"To carry equality to the point when someone capable of benefiting from and being able to afford higher education is denied access to it because not everyone has had a similar opportunity is not social justice; it is just suicidal envy.", said I.G. Patel, in his convocation address on the current crisis in higher education delivered at Visva Bharati in Santi Niketan on April 18, 2004.
Patel raised many thought provoking ideas in his speech. Here're some excerpts from his speech (emphasis mine).
- First of all, this whole argument about priority between primary, secondary and higher education is a spurious one. We need more and better primary, secondary and higher education. If there is any question of priority, it has to be between education as a whole as against administration, defence, subsidies and the various pet schemes of politicians to bribe voters without any permanent benefit to any one. Without a sound foundation of primary and secondary education, the super-structure of higher education will remain thin. But it is equally true that without a sound system of higher education, not just primary and secondary education but health, administration, industry, agriculture, defence and everything else will be that much the poorer
- I would agree that our present system of higher education is elitist. By and large, the middle and upper classes benefit by it and the poor have little access to it. I am afraid this is true to some extent of every country – be it India, the U.K. or the U.S. The relatively better off with higher education in the family for generations have an advantage which gets compounded by their ability to send their children to better schools. To pretend that we can avoid this altogether and everywhere is hypocritical. All we can and must do is to alleviate the situation by making good primary and secondary education free and universal – a slow and expensive process. Meanwhile, we can select the brighter among poorer children for special help, attention and encouragement at each stage – primary, secondary and higher.
But to carry equality to the point when someone capable of benefiting from and being able to afford higher education is denied access to it because not everyone has had a similar opportunity is not social justice; it is just suicidal envy. Some twenty-five years ago when I visited China first, I was told by a young man: “we Chinese have a different view of keeping up with the Joneses. We think that if our neighbour does not have it, we should not have it”. That was the language of Mao – of the Great Leap Forward. But it was by giving up that attitude that China did indeed leap forward. Let me repeat, we have to do everything possible to ensure that more and more young men and women become capable of benefitting from higher education irrespective of what kind of family background they come from; and as and when they do, they should be helped financially to spend a few years at a University.
- Making these (centres of excellence like IITs, IISc., IIMs, TIFR etc.) better may well need more money and equipment. It would certainly need better and specialised teachers. I have never understood why innovative schemes cannot be designed to attract to our universities the large number of talented young Indian academics who work abroad. They will not come for ever and sever their foreign connections. But many will come for a year or two – and a rolling presence of a large number of very gifted teachers – of Indian origin or otherwise -- is possible. The UGC and Indian Industry should contribute for this purpose, as you need extra facilities and incentives to attract foreign scholars. You do not have to pay them fabulous salaries, but we have to look after their special needs generously. I was able to persuade the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to send some of the Indians working there back to India for two or three years by assuring them continued promotion prospects, pension benefits and meeting their transfer and other costs. We
paid only our normal salaries and provided housing. Many Indians came for three years – and some stayed on. We have to work vigorously to devise such schemes.
- Our Universities need to be much stricter about admissions to post-graduate departments. At that level, only merit and capacity to absorb knowledge at the highest level should count. If this means fewer students, so be it.
- To some extent, Universities need also to specialise in particular fields leaving others to neighbouring Universities. The UGC should encourage such specialisation which would provide the necessary economies of scale so vital for creative minds. Let us face it, there is no way we can have two hundred and more reasonably competent post-graduate departments in each subject. The Universities can also cooperate with neighbouring free-standing institutions or laboratories and with industry by way of consultancy and cooperation in research. This will lead not just to more resources, but some natural selection as well.
- The state is so impoverished, it will not be able to provide for ever-increasing numbers of entrants. And dissatisfaction with poor quality in public institutions will drive more and more students to self-financing private colleges – as it is happening at the School level. Not that all private colleges will be necessarily more efficient or effective; but competition will soon establish a new hierarchy. However, I cannot believe that self-financing private institutions can meet all or even a large part of the need for post-graduate teaching and research.
The truth of the matter is that if we are serious about higher education, we will have to keep alive the social and political pressure for public funding of such education. The need for governmental funding can be reduced by charging higher fees, attracting private money and by inducing national and international financial institutions to play a part. While the burden can be shared, the state cannot escape the responsibility for meeting a significant part of the cost of post-graduate higher education.
Despite appearances, this is true of the U.S. where State Universities are heavily subsidised and even Harvard and Stanford gain a great deal from government contracts. Thanks to the parsimony of the State, the British University system is losing its shine; and instead of training British students, British Universities are scouting all over the world to attract high-fee paying students by offering more and more technical subjects. It is idle to pretend that this is not affecting their quality. It would be folly to follow their example. While the share of governmental funding can and must be reduced, it will have to remain significant and vital if we are to compete in a knowledge-based global economy – not to speak of turning out well-rounded citizens from all strata of society.
- But will not public financing of even a part of higher education affect the autonomy of the Universities? The danger is real and we already know how much the heavy hand of government manipulates the governance of our Universities. But this is one of those things which has to be accepted as a part of the inevitable tension in society. Such tension can be reduced and made even creative by suitable arrangements and conventions. For example,
even to-day, it is a moot point whether government is financing the Universities or the students. In the ultimate analysis, Universities are only the medium. The true beneficiaries are the students. Then why not directly finance the students and leave the Universities free to charge such fees as they like, admit whom they like, and teach what they like? This way, most Universities can become self-financing at least on current account. For capital requirements, some bidding procedure can be established under an independent Board with a budget. This will take the discretion away from the government of the day.
- We have embarked on a far-reaching reform of the economic system with good results and the government has withdrawn substantially from economic life. Why is this less necessary or urgent in something so vital as higher education? I firmly believe that individuals apart, all political parties in India today are convinced of the virtues of decentralisation, deregulation and freedom to compete. That heaven of freedom in which the poet wanted the country to awake should surely include not just the world of commerce but the world of art, culture, science, philosophy and faith – a world which was so dear to him.