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BW Businessworld

Growing Pains & Privatisation

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In times of slowdown, one sector which has witnessed frenetic activity in the past couple of years is the education sector. From 25 universities in 1947, India now has 300-odd, but we still need a thousand more to increase the enrolment ratio. As expectations of reforms peaks Businessworld hosted a roundtable on how best to go about it. On the agenda was: Is specialisation such as engineering the right format? Will competition ensure quality? Does the 12+2 structure facilitate vocational education? And how to improve quality of teaching. Manish Sabharwal of TeamLease, Dhiraj Mathur of PricewaterhouseCoopers, Naushad Forbes of Forbes Marshall and educationist Prof. Yash Pal put forth some novel suggestions. Ashok V. Desai, consulting editor, BW, moderated the discussion.

Manish Sabharwal, chairman, TeamLease
There are basically five faultlines in education but the interesting part is that these five faultlines — quantity versus quality, repair versus prepare, price versus cost, funding versus delivery, and excellence versus inclusion — don't only apply to higher education.

This is 2009. And the biggest lesson of the past 18 years of economic reform is that the difference between growth and under-development is made up of the three Es — education, employability and employment, of which, education reform is really the only idea whose time has come.

How we handle the trade-offs in these five faultlines will actually decide the difference (between growth and underdevelopment). The most important question is the one around quantity versus quality. The most important question is the one around quantity versus quality, which is at the heart of the criticism and also at the heart of the solution. I don't think we should throw open quantity. There is an argument to be made that we need to be a little more patient.

The next issue is that of repair versus prepare.  I can't teach somebody in six months what you should have learned in 15 years. (But) I can make somebody a plumber or a salesperson or customer service person or a mason or a barber in six months. There might be a case for re-orienting curriculum and higher education. Fifty eight per cent of kids, in our estimate, need some form of repair, some form of skilled talent.

Price versus cost is a very important question, which is going to come up in the next few years. It started in schools, and it is starting in higher education. But India is so different that it's going to be increasingly a minefield for people who make investments in education — there is a difference between the price of education and the cost of education.

We don't need more cooks in the kitchen, we need a different recipe. A part of that is genetic diversity or bio-diversity in the eco-system.

If you make public money available for private delivery as well as for public delivery, then you will see a lot of genetic diversity in business models. You start seeing classroom experimentation, you start seeing increased adoption of technology in classrooms, you will see more employability, and you will start seeing more English.

The third and the most important upside of funding versus delivery will just be performance management. We have to recognise that incentives do matter. And non-incentives are not always money — they may be recognition, they may be professional aspiration fulfillment.

Finally, we have to deal with excellence versus inclusion. John Gardner, then secretary of education, US, asked a profound question: can we be equal and excellent at the same time? That's an important question in the context of reservations, but now I think about it in terms of quality versus quantity — the entry gate versus the exit gate. So, you can be like the IITs and IIMs, with tight entry gates and wide open exit gates. Or you could be like the Chartered Accountants' Institute, with the wide open entry gate and a tight exit gate.

Today in vocational training, the entry gate and the exit gate are both wide open. So the system has no efficacy. Education has two values: education has a learning value and education has a signalling value. The signalling value of vocational training is very low. I would argue that the signalling value of an AICTE-certified MBA is also pretty low beyond the top 40-50 institutions who don't talk about accreditation — they have got an independent standing.

I am already starting to see some of that dilemma — it's below the surface but it will have to be confronted because of massive expansion. As entrepreneurs, we cannot substitute for the state as the state has an important role to play in education. But we should be agnostic as to whether it's public education or private education or domestic education or foreign education.

Dhiraj Mathur, executive director, education, PwC

Our education system does tend to produce people who are good at certain skills, but not necessarily at problem solving, communicating and doing out-of-the-box lateral thinking. A broad-based education — combining liberal arts with technology and science — does help develop these skills. If you look at companies like Google and McKinsey or, for that matter, even PwC, they hire people with a broad-based and diverse background. So, there is much merit in having a generalised system.

It would be difficult to sustain pure arts and liberal arts, and pure sciences, as standalone colleges or universities.

