Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Our Achilles heel 9 September 2007

A friend of mine, who hikes frequently in the Himalayas, showed me a solar torch the other day which gives light for seven hours before you need to recharge it in the sun. It has a hook for hanging and can light up a small room. My friend uses it for camping. But what a boon, I thought, for our 250,000 villages without electricity and the millions of school children who can’t do homework at night and village women who fear walking after dark. I googled the maker of the torch and discovered an inspiring story about how to be both a good and an effective human being.

Mark Bent, an American, worked for 20 years in Africa and saw the waste behind government aid programs. He came home and invented what he calls the BoGo solar torch. BoGo means ‘Buy One, Give One’. When you buy one flashlight for Rs 1000, Mark gives one at half price to NGOs in Africa, who give it to villagers at a nominal price. Mark makes the torches in China to keep costs low. The story is remarkable not because Mark is a ‘do-gooder’ but because he has found an innovative and sustainable way to profit from the rich and benefit the poor. Rich campers bring light to African villagers. I hope some NGO in India will google Mark and begin distributing these torches here.

Now, why couldn’t one of our boys or girls invent and market this lamp? The answer, of course, is our education system which stifles all creativity through rote learning. It was modeled on the British system, but the British have moved on and reformed theirs, partly under American inspiration. But our kids are still stuck in a world of cramming and coaching classes. The disease lies in the lack of autonomy. The ministry of HRD and its children, University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) have a stranglehold. A college cannot decide what courses to teach, what fees to charge and what salaries to pay its professors. How could creativity emerge from this servitude? Creating new universities, as the PM proposes, is not the answer unless you give them autonomy.

Forget creativity, Indian companies are frightened by the shortage of basic skills which is currently driving up salaries unhealthily. Of the 400,000 new engineers that graduate each year, roughly 100,000 have the skills to enter the job market. It is tragic that 420,000 students strive for 6000 IIT and IIM seats annually. The answer, of course, is to increase the supply of good colleges. As it is, we lose 160,000 students to foreign universities and parents pay $3 billion in fees and costs. Indian ‘edupreneurs’ and foreign universities have repeatedly tried to start high quality campuses but the HRD ministry’s ‘license raj’ drives them away. AICTE even wants to close down the prestigious, private Indian School of Business which offers a better education than an IIM. The draft foreign universities bill doesn’t provide autonomy either and ensures that no decent foreign university will enter India.

Our education system is our Achilles heel and we will not spawn Mark Bents until we do a 1991 on HRD and unbind India’s education. Meanwhile, I console myself in knowing that there are individuals like my friend, N.S. Raghavan, who is using part of his Infosys fortune to incubate entrepreneurs at the IIM Bangalore. He will make a difference and modest breakthroughs like Mark Bent’s will contribute more to human happiness than either the massive aid programs of governments or the soul killing mediocrity of our universities.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have brought our very relevant points. We Indians have innovation in our blood, but sadly our higher education system does nothing to bring out this latent goldmine.

But we have hope because senior people like you are addressing and pushing this issue. I thank you for that.

Atul Chauhan
Chancellor, Amity University