Arun Shourie on the Indian Education System

The greatest scandal and the greatest failure of the Indian governments (all of them, and practically all of them have been Congress) has been in education. A great economy and a great education system go hand in hand — though it almost always starts with the education system supplying the fuel that powers the engine of growth and development. Any dispassionate observer of the Indian education system (and I am one of many) cannot but conclude that it is one of the most distressed. It has never been very good but successive assaults on it by the government has reduced it to a wreck that cannot do anything else but act as a road block to development.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you must be aware of what I believe to be the biggest problem is: government interference. For a quick summary you could read the series of 10 posts on education I did a few years ago. There I argued that until the government lets go of its stranglehold of the education sector, there is little hope. I also understand that it is unlikely that a bunch of crooks and criminals will ever let go of one of the most lucrative sources of illicit money. As a dispassionate observer, I merely point out that India is being slowly killed by the crooks and criminals that run the government. Sure, these are elected by the people — it’s the will of the people.

Just as an aside I recall that the US elected George W Bush in 2000. He gave plenty of indications during his first term that he was not good for the US (and by extension for the world.) The American voter disregarded it all, and going against all reason and sanity, voted once again for George W Bush. In the eight years that Bush ruled, he wrecked the US economy. No empire lasts forever and the US’s preeminent position was not guaranteed forever. Bush Jr hastened the day when the US loses its position. The American voter cannot escape responsibility that it, through its mindless support to a criminal (recall invasion of a country and the use of torture) retard (can barely express a coherent thought, leave alone have one), is complicit in the downfall of the US.

Indians have been electing the Congress for decades. India is a third-world country, a country that is listed together with sub-saharan African countries such as Burundi, Uganda, and Burkina Faso. Congress brought that about by following insane economic policies. The tragedy is that even if the party wakes up and realizes that the policies are absolutely mindless and wrong, they still cannot follow other policies — for it would then have to admit that the worthies who made these policies were retards like George W Bush. But those worthies have to be worshiped because the Indian population will vote for any progeny — regardless of any merit — of the worthies.

That is what nails India to a cross: the Indian voter will vote for the Nehru/Gandhi family, and the resulting government can never change any of the disastrous policies that Nehru set in place. India is caught between a rock and a very hard place. India’s future is bleak because good people can never head the government and make rational policy. India suffers ignominy in international forums because India is too poor. India’s poverty is the direct consequence of the insane policies made by the governments of India — and did I mention that practically of of those have involved the Congress?

Sorry for the digression but let me come back to the point that I was making on education. The system is a disaster. Let me put it this way. If you want to know if something is good or is a p o s, just look at the demand for it. If a lot of people go for it, it is good; if the demand is low, it is a p o s.

Let’s consider one measure: number of foreign students in the Indian education system. Why is this measure reasonable? Because foreign students have a choice in which education system to enroll in — unlike the majority of Indian students who cannot just up and leave for a foreign education (because India is a poor country, and that poverty is the result of Congress governments . . . you get the picture). So here’s a number that will not come as a surprise to you if you have been paying attention: About 350,000 foreign students study in Australia. India gets 8,000.

Adjusted for population size, relative to Australia, India gets 133 foreign students. That is not a typo. Let me spell it out: it is a hundred and thirty-three, not one hundred and thirty-three thousand. Australia get around three thousand times the number of students per capita compared to India. (India is approximately 60 times Australia’s population.)

You can do the same for other developed countries. And how is China doing? In 2005, it had around 140,000 foreign students and probably has around 200,000 by now. Compared to India, China attracts 25 times as many students as India does. And you know what’s the worst part? The numbers for India are shrinking.

There is practically no demand for education in India by foreign students. Ergo, it is a p o s. QED.

I got those numbers from Arun Shourie. He gave a Foundation Day Lecture in Sept 2006 to the IIT Kharagpur Alumni Association Delhi. (Hat tip: Akshar Prabhudesai.) You should click over there to read the article but for the record, I am reproducing it here in full.

Just remember: those policies that have prevented the Indian education system from developing (much like the policies that have prevented India from developing) have been brought to you (to paraphrase them programs on PBS) by the generosity of your fine Congress governments, and by voters just like you!

Enjoy! Or should I say, weep for India?

