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Thorough-bred Engineers or Universal Education?

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

Recently representatives of 181 countries met in Dakar, Senegal and took stock of the present state of literacy in the world (Deccan Herald, June 3rd, 2000). They estimated that about 880 million adults are illiterate and that more than 113 million children around the world have no access to primary education. And as befits world forums, this one, the World Education Forum set itself a fresh target: Education for all by the year 2015. The Dakar plan is a follow-up to the World Conference on Education for All held in Thailand in 1990. God only knows what the 1990 forum goals were, but clearly it was not envisaged that when ten years later the heavyweight world travelers and education pundits met they would have to stare at the statistics that I started this piece with. The Dakar framework has various other grandiose plans but you can safely bet that when the "Experts" meet ten years later in another world education forum they will stare unfazed at another bunch of depressing statistics. They will then spend a week drinking good wine and eating good food to "Craft" yet another set of goals for the education of the "Girl Child", for "Eliminating Illiteracy", for making education accessible to the "Rural Poor" etc, etc, etc.

Meanwhile, I read another news report about a month ago in Deccan Heraldon plans to start another Indian Institute of Technology. The report mentioned that the Karnataka government was keen on promoting the state as a venue for the seventh of the prestigious institutes. "Except for the Chennai IIT all other IITs are in the North and the Karnataka government will provide land and other facilities near Dharwar in North Karnataka to house the new institute", the Chief Minister or the Education Minister of Karnataka was quoted as saying. The report mentioned that the start-up cost for the institute would be Rs 250 crores (Two and a half billion rupees, or about $62 million.) There was no mention of the year to year cost of running the institute.

The six IITs (Mumbai, Chennai, Kanpur, Delhi, Kharagpur and Guwahati) together admit about 2, 000 students a year. The first three of the IITs are the bigger and more prestigious and each of them may take in about 400 students a year. The seventh one, if started, would be one of the smaller IITs and admit anywhere from 200 to 300 students a year. So, what do you think, you as tax-payer, will be spending to graduate one of these "Thoroughbred" engineers? Your guess is as good as mine, but surely it will cost nothing less than a million rupees to graduate one engineer.

Apart from the seventh IIT there are plans elsewhere of starting "World Class" information technology institutes (the Indian Institute of Information Technology at Hyderabad), business schools (International School of Business, also in Hyderabad), journalism schools (The Asian School of Journalism in Chennai), law schools, etc. I have no idea how much money is being poured into starting these elite institutions and how much more it will take to run them efficiently, staff them well and graduate the students with fancy degrees.

So, what about educating the "Girl Child", the rural poor and ridding the world of illiteracy? While the plans for starting the elite institutions are almost always concrete and specific and the monies found almost immediately, the plans to educate the teeming illiterate are almost always vague and the goalposts firmly planted in the far future. Clearly a Chandrababu Naidu or a S. M. Krishna, who want to have institutes of technology or institutes of information technology in their state, are aware of the immediate personal gains to themselves. They would have the hoopla, the prestige, the hobnobbing with industry leaders, the flying in of fancy guests and the flying out to foreign destinations, the doling out of plum contracts, the "Immediacy" of a project taking off the ground and being completed within their tenure, etc. Why would they be interested in something less "Sexy", less immediate, less lucrative like the basic and primary education of the teeming millions in their state? They could be if someone were to spell out to them the benefits, the long-term benefits of universal education. Let me see if I can, through this piece, provide a little concrete plan for the two chief ministers of the two states that are vying for top honors in the "Information Technology" arena in India.

Take that sum of Rs 250 crores, the start up cost for the new Indian Institute of Technology. Let us take the district of Dharwar where the IIT is sought to be located. The district has a population of about four million or forty lakhs. The literacy rate is about 60 percent, which means about 1.6 million or 16 lakh people canít read or write. I can surely teach a person to read and write and do some math and learn some first aid techniques and learn about family planning and some essential life skills for Rs 1, 560/-. Yes, Rs 250 crores for 16 lakh people would mean about Rs 1560 per person. However, let me give a little bit more of a detailed and elaborate plan.

Let us say that the Rs 250 crores is used to start 50 schools in the district of Dharwar. Rs 5 crores for each school. Two crores could be used to buy land and construct buildings Ė classrooms, some administrative offices, playing fields, outdoor basketball courts. Three crores could be deposited in a nationalized bank for a maximum of ten and a half percent interest rate, or in a scheduled bank for up to fourteen percent interest rate. That ten and a half to fourteen percent would generate anywhere from Rs 35 lakhs to Rs 49 lakhs and could be the operating cost for each school. The school would include classes from first to seventh grades for children and adult literacy classes taught in the evenings for the illiterate adults of the region. There would also be classes taught in first aid, midwifery, basic hygiene and some relevant social and life skills. Each school would educate about 200 children a year (about 30 students each from first grade to seventh grade) and about 200 adults a year. So we would have about 20, 000 people being enrolled in Dharwar district the first year! Ten thousand adults would learn to read and write and learn essential skills each year. To make sure that these schools donít become manipulative tools in the hands of local goons and politicians, or be run down by inefficient and corrupt teachers and officials, they should be made semi-private and/or autonomous institutions governed by a nominated board consisting of experts who would contribute their time and expertise free of cost. Also, think of each set of five schools being administered by a person with an MBA. Ten MBAs, young, talented, visionary and decently paid could do wonders and ten years down the road, with an initial investment of Rs 250 crores, Dharwar district would have become a model district in the nation, with every girl child and every boy child able to go to school and every adult able to read and write and conduct the business of life well. Or you could have an IIT and enroll about 3000 students over a period of ten years and graduate about 1, 800 engineers, most of whom would end up in the US working for some multi-national or starting some dot com business. What would you prefer? Is there something here that the fat cat UN experts who met in Thailand and in Dakar, Senegal could learn from? Can we convince a S. M. Krishna or a Chandrababu Naidu to rethink their priorities? Or will we all succumb to the glamour of producing more IIT graduates who go on to become the CEOs and Managing Directors and Presidents of big corporations? After all, the May 29th, 2000 issue of Outlook magazine proclaimed that these thoroughbred engineers had done India proud and seemed to imply that India had invested its money wisely in starting these fancy institutes. If we had spent more money on primary education these past fifty years would we not have wiped out the scourge of illiteracy and the attendant problems that an uneducated population brings upon itself? Would such universal education not have curbed population growth? Would such education not have lessened the bite of caste-based oppression? Would it not have enabled the people to choose their representatives more carefully?

Originally published on Published on Thursday, June 8, 2000.

 
     
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