The best thing that has happened to Indian education in recent times is for Kapil Sibal to be appointed Minister for Human Resource Development. And,he has hit the ground running. Within weeks of his appointment there is evidence of new thinking,new policies and new energy. So much energy that the dead roots of the system appear to be stirring to life after long seasons of morbidity. This is excellent. But I am beginning to worry that our energetic new Minister could be falling into the clutches of manipulative mandarins whose main expertise lies in clipping the wings of ministers who try to fly. Why do I say this? Because the Minister seems to be doing too many things without focussing on the crux of the problem. The crux is that Indian education remains a victim of the licence-quota-permit raj.
When this uniquely Indian system of government control was at its zenith everything in India was kept in short supply. Telephone connections,electricity meters,cars,scooters,gas cylinders,DDA flats,passports. Sugar,rice and all things nice. Having begun my journalistic career in those bad,bad days,I remember well that I had to beg an MP to get a telephone despite a press quota. And then beg another to get me a gas connection. As for my first passport,it would not have been possible if I did not know someone who knew someone who knew a high official in the Government of India. Luckily those bad old days are gone but the one thing that remains a tool of official patronage is education. Legion are the parents who beg at the doors of some powerful politician or other to get their child into a good school. This happens because good schools are in horribly short supply.
Before the Minister dissipates his energy on doing too many things at the same time he needs to concentrate on finding out why schools are in short supply. Why is it so easy for officials to set up a fine school (Sanskriti) for their children on expensive real estate in the heart of Delhi and so hard for ordinary citizens to do the same? Why should a country that needs millions more schools not be able to build them? What blockages are there?
When he finds the answers to these questions he should turn his attention to higher education and find out how many major politicians own colleges and why. On my travels during the recent election campaign I was astounded to find that nearly everywhere I went there were colleges and institutes of technical training owned by some local political nabob or other. How and why did this come to happen? Why should politicians have anything to do with higher education? Is it because there is big money involved? Is it because they are the only ones who can get licences? Could this be the reason why we have not been able to summon the political will to end the licence raj in education?
The new Minister of HRD has spoken out strongly against capitation fees being charged by private colleges. Why should this be any business of the Government of India? When seats in medical and engineering colleges are in such short supply why should colleges not auction them to the highest bidder and if someone is prepared to pay,so what? The solution is not more controls but less. There is plenty of private money available to build more colleges if government would stop poking its nose into every little detail of the process. The best universities in the world today are in the United States and they have nothing to do with government. They raise their own funds,set their own standards and make their own decisions on professors salaries and students fees. They even give their own scholarships and student loans.
In India the opposite has happened. Fine institutions of higher learning have gone to ruin in the past thirty years because of too much government interference. They are not allowed to sneeze without government permission leave alone do such grand things as decide when fees should go up and how much professors should earn. Bizarrely such decisions are controlled by officialdom.
If Kapil Sibal can end the licence raj for education,like the Prime Minister once did for industry,he will have done more than any HRD Minister has done in living memory. If he fails then there is no hope of us ever building the 1,500 additional universities that the Government of Indias own Knowledge Commission says we need. There is no hope of us being able to build the millions more schools we need if we are to stop being the country with the largest number of illiterate people in the world.