Why should a taxpayer subsidise IITs when there is no correlation between the outcome of his investment and the welfare of the average Indian?

The world of education is huge. It is one of those few areas where one can enter almost without credentials and claim to be an expert. People still listen to such individuals not because they have any great credentials but because they hold positions of influence and patronage. With these qualifications, it is easy to find admirers. There are always hopes of pay-offs by ingratiating the powerful. It is also equally true that the route adopted by people to gain the attention of icons is sometimes quite the opposite and that is one of denigration. By throwing stones at the powerful one can also gain prominence. In essence, the choice of the route to gaining attention of the powerful is a personal one.

For the sake of a feasible, focussed discussion on the learning-teaching process, which is the foundation of education, it may be useful to focus on one segment. The choice of higher education as the segment of attention may be useful. It is also attractive because that is where the so-called intellectuals are. Plus, in the field of higher education, there is a great parade of credentials and sometimes standards. These two dimensions are fit enough topics of discussion in their own right. For the present, suffice it to say that the track record of Indian higher education institutions (HEIs) is at best, modest, be it in the track records of people who have made the grade in Indian academia or of acclaimed students who came out of these institutions that have had a huge resonance of acceptability abroad.

 In one of the most widely-acclaimed institutions of the IIT chain, about ten years ago, a back-of-the envelope analysis of successful alumni award winners showed that more than 70 per cent were those who had obtained residency in the US, Canada, UK or other English-speaking communities. The yardsticks of excellence were clear. The only recognition worth flaunting was recognition in a post-industrial English-speaking country. If these are the role models who are projected to the impressionable teenagers in such institutions of national importance, the results can easily be imagined and seen. But it didn’t seem to bother anyone too much.

Another analysis of the results of campus placements in IITs, IIMs and similar institutions would establish that the most sought- after placements are in multinational organisations, private companies and other institutions of the ilk. Public sector undertakings are a lower-ranked choice, if at all.

A legitimate question can be asked: Why should the taxpayer subsidise these institutions when there is no ostensible correlation between his investment and the efforts of the outcome of his investments in terms of the welfare of the average Indian?

These are hard questions, frequently asked, but never honestly or for that matter meaningfully tackled. Such lack of correlation is unique to India. And it is not as if there is shortage of money with those aspiring for the portals of premier HEIs. Consider the fancy sums of money people pay to go abroad and get a degree. Like many contradictions, these are common characteristics of higher education in India. It is truly remarkable that in the spate of webinars that mark the Covid-19 era, not one has been organised to address these themes. There almost seems to be a collective consent to let things continue the way they are. There is nothing wrong with that. These defining characteristics — so far as public information is concerned — have not even been debated with adequate sincerity in the several fora which determine the nature of higher education in India.

A common loss seems to be nobody’s loss. There are also so-called autonomous pan-Indian bodies of these institutions where people struggle, jostle and manoeuvre to become secretaries and presidents. It gives them influence, range and visibility. There is nothing wrong with that, yet, alas, a question on the purpose of such associations cannot be endlessly evaded. There are associations of heads of management institutions, societies of technical institutions, education fora in chambers of industry, whether in a confederation mode or in an associated mode. Most of them are huge draws to those seeking a “space under the sun.”

However, an Indian citizen is entitled to ask what these associations achieve? A radical departure from some of these unusual patterns of collective behaviour is long overdue. When a few articulate ones do point it out, they are asked to keep quiet in the name of being positive. They are exhorted not to “rock the boat” and at least appreciate what has been achieved. These are unexceptionable arguments.

However, ask an Indian mother from which Indian educational institution as compared to a western one, would she like her son-in-law or daughter-in-law to come from. The answer is the answer to the relative ranking of Indian HEIs in an international frame.