About 8,000 foreign students are studying in India. In Australia, on the other hand, there are about 350,000 — and remember, we add to our numbers every year more than the total population of Australia. Nor is it just that foreign students studying in India are less than a fortieth of those studying in Australia. The number of students who come to India has actually been going down: according to government figures, in 1990/91, there were over 12,765; last year there were 7,745! (By contrast, the increase in 2004 in the number of foreign students studying in China was three times the total number of foreign students that came to India: China hosted 141,087 foreign students in 2005.) We could be educators to the world — just as we could be surgeons to the world. But here is another opportunity missed: while Dubai, Singapore, Australia, to say nothing of distant US, etc. are positioning themselves as education hubs, we remain mired in that bog — the HRD Ministry.

It isn’t just that we are missing an opportunity. We are paying a huge cost every year. One estimate puts the amount that is spent on Indian students studying abroad at a figure that would be sufficient to set up 30-40 IIMs or 15-20 IITs every year. And going abroad to study is just the first step. Having studied in that country, having got familiar with the place and people, most decide to take up work there. Soon enough, they settle down there. Science and Engineering Indicators, 2006, reports that of Indian students who received doctorates in Science and Engineering between 2000 and 2003, close to 90 per cent said they planned to stay on in the US; two-thirds had firmed up “definite plans to stay.” The proportions were the same in one critical discipline after another: 91% and 62% in biological and agricultural sciences; 92% and 72% in mathematics and computer sciences; 90% and 70% in engineering…(Science and Engineering Indicators, 2006, Appendix tables, A2-96 to 100.)

The fault is by no means that of the youngsters. And there is no doubt that those who have stayed on in the US, etc. have also done much for India — they have, among other things, helped change the world’s perception of India, and, thereby, India’s perception of itself. But imagine how much our country would have gained in actual productive potential if we had educational institutions of such quality that these youngsters did not have to go abroad. Imagine how much our country would have gained if they worked here, that is if the work environment here had been such that they had felt confident they could develop to their fullest potential, and reap rewards commensurate with their capabilities and with the effort they put in.

And if we persist in the obscurantist policies and practices that mar our educational sector, this drain will only increase in the coming years. Countries are straining to develop themselves as the more attractive destinations — for students, for investors, for firms. Nor is the matter confined to choice, there is a compulsion too, a compulsion of which these leading countries are well aware and to counter which they are taking focused steps. In regard to the US, for instance, National Science Foundation data reveal that in 2003, 85 per cent of those holding Science and Engineering doctorates and working were above 55 years of age; 76 per cent were above 60 years; 20 per cent were 70 and above. The proportions for those holding Master’s degrees were equally significant: they were 85%, 65%, and 16% respectively. (Science and Engineering Indicators, 2006, Appendix tables, A3-43.) And this is just one among many reasons on account of which these countries will continue to aggressively court researchers and skilled workers from India and elsewhere.

Indeed, the threat now is not just that individuals will be wooed away. Countries — from Singapore to South Korea to Taiwan to China to the EU-25 — are making even greater efforts to woo entire firms away, in particular R&D firms. Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have already become significant research-hubs. But the suction for entire R&D firms can come from farther a-field too. We think of the US as a high-cost economy, as one that is now compelled to outsource R&D efforts to a country like India. But that is just one side of the picture, and that is true only for one end of research. In 2002, US firms spent around $ 21 billion doing research in foreign countries. As against this, foreign firms spent close to $ 26 billion doing research in the US. (Science and Engineering Indicators, 2006, Volume I, 0-4, 0-5, 18.) And that stands to reason: researchers are less costly in countries like India, but today a great deal of research, and almost all of frontier research, involves such high-technology infrastructure that it is best executed in countries like the US.

Things to do

The first thing to do is to stop counter-positioning primary, universal education against higher education. We need both. We can afford both. Second, we must see both — the threat as well as the opportunity: the threat that we may lose our best minds at an even faster rate than the rate at which we have been losing them in the past decades; on the other side, the opportunity that we can be educators to the world.

Third, to ward off the threat and to tap into the opportunity, we require the same sort of measures. To arrest and reverse the alarming deterioration of standards in most of our institutions of higher learning. To ensure that in regard to both – students as well as faculty – merit, performance here and now, alone counts. To ensure that rewards are strictly commensurate with performance.

