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T Thomas: Role of elite institutions

T Thomas  |  New Delhi 

India should create six elite schools and six elite universities in the next five years.
Today it is difficult to believe that barely 30 years ago India was a country ruled by governments that believed in licences and permits and saw their own mission as levelling down people and organisations to satisfy their quest for the Socialist utopia where everyone had to be nearly equal. Generations of Indians were brought up to believe in this philosophy. It was almost cynically advocated and propagated by politicians who believed rightly that it would appeal to the masses who were poor. The Socialists' fervour increased further and they stipulated that in order to ensure greater parity between the rich and the poor, the State had to own or at least be able to direct and command key resources and organisations in the country. That was the rationale for the existence of public sector undertakings and the industrial licensing constraints imposed on private sector companies--Indian and foreign. Fortunately for us the world, including the erstwhile Socialist countries like the USSR, has moved on and so has India. Today all countries are vying with each other to attract private investment. Companies are competing to attract the best available talent. Among them companies like Hindustan Lever (now Hindustan Unilever) and Infosys belong to the select class of elite organisations which young people aspire to belong to. A corresponding change in attitude towards educational institutions (schools, colleges and universities) has also taken place in India. Among schools, St. Columba in Delhi and Cathedral in Mumbai and among colleges St. Stephen's College in Delhi are examples of educational institutions that are perceived to be elitist.
In the UK, Eton and Harrow are considered to be elitist among schools. It is said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow. Among universities, Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, and Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US belong to the elite category. They set the standards and attract the best students and faculty. They also do some of the world's best R&D and win the largest number of Nobel Prizes. We in India need more of such standard-setting elite educational institutions. But while doing so we have also to ensure that access to them is available not only to the affluent but also to the less affluent sections of society. This can be achieved by (a) using merit as the main criterion for admission and (b) having scholarships based on merit cum means.
An imaginative Prime Minister like can possibly use his own advocacy and credibility to persuade, say six Indian states to build up one elite Institution in each of these states. The should then be given a timebound target to work with the select state governments to make sure that the scheme is implemented. We may soon find states vying with each other to avail themselves of this opportunity. If India can create six elite schools and six elite universities in the next five years it can snowball into a movement that will wake up even the most backward among the states to take action to spread this race of excellence.
Originally education was closely tied to religion both in Europe and in India. The Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard were all originally set up as extension of the Christian Church. In India the priestly class was the self-appointed custodian of knowledge. Because of its association with religion, education also became part of the charitable side of religion. But things have changed dramatically in the last century. This has happened mainly due to the initiative taken by religious groups and individuals initially in the US and later in the UK and other countries of Europe.
Education is no more a charitable activity. It can be a business activity with adequate return on capital, as I can vouch from experience. It does not have to depend on exorbitant fees or measly salaries to the staff. The demand for education is so dynamic that an educational institution can charge a viable level of fees that will not only give attractive return on capital but also enable the school to set aside resources for modernisation and expansion, which will have to follow inevitably. The market opportunities for such schools are enormous in India. Therefore, one can reasonably expect more business houses to enter this business. All they will need from government is that it should play the role of a monitor and guide only, and not that of a controller.
One of the sights common in almost all towns and cities in India early morning is a procession of boys and girls with heavy back-packs of books marching off or being bused to school and the corresponding reverse procession in the evening as they head for home. Every day it delights me to see this. For in these processions lies the future of India""our march ahead.

First Published: Fri, June 22 2007. 00:00 IST