Make In India: Why affordable education is a must
- June 10, 2022
- Posted by: Prof. Mayank Vahia
- Category: Uncategorized
Making education expensive by reducing funding, letting private players exploit it for financial gains and ideologues hijack it to find cheap cannon fodder would be disaster.
“The Stone Age did not end because humans ran out of stones. It ended because it was time for a re-think about how we live.” – William McDonough
“Someday you may tax it” – Michael Faraday’s response to William Gladstone when asked to comment on the utility of his blue-sky research into the newly discovered phenomenon of electricity.
“.. this new knowledge has all to do with honour and country, but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.” RR Wilson in response to a query as to why USA should spend money on pure science.
The above three quotes make an interesting case study about the need for pure science in the development of a society. While a Nobel Prize may add to prestige etc. a lot of research is more fundamental in nature providing an incremental improvement in society. Most of it is a result of a faceless scientist in a laboratory because the final step that produced the technology was based on a lot of earlier work and hence it is difficult to credit a single individual. Typically, controversies that surround the awarding of a Nobel Prize highlight this issue with great precision.
So what is the role of blue sky research and society? One can, in principle, import technology, train engineers to run it and become a great power. China, Korea and even Japan are classical examples of economies based on ‘reverse engineering’ where a technology is purchased, cheaper alternatives of mass production are found and the same technology is made available at a lower cost to the world. One can survive and even flourish on this.
But is this a good long term solution for a nation? For one thing, it makes the nation permanently dependant on reverse engineering, cost control and quality control. This is fine to quickly set up shop in the international market place but such economies will remain a small time merchant who give 10% discount on small purchases – no great creativity can be expected from them.
Great nations need to think for themselves and find solutions for themselves. Great nations look for a place at the great table of ideas and debates that will chalk out new paths for human development and organisation of human societies. Such nations are not traders in small marketplaces of cheap products. However, it is also true that a pompous nation, with no capability to look after its own people, will never find a place in the international tables that debate ideas and future. A delicate balance has to be found.
So each country must find its own place by judging its capabilities and the quality of what it has achieved. No matter how hard it tries, the model of social organisation pursued by North Korea will never find a place on this table and no matter what you may think of a historically young United States of America, you are not going to dislodge them from the table because of its ability to generate ideas remains unparalleled. India has ambitions to be a permanent member of this table and every prime minister from Nehru onwards has harboured an ambition of laying claims of taking India to this table.
But the road to that table is not laid by one person or a small group. It is a path that requires consent and acceptance by the international community at large. And such groups are filled with inertia, a certain amount of xenophobia and a desire for status quo and one has to make a very strong case to get on the table. To find a place on this table, society needs to make a case, and make it repeatedly over generations to find acceptability. Some nations have adopted the alternative approach of building up a huge armament industry and standing army that can be tangible threat to others. But this comes at the cost of the wellbeing of its own people. In this case also, you can attract the attention of other nations to yourself. Such threats don’t go very far and the world will always find ways of neutralising such threats. But that is a separate issue.
Others have used their large wealth to win friends in the world with little to show for it. What is respected is a cultured nation, interacting with them is an enriching experience. Only such nations that provide nations with humane ideas and ideologies eventually find unconditional acceptance and friendship with nations. Many countries have put up statue of Gandhi but Mao’s statues have only been pulled down.
It’s not that the leaders of India have been unaware of this point and fact. Since independence, India’s focus has been to lay ground for technological advancement supported by indigenous work on new ideas and new sciences. To ensure this and help the middle class reach its goal of prosperity, the Indian education system has been run on massive subsidies for affordable education and state sponsored research in all aspects of human learning from science and technology to arts and literature. The idea is to create a large base of men and women who would be the fountainhead of ideas and creativity which the world would recognise, even as it helps in creating wealth and alleviating poverty.
Has this worked? The answer will vary depending on where you stand and what you are looking at. Our healthcare does not compare with Cuba’s and our child mortality rate is higher than in Sri Lanka with much lower per capita income. On the other hand, we run the most reliable and cost effective space programme and there is no technology which we cannot fully master in a reasonable amount of time. In the great world of ideas, India has not done badly and is seriously knocking at the door of the UN Security Council, viewed by many as the ultimate badge of honour on having arrived at the great table of debate. But many a nation has achieved great acceptability even without being on this table, due to their intrinsically noble cultures and great creativity.
However, to stay where we are and to go where we want to, unbiased and continuing support to education, especially higher education and research is a must. It allows people with modest means to dream big and to achieve the necessary education to break out of the forces that bind them at their birth. They then also need support to become entrepreneurs that will seed the future. So unbridled and unconditional support, not driven by any ideology is essential. Let those who wish to drive people to their own ideology ask for recognition from the educated and not misguide the uneducated or impressionable minds. The idea is to reduce the number of uneducated to such a small level that no one should be able to find people who can be blindly led down the alley of ignorance. For this secular, affordable education is a must.
To make the nation self-reliant and capable of creating ideas and technologies, research in the widest sense of the word needs to be supported and encouraged. For you never know which next idea will be a game changer. A nation of reverse engineers will not have the necessary technological flexibility to manage this. It also needs intellectual freedom and a backing from the nation to pursue it.
Whatever the government and whatever its short and long term objective, it would do well to remember that affordable education and a well-funded research environment where ideas can breathe free is central to this great ambition of the nation. This is a delicate and easy to break system as debating and argumentation is at its core and to choke this freedom is very easy. But such actions will leave behind a damage that can be severe and difficult to recover from. If short term economic considerations choke this line, even for a short time, the damage it does to its core will be long lasting. Any government would do well to keep this in mind. The government will find some rogues taking undue advantage of academics to run free with their ideas, but the cost of attempting to remove these rogues should not be so great that you throw out the baby with the bath tub. To make education and research commit to an ideology, however lofty, is to undermine the very root of learning and education. It is a sure way of getting yourself thrown out of the great table of debate of ideas on human societies. No right thinking Indian would want this.
Import, improve (or make cheaper) and sell is not what great nations do. They add ideas and invention to the world. This can only be done with well nurtured high quality education that is affordable to all. Ideas are not the prerogative of the rich. They come from all directions.
Making education expensive by reducing funding, letting private players exploit it for financial gains and ideologues hijack it to find cheap cannon fodder would be disaster. To suffocate intellectual freedom, however unpalatable, is to strike at the root of creativity. To cut support for education and research is to cut the very branch on which the nation’s long term well-being lies. It can only bring the nation to grief. The powers that be, would do well to understand this.
*Originally published in DNA on 30 March 2015