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Towards a Knowledge-Based Society

Reservations in institutes of higher education may not ideally ensure the production of high quality research and knowledge, necessary for a country's development and for its very self-preservation. This article suggests that apart from ensuring the spread of universal primary education, efforts should be invested to set in place mechanisms to spot, nurture and direct talent at the primary school stage itself so that children's abilities, irrespective of caste or any other identity restrictions, are moulded towards the search for excellence.

Towards a Knowledge-Based Society

Reservations in institutes of higher education may not ideally ensure the production of high quality research and knowledge, necessary for a country’s development and for its very self-preservation. This article suggests that apart from ensuring the spread of universal primary education, efforts should be invested to set in place mechanisms to spot, nurture and direct talent at the primary school stage itself so that children’s abilities, irrespective of caste or any other identity restrictions, are moulded towards the search for excellence.


he discussion in the last two months in the media and political circles on the latest proposals to extend reservations in institutes of higher education has been exhaustive. Yet it is incomplete in some essential respects. And these omissions should be a cause for concern. The proposals, which will most likely be law of the land soon, will decisively affect institutes of higher learning and education in the country in many respects, some of them vital. It is going to affect the composition of the student body of these institutions and the education of the students in a significant manner. This in turn, will influence the progress of the country for the next few years at least. Yet, there is no attempt to analyse or measure the effect of these proposals from this perspective.

It is a truism well accepted that in any country, a well-educated class in society serves as one of the primary engines of growth in economic and other societal respects. In any vibrant society, a fair proportion of intellectuals are actively engaged in research to extend the frontiers of their chosen subjects. A major function of institutes of higher education is to provide a workplace for such intellectuals and for their scholarly pursuits. This objective fits in well with the primary function of such institutes, namely the spread and sustenance of higher education. They are expected to produce top-class scientists, doctors, management experts, engineers, technologists of various descriptions. Other non-academic organisations and specialised research institutes do play a useful role in this respect, as the examples of Bell Telephone Laboratories in the US, or the Stekhlov Institute in the former USSR show. In India also, there are specialised research institutes that play similar role on a smaller scale. However, a major role in this respect has to be performed by colleges and universities of the country.

The need for a well-educated class in a society is not a one-time affair either. Every society needs to replenish constantly and improve upon its stock of well-educated people to sustain its growth, even for its own needs for preservation. Any proposals that affect the working of colleges and universities in the country thus need to be examined from the point of view of whether they will further these basic objectives and to what extent.

Statistics are often bandied about that India has the third largest scientific force in the world. A more accurate description would be that India has the third largest group of science graduates in the world. It is well known that the degrees offered are of varying quality in all the subjects and in various universities and anyway not every degree holder can be classified as a research worker or a scientist or even as a part of scientific force. A more revealing statistic is the number of research papers published by Indians working in India in international scientific and technical journals. Not only is India way behind other developed countries in this respect, but in recent years, has been comprehensively overtaken by China too in this respect. A good measure of high quality research of applied nature is the number of commercial patents taken out. The figures in respect to the number of scientific and technical patents taken out at the international level by Indians working in India also compare poorly with respect to developed countries.

Beneficial Aspects of Competition

On the other hand, it has by now become abundantly clear that the graduates of IITs and IIMs and of some universities can hold their own with any in the world. In fact many have outshone others by their brilliance. But by and large, these graduates

– engineers, doctors, managers and scientists to whom the basic training is imparted in India, shine only when they work in developed countries. Institutes where they had their early training have not made a major mark in scientific and technological world. It is time to seriously ponder why with such proven potential of their young graduates, institutes of higher learning in India have not been able to leave their mark.

Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006

One of the reasons why a high proportion of the graduates of the IITs and IIMs, and even some other institutes such as College of Engineering Pune (COEP) do so well later is undoubtedly the fierce competition through which they enter such institutes and the continuing competition they face in their student days. It is no use ignoring the fact of life that in the world of today competition is of the essence to excellence in every walk of life – sports, academic, business, even in beauty pageants. Even very young students (and their guardians) face this reality when they try to enrol their little wards in nursery or primary schools. Of late, such competition has reached absurdly fierce levels because too few seats are being chased by a very large number of applicants, whether for primary education in a good school or for admission to an IIT or to a medical school. So much so that the struggle for admission often leaves scars on the minds of the entrants that take a long time to heal. Many of the successful students turn almost paranoid. But then, as a very successful entrepreneur famously remarked, “Only the Paranoid Succeed”.

