Human Resources Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi is a man who easily inspires dislike: degree courses in astrology and rewriting history about Aryans originating in India without evidence make it easy to dismiss him and his suggestions as gimmicks.
But the criticism to his recent decision to slash the course fees at the Indian Institutes of Management -- and apparently similar efforts are on for the Indian Institutes of Technology and other similar institutes appears undeserved, even from the likes of the respected Narayana Murthy of Infosys.
The critics have their fears: political interference and a compromising of high standards.
Political interference is a bane in India, and the big fear is that such interference will harm the institutions. But the answer is not to create an oasis of IIM autonomy but to remove political interference in all educational institutions. Why the hypocrisy of wanting to spare IIM students from our politicians but not giving a damn about the thousands of students in other institutions across India? Are non-IIM students less important? The irony is the government set up the IIMs while scores of institutions ravaged by the politicians were set up by well meaning public trusts.
Regarding the fear that standards will be compromised, this fear is totally unfair and reveals a prejudiced class bias: let the poor in and standards will go down. If our IIMs cannot train those who come from less privileged backgrounds, they don't have a right to exist. Yes, larger classrooms are more difficult to manage, but can India afford small classrooms catering to miniscule few at the cost of so many qualified aspirants? True, the classroom cannot be oversized, but they cannot be for just a few either. There is a middle, optimum size.
The key question is over the fees. Education should be available to all. And to be available to all, it should be affordable and available to all. The fact is that at fees of Rs 150,000 per month, few can afforded it. Agreed that Rs 60,000 a year is also a huge amount that hundreds of millions in India simply cannot afford, but it is an improvement.
The real problem -- which both the media and the critics appear to have missed -- is if the Indian government is going spend on tertiary education, will it be at the cost of primary education, which is supposed to be universal and compulsory for all? No wonder fee reduction at this juncture smacks of a political move: to make the IIMs more easily available to a larger section of the middle-class at the cost, alas, of primary education that is still lacking for millions of Adivasis, Dalits, poor village children in far-flung villages, et al, the marginalized who don't matter. The usual case of poor Bharat paying for middle-class India. If this is the case, then Joshi should be forced to back out immediately.
Meanwhile, the government needs to set up a scheme to ensure the availability of loans to students for higher education. What happens if an indigent student is selected to a good institution but cannot afford it, and banks are not willing to back him either because s/he cannot provide security or a guarantor or her/his institution is not in the top bracket? What is the alternative for such a student? These are the questions that need to be looked into.
There is no doubt that selection to top management institutes is prejudiced towards students from a particular background (English speaking often from convent or public schools, urbane, upper class). High fees widen this chasm, making it virtually impossible for lower income boy not having the correct English accent of ever making it through to an IIM.
Tragically, Indians are among the world's most class-conscious people, a system reinforced by our obnoxious caste system that believes in a hierarchy of jobs with virtually no mobility between different categories in one's lifetime. Extremely rare are the cases of low level workers reaching the highest posts; a worker is a worker for life even in corporations that ostensibly claim to offer opportunities; a clerk is a clerk till he retires with minimal chances of growth; alas, a toilet cleaner, even in the armed forces, stays at that level till the end. Meritorious or not, you retire in the same category you joined with a slightly better salary, that's all.
High fees reinforce the class system: only rich parents can afford to send their children to the IIMs; children of low level officers or clerks are better off simply completing their graduation and joining firms at that low level. So if you have a fancy degree, paid for by your rich father, then even if in college you got less marks than then your classmate who was forced to take up a job after college, you start as a management trainee, earning more, and staying at a higher level all through. And with that higher income, you can ensure your child goes to a management school even as the clerk's child follows his father's footsteps!
How can this kind of division and discrimination be tolerated?
If India ever wants to become the superpower that so many Indians dream of, some goals will have to be met. The first is to put every Indian child in school, and keep him or her there till Class X at least. Second is higher education available to all who qualify. Both goals will require need thousands of new schools and hundreds of new colleges, and resources so that no student ever has to drop out only because s/he can't afford to study. India also has to reduce the number of people employed in agriculture (currently between 60 percent and 65 percent of the population) and shift them to manufacturing or services. Only sound education can do that successfully.
As long as Joshi does not steal resources meant for primary education, cutting fees to broaden the education base is a step in the right direction.