And resources. A large proportion of these will have to come from the government – for instance, private entrepreneurs just do not have the long horizons that basic research requires. Equally, government alone will just not have enough resources for this sector. Thus, one service that finance ministers can do is to give the most generous incentives and tax-breaks for industry to invest in education and in R&D. For every trifling misuse, a Manipal will come up.
And the resources have to be defrayed not just on equipment – that is what is done ever so often: and by the time the underpaid, under-motivated faculty learn to exploit the equipment to its full potential, the equipment is obsolete. A good proportion of the resources have to be set apart for making salaries and allowances of faculty and researchers and their work-environment attractive enough for them to forego careers in private industry and to choose instead to be in universities and research institutions.

It is obvious that we cannot do any of this so long as higher education and research is dominated by governmental institutions. China, for instance, has launched an aggressive drive to bring back the very best Chinese faculty who are working in universities in the US, Europe and the like. To attract them back, China is giving them remuneration and allowances and work facilities that are better than what they have in universities where they are working. This is being done irrespective of what existing faculty get in the Chinese establishments in which these returnees will be lodged. Can such a thing be done in a governmental organisation in India – what with its scales and unions; what with the fact that the salary of a professor cannot be higher than that of the vice chancellor, and the salary of a vice chancellor cannot be higher than that of secretary, HRD…? I am, therefore, wholly against the current rush for affiliation, etc. We should encourage institutions to de-affiliate, from existing universities and the like. Colleges and research departments and institutions will come to be known by the work they do, by the standards to which they adhere. Along with this movement to de-affiliate we should develop first-rate, wholly objective and reliable methods to rank institutions.

But the gaps are so vast that mere resources will not do. We need to adopt unconventional methods to scale up this sector. The remarkable success that F C Kohli, one of the fathers of IT in India, has achieved with the “total-immersion” method in making absolutely illiterate persons literate enough to read a newspaper within 8 to 10 weeks; his analysis of “gaps” between the best engineering college in Maharashtra and other colleges in the state, and how these can be bridged by using modern IT and communications technologies – these are the sorts of measures we need to put in place. And, instead of stuffing IITs and IIMs with mediocrities just because they were born to one set of parents than another, we should induce them to multiply faculty, and to upgrade existing faculty in other institutions.

Two prerequisites

But for any of these measures to be executed we need two prerequisites. The first is to outgrow clichés. “Do not make a commodity of education,” our politicians shout every time there is the slightest effort to make educational institutions self-sustaining. “Do not sell ma-Saraswati,” they shout every time there is an effort to induce industry to take up education. All such shouting ensures is that existing scarcities continue, and the existing education-czars rate off the lolly. All it accomplishes is to enable a dental college here, near Delhi itself, to pocket a “donation” of Rs 28 lakh from every entrant…Is the way to deal with the fact that 150,000 students have just applied to the IIM, Ahmedabad, for 250 seats in its two-year course, to force it to take in 27 per cent additional students — that is, sixty two more students — on the basis of birth? Or is it to give incentives to industry to set up 62 institutions of comparable worth?

And then there is the even more urgent task — to reverse the recent trend in regard to the few islands of excellence that remain: the recent trend of interfering in the IITs and IIMs. The recent edicts regarding reservations are just one — though by itself fatal enough — lance of such interference. Appointments of directors; hauling them up before Commissions because some congenitally disgruntled employee keeps writing letters to high-ups; the insistence of a legislative Committee that they switch to Hindi as the medium of instruction…There is an all-round assault to breach their autonomy.

To ward off such senselessness, three things are required. First, do not temporise: do not think that the way to meet the assault is to concede a bit – those concessions will not assuage the grabbers; on the contrary, they will become the reasons for the political and bureaucratic class to grab all: “See, the director himself is saying that they are ready to abide by our order – all he is asking is that he be given a little time to do so…” Second, as those who are working in these institutions are in a sense under the thumb of government — and I have been struck dumb by fear to which faculty themselves testify in open meetings — outsiders, in particular the alumni of these institutions, have an important duty: they must constitute themselves as firewalls around these institutions.

But the assault on such institutions is but an instance of the general assault on excellence in India today: from legislatures to civil service to educational establishments, mediocrity is being asserted as norm, vulgarity as right, intimidation as argument, assault as proof. Two classes today stand in counter-position to this assault on standards – entrepreneurs and the professional middle class. Accordingly, the pan-Indian organisations of professionals should get together to contain, roll-back and eventually eliminate this assault.

