Disproportionate Outrage Over Fee Slash

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Feb 26 2004, 05:30am hrs
There have been any number of scams and contemptible acts directly from or facilitated by successive governments in the past 10 years, but it would be hard to top the level of public anger among Indias professional and urban class at the recent IIM fee slash issue. Mr Murli Manohar Joshi has unleashed a tsunami of newspaper commentary. But how do the rest of us react, those of us who are neither IIM alumni nor really encounter one in our daily lives. We of course sympathise with the protestors because we understand it is yet another blatant flexing of official muscle. Plus, there is a certain irritation and sceptical distrust whenever someone tries to fix something that aint broken.

However, the outrage by IIM alumni, Indian industry and Indian diaspora may in fact be a bit overplayed if not gratuitously contrived. In any other country, reduction in fees would be seen as a progressive measure. And as an IIM professor himself pointed out in a recent article, some of the arguments may not be very tenable; after all, IIM faculty and staff have always and continue to enjoy huge subsidies on housing, plus the quality of education did not suffer in the first 30 years when fees were abysmally low.

But what is really amazing is how the business and salaried elite have bestirred only now instead of at any point in the last three decades when the real edifice of Indias middle class revolution, the university system, was being brutally pillaged.

Osmania, Allahabad, Jadavpur and Baroda were once all distinguished universities and cradles of progressive academics, but the only time they make the news now is when examinations are postponed, student elections turn violent or when students, teachers or Class IV workers strike. Once, in both Patna and Kashmir Universities, degrees were even awarded without holding examinations. There are of course some universities which still manage to attract good talent into teaching and research, but academic unrest, empty classes and worthless degrees are now what we have.

Which is in fact quite amazing, because if we consider all the positive changes happening in India and to its international image, the one fundamental thing that connects them all is education. This is the staple of Indias progress in the last generation and guides the aspirations of the Indian middle class; in fact, education has now become one of the fastest growing areas and a profitable business sector by itself. But our economic progress would have been that much faster, earlier and smoother if our colleges and universities had provided decent skills, knowledge and discipline.

There is much more to the wealth of a nation than venture capital sourcing, mutual fund management, call centres and software exports, all of which of course are either invaluable in creating a dynamic environment or in earning a recognisable brand positioning for the country. But in the end, what really makes the most impact on daily lives is the quality of everyday governance, public institutions, democratic processes and civic responsibility. Far more than degrees with pedigree or the quality of the top 2 percentile class, what matters is how the average municipal employee, government official, shopkeeper and salesman behaves.

The primary focus ought to remain on uplifting the rest of the country. This is not a Leftist hangover. In fact, every society in every part of the globe at every point in history has needed an educational and material elite, no matter how unappealing any kind of disparity is, simply because it can be an agent of aspiration and change. There is no argument that truly world-class institutions like the IIMs and IITs need less bureaucratic interference, in fact they should be further nourished, but this is not what is causing the most harm.

Messrs Banga and Narayana Murthy should be lauded for knocking on the doors of Mr Joshi to express their concern, but if they are worried about educational standards then they should start at the bottom, on the pathetic state of our university system where the maximum good can be done but where the maximum bad is being practised. Else, it might simply be a case of the best becoming an enemy of the good.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors