Politicians in education: cost-benefits

EducationWorld March 09 | EducationWorld

In the over-regulated education sector, politicians with clout, connections and insider knowledge, can cut through red tape and quickly expand capacity. But political wheeling and dealing habits die hard with scandals and allegations of corruption surfacing with tedious regularity. Vidya Pandit reports from Lucknow • August, 2005. Mulayam Singh Yadav, the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, sanctioned a government grant of Rs.103.44 crore to the Choudhary Charan Singh Post Graduate College (CCSPGC), sited in his parliamentary constituency of Etawah and managed by the Siksha Prasar Samiti, headed by his brother Shivpal Singh Yadav. Shortly thereafter, the chief minister diverted Rs.69 crore from the UP state govern-ments total budget of Rs.71 crore for unaided degree colleges, to CCSPGC
• February, 2007. The management of the NDMVPS Medical College, Nasik, promoted by Nationalist Congress Party MLA Vasantrao Pawar, provoked an outrage by doubling annual tuition fees from Rs.97,000 to Rs.180,000 without any notice to enrolled or applicant students.
• May 2008: P.K. Misra, UP chief secretary, resigned after being forced by chief minister Mayawati to transfer 74 acres of land to the Dr. Shakuntala Mishra Seva Sansthan Trust. The objective of the trust constituted by her trusted ally Satish Misra (a Rajya Sabha MP and Bahujan Samaj Party general secretary), was to promote a university for the disabled, for which it had received a grant of Rs.51 lakh. When Misras resignation precipitated a media outcry, Mayawati announced that the university will be constructed by the state government.
• November 2008. The higher education department of Maharashtra imposed fines totaling Rs.3 crore on 45 engineering colleges for admitting students in excess of sanctioned capacity. Most of the erring colleges are run by politicians. For example, three engineering colleges owned by MLA Satish Patil were fined Rs.11.46 lakh, while another run by the states textile minister Satish Chaturvedi was penalised Rs.17 lakh.
These are a few randomly chosen examples of prominent politicians involved with education being indicted on charges of corruption. Though exact numbers are unavailable, according to industry observers the recession-proof education sector and in particular professional education, is a perennial investment favourite of politicians of all ideologies, with a sizeable number of them actively engaged in running education institutions in Indias 28 states and seven Union territories. Some of the big names include G. Viswan-athan, AIADMK MLA (promoter-director of Vellore Institute of Technology); Chhagan Bhujbal, deputy chief minister of Maharashtra (MET League of Colleges in Mumbai and Bhujbal Knowledge City in Nashik); D.Y. Patil, former member of the Maharashtra legislative assembly (DY Patil Deemed University, Pune); Manohar Joshi, former chief minister of Maharashtra (Kohinoor Technical Institutes in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka) and Akhilesh Das Gupta, Samajwadi Party MP (Babu Banarasi Das Group of Educational Institutions, Lucknow). (see box).
In the heavily over-regulated education sector, to which the licence-permit-quota regimen has migrated post 1991, politicians with clout, connections and insider knowledge, can quickly cut through red tape to create and expand capacity in school as well as tertiary education. But as indicated in the above examples, political wheeling and dealing habits die hard, and scandals and allegations of corruption surface with tedious regularity.
In India, ties between politicians and education go back a long time, and without the opprobrious connotations they have acquired of late. Some of our most revered educational institutions were promoted and nurtured by politicians. Among them: Benares Hindu University (estb.1916), founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, president of the Indian National Congress, and the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College (estb.1875, now Aligarh Muslim University), promoted by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of the Muhammadan Association. Another Congress president and Indias first education minister Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad was the greatest patron and co-founder of the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi (estb. 1920). Indeed during the freedom struggle, the centerpiece of Mahatma Gandhis Disobedience Movement was a call for boycott of British government owned and aided schools and colleges. The Mahatma urged Indians and Congress party members in particular to promote national education institutions.
However in post-independence India, this socially beneficial politician-education association has suffered with the gradual degeneration of politics, now characterised by nepotism, defection, horse-trading and backstabbing. The public image of modern day netas as self-serving, corrupt, and incompetent individuals who practice the politics of mammon as against public service, has adversely impacted education institutions theyve promoted, with most of them accused of importing the worst practices of Indian politics into education.
Akhilesh Chaube, dean of the faculty of education at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Lucknow University, believes that contemporary politicians venturing into education have done more harm than good. In the pre-independence era, politicians genuinely believed they were servants of the people. Their objective was to build a just and prosperous society and their idealism penetrated into their education institutions. Unfortunately latter day politicians promote education institutions with the sole purpose of raking in money. And since most of them are corrupt, and have built their careers by fomenting caste and religious divides, these worst practices permeate into their education institutions, laments Chaube.