Author: Atanu Dey


7 thoughts on “Arun Shourie on the Indian Education System”

  1. Atanu,

    It surprises me that we still have people like Arun Shourie in politics. He is qualified, capable and rational thinking person. How many parties currently have people like Arun Shourie?

    I doubt if any Congress ministers think about education, national security and economy as much as he does. Still he is not a minister and people don’t vote for his party.

    Many political analysts say that BJP does not have capable leaders and dream teams like Chidambaram and Montek. We are told that BJP did not have any concrete policy to enhance national security. Have this people read Arun Shourie’s “Can an Iron fence save a tree hollowed by termites?”. Have they read Jaswant Singh’s writing on defense?

    How much literature does congress has produced after Nehru ?

    Writing and executing are two different things but then when I hear thoughts like “terrorism has no religion”, “Hindu fanatics are greater threat to country than Islamic Terror”.. I wonder what fools have we sent to parliament.


  2. Lostparadise,

    For all his brilliance in analysing what’s wrong with India, Arun Shourie cannot analyse what’s wrong with his party. And if he can analyse, he obviously does not have the influence to prevail in a discussion with his colleagues in the party.

    How does it matter that the Congress does not have an Arun Shourie in their party??? The Congress is in the business of politics and not in the business of rational policy making or rational decision making to produce the best policies. In real life and even in richer countries, policies are never made rationally.

    What matters is that the Congress is in touch with what the masses in India will buy. Which is why, they can sell their brand to so many people; they can play the youth card with Rahul Gandhi & his bunch of youth leaders, they can play the neat and clean PM with MMS, a sacrificing leader with Sonia Gandhi, a charismatic leader with Priyanka and so on. Congress understands very well what business it is in; that is the business of politicking and they know to sell themselves. Unlike Arun Shourie’s party which repeatedly deludes itself into thinking that people are rational and will “see the truth” as regards their ideology. In the process they get repelled and persecuted by self interested entities such as the media, elite that has enjoyed the patronage of the Congress etc.

    What good is it to be a party of intellectuals in a country whose people are a mix of self serving, essentially stupid and given to notions of inferiority about their own culture (not to mention being brainwashed into believing it to be true).

    You can cry out loud that the Congress is undeserving; but the bitter truth is that Arun Shourie’s party, with all its intellectuals are totally out of sync with what the masses believe that they need. Until they figure that bit out, the country will continue to suffer and by virtue of not doing much, they will have be a contributor to the suffering, depredation of the people in India.


  3. Anup,

    What you have said it very much correct. Congress knows how to play with the psyche of masses BJP is yet to learn the art. But in the process of learning that art I fear that BJP might just turn out to be a another Congress. What makes BJP different from Congress is people like Arun Shourie and that is precisely I vote for them.

    I think the masses deserve Congress, the wishes of the masses (quota, loan wavers etc.) will be met better by Congress any day. After all democracy is about people choosing what type of government they want and may be by that rule congress is the most deserving.

    It only turns me more and more cynical about the system to see that forget rationality most of our policies are devoid of basic common sense. We are destroying and ignoring the tremendous potential that we have.

    I dont know 50 years hence forth there will be any BJP or there will be any Congress. Who wins a 5 year or for that matter even a 50 year term govern the country is irrelevant for a country that has a history of 40 centuries. But again and again we chose to survive as a decaying society is what really hurts me. When will that change?

    I agree with you completely when you say that BJP too is contributing to the suffering, depredation of the people of India. I think the reason behind this is to develop a ideological challenge to Congress which will also appeal to mass. Whenever BJP tried that Congress used abusive terms like Communal and Hindutva to nullify its effect. BJP in reaction is trying hard to prove itself secular again and again. I think people like Arun have the capability to guide BJP ideologically. Let us see how it happens.


  4. Just a couple of side pickings…

    It is naive to think that George W. Bush is responsible for the current state of economic affairs in the US. He did not create policy for easy money (Alan Greenspan did) that fostered sub-prime lending.

    It is unfair to compare foreign students enrollment numbers between Australia and India. Australia has policy specifically to attract foreign students. The point I am making is that even if India had a comparable education system to that of Australia, its foreign student enrollment would be low.


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