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09 September, 2014

Education cries for attention

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Development has been on India’s agenda for decades. In this year’s parliamentary elections, Narendra Modi could lead his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory mainly because a significant section of the electorate believed he is more capable of ensuring speedy development than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Development is still Modi’s favourite theme. However, there is nothing to indicate that his government is aware of the need to tone up the educational system, especially its higher levels, to achieve the development goals. Neither he nor his Human Resources Development Minister, Smriti Irani, has given any indication that education is a high priority area.

Last week, on Teacher’s Day, celebrated nationally since the 1950s, Modi addressed school children across the country through radio, television and the web. He spoke of the need for good teachers and for adequate toilet facilities, especially in girls’ school. He did not touch upon the academic challenges before the nation, presumably because it was not the right occasion to bring up the subject.

Soon after she took charge of the HRD ministry, Smriti Irani asked officials to take steps to introduce in school textbooks lessons on ancient India’s contributions in fields such as science, mathematics and philosophy. Most academics viewed it as a move to smuggle the BJP’s Hindutva ideology into the curriculum.

The BJP is of the view that the previous governments neglected study of Indian culture and that the textbooks now in use are the work of Left-oriented academics. On their part, Hindutva academics, relying upon the epic, Mahabharata, are propagating the ridiculous theory that ancient Indians were familiar with stem cell reproduction.

While there are daunting problems at all levels, the higher education scene cries for immediate attention in view of its high relevance to developmental activity. The country now has about 700 degree-awarding institutions with more than 35,000 affiliated colleges under them. They have a total enrolment of 20 million.

There were only 157 engineering colleges in 1980, most of them in the government or aided sector. Today there are about 3,400, most of them private self-financing colleges. The vast expansion has resulted in dilution of quality.

There is no Indian institution among the top 100 in the Academic Ranking of World Universities 2014, released recently. Even in the list of top 100 Asian universities there are only eight from India. Seven of them are Indian Institutes of Technology, autonomous institutions established under a law enacted in the 1950s on the initiative of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Addressing the first convocation of the first IIT, Nehru said these institutions were symbolic of the changes taking place in the country. Five IITs were established in his time. Now there are 16 and a few more are on the way.

Most engineering colleges get between Rs100 million and Rs200 million from the Central government by way of grants annually. Each IIT receives between Rs900 million and Rs1,300 million. 

A significant proportion of the early graduates of IITs went to the United States for higher studies and did not return. This led to criticism that they were causing brain drain. In recent years, the trend has changed. Some of those who prospered in the US have made munificent donations to their alma mater.

Another criticism against the IITs is that while students passing out of them land well-paid jobs, many end up in the services sector where the technical knowledge they acquired at great cost to the taxpayer is wasted.

The IITs account for only one per cent of the country’s 1.3 million engineering students. Two per cent of the students go into National Institutes of Technology, which too are autonomous institutions in the government sector and 21% into other government colleges. The remaining 76% enter private colleges. 

Only a few private colleges have a good academic record. Many private college graduates are unemployed.

In Tamil Nadu state, more than 171,000 graduates and about 160,000 post-graduates in engineering are jobless. A newspaper recently quoted former Anna University Vice-Chancellor E Balagurusamy as saying only 20% of the state’s engineering graduates have jobs suited to their qualification. About 70% are unemployed and 10% are employed as police constables, hotel supervisors etc.

PK Sivanandan of the Institute for Societal Advancement, who analysed the performance of students in three engineering colleges of Kerala, found that they have a failure rate of 42%. Noting that the failure rate among Dalits was as high as 62%, he asks, “Can the weaker sections ever join the league as equal partners?” -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 9, 2014.

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