Our educational system has to prepare all its students, including those from disadvantaged classes, to face the modern world of competition. Actually, many students from the disadvantaged sections of society do realise this. Without fuss, they choose to compete with others on equal terms and become part of the welleducated class. With guidance and prior training, many more can successfully compete with others without taking recourse to any preferential treatment, based on non-scholarly criteria. Yet no special measures are in place to enable such students to prepare them properly for an academic life of competition. A measure of competition can be maintained if, for example, some weightage say of five percentage points is given to students from those sections of society considered disadvantaged. Many institutes take in sportspersons under such an arrangement. But such a proposal also has very few takers today.

One has also to remember that India has to compete on the world stage at numerous scholarly levels. Young Indian minds have to work not only on building Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and finding cures for AIDS and cancer but also on building first-rate roads or micro-level electronic devices. They have to organise efficient financial services, software companies, well run hospitals, even well run outsourcing agencies. Even the bureaucracy has to be as best as is possible. Export of educated technical personnel, even nurses and physiotherapists has become a significant factor in Indian economy. System of higher education in the country has to be able to cope with these multifarious demands on it at various levels of education and at internationally accepted norms. For such an objective, the educational system has to be able to choose best possible students at each stage.

Such multi-level needs of educated sectors of society are not going to be met by keeping out of the new reservations policy, only defence-related institutes, specialised postgraduate courses and a few other high-end programmes, as is proposed in the draft bill. (It is noteworthy that the minorities-run institutes are to be altogether kept out of the purview of the new policy. Why? There is no convincing answer.) It cannot be denied that the country needs as well educated and as large an educated work force as its resources permit. Briefly, it has to gear itself to building a knowledge-based society comparable to any in the world. To achieve this, there is no alternative to organising scores of undergraduate colleges and universities on the same principles of admissions that are sought to be applied to defence-related institutes or specialised postgraduate studies.

As stated, a major reason why, a high proportion of students from the IITs and IIMs turn out to be first-rate scholars, even with less than the best facilities they have, is the keen competition these students face while entering the institute and the company and the continuing competition of other bright and hard working students they encounter there. This formula for producing a large body of young scholars (probably discovered accidentally by the politicians of the country) needs to be persevered with, till a better one is found. By making admissions dependent upon the accident of birth rather than on the potential of the candidate, as measured by tests, the authorities will be causing serious damage to one truly significant achievement of post-independence India.

It is mistakenly believed that spirit of competition is inherently iniquitous and is weighed against students from disadvantaged classes. Many have argued that insistence on quality is a poorly disguised attempt to exclude weaker sections of society from higher education and preserve it and the perks and the prestige that go with it to a small minority of the “creamy layer” of the society, namely the upper castes. This argument does not take into account the needs for a large well-educated class in a knowledge-based society.

Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006

The castes that are considered advanced form maybe about 7 to 10 per cent of the society, whereas one would estimate that the country would need easily about 20 or 25 per cent or more of its population to be well-educated. This need is not going to be satisfied by upper castes even if all of them are in institutes of higher education.

Interventions for Talent-Scouting

One of the reasons for the stagnation of the Indian society in the past was precisely the fact that too small a proportion of the population was involved in the pursuit of knowledge. It would not do to repeat the old history, by again making accident of birth the only criterion for entry into the world of education. By doing so, the country will not be redressing the past mistakes, but only shuffling them around and repeating them in another form.

It cannot be denied that the social and economic background of many aspirants precludes them from competing with others on equal terms. But this is not going to be remedied by caste-based reservations. This is particularly so with the “creamy layer” of the backward classes continuing to be in the reserved category. It is well known that the social and economic background of students from this section of the reserved category is no different from the better off sections of the advanced communities and that it is this section that generally uses up a significant part of the facilities intended for the really weaker sections. But apart from that, the major weakness of the present official thinking and actions is that no thought has been given to starting special programmes for disadvantaged students to bring them on par with the other students; nor are there any talent-scouting programmes in the country at various academic levels. When the reservations for SC/ST students was introduced in the IITs, these schools had introduced, for students already admitted, special programmes to fill the gaps in their background and bring them up to the expected levels. What the country needs today is such programmes on a massive scale, for all students who need them, before and not after their admission to specialised schools.

Along with this, there has to be regular talent-scouting at various academic levels, such as at high school level (it is assumed that there will be universal primary education), and college levels for those wanting admission. Such programmes are needed in each district and in each state. One has only to recall the very encouraging reports the success of such a programme in Bihar, run by volunteers, to spot talented students among the street urchins.

