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In defence of Kapil Sibal

In reactions to what he proposed,we have a revisiting of core principles again

Written by Bibek Debroy |
July 17, 2009 1:45:21 am

After the fiasco over the human resource development ministry’s 100-day plan,all 100-day plans are apparently out. Time,particularly in oriental societies,is an infinity and open-ended. It is now acknowledged a big bang in 100 days was a bad idea. The bigger the bang,the bigger the whimper. There is always life after death. If UPA-II cannot implement reforms in education,UPA-V will. All said and done,the HRD ministry’s 100-day plan did convey an impression of being hastily cobbled together. I couldn’t find a counterpart for the Department of School Education & Literacy. For the Department of Higher Education,it was tagged on at the bottom of the website,almost as bulleted points in power-point style. There were proposals for an autonomous over-arching authority,independent assessment and accreditation,entry (including for foreign providers),a tribunal for fast-tracking disputes,review of deemed universities and direct credit of scholarships to bank accounts. Education is typically divided into three (or four) segments — elementary education and literacy,secondary and vocational (this becomes the fourth) and higher and technical (legal,medical,management,engineering). One can also throw in open and distance education and adult literacy.

Some forms of education will now become a right. In 1787,Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison,“A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth,general or particular; and what no just government should refuse,or rest on inferences.” Our charter of wrongs on education has been documented several times,not just by the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) or the Yash Pal Committee. Consequently,the HRD ministry can be forgiven if it assumed status quo problems to be known and went on from there. That status quo is what we will continue to get,if we don’t reform education,notwithstanding our vaunted demographic dividend.

Here’s what the NKC found,not that any of this was unknown. In schools,enrolment rates are still low in Bihar,Arunachal,Jharkhand,UP,Rajasthan and MP. Dropout rates may have declined (both primary and secondary),but they are high. Teacher training is perfunctory and teacher absenteeism is high. Learning outcomes are low. “There are indications of a rise in the number of private unrecognised schools in India¿ There is evidence to suggest that private schools are concentrated in areas where government schools are dysfunctional. Although the student profile of private schools is more economically advantaged,the rate of enrolment from poor families has also increased steadily.” Why do poor families opt for private schools? Why are private schools unrecognised?

Moving on to vocational education,in the age-group of 15-29 years,2 per cent received formal vocational training and 8 per cent received non-formal vocational training. In urban areas,19.6 per cent of men and 11.2 per cent of women possess marketable skills. (Figures are lower in rural areas.) Existing capacity in ITIs (industrial training institutes) and industrial training centres (ITCs) is under-utilised. Why don’t students go there? There are (in 2006) 355 universities and 18,064 colleges. The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) rated 140 (out of 355) universities and 3,492 (out of 18,064) colleges. Only 9 per cent of colleges and 31 per cent of universities were grade “A”. The rest were junk grade. Is it any wonder 150,000 Indian students head overseas and get beaten up? Even if there is aid and educational loans,there are transaction costs. Consequently,only richer-off sections can head abroad. Better-quality faculty is usually integrated with global labour markets. So they too head abroad. Indian educational institutions (including schools) happily set up shop in the Middle East and East Asia. Eleven million students enrol for higher education in India. Since we generalise on the basis of our progeny and their experiences,we deduce there aren’t enough colleges and universities.

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Why should there be a mad scramble for admissions and suicides otherwise? If we multiply the number of colleges and universities by whatever is a reasonable figure for capacity,we should easily be able to handle 25 million students in higher education. There isn’t a quantity problem. There is a junk grade problem. There is plenty of chaff,but precious little wheat. Meanwhile: “There has already been a de-facto privatisation of the professional education sector… While there are strict entry barriers for the private sector,there is not enough regulation on the products and outputs of the private sector.” There aren’t adequate disclosure norms. Ratings done by assorted magazines (typically for professional education) are on the basis of inadequate disclosure. With profit-making and access to capital markets frowned upon,have we legislated away the siphoning of profits? We have only driven them underground,as so many politicians who dabble in professional education know. They don’t dabble in these for altruistic motives. By controlling fees (and also salaries),we have driven those inflows (or outflows) underground too. By precluding foreign providers,we have barred superior ones and allowed entry to shady and inferior ones,using a grey area of the law.

By confusing regulation with control and licensing,we have allowed a system of bribery and corruption to proliferate. Since existing regulations focus on inputs,they haven’t necessarily ensured improved outcomes. If more grist is needed for the mill,one should read Pawan Agarwal’s recent book (Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future,Sage) or the current year’s Economic Survey. Post-1991,every sector is witness to successes from liberalisation and competition,with appropriate regulation. Blind belief in public expenditure,public provisioning and absence of competition doesn’t work. Education may be construed as social sector,but those principles are no different. There is a difference between public demand and public policy. Public demand is what citizens,rich or poor,want and what they clearly don’t want is this charter of wrongs. Unfortunately,government intermediates between public demand and public policy and intermediation isn’t invariably efficient. Consequently,we have a public policy that protects vested interests and it’s not the case that we now need debate to generate consensus on broad principles. (At best,we need debate on nitty-gritty.) The marshalling of evidence and listing of the litany of woes has already been done,several times over. Yet,in reactions to what Kapil Sibal proposed,we have a revisiting of core principles again.

This leads to one of two conclusions. First,such people in positions of formulating policy aren’t aware and don’t read,suggesting we also have a different problem with education. Second,they are aware,but deliberately want to stonewall reforms,perhaps because they have vested interests in the status quo. In either case,history repeats itself. During UPA-I,with Arjun Singh at the helm,the history of educational reforms was one of tragedy. During UPA-II,with Kapil Sibal at the helm,it is now repeating itself as a farce.

The writer is Delhi-based economist

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