As the hapless Victoria driver from Manto’s short story discovered on the day after, 15 August 1947 did not change anything for him. It would not have changed anything for many of us either, but for education. Education has been the single most powerful and the most reliable engine of social and economic mobility that has transformed the lives of millions of our country’s men and women since Independence. Access to good and affordable education ensures that natural talent, no matter from which strata of our society, can aspire to achieve its potential and contribute to the nation.
One can see evidence of the socio-economic mobility that has taken place in the past six decades. The last names (generally caste based) of students I find in our classrooms today are quite different from those of my classmates. The geographical distribution of the regions from where our students are coming has completely changed. The four metros – Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi and Kolkata no longer dominate the incoming batches. Kota, Jaipur and Hyderabad send more than the proportion of their population, but that is an aberration and symptomatic of another malaise that ails our education system – too many aspirants for too few seats. However, there are first generation college goers among the new entrants as well as those from smaller towns and villages. We are tapping into hitherto untapped sources for intellectual talent and this can only benefit the country. It will make for a more equitable and just distribution of opportunities. But this will only be possible if we keep our educational institutions affordable to all sections of our society.
“Sadly, we seem to know the price of everything, but the value of nothing!”
Unfortunately, of late, we have been treating education as a commodity rather than an investment in the future of our nation. We say that there are no free lunches. If you wish to get a ‘good education’; you must be ready to pay for it. Sadly, we seem to know the price of everything, but the value of nothing!
The government estimates that it spends Rs. 6 lakhs per year for every student at the IITs (this, by the way, represents the best value for money in education anywhere in the world). The Rs. 24 lakhs that are spent on the education of every IITian is probably paid back to it in less than five or six years as income-tax alone. The tax contribution that she/he makes for the next fifty or so years represents a fantastic return on investment, while the contribution to the GDP is a bonus. And every so often, you get a Raghuram Rajan or a Nandan Nilekani (though, one must admit, an occasional Arvind Kejriwal too).
Of course – it is ridiculous to try to calculate the benefits of educating our youth in rupee terms, as much as it is to estimate the cost! But, for want of a better metric, the figure of Rs. 6 lakhs per year per student is fine for accounting purpose.
The modern Ekalavya, it seems, will have to pay for his education with an arm and a leg, not just a thumb.
It is not as if our politicians do not realize the value of education to the individual or to the nation. They appreciate it only too well, and would like to have their share in it. No wonder that they were the earliest and most enthusiastic ‘investors’ in the education sector, even if the quality of their offering is substandard and its price is high!
There is consensus between the two major alliances that have governed in the recent past that government spending on education cannot meet the rising aspirations of the young population. Both believe that the private sector needs to come in, and to balance the perception of poor quality and high cost in the private sector, the cost of public education must go up. This can be the only explanation for the more than two-fold increase in tuition fees from Rs. 90,000 to Rs. 2 lakhs for IITs. The modern Ekalavya, it seems, will have to pay for his education with an arm and a leg, not just a thumb. The recent hike in fees for the IITs has been tempered by a promise of waivers to the poorest students. Ultimately, it’s the middle class that will be left to fend for themselves. Institutional mechanisms for student loans have not been able to make a difference, as the success of our alumni initiative, FAP, has shown.
This financial crisis in education is not unique to India. Student debt now burdens almost 70% of students graduating from publicly funded universities in the US, up from 64% in 2000. The average debt has also increased from under $18,000 to over $28,000 during the same period. Student debt has also become an issue in the presidential election along with the minimum wage, as substantial support to Bernie Sanders has shown. In the UK, universities are yet to recover from the onslaught of Thatcherism. Thanks to multilateral funding from European institutions and increasing student tuition, particularly for international students, UK universities have managed to survive. But, now that the UK has voted to leave the EU, things will become that much more difficult. A similar situation exists in South Africa, where university students are agitating against high fees and have started a movement called ‘Fees must fall’.
It is hard to believe that our politicians would like to leave the youth uneducated and unemployable. However, it is also true that they are not particularly fond of the ideals of freedom of thought and speech that universities tend to inculcate in their wards. As reactions to recent events in some of our universities have shown, there is a strong urge to control. Reducing financial outlay for education is one way. This is the surest way of converting our so-called demographic dividend into a demographic disaster. Let us hope that better sense prevails and education is seen as an investment rather than as expenditure. Ignoring the aspirations of a youthful population can only come at a very high risk.