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Prime Minister, I have a question

By T V R Shenoy
May 25, 2006 16:34 IST
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Is the practice of debate dead in India? There is no dearth of persons able and willing to put forward a point of view, but how many are equally capable of listening to someone with a different perspective?

The vexed question of reservations is just another of those issues where it is impossible to say anything without being misunderstood. (Occasionally by both sides!)

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I do, however, have a question to ask of the Prime Minister. Whatever the value of your HRD minister's proposal, Dr Singh, can you honestly claim that your government's suggested solution will not make things worse?

The United Progressive Alliance government has proposed increasing the number of seats by 50 per cent across the board, thus ensuring that the actual number of seats in the general quota does not fall. Speaking as an academic rather than a politician, Mr Prime Minister, are the logistics feasible?

For a start, it means putting an immense strain on everything from libraries to laboratories. These are not luxuries, they are essential tools in modern education. (Even the School of Languages at the famous Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi has a language laboratory, where students learn to pick up nuances by listening to tapes of themselves.)

It is fine to say that you shall add 50 per cent more seats, but have you calculated the additional financial burden. Back of the envelope calculations say this will cost a minimum of Rs 8,000 crore (Rs 80 billion) over five years. Yet your government, in its hurry to douse the fires, has vowed to implement everything by 2007. How is this feasible?

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To be honest, finding the money for physical resources is the lesser problem. (It is possible that Finance Minister Chidambaram could earmark the money raised by privatisation exclusively for investing in higher education -- though I confess that this is unlikely.) The greater problem by far is finding the teachers.

The essence of good education is the personal attention paid by a teacher to his or her students. This was already faltering given the numbers involved in modern universities. It is simply impossible to respond to needs of individual students in a lecture theatre where up to a hundred students are crammed together. (In my time we spoke of lecture 'rooms', today they are lecture 'theatres'!) This, of course, is a worldwide problem, scarcely one isolated to India, and it is not a new dilemma either.

The ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge offered tutorials as a solution, where a teacher could meet small groups -- rarely more than half a dozen -- in slightly more informal settings. These are not to be mistaken for private tuition, but are part of the formal academic process. This healthy system is still used in some Indian colleges, albeit in a fast dwindling number. It will probably fall apart altogether under the pressure of greater numbers, forcing students to fall back on lecture notes and library books.

No matter what happens, the interaction between teacher and student is bound to diminish.

The answer, one would say, is to increase the number of teachers forthwith. That is easy to say but almost impossible to implement. Ask the directors of the Indian Institutes of Technology, and they will testify to the crunch in professors. Simply put, teaching is not a profession that pays as well as others. This stark economic fact gives Indian professors only two alternatives, either to work for the private sector or to go abroad.

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Dr Amartya Sen and Professor Jagdish Bhagwati are world-renowned economists but when was the last time they actually taught in an Indian college? They, like the Nobel laureate Dr Hargobind Khurana before them, looked outside India to make a living.

Indian college professors have, historically, been underpaid. I know of teachers who are forced to offer private tuition to school students to eke out their salaries even though they are working for the University of Delhi. (This, of course, leaves them even less time for research, which is the very lifeblood of academics.) How many professors in, say, MIT would find themselves tutoring Class XII or Class XI pupils in maths or physics -- as I have known at least one IIT teacher doing?

Economics apart, Indian teachers lack the resources and even the respect granted to their peers abroad. John Kenneth Galbraith's death on April 29, 2006 made the headlines in print and on television because of his stature as an advisor to presidents. Can you imagine an analogous situation in India, where a prime minister looks beyond the bureaucracy to appoint a professor as an ambassador?

Yet Professor Galbraith was far from unique; American administrations routinely tap the great universities as sources of talent. (Dr Henry Kissinger was teaching in Harvard immediately before he became President Nixon's National Security Advisor.)

Coming back to the point, if the financial and professional rewards (in the form of research facilities and so on) are poor in Indian universities, how do you attract qualified persons to the academic profession? That question was already plaguing vice-chancellors and the deans even in the most renowned institutions -- and that was before the Manmohan Singh ministry saddled them with the task of getting 50 per cent more.

'What more do upper castes want?'

The Union HRD ministry should, of course, have been the nodal agency in finding a solution to this logistics nightmare. But, as noted earlier, Arjun Singh, seemingly more concerned with the caste of the student rather than the quality of the teacher, has become so polarising a figure that any reasoned debate is impossible.

The arguments over reservations have, up to now, revolved around the issue of the quality and the quantity of the students. Dr Manmohan Singh's preferred solution has raised another question -- on the quantity and the quality of the teachers. Are you sure, Mr Prime Minister, that your solution may not be worse than the perceived problem? Confronted by an increasing workload, how many teachers will continue in their jobs, ill-paid and overworked as they are? And as the better teachers look to greener pastures -- or simply retire -- every student, whatever his caste or creed, shall suffer.

I can appreciate, at some level, the call for reservations. But there is no justification at all for diluting the quality of education by a thoughtless increase in seats.

The reservation issue: Complete coverage

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T V R Shenoy