Column: So Jairams wrong, big deal

Written by Sunil Jain | Updated: May 30 2011, 07:59am hrs
Lets assume environment minister Jairam Ramesh is right when he says the IITs do precious little good research, that they add little value to the students they give degrees tothat is, since the students who get admission to the IITs are top 0.1% of the eligible population, theyre bound to be bright. Look at various ratings of Indian universities, and they seem to suggest Jairam is right. IIT-Delhi was among the top 500 universities in the world in 2003 (it was ranked between 451-500) but by 2010, it was nowhere to be seen on the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) list. IIT-Kharagpur managed to remain in the list but with a fall in the score. China has 16 universities in the top 500 (13 in engineering, 1 in medicine and 1 in social sciences) while India has just 2 (IIT-K is in the 401-500 list while the Indian Institute of Science is in the 301-400 rank). China has 6.8% of the worlds top 500 universities and accounts for 19.8% of global populationIndias figures are 0.4% and 17.1%, respectively.

Or lets assume Jairam is wrong, as education minister Kapil Sibal has suggested. Sanjay Dhande, director of IIT Kanpur, argued in The Indian Express the other day that the IIT faculty had done a pretty good job and listed various IIT work such as the encryption scheme for the Indian navy, e-passport and real-time information on trains. Others, such as Manish Sabharwal who runs Indias largest temping firm Teamlease, have argued in FE that you cant have research unless the overall economic environment favours R&D and thats beginning to happen only now.

But when you see that just 13,602 students passed the IIT Joint Entrance Examination this year, you see just how much of a non-issue the whole debate over the quality of the IIT/IIM faculty is. The debate then moves on to how poor the quality of private educationthe alternative to the IITs and the IIMsis and how much of a ripoff it is. Indeed, the more learned will point to externalities that can get captured only by publicly-funded education. Since theres no gain to be made by doing research, they argue, private engineering or management schools will never encourage faculty to concentrate on research. And research, we know, is what made the MITs and Harvards what they are. So, lets not waste time with this private education ripoff, just build top class government institutesa parallel argument, by the way, is made about corporate hospitals. All of this is probably true, private hospitals like private universities probably overcharge and hugely so, but what is the alternative If the government had the capacity, both financial and managerial, it would have built the colleges and the hospitals, and life would have been perfect for everyone. But the fact is the government hasnt done it, so theres no reason to suspect it will in the future.

It is obviously true that a Manipal University cant compete with an IIT, just as its clear that a for-profit University of Phoenix cant compete with a Harvard when it comes to the standard of learning, the quality of faculty, the kind of alumni. But while pouring scorn on the University of Phoenix, lets keep in mind that, after being set up in 1636, there is just one Harvard and it has a total of 21,000 students. Phoenix was set up in 1976, has 200 campuses and nearly 5 lakh students.

In an ideal world, every Indian who wants to be an engineer should go to an IIT, but for now Indias needs are a lot more basic. Theyre not even about just education, theyre about just making Indians job-ready to begin withthe under-two-year-old National Skills Development Corporation goal is to skill/upskill 500 million Indians by 2022, for instance. Or take the numbers put out by Columbia professor Arvind Panagariya the other day at the NCAER. According to Panagariya, a greying OECD will have 35 million less persons in 20-49 age group by 2025, China will have 63 million less. The gap, and more, will be made up by India which will add 139 million persons in this age group. Perfect, youd think, theres a gap in the world and theres a supplier to make good the gap.

Not so fast! Just 13% or so of the 113 million persons India has in the 20-24 age group today actually go to collegefor China, the comparable gross enrolment ratio is 23%. So the world needs 100 million or so well-educated persons more in 2025 (assuming, incorrectly, that the demand for more educated people doesnt rise) but, at current GERs, India can supply only 18-20 million. Thats hardly going to help either the world or India. Certainly, Indias 8-9% GDP dream is going to be history without a lot more people getting a basic education, through distance learning at Sikkim Manipal University or Punjab Technical University if need be. Wage rates for semi-skilled and uneducated painters are already up to around R450 per day in metros like Delhi or around $3.3 per hour on a PPP basis compared to $8 in the USwithout a significant increase in productivity that only education brings, you can pretty much start writing off Indias growth story.

If India needs to raise its game, it needs to improve education all around, not just concentrate on the IITs and the IIMs. You have to read the Annual Status of Education Report to know just how broke the schooling system isonly 53.4% children in the fifth standard in rural India can read a second standard level text; the proportion of first standard children who could recognise numbers from 1-9 declined from 69.3 % in 2009 to 65.8 % in 2010; children in the fifth standard who could do simple division problems also dropped from 38 % in 2009 to 35.9 % in 2010. And yet, instead of encouraging people to set up more schoolspublic, private, not-for-profit, for-profit, how does it matterwere trying our best to kill private schools thanks to the onerous Right to Education Act which specifies the size of rooms in schools as well as the salaries to be paid to teachers. As a result of what weve done to restrict growth on one ground or the other, while the private education business is estimated at around $40bn today, the amount spent by Indian students abroad is around $6-8bn! Imagine what wed do for education, and India, if that kind of money was spent here instead.