Make education part of national infrastructure
by N S Rajaram on 25 Oct 2017 14 Comments

Education, especially college education in India has been an expensive failure. The reason is India followed an elitist model instead of adopting a grassroots approach as the United States did. What is needed is an approach that integrates education with national needs, which India’s elite institutions have so far have failed to do. Education should be seen as part of infrastructure development...


India’s failure in higher education


When India became independent in 1947, educational policy makers opted to plan and build elite institutions like the IITs modelled on the elite institutions in Europe and America, especially the latter. Particular favourites as models were MIT, Stanford and others of world repute. However, the output of India’s IITs, though its students are second to none, has not been world class.


In addition, these have made almost no contribution to meet India’s needs or solve India’s problems. Its best students have used their elite education as a stepping stone to spectacular careers in the West and the banking industry. They have not met India’s needs. There is a clear mismatch between what our educational institutions are producing and what the nation needs. This mismatch is getting wider with the emergence of new technologies like solar power and water recycling.


This cannot be allowed to go on forever. How did this come about? I suggest it was the result of India following the wrong educational path, with a model that ignored what should have been the priorities for India.


The US higher education system is arguably the best the modern world has known, especially in the sciences and technology. So it is natural to attribute American excellence to the highly visible centers of excellence like MITs, Harvard, Stanford and such elite institutions. This is a serious error. There is not enough space in these elite institutions to produce graduates in the numbers required to meet America’s burgeoning needs for qualified workers. To understand America’s continued excellence, one must look elsewhere, to a highly imaginative initiative dating to 1862, the so-called Morrill Act (Land Grant Act) signed into law on July 2, 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln.


Lincoln created a peoples’ education system


The bill was introduced by Vermont Congressman Justin Smith Morrill. It was a major boost to higher education in America. The grant was originally set up to establish institutions in each state that would educate people in agriculture, home economics, mechanical arts, and other professions that were practical at the time. Known as the Land-Grant Act, it envisioned the financing of agricultural and mechanical education. Morrill wanted to ensure that education would be available to all social classes and be relevant to the country’s needs.


In order to achieve this, the US Government under the Morrill Act gave each state 30,000 acres of public land for each Senator and Representative. The land was then to be sold and the money from the sale was to be put in an endowment fund which would provide support for the colleges in each of the states. Though not forbidden from teaching arts and sciences, the emphasis was on teaching a scientific approach to agriculture and mechanics, the basic activities in America at the time. They accounted for America’s infrastructure which was a developing country at the time, as India is today.


The benefits were twofold. This program was available to all those in search of higher education. Talented students could use this education to gain entry to elite institutions. Over the years it has proven to be an important, even the most important component of the American educational system. They are often called State Universities. I studied in one and taught in two such universities in the US from 1872 to 1992.


This proved to be a stroke of genius. It created at one stroke an education system with students (and teachers) drawn from a common pool of people and accessible to everyone. These could be expected to remain close to their roots and to those of their fellow citizens, and hence stay in touch with the needs of people like themselves.


This Act changed the course of higher education in America. Its emphasis moved towards applied studies that would prepare the students for the world that they would face on leaving the classroom. No less significantly, it ensured the education system stayed close to peoples’ needs and interests.


In short, it ensured that education was closely integrated with the nation’s basic infrastructure needs in agriculture and engineering. This laid the foundation also for outstanding technical institutions like MIT, Cornell, Purdue, University of California-Berkeley and many more that all began life as humble Land Grant colleges.


India’s missed chances: status vs national need


India at Independence in 1947 was in a situation quite similar to that of America at the end of the Civil War (1861-65), a developing nation with a growing population. Infrastructural needs were also similar. But led by Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian leaders opted for elite institutions while neglecting grassroots needs. The result is the glaring mismatch between education and national needs that stares us in the face today. It is also at the heart of the crisis in infrastructure, from water to electricity.


What India needed at the time was a vision that saw education as part of a national enterprise that was closely linked to national needs. India at the time sorely lacked leaders with the vision of President Lincoln and Congressman Justin Morrill. Its leaders borrowed models and institutions from the West, without examining their suitability or capacity to meet India’s growing needs. Two examples may be cited.


One, institutions from the Indian Institutes of Technology to Jawaharlal Nehru University et al are highly sought after as status symbols, but are disconnected with Indian tradition and needs. This has led to the creation of an elite not only unfit to lead India, but as Sita Ram Goel and Ram Swarup pointed out, even hostile to Indian values and aspirations. This elite is also abysmally ignorant of science and technology and the role they have to play in meeting the nation’s needs.


Two, adherence to a model for development through centralized planning borrowed from the Soviet Union. While its failure is a matter of record, its institutions like the Planning Commission continue to be influential. As a result, India lost out to the Asian Tigers when opportunities opened up in the semi-conductor industry. This points to an inflexibility bordering on dogmatism.


Nalanda vs Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan


The consequences of pursuing status over national needs even in non-technical areas becomes most clear when we compare the fiasco of the Nalanda University under Amartya Sen with the brilliant achievements of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan under the guidance of Dr. K.M. Munshi.


Munshi and his institution were rooted in the culture and civilisation of India, while it is not clear what exactly Amartya Sen had in mind or even if he had any vision at all, other than adding another feather to his cap. But what credibility he has is rooted in his recognition as a recipient of an award by the National Bank of Sweden, wrongly identified with the Nobel name. Even a true Nobel Prize is no guaranty of wisdom.


Next chance: infrastructure development


Thanks to advances in technology in solar power and related areas, a new opportunity may be opening up for India to address its twin needs of infrastructure development and upgrading its education system. Even here, China has stolen a march over India by becoming the world’s leading producer of solar power equipment, including the all-important solar panels.


One can only hope that the sorry history of losing out to the Asian Tigers in semi-conductors and consumer electronics will not be repeated. But this will depend on the vision, initiative and the leadership of the parties involved. India cannot allow itself to be sabotaged by another blind copier of the West like Nehru or self-promoter like Amartya Sen. There may not be another chance, so let us not squander it.


The Prime Minister is understandably disturbed that not a single Indian university has made it to the top 500 in the world and is willing to give Rs. 10,000 crores to top universities to upgrade their standing.


It would be far better to spend money on educational institutions that introduce programs in emerging branches like solar power engineering and water recycling to meet the nation’s needs. India doesn’t need more elite institutions. It needs institutions that touch the people, especially in rural areas. More Nalandas with more Amartya Sens will not do it. The money will get spent, but the nation will get nothing of value in return.


Let us try the model pioneered by Abraham Lincoln and Congressman Merrill, suited to Indian needs and conditions. The students should, from the beginning, be involved in these infrastructure programs so they graduate with some hands-on experience.


Dr. Navaratna Rajaram began his career as an electrical engineer with the Tata Power Company in Mumbai. After higher studies in the US, he is regarded as a leading expert on solar energy and other renewable resources. He resides in Boston, USA and Bangalore, India, and is an independent researcher and writer on subjects ranging from ancient history to quantum physics 

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