A common grievance about politicians in education is that first they enact complex legislation investing massive discretionary power in the bureaucracy, and then use their influence to get discretion exercised in their favour to operationalise education institutions promoted by them urgently. Thus promotion of K-12 schools or colleges needs negotiating a maze of rules and regulations, which discourages the uninitiated, while politicians applications for starting new institutions are approved smoothly. The formidable entry barriers of the regulatory system (in addition to the University Grants Commission there are 13 national professional councils, and directorates of technical education/ departments of school/higher education in each state of the Indian Union), opaque grants systems and accreditation processes, have contributed to the growing involvement of politicians in Indian education, while dissuading ordinary citizens from attempting to promote education institutions.
Says Umesh Chandra Vashistha, head of the faculty of education at Lucknow University: The politician-bureaucrat nexus in education is an open secret. The rules for granting affiliation are only on paper and are freely violated in the absence of strict penalties. Affiliation and recognition is only for adminis-trative purposes, with little concern for academic excellence. Organisations such as the Delhi-based All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and National Council for Teachers Education (NCTE) are invested with wide discretionary powers. Hence politicians with clout and money can easily promote educational institutions.
Indeed the AICTE has come under flak for granting quick affiliations — particularly to politicians — without paying much attention to its own guidelines relating to infrastructure and faculty. Likewise NCTE, the apex body for approving teacher training colleges, has been severely criticised for clearing sub-standard teachers training institutes countrywide, particularly in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. According to usually reliable sources an estimated 60 percent of teacher training colleges in these two states are owned and/or promoted by politicians.
Comments K. Rahman Khan, member of Parliament (Congress) from Karnataka, deputy chairman Rajya Sabha, and founder of the K.K. Education and Charitable trust (estb.2000), which currently runs three schools (Delhi Public School franchisees) and four colleges in Bangalore (K.K. College of Education, two pre-university colleges and one first grade college): Its natural for politicians to venture into education to fulfill the national goal of providing quality education to all children and youth of India. A politician is far better acquainted with education deprivation problems confronting people at the grassroots level. Its his duty to fulfill peoples aspirations to the extent possible. Every parent in India wants good education for her children and by getting involved in education, politicians are helping to expand capacity in this under-served sector. People who refuse to take the risk to promote education institutions complain we are doing so for commercial purposes.
Therefore, while its undoubtedly true that the great majority of politicians have transferred the worst practices of Indian politics — bribery, corruption and nepotism — into institutions of higher education promoted by them, its also undeniable that through quick project execution they have created and expanded capacity, especially in professional education. With successive governments at the Centre redrawing their priorities in favour of primary education, government spending on higher education has been steadily falling during the past two decades. According to an Ernst & Young-EDGE 2008 study titled ‘Globalising Higher Education in India, government (Centre plus states) spending on higher education in India aggregates a mere 0.37 percent of GDP, less than of global laggards such as Brazil, Russia and China which spend 0.91, 0.67 and 0.50 percent respectively. Moreover the gross tertiary enrollment ratio in India is a pathetic 11 percent (against an average of 71.6 percent in the developed world and 31.5 percent in China).
Not only is government attention to higher education declining, per capita spending too, is falling. According to a report of the CABE Committee on Financing of Higher and Technical Education (June 2005), government per student allocation declined from Rs.7,676 per month in 1990-91 to Rs.5,500 in 2002-03, a shocking 28 percent fall over a decade.
Against this backdrop of declining government spending in higher education, private investment and initiatives to expand capacity in higher education, even from Indias most maligned and criticised tribe — politicians — have proved very useful. The capital-intensive professional higher education sector has particularly benefited from the entry of politicians, known for their deep pockets and fund-raising capability. Across the country most engineering, business, pharmacy and medical colleges are owned and/or managed by politicians. In the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which together boast 807 engineering and 50 medical colleges, its estimated that over 30 percent are owned and/or managed by politicians.
Indeed the southern coastal state of Tamil Nadu (pop. 62 million) provides a case study on the beneficial impact of intervention of politicians in professional education. In 1984, the then incumbent AIADMK chief minister, M.G. Ramachandran issued a government order permitting promotion of self-financing engine-ering/medical colleges in the state. Shortly thereafter, AIADMK party associates G. Viswanathan and S. Jagathrakshagan promoted the states first two self-financing engineering colleges while another party member N.P.V. Ramaswamy Udayar, promoted a private medical college. In 1987, other AIADMK party heavyweights including Dr. Jeppiar, chancellor of Sathyabhama University and A.C. Shanmugam, chancellor of Dr. MGR Educational and Research Institute, founded engineering colleges. Their example was followed by R.S. Munirathinam, A.M. Velu, E.V. Perumalsamy, M. Thambi Durai, K.V. Thangabalu and R. Sekar (all AIADMK party members). Today of the 354 engineering and 17  medical colleges in Tamil Nadu, politicians directly control around 50 of them.
Most of these colleges in the state enjoy good reputations for offering state-of-the-art infrastructure, highly trained faculty and contemporary pedagogies. A case in point is the Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), established in 1984 by G. Viswanathan (an incumbent member of the Tamil Nadu state legislative assembly), which has a nationwide reputation for providing globally respected engineering and technical education. VIT, which was conferred deemed university status in 2001, boasts 14,000 students on its rolls, employs 800 highly qualified faculty, has signed 70 agreements with offshore educational institutions for faculty and student exchanges, and offers study programmes accredited by several national and international agencies.
