Education Challenged by Rulers’ Predicament

Arun Kumar

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

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, the 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.

Education 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 the 6th class. Leadership is about connecting 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 the 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 leadership but in society.

First, a monetary value can be assigned to what the educational 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, arbitrariness creeps in. 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 of the system, thereby sharpening social conflict.

Leadership’s Predicament

The second reason why 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 leadership.

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 in 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 for a better future. So, the leadership would like quality education only for a 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 poverty.

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. 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 to 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 advanced nations even though they are not relevant to Indian requirements. So, we are seeking to implement the 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. Jobscommensurate with the degree is not available to most young, resulting in large-scale frustration and distress. The result is growing substance abuse, violence in families and crime.

Economic policies treat employment as a residual and promote automation to compete globally. The result is large and growing un and underemployment. 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 the 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.

The article was first published in HW English as Indian Rulers’ Predicament Limits their Understanding of Education’s Wider Role on June 9, 2023.

Read more by the author:: The Importance of Addressing Inequality and Poverty in Society.



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  • Arun Kumar

    Arun Kumar, Malcolm S Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi and author of ‘Indian Economy’s Greatest Crisis: Impact of the Coronavirus and the Road Ahead‘.

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