On the 60th anniversary of India’s independence Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced spelt out his vision for eradicating poverty. This vision rests on ‘a revolution in the field of modern education in the next few years’. And it encompasses:
6,000 new “high quality” schools
370 colleges in districts with low enrollment rates
30 new Central universities
5 Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research
20 Indian Institutes of International Technology
And the icing on the cake…
7 new IIMs, 8 IITs
But let’s forget the specifics of the announcement and look deeper into the spirit behind it. The connection between getting an education and getting out of poverty is finally clear. Not just to the classes, but the masses.
The mai baap sarkar can finally move away from the promise of the occasional fish, to say, “We’ll teach you how to fish instead.” The aam aadmi recognizes there’s an ocean of Opportunity out there . And that an education is the modern fishing boat with which the next generation will chart New Economy waters.
So far, so good. But when and how will this vision translate into reality? Last heard the government was agreed on putting all its eggs in the primary education basket, Most notably, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. Why then is there talk of more IITs and IIMs?
The kindest explanation is that the vision is a far sighted one. When you send more and more kids to school, there will be increased demand for good colleges. And so, the government steps in and expands capacity.
The more cynical explanation is that IITs and IIMs are like the Taj Mahal. While the monument of love is one of the seven wonders of the world, the IITs and IIMs are one of the few wonders of modern India.
These institutes stand for excellence. For ‘merit’. For fairness and incorruptability. The IITs and IIMs are symbolic of the Great Indian Dream. Dimaag ki taakat aur mehnat se har koi is mukaam par pahunch sakta hai. Money or power have no role to play.
Of course, this belief is not strictly true. Access to good coaching (esp for IITs) and fluency in English (esp for IIMs) make a helluva lot of difference. But there is enough popular folklore of poor but brilliant and hard working young men and women who made it to these institutes to give the common man a feeling, “Perhaps I could too.”
The value of a lofty goal in firing the imagination - is never to be underestimated.
But how will the government itself get these projects off the ground? To frame it like the typical CAT question:
If 6 IIMs : 60 years
Then 7 IIMs : ? years
Let’s take a look at the case of IIM Shillong for the answer. The proposal to set up an IIM in the Northeast (either Guwahati or Shillong) goes back to the year 2004. The actual IIM – in Shillong – is to come up in the year 2008.
However, things might be changing. The Planning Commission is to meet on August 28 to discuss several important education related issues. The Plan panel proposes to increase public spending on education to around 5 per cent of GDP from the present level of 3.79 per cent. The panel is also expected to take a decision on funding of the newly proposed IIMs, IITs.
One of the proposals put forth is to set up 4 of the proposed 7 new IIMs in the public-private partnership (PPP) mode.
The term ‘public-private partnerships’ in brings to mind infrastructure: roads, bridges, airports and such like. The cost of the project and onus of development is shared between the government and the private party. And the private party, in return, gets a share of the spoils.
I am, however, unclear how such an arrangement would work when it comes to education. Apart from the philanthropic angle (“let’s give back to the community’) and prestige value, how would the ‘returns’ kick in?
And would private involvement necessarily make the IIMs more ‘autonomous’?
"The IIMs should be granted autonomy and they should not depend on the government for funds," said Rahul Bajaj, Chairman of Bajaj group and a member of Parliament in a recent interview.
"Till these IIMs depend on the government for funds, the government will
have the right to take decisions for them," he added.
Mr Bajaj’s statement implies that non-governmental funds will be completely free of vested interest. But nothing could be farther from the truth! The American university system, funded by wealthy donors and alumni, for example, is actually bhai bhatijawaad and paisa power at its worst.
The stench of money and influence has long been concealed by the heady fragrance of ‘High Up There’ college brand name. But a recent book by Pulitzer Prize winning Wall Stret Journal reporter Daniel Golden painstakingly unmasks it all.
‘The Price of Admission’ chronicles how America’s ruling class buys its way into elite colleges. And ‘who gets left outside the gates’. Now I was dimly aware that universities Harvard let in a few rich kids whose great grandfathers may have donated a building or two to the college. But the book tells you just how many such rich kids make their way in – and how. And the numbers are shocking, to say the least.
The book offers insights on:
- “How the ‘Z list’ make the ‘A list’” (or how losers like Albert Gore jr make it to Harvard.)
- “Recruiting the Rich” – how Duke university built its corpus by admitting kids of wealthy parents who pledged to donate substantial monies to the college. These applicants are actually referred to as “development cases”.
- “A break for faculty brats” – Free and easy entry for children of professors
- “Rise of the Upperclass Athelete”- by offering ‘scholarships’ for sports like fencing, rowing and polo, colleges create an easy entry route for elite, white, private school applicants.
And oh, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The biggest scam so to speak is ‘legacy enrollment’. Or preference given to sons and daughters of alumni. To quote an example, “Harvard, America’s oldest university, admitted 63% of its applicants in 1952. Half a century later, it admitted just 11% of applicants overall – but 40% of legacy candidates”.
And these kids are certainly displacing very bright but non-connected candidates. Most legacies have lower SAT scores and less impressive high school records. A few are downright embarassments.
The Ivy League boasts a lofty ‘need blind’ admission process. But the process ensures that only 3 to 11% of students in these most selective colleges come from the lowest income quartile in the first place.
Golden notes: “Legacy preference provides affluent families with a form of insurance from one generation to the next, which might in turn lead to a decline in wealth and power. Just as English peers hold hereditary seats in the House of Lords, so the American nobility reserves slots at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other august universities.”
Over the years the alumni donation-offspring admission nexus has become firmly established. Alumni contributed $ 7.5 billion to higher education in 2005, representing 27.7% of all private donations to colleges. No college dares rock the boat!
Clearly corporates, alumni and wealthy donors take a generous share of cookies from the cookie jar. In much the same way as our government has been demanding more and more ‘quotas’.
It could happen here
In India, we’ve historically had two distinct breeds of colleges: the Merit based and the Donation based. Government established colleges like IITs, IIMs, NID, NIFTs, IHMs lead the ‘merit’ brigade. The premier government run engineering and medical colleges also fall in this category.
However, of this lot I think only the IITs and IIMs (and perhaps NID) can boast of never admitting a politician’s son or daughter under duress.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are private institutions where, officially, there is a management quota. Under this quota, most institutes will admit just about anyone who can pay enough money. The smart ones – like a Harvard or Yale - strike a balance between merit entry and money entry. But the short sighted and the greedy go all out for the moolah.
Such colleges fail to attract top notch students and while they may be profitable businesses, their sphere of influence remains stunted.
The bottomline is: Education brands require investment and long term vision. Promoters must build facilities, foundations, faculty and freedoms that result in individual advancement as well as a greater common good.
In the context of India, that good lies in IITs and IIMs remaining islands of ‘merit’. Untouched by quotas – whether government, or ‘management’. We need these ‘Taj Mahals’, to keep our faith in an otherwise fallible system. To keep alive the dream of Ultimate Upward Mobility – for all.
Sons and daughters of IIM grads, IIM profs, mediamen, moguls and mantris – there’s always Harvard and Yale if your kid can’t clear the CAT.