Similar programmes already exist in nonacademic areas and have met with success. The sports hostel complex in Lucknow is able to give to the country top-class cricketers and hockey players. A remarkable example making news recently is that of Navanath Fartade, a very poor boy from the rural areas of Beed district, one of the most backward areas of Maharashtra and from a near-destitute farming family. He was spotted by talent scouts from Kolhapur, was trained in shooting and is now winning gold medals for India in international shooting events. In another area, the government of Maharashtra does run special coaching classes to prepare candidates to enter the IAS and other competitive examinations, without asking that their entrance standards be lowered. The authorities do not however show the same concern to maintain academic standards in quality educational institutes.

Ironically, private enterprise has established itself massively in the academic field in the form of guidance centres and coaching classes. There are coaching classes at every level these days to prepare candidates for every conceivable entrance test. There are classes that train young tots to enter prestigious primary schools to those that prepare students for the GRE, medical entrance tests and so on. Private enterprise has also entered on a large scale in establishing institutes of management and lately in establishing medical colleges too. Unfortunately, once again, these resources are available for a price and only to those who can spend well on educating their wards.

Massive intervention by the state is needed in this sphere to make such support systems of proper guidance accessible to every talented young person. In order to achieve this, the entire population has to be effectively scanned for talent, the first pre-requisite for which is universal primary education. Geniuses like Ramanujan can overcome their environment but by and large, students with potential for good work have to be diligently searched for and trained in the fields best suited to their genius. A large proportion of them will need financial support too, through their school and college days.

A most welcome step was taken recently by the government of Maharashtra. It has now decided to offer financial support to any meritorious but needy student, irrespective of her caste. But this will have only a limited impact till it is combined with a scheme to spot talent from every section of the society. One way of doing can be for the state-aided colleges and universities to have an extensive “Extension Programmes” for this kind of work. It has to be their responsibility to go around their “catchment area” and hunt for potential scholars. Just as good agricultural universities have extension programmes to reach working farmers with the latest developments, academic institutes also need to reach out to young minds in their area.

A major asset to India in the present century is the nature of its population curve. Youth and persons in the working age group dominate it and if properly trained, these groups will serve as a powerful vehicle for development and growth. A start was made in this direction in the 1980s with the opening of many ‘Navodaya’ schools. That scheme needs to be expanded and strengthened. Unfortunately, it seems to be going nowhere today. Starting and running Navodaya schools should not have become a one-shot affair, as it happened with the opening of IITs and IIMs or medical colleges in the 1960s.

With no significant addition in the intake of such quality institutes, it is no wonder that competition to get into one of them has grown fierce, leading to absurdities like some half a million candidates trying to win a position in the first 4,000 or so. Particularly in a country of rapidly growing population and with a small base of educated class, the intake into institutes of quality education has to increase steadily and rapidly. Many more institutes of good standing, comparable with the best anywhere, need to be opened on a priority basis, say a fresh IIT and IIM and many Navodaya schools every year for the next 20 years at least. As a consequence of the recent student unrest, authorities have held out promises of adding to intake of the present IITs/IIMs, without specifying how, when and where. Even if these assurances are carried out, once again it will be a one-shot affair and will soon prove inadequate.

To summarise, any change in the current educational system has to be evaluated

Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006 from the point of view of whether it will help the country move faster towards a knowledge-based society, whether the changes will help young graduates, including those from weaker sections of the society, prepare for the competitive world that awaits them. The changes that the new reservation rules will bring about are not likely to further these objectives. The steps that are urgently needed are can easily be listed. They are: (i) universal primary education; (ii) better quality education at all levels by at the very least improving the teacher-student ratio, (reports say that in parts of Bihar, there are 130 students to a teacher); (iii) improving the Navodaya school system and starting many schools that will fulfil the aspirations of talented students and bring out their best;

(iv) organising a vigorous programme at all levels of school and college education to spot potentially good students with scholastic aptitudes; (v) organising special programmes for all students coming from disadvantaged background, to prepare them, with financial support when needed, to compete with any and all students and realise their true potential; (vi) massive expansion of quality education at higher levels, without compromising the quality, keeping in mind that one factor in keeping the quality high has always been the spirit of open competition among the students. The Peoples’ Republic of China, practical as always, has already identified about 150 institutes of higher education for their development to bring them up to worldclass standards in a decade.

The course of action outlined here presupposes long years of unglamorous hard work. It is not a populist measure, nor will it help maintain the present grip of casteiest vote bank system that has become dominant in politics in India in the past couple of decades. In fact, with luck, such a course of action may reduce the effect of castebased and communal politics by pushing the society towards quicker homogenisation. The government, all political parties without exception and even the educational pundits are totally silent on the points raised here. Indeed, they have given no serious thought to these or similar proposals, nor have they made any noteworthy move in these directions. This is as true of the parties considered communal and procapitalists as of those labelled as secular and socialist. One wonders why?



Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006

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