Indian Rulers’ Predicament Limits their Understanding of Education’s Wider Role

Mr. Fadnavis, Dy. CM of Maharashtra has exhorted youth to come forward in foiling the
attempts of urban naxals from getting into universities. Since anyone differing from the
establishment is being called urban naxal these days, this is a call to curb dissent in the

Earlier, Delhi’s Lt. Governor V K Saxena is reported to have said, “… degreeyan toh padahi ke
kharch ki raseedein hoti hain. …” (… degrees are mere receipts of money spent on studies …) .
This was in response to the Delhi CM, Kejriwal’s reported barb that India needs an “… educated
PM for the nation’s well-being”. So, educational qualifications of leaders have become an issue.
These statements reflect the current Indian rulers’ skewed vision of education. For one dissent is
not acceptable and for the other education is only about money spent and not the larger role it
plays in society.

Educational Qualifications of Leaders
Do a leader’s educational qualifications matter?
India has had tall leaders who did not have any higher degree. For instance, K Kamraj, a big
Congress Party leader, studied till 6 th class. Leadership is about connect with people, representing
them and having the political acumen to do what is right for them and that does not require
formal degrees. The critical issue is one of honesty of the leaders and not their degree.
The claim that the PM has a MA in all of Political Science, a degree unheard of, suggests that
leaders want to portray themselves as highly qualified. But, this diverts attention from the quality
of leadership. However, it does present an opportunity to understand the present day leadership’s
view of education.

Leadership’s Narrow Vision of Education
If degrees are mere receipts of money spent on studies, content is unimportant. A corollary is,
degrees can be bought by paying money and degrees, real or fake, obtained from sub-standard or
even fake institutions. The degrees become passports to either a job or a leadership position.
There are two reasons underlying the flawed vision not only in the leadership but in society.
First, a monetary value can be assigned to what the education institutions deliver, namely, the
teachers’ output and what the students receive.

This view negates education’s higher social purpose – one that cannot be assigned a monetary
value. That role is in fostering democratization and citizenship, creating socially relevant
knowledge and through positive externalities and skill formation, enhancing social welfare. It
helps build a better future for the nation and helps it realize its true potential.

When what cannot be measured is sought to be assigned a value, an arbitrariness creeps. It
results in disagreements and unfulfilled expectations which weakens trust in society and
undermines the relationship between the teacher and the taught. All parties feel wronged,
cultivate a sense of injustice and manipulate to get a larger share from the system, thereby
sharpening social conflict.

Leadership’s Predicament
The second reason why the leadership fosters a narrow view of education is the irresolvable
contradiction it faces.

Quality education not only raises prosperity through higher productivity, it also promotes critical
faculty in society. Consequently, the existing power structure is questioned for its failure to
resolve major societal issues. This can potentially upturn the status quo and dethrone the

So, for the leaders, quality education that enhances scientific temper and makes the general
public discerning about the true state of affairs is not desirable. This is what Mr. Fadnavis
implies when he cautions against urban naxals. The leaders would like the citizens to
unquestioningly accept their narrative.

For instance, would a discerning citizenry accept that ancient India had already developed much
of the scientific knowledge and technology that the advanced countries have developed since the
industrial revolution. After all, if India had advanced technology at some point of time, it would
not have been forgotten unless there was a catastrophe. India would have been the most powerful
nation in the world which no one could have defeated. The narrative of a glorious distant past
helps shift attention from not only the present problems but fosters hope of a better future.
So, the leadership would like quality education only for the select few. Consequently, policy
accords education a low priority – budgetary allocations remain inadequate in spite of lip service
to the importance of education. Whenever budget cuts are required to keep the deficit in control,
the education budget is among the first to be curtailed. No wonder, ASER shows how poor the
quality of education is in rural schools. The situation is hardly better in most urban schools. So,
there is weak skill formation, student dropout, lack of scientific temper and persistence of

Differentiated Education
The leadership has tried to resolve its contradiction by differentiation – between the elite
institutions and general education. The former are largely for the well-off while the vast majority
get indifferent education. A segregation has occurred between private high cost and public poor
quality education. This trend started in schools in the 1960s and then spread to higher education
with public institutions starved of funds and forced to go for commercialization. UP to the 1990s,
IITs and IIMs gave cheap education which even the poor could aspire to but not anymore.
In August 2015, Allahabad HC directed UP State to ensure that all government servants send
their children attend government run primary schools. It was seen as a way of improving education standards in state run institutions. As expected, the elite challenged the order in the Supreme Court.

Since the wider role of education is not appreciated, teaching is seen to be like any office or
factory job. Salaries of teachers are sought to be linked to productivity, measured through time
and motion study, like for factory work. Teacher’s output is equated to the salary paid and since
that is generally low compared to other jobs requiring similar skill, their output is predictably
undervalued. This then becomes the justification for the low priority given to education. It also
lowers the prestige of teachers in society. Unfortunately, teachers have internalized this and
consequently suffer from low self-esteem.

The result is that most of the teaching and research is mechanical and insipid. Most students
learn by rote to pass exams and do not absorb the knowledge. No wonder, in spite of an
extensive education system, quality research output is low and India lags behind even many
developing countries.

To hide its failures and continue with its segregation policies, the leadership periodically
announces new education policies. Many of them are borrowed from the advanced nations even
though they are not relevant to Indian requirements. So, we are seeking to implement 4-year
undergraduate programme, BS degree for the Arts subjects, etc.. We seek more H1B visas so that
the talented can work abroad. So, India has become a supplier of talent to the advanced nations.
The leadership benefits by shifting the focus of a large number of those who could be critical of
it, to seeking jobs abroad.

Apathy Towards Youth
Leadership’s indifference toward quality education translates to apathy towards the youth. Jobs
commensurate with the degree are not available to most young, resulting in large scale
frustration and distress. The result is growing substance abuse, violence in family and crime.
Economic policies treat employment as a residual and promote automation to compete globally.
The result is large and growing un and under employment. The demographic dividend expected
of a young Indian population is nowhere in sight. The situation will further deteriorate as the
challenge of rapidly changing technology is on us with increasing use of AI and programmes like
ChatGPT which have the potential to even displace skilled professionals. Unfortunately, poor
quality education does not enable the young to `learn how to learn’. Consequently, they cannot
switch work when redundancy arises and they become unemployed.
In brief, society faces growing challenges due to the leadership’s predicament that prevents them
from appreciating education’s wider social role.

Author of `Indian Economy’s Greatest Crisis: Impact of the Coronavirus and the Road Ahead’ 2020.

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