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THE ECONOMY OF KNOWLEDGE - India is treating knowledge as a commodity, not infrastructure

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By Sukanta Chaudhuri The author is professor of English, Jadavpur University, Calcutta
  • Published 1.04.10

In our 63rd year of Independence, the Right to Education Act comes into effect on April 1. On the eve of its launch, the Union education minister has balanced our perspective by another resolve. India’s enrolment rate for higher education is around 12 per cent. He would increase this to 30 per cent, in line with the advanced nations.

There is only one snag. Unlike in advanced countries, one Indian in three is illiterate. Ten million Indian children have never entered school. Among those who have, the dropout rate is appalling. Only 5-6 per cent of our school population (not the total population of the relevant age group) is enrolled in Classes XI and XII — in other words, can even think of higher education.

The last-announced deadline for full enrolment up to Class VIII was 2020. (How does this square with the Right to Education Act?) Higher enrolment at the tertiary level seems a matter of more urgency. The general seats balancing the other backward classes quota have swollen the intake at all Central institutions. Eight new Indian institutes of technology, seven new Indian institutes of management and 16 new Central universities are coming up. Foreign institutions are being wooed. There is heady talk of 14 ‘innovation universities’. The sums allocated are beyond the wildest dreams of education budgets in the past. Thanks to the education cess, the Union government is sitting on a cash mountain earmarked for education. How will it spend that money?

There is gross disproportion between the government’s plans for higher and ‘lower’ education. Let us eschew ideals and sentiment. In dispassionate terms, what does the mismatch mean for the nation’s hard welfare?

By an optimistic tally, only two-thirds of our population is literate. Hence a 30 per cent enrolment in higher education translates into 45 per cent of the actual base. It is an unreal goal for India to set itself. Seen against India’s record of school enrolment, this is utterly warped. It signals that the nation is only committed to a proper education for a fraction of its people.

The Right to Education Act might make a difference, or it might not. Responsibility for the poor child is being partly diverted to private schools: a perfectly fair bid for social cross-subsidy, but likely to be scuttled through the recalcitrance of those schools. Some have gone to court, with arguments dripping concern for poor children — manipulated to ensure that no such child enters their gates. At the same time, the inadequacies of government schools have been newly exposed in the build-up to the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan. Illustrating the chasm between ideology and performance, the inadequacy reaches a unique extent in West Bengal, calling for special measures here alone. Leftist teachers’ unions have demonstrated in Calcutta against the Right to Education Act. They feel it will threaten their jobs. Their leaders’ comments on television indicate they are uninformed about the provisions of the act.

At the other end of the spectrum, the mismatch between school and tertiary education is leading to a piquant outcome. At present, the most prized schools are almost all private and increasingly expensive. They reach their acme in a topping of ‘world-class’ outfits which essentially offer to adapt children to gift-wrapped lives abroad by making them unfit to live in India. If the present plans take shape, we will have a tier of colleges and universities to match these schools in price and image. The two will flourish symbiotically, in happy exclusion from the soil they grow in.

Or will they? However India’s super-middle class might prosper, there is a limit to its size. From matching Canada’s population, it can at most double to overtake Britain’s. Hence the clientele for such institutions will soon peak, having first diluted standards through over-intake from a narrow base of entrants chosen by affluence rather than merit.

Of Indians who have enjoyed tertiary education, only 30 per cent are judged to have the skills demanded of a knowledge economy. Clearly, the first need is to improve the existing system radically. Further enrolment without strengthening the catchment area in school education would mean admitting more and more of weaker and weaker students — that is, lowering the already low real output of our colleges and universities. The proportion of effectively trained graduates might fall to 15 per cent or less.

From where will the extra students come? The new institutions are likely to be still costlier than the already costly ones accounting for the most recent expansion. Higher education for the poor will be relegated to the janata system inherited from an age of innocence. Even that may often be priced upward: the Union government is drastically reducing the revenue budgets of Central universities, to be compensated for by the institution’s own earnings (read fees). Yet the Union is showering other grants on them, whereby they are developing disproportionately to the fund-starved state universities. Centrally funded institutions are forming a privileged ‘creamy layer’ as they did not do even 10 years ago. We are now looking for a privileged class of students to patronize them.

Only a very short-sighted forecast could see such a policy as maximizing India’s knowledge resources for a growing economy. The children of a lesser Saraswati will lack access to that knowledge, hence to that economy. (Let us have no cant about education loans. Such loans ease middle-class cash flow problems; they are barred to persons who have no surety to offer.) They will not be empowered to contribute to India’s economic growth: that is to say, India will deny itself the greater part of its potential skilled workforce. Simultaneously, this group’s meagre skills and income will cap its purchasing power at or below subsistence level: its members will not generate the consumer demand needed to boost production.

We are planning a short-term spurt in our knowledge resources to feed the high-profile, high-yielding sectors of the economy and gratify the career-hunger of middle-class individuals. In the process, we are blocking the development of a human resource base to harness knowledge for long-term economic growth. We are treating knowledge as a commodity and not as infrastructure, as buying a car rather than building a road.

The ‘knowledge as commodity’ charge has been discredited by fatuous defenders of 10-rupee fees on derelict campuses. Infrastructure also carries a price: we pay electricity bills and road tolls. But the real return from a road or a power plant is not the gain to the holding company: it is the enabling of other productive activities. So with education. The direct return it yields is less important than the returns it ensures in other ways. An institution set up as a business is unlikely to offer quality education towards the nation’s growth. At best, it may train its students to participate in that growth for their private gain. Conversely, an institution that does not pay its way might be making an immense economic contribution to society.

In fact, the two educational sectors most crucial to the economy are, at their opposite poles, precisely the two that need to absorb huge funds with no direct return: basic school education and fundamental research. For a nation so entranced with the United States of America, it has strangely escaped us that these are two areas where, respectively, the American State and American business sink large sums of money. Not for nothing is the US the world’s undisputed knowledge hub. That fact should disturb us and make us think of an alternative hub on our own soil that might even attract other nations. Bollywood has done more for India's prestige and prosperity in this way than our knowledge establishment.

Instead, like magpies, we are littering our classrooms with the shiny bric-a-brac of the Western academic order. We might focus instead on its basic structure and rationale. We need not clone it, but the exercise will help us create a structure and rationale of our own. Indian education deserves no less. Nor does the Indian economy.