Sunday, June 19, 2005

Let minds fly

Times of India, June 19, 2005

It is with anguish that I sit down to write this column. Two years ago I met a distinguished friend in Delhi, who is the president of a prestigious American university that has produced several Nobel laureates. He loves India and he told me with some pride that India is increasingly perceived as a future knowledge capital of the world. He thought he would contribute to this future by setting up a branch campus here so that Indians could acquire his university’s degree at a fourth of the cost in America. I was delighted. Here’s a chance for a world-class education for our young, I thought.

Two years later I heard this tale of woe. His university’s application to the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) for an equivalence certificate went unanswered despite three reminders. Their meeting with the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) resulted in the demand for a huge bribe. Their efforts with the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry entangled them in miles of red tape. After knocking about like this for a year they concluded that their only hope was to go to Chattisgarh, which allowed private universities. Just as they were about to acquire 25 acres of land and make the Rs 2 crore mandatory deposit came the infamous Supreme Court ban on Chattisgarh universities.

“Infamous”, I say, because the court judgment did not distinguish between good and bad private universities in Chattisgarh. All of them were asked to go and take UGC’s approval. But if UGC had been willing to give approval in the first place, why would they have gone to god forsaken Chattisgarh? And wait--hasn’t UGC, in fact, killed off higher education? Only two dozen out of its 200 plus universities offer reasonable teaching and most of these existed prior to the birth of UGC. For fifty years it has promoted rote learning, incompetent faculty, and mediocrity. It has punished original thinking and failed to create an employable graduate. Hence, students have been pushed into a parallel universe of coaching classes, which ironically take their obligation to students far more seriously. The eminent Prof Yashpal, the former UGC chairman and the mover of the Public Interest Litigation should look himself in the mirror. If he is an honest man, he will confess that UGC has betrayed our trust.

Along with his letter my friend has attached draconian new AICTE guidelines for private universities, which he says “will decide our fees, student intake, and even the size of our buildings, and prosecute us like criminals for non-compliance. Even if we get their approval, it’s only for a year, and meanwhile the courts could overturn things as they have done in Manipal’s case”. Sadly, he concludes that India is a hopeless cause and he has decided to set up a campus in China. After reading his letter I felt like weeping.

Who could be against enlightened regulation of private higher education? We all wish for a body that ensures standards. But if this is how we regulate—with corruption and red tape—isn’t it better to give universities autonomy and leave it to parents and students? A private education costs less than a car, and we don’t protect car customers via AICTE or UGC. Rather than fall into the trap of case-by-case approvals, good regulators everywhere provide lots of information–such as our magazines, who now rate colleges by polling students and faculty. These ratings are not precise but they help students make an informed choice. A free society must offer autonomy to its universities--only then will minds be able to fly.

Monday, June 06, 2005

A flat world?

Times of India, June 5, 2005

“When I was growing up, my parents told me, ‘Finish your dinner. People in China and India are starving. I now tell my daughters, ‘Finish your homework. People in India and China are starving for your job.’” Tom Friedman, the influential columnist of the New York Times recounts this in his new book, The World is Flat: a Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. He argues that technology and market reforms are fast flattening the playing field in the global economy, where India and China have emerged as early winners. If things keep going like this, we may soon realise Adam Smith’s dream of a world in which standards of living will converge.

This is Friedman’s flat, democratic, connected world. Without a trace of irony Friedman compares himself to Christopher Columbus, who set sail in 1492 for the riches of India, but found America instead; yet he declared that the world was round. 512 years later, Friedman flies east to Bangalore once again seeking India’s wealth, but discovers that the world is flat. By "flat" he means "level," as in the level playing field on which virtually any nation can now compete, thanks to the explosion of global telecommunications, especially the Internet, which is levelling all kinds of hierarchies. The riches he finds is India’s brainpower–rapidly taking away the West’s jobs.

From the Indian perspective this is indeed an age of unprecedented opportunity. Never before could a young Indian with ambition and smarts rise to the top regardless of where he or she started. Not even the babu can stop him now. Eight of our top ten companies today are run by persons who did not inherit wealth and half of these came from humble backgrounds, not unlike some of our cricketers. Make no mistake, however--India’s rising prosperity is due to the liberal global order. It is General Electric, for example, that invented the outsourcing of white-collar jobs to India. Instead of reviling multinationals, we ought to do what the Chinese do--take full advantage of them.

Ironically, it was Marx who first predicted that the inexorable march of technology and capital would dissolve all feudal, religious, and national barriers. Now that it is happening, it is the West that is complaining. Anxiety about globalisation is the reason behind the negative French vote last week. The French want to protect their 35 hour week when Indian and Chinese workers are willing to work 35 hours a day. Having preached globalisation to the world, Westerners find that they prefer the unequal, unflat world after all. They will now have to earn the high salaries to which they are addicted. They are suffering from the withdrawal symptoms of an undue sense of entitlement.

Global competitive markets are helping to flatten urban India but what about our hierarchical villages? Thanks to Lalu and Mayawati, our backward castes certainly have more confidence and higher social esteem. But I don’t think village India will flatten until it gets better schools, health clinics, and every child gets a chance. Nor is it a problem of money either. The dirty truth is that government teachers, doctors, and nurses in villages don’t perform and we don’t sack them. Our state has failed utterly to deliver services to the village. Prof Nirvikar Singh’s fieldwork shows that even a single Internet kiosk in a village can lower transaction costs, provide education and health, and raise the village’s productivity. Perhaps that is the straw we ought to clutch. In the end, the Chinese can depend on their state, but we will always have to depend on ourselves to flatten India.