So you would need to have them piggyback on to the more commercially profitable lines. Engineering and technical colleges and institutions can build strong departments for these subjects and also widen the offerings in those institutions. This could be, for instance, giving out degrees in humanities by an IIT, which, incidentally, the IITs already do. If you look at private sector education, there has been a lot of private sector investment in Indian education in the past five to seven years, of which 75 per cent has been in engineering, medicine and management. Whereas, if you look at the enrollment ratio, something like 70 per cent of children tend to study in the liberal arts streams. From personal experience, I can testify to the advantages of a liberal arts education.

Dhiraj MathurWe should avoid specialisation, particularly  at the undergraduate level. It's more important and more cost effective to produce undergraduates with broad-based, skill-based knowledge, who can adapt and who can be trained. Let employers do their own training.

You can't have competition in a supply constrained system. The huge demand and supply gap is going to further widen as the efforts of the governments for schemes on increasing enrollment and universalisation of primary and secondary education begin to bear fruit.

Secondly, competition creates a discipline enforced by the consumer because they have choice and demand quality. In the absence of competition, there is exploitation and we see manifestations of that in capitation fees and under-reporting and misreporting by some private institutions. Therefore, in a system where education is a market where you have competition, the need and role of state regulation decreases significantly. Everything from the size of a classroom to the size of the playground to the admission criteria to the feel, everything that can possibly be regulated is regulated, but despite that, concerns about quality continue to be expressed, whether in a private or government institution. The National Accreditation and Assessment Council was formed in the 90s. So far, it has been able to accredit about a 150 or so universities out of 378 or 380. And about 3,500 colleges out of 14,000. But if you go and look at schools and colleges and institutions in the rural areas, you know that the situation in rural colleges is far worse than any private college provider or as bad. They are understaffed, they don't have the infrastructure, they don't have any of the modern aids that are used today in education. Attendance is poor and the products that come out of them are barely literate, forget about being qualified undergraduates. So, it's not that we have achieved a lot with our regulation.

Finally, why should there be a central body? In my view, as far as education is concerned, clearly, the priorities of the government are primary and secondary education. The primary function of the state is to provide universal education at the school level.

A second area, which is equally important and terribly neglected, is vocational education. There is something like 19 different departments and ministries that work in the area and vocational education as such is in a complete mess in this country; it has received very little attention. As far as higher education is concerned, the role of the government is, and should be, to facilitate augmentation of supply by both private and domestic investors as well as by foreign universities. It shouldn't compete in the same space as private enterprises so there is really very little justification for a government, whether a state or the central government, to set up an engineering college. 

Engineering colleges and medical colleges (not IITs) shouldn't be set up by the state because there are enough people who are willing to put their money into these institutions. The government should address regional imbalances, as you wouldn't find many private takers who want to set up a college or a university in the North-East or J&K. With a facilitative ecosystem that encourages transparency, private investment and autonomy are encouraged and we would be able to bridge the gap between supply and demand in the higher education sector.

Naushad Forbes, director, Forbes Marshall

I am going to cover four topics: the quality problem in education; building graduate education and research universities; providing equity of access to higher education; and building world-class full service research universities. 

First, on the quality problem itself — it's very clear that the quality problem stems from the huge expansion that we have seen in our professional degree programmes over the past 25 years.

Naushad ForbesWe have grown engineering enrollments by a factor of 10, we have grown management enrollments by a factor of 20. Indore has gone in the past 15 years from one management institute to 64 management institutes. The state of Madhya Pradesh has gone from seven engineering colleges 15 years ago, six of which were government-run, to 150 engineering colleges today. And it doesn't require someone with great mathematical skills to figure out that even to keep quality constant, which is not a very ambitious goal, one would need to expand the number of qualified faculty by a factor of 20 in a 15- year period, and it's simply impossible. So that's where the problem of quality comes from — it comes from this really dramatic growth in professional education — and this professional education is the lowest level of education that will get someone a job. 

Today, in Maharashtra and in the southern states, the demand for seats is starting to be exceeded by supply. Because of this excess of supply over demand, colleges now are starting to try and compete, at least first, on facilities, and second, a few colleges are starting to compete on the quality of their faculty. The government needs to play is a non-negative role to simply reject demands from all of the incumbents to limit the creation of more seats.

