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In Conversation: Kapil Sibal, HRD Minister

'Increasing supply is the key'

Sunil Jain  |  New Delhi 

Kapil Sibal

A greater number of education-providers, the education minister insists, is the solution to the sector's problems, and that's precisely what he's aiming to fix.

Human Resources Development (HRD) Minister Kapil Sibal’s is under attack from all quarters. A party colleague asks how he can propose to bring in foreign universities when India’s local universities are in bad shape; another asks how Sibal can announce his dramatic plans, including abolishing the Class X board examination, without even consulting the various state governments (education is a concurrent subject); educationists want to understand the rationale for this; others ask about Sibal’s plans for reservations or autonomy to colleges; a dispute has broken out between Professor Yashpal and committee member Kaushik Basu on the role of remuneration in higher education and, not surprisingly, Sibal’s predecessor in the NDA government is talking of how education will be commercialised! The list of what Sibal needs to consider is a long one and the nitty-gritty complex enough to paralyse most into inaction. Sibal, however, tells Sunil Jain that he’s focussing on getting the supply augmented for now, since that alone will resolve many of the issues that are coming up.

The broad theme
Expansion, Inclusion, Excellence. That, Sibal says, is his mantra. If India is to grow to its full economic potential, expanding the number of schools/colleges is critical. If disadvantaged groups like Dalits and even OBCs have to be provided with quality education, expanding the number of education-providers is crucial. Extending the pie or inclusiveness won’t help unless the education is of a high quality — that too, needs new players coming in. Which is why increasing the number of education-providers is the centre-piece of Sibal’s five-year plan, and not just of his 100-day one.

So, while more ‘deemed universities’ have been created in the last few years than full-fledged ones in the last 55, Sibal’s first priority is to come up with a set of criteria, and having met these, anyone should be free to set up a college/university. Instead of working out detailed do’s and don’ts (several education acts specify even the size of classrooms), a new regulator (to be up and running in six months) will work on disclosure norms for colleges/universities and ensure that these are complied with. Besides, an independent rating agency, or several of them, will rate colleges/universities. Get the supplies going, he says, much in the same manner that Manmohan Singh’s reforms in 1991 sought to do. You could call it ducking the real issues, or you could call it strategic intervention.

Fee hikes, college autonomy
In a sense, this is Sibal’s real test. Can he grant meaningful autonomy to colleges/universities — will the HRD ministry no longer want to appoint the next head of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA), will it allow colleges to raise fees and hike teachers’ salaries (can teachers at different universities get different salaries) … can Sibal turn around even a relatively small-sized university like the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)?

You get a sense of where Sibal’s headed when he says, disarmingly, ‘You can’t turn around a JNU through intervention. You have to do it by example’. Since that, in itself, means little, Sibal gives the example of telecom. In the mid-90s, India hardly had a telecom industry to speak of and the number of persons with phones was miniscule. A telecom minister, he says, could have tried to fix it by talking to BSNL/MTNL’s unions, by professionalising the management — all of this is important, but what the minister did instead was to make it possible for private players to come in. And, bingo, 40 per cent of Indians have phones, there are no waiting lines, and BSNL/MTNL have, to a large extent, risen to the challenge. In other words, Sibal is probably not going to do much on issues like autonomy, fee-hikes or structural changes in salaries — once there are new players, he hopes, the increased competition will fix a lot of the issues. All that he’s willing to say on the fee hikes is that it’s better to start doing this in the ‘higher degrees’, where Indians don’t mind paying an arm and a leg for when they go abroad. Given that the plethora of management colleges haven’t done much to improve the quality of the IIMs does make this sound a bit like a pipe-dream, but it is also true that, with the exception of a few like the Indian School of Business, no top college has come up so far.

And if, as is likely, the private-sector supply response is mainly in professional courses and not in the arts or pure sciences, how does Sibal’s turnaround plan work? Right now, there are more sceptics than believers, but Sibal’s answer is his Sebi-like regulator who will ‘take the colleges/universities as far away from us as possible’. The proof of the pudding will lie in the eating, but there can be little doubt that Sebi has reduced the government’s routine intervention in the capital markets to a bare minimum. The success of Sibal’s plans depends upon who he gets to man these bodies — various other regulators in other sectors have ended up doing what the government of the day wants. And while his plans apply to central universities, he has to ensure various states also get on board.

For-profit education

Being a lawyer, Sibal is on firm ground here. The Supreme Court judgement because of which most think educational institutions cannot be organised along for-profit lines merely says, as Sibal tells you, that the profits have to be reinvested in the same institution. So a multi-branch school cannot set up another branch from the profits of a different one. Sibal says he can go to the Court to get a clarification on this, given the huge shortage in schools/colleges. There is always the possibility of passing a law, though it is difficult to see how MPs will pass such a law given the long-held, if misplaced, view that education is all about charity.

Reservations for OBCs, Dalits
Like most of his colleagues, Sibal is unwilling to hear anything against reservations, or whether they’re really needed, and whether the genuinely disadvantaged really get them. Nor is he willing to say anything categorical on whether this should be extended to private players (if a Harvard is to offer MBAs in India, why shouldn’t it have OBC reservations when IIMA does?). What he says instead is that the government should ensure that everyone who wants a loan gets it, that banks should not be allowed to ask for collateral, that the loans have to be guaranteed by the government (so that the banks are encouraged to lend) and that, based on certain criteria, the government can even subsidise the interest costs. Whether this will be sufficient to pacify the political class enough to allow new players (both Indian and foreign) will depend upon Sibal’s ability to get everyone on board.

Premji for Sarabhai
In the past, the presence of individuals like Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhabha helped India set up centres-of-excellence such as the IIMA or the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). How do you ensure that the system encourages such individuals to come up, and then gives them the space required to do their work? Sibal’s answer is: Entrepreneurship. In the 1950s, he says, India had very few entrepreneurs and that is why you needed public-spirited persons to establish centres-of-excellence. We still need such help, he says, but we have a whole new generation of entrepreneurs who are raring to go, waiting to set up educational institutions. He mentions the ‘mini-universities’ that software majors have set up to educate their staffers and says like Wipro’s Azim Premji are waiting to invest.

Primary education
While the press has largely focussed on his plans in higher education, the real challenge, says Sibal, lies in primary education, in getting the Gross Enrolment Ratio up from the present 11 to around 30 in another 25 years. Private education is a solution, but no private schools will go to villages, for instance. Privatising government schools sounds a nice idea, but is unlikely to make much headway. Sibal plans to work with getting local governments on board, but for now he’s on a different tack. Let’s work on distance education of the type that Indira Gandhi National Open University offers for college degrees, and on community colleges/polytechnics — but the education act in Delhi, he says by way of example, has to clear the norms for distance education in schools!

Will the focus on just strategic intervention work? After all, the nitty-gritty is what makes or mars a scheme. Sibal’s disarming as always, “I’ve just been here a few weeks, yaar!”

First Published: Tue, June 30 2009. 00:43 IST