot as a member in the late 1940s. It is such stuff that a visionary is made of.

With so much investment in and eulogy for science, let us honestly assess where we stand in the realm of technology. There is nothing called Indian technology. All we have is a large cesspool of unsophisticated technical manpower because of our large population and the absence of jobs over a wide spectrum of disciplines. Most of our technology is borrowed or copied. The nuclear technology is 70 years old. We cannot as yet commercially manufacture an integrated circuit chip as we do not have mastery over the controlled development of thin film deposition under high vacuum. Our space technology has been copied from Russia. Our hydel power technology is so outdated that neighbouring states fight over whether a dam is damaged or not as there is no scientific expertise in dam architectural measurements whereby relevant stresses at relevant points can be determined unambiguously. The automobile industry is a sham collection of foreign companies scouring third-world countries for cheap labour. In bio-technology we are among the bottom nations and all our medical technology is imported. Creating software for multi-national companies cheaply is not technology. It is essentially a service and has no permanence over any specified timescale. Most softwares are replaced every few years and even the languages (like COBOL) gradually become obsolete .

Therefore, this apparent glorification of science is not for science’s sake but for other reasons.