My second point is on building graduate education and research universities. Fifty-five years ago, we made a wrong choice in the country — the choice of locating our public research in autonomous R&D institutes instead of locating it in the higher education system. And that's the choice that we live with even today.

Even today, over 90 per cent of our publicly funded research is done in autonomous R&D institutes. Today, about 5 per cent of the total national R&D spending is done in the higher education sector, which compares (poorly) with between 15 and 25 per cent of the national R&D spending that's done in the higher education sector in every other major economy. Progressively, the research labs themselves need to be merged into the university system.  

The third goal for the state is learning from the US. A few excellent and cheap state universities can actually provide excellent quality control for more expensive private universities.   

My fourth point is on building world-class, full-service research universities. The big argument was whether or not Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) should be considered a world-class university. Let's say we have arguably one world-class, full-service research university in the country in JNU, but that's it. There isn't another, and that's for a country of our size. Any country of our size requires dozens of world-class full-service research universities. The most illusive factor for a world-class institute is this term excellence.

If you talk to university professors and ask them about excellence, they have a tough time defining it. But they recognise that that's what their jobs are all about. That their jobs are purely dedicated to ensuring that they sustain the level of excellence and build on the level of excellence that they have inherited. So, we should look at the Indian Institute of Science, the IITs, or at least the original IITs, the IIMs, which have excellence in abundance, and adding fields in those institutes, so that we build each of them into world-class, full-service research university. This should be a 20-year project to turn each of the IITs, the IISc and the IIMs into world-class, full-service universities.

Professor Yash Pal, scientist and educationist

I asked the people at jnu — if you are a great university, you are equally responsible for the mess the world is in. All great people, all over the world, in the universities, thinkers of all kinds — philosophers, scientists, musicians, economists — what have we made of this world?

There is not even a hint of understanding that the coaching industry is perhaps the most efficient creativity-destroying agent in our society. When students come to IIT, they have already been demolished by having been to coaching classes.

Yash PalWhat is a university? A university is an institution which, in principle, should be able to range over universal knowledge. You should be able to do anything. Students should be able to wander across, teachers should wander across and, if you are going to do that, it can't be done by somebody preparing course material and sending it to you. You must have full autonomy, complete autonomy.

If all the subjects are going to be together, why do you need separate agencies for separate topics and separate subjects? We have cubicalised no end. We separated laboratories from universities. Then we set up engineering colleges and we set up IIT separately, entirely funded by the education ministry. We set up IIMs separately. Medical, pharmacy, dental, architecture — everything, and accounts for everything. So what one had to say, yes, you certainly need a medical council to ensure that people who come out of medical schools don't kill people.

Now, regarding the difficulty that children face with relation to exams. We have to find out whether people think or not, not how much they remember. If you can find a test, how do you develop the questions for that? Today, I got a letter that asked — ‘why candle flames of all the candles have the same shape', isn't it beautiful? It involves basics but the point is that these questions occur to children.

So, yes, we have mentioned in our report (Yashpal Committee report on higher education) that we have to have private-public partnership. I have received several papers from friends who are pretty good economists and thinkers. They said no businessman, no matter how rich and how big, can these days think of setting up a full-scale, large, first rate university and make money out of it — not one. Those that do have tremendous amounts of subsidies of various kinds and enormous endowments, but they still can't set up a Harvard. Nobody has that kind of money. 

We need higher education and unless we grow some truly good higher education research universities of the right kind, we cannot grow. Others are small colleges for vocational learning — there is hotel management, etc. We need all those things in large numbers, but you must have the backing to think about this.

People ask how the system will not become corrupt. I think the best possible safety we could have is to make education independent of all governments, all politicians and everybody else, and have it run that way.

Then, how do you ensure that academics won't go wild? Well, there are so many of them, so many universities, so many people, and if some is going wild, there is, a different kind of competition. They will not get membership to academia, they will not get the grants to go out. They won't be subsidised for all kinds of things they get. There is an honour system in the universities, not in terms of salary payroll, but all kinds of other things and awards of all kinds, fellowships of all kinds of academies, and so on.