Likewise in Maharashtra, politician-educationists are substantially responsible for transforming the state into a hub of high-quality professional education. Of the 475 engineering/medical/business colleges in the state, an estimated 200 are promoted/owned by politicos. Recently (November 2007) Chhagan Bhujbal, incumbent deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, inaugurated the state-of-the-art Bhujbal Knowledge City spread over 34 acres in Nashik, boasting management, pharmacy, and engineering institutions, as well as a polytechnic and distance learning institute. Bhujbals Mumbai Educational Trust (MET, estb.1989) also manages 12 MET league colleges in Mumbai, offering management, pharmacy, medical sciences, information technology and computer science programmes to over 25,000 students.
Comments Salman Khurshid, the Delhi-based former Union minister of state for external affairs (1991-96) and former chief of the Uttar Pradesh Congress party, who until recently was president of the highly reputed Delhi Public Schools Society which has 130 franchisee schools countrywide: Politicians who have or are venturing into education must be admired rather than reviled for their contributions to society, and for using their resources and power for the spread of education. But in all walks of life and vocations there are good and bad people. In a narrow sense, politicians harm education by cutting corners and using their clout to get government approvals. But theres no denying they build capacity by venturing into education. I believe one of the greatest failures of the national development effort has been government under-funding and under-financing of education. Its a national tragedy that educationists and intellectuals who should be running institutions cant promote them, and it is left to people such as builders, businessmen and politicians. There is no doubt that education, particularly higher education, has been stymied by shortsighted government policies. Against this backdrop, politicians entering education have done society a big favour.
An alumnus of St. Stephens College, Delhi and Oxford University (UK), Khurshid is a good example of the positive contribution that principled politicians can make in education. Last September (2008), Khurshid was removed from the presidency and expelled from membership of the DPS Society (estb. 1949) after he questioned the propriety of the society charging 119 DPS schools exorbitant franchise renewal fees while being denied membership of the society. According to Khurshid, the DPS Society has been collecting Rs.5 lakh annually by way of franchise renewal fees. Now they want to increase the fee to Rs.25 lakh. I spoke up against this proposal and advised the managements of the franchisee schools to demand full membership of the society. This resulted in my expulsion from the DPS Society which is being challenged in court, says Khurshid.
Even if not as promoters of education institutions, as in Khurshids case, politicians loom large over education trusts/ policy making bodies in India. Most educational policy formulation committees appointed by the Central and state governments are headed by politicians. Moreover the governor (a political appointee) is the chancellor of all government run universities in the states, and state governments have the power to nominate members on government-funded university senate committees. Recently, academics in Karnataka were up in arms against the state government appointing six people with questionable antecedents to the Bangalore University syndicate, a powerful body which makes decisions relating to land acquisition, admissions, recruitment, and affiliation. After a long-drawn out battle with the universitys vice-chancellor, the state government relented by dropping three of its nominees.
Such die-hard determination of state politicians to appoint handpicked nominees to university syndicates is commonplace in other states as well. In Uttar Pradesh, the case of a minister shamelessly proposing to appoint himself vice-chancellor ad infinitum of a state-funded university provoked considerable public outrage. In early 2000, six-time MLA from the Samajwadi Party and then parliamentary affairs minister Mohammed Azam Khan tried to push through a Bill in the state legislative assembly for setting up a Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar University in Rampur, with the clause that he be appointed vice-chancellor for life. This brazenly self-serving proposal precipitated a confrontation with the states governor who struck down the Bill, and publicly shamed the state government, which withdrew the proposal to establish this university.
Supriya Sule, the 39-year-old Rajya Sabha MP, and daughter of Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, believes that politicians involved in education need to make special efforts to be above suspicion. When politicians are involved with education projects, peoples expectations are higher. Education is a noble cause; therefore politicians must not use it to further their vested interests. Speaking for myself I can say confidently that this is what we do in our Pawar Public Charitable Trust. As a politician I have quicker access to information than other educationists. But theres an obligation that I dont misuse it. The real issue before us is to provide quality education. Who provides it should not matter, says Sule, managing trustee of the ICSE affiliated Pawar Public Schools in Mumbai and Pune, Adivasi Ashramshala, Talasari, Thane and trustee of seven other schools offering education to tribal children in the interior districts of Maharashtra.
Uttar Pradeshs senior leader of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and former higher education minister Om Prakash Singh, concurs that the involvement of politicians in education is a double- edged sword. Politicians can raise standards of education because of their political and social contacts, but they can also do great harm. The real danger arises when an education institution is run for the sole purpose of making money, says Singh. The MLA from Chunar in Mirzapur (UP), who has promoted three postgraduate colleges in his constituency, has made a conscious decision not to hold any executive or non-executive position on the managing committees of any of the colleges. As a matter of principle I dont entertain any applications for admission. If I do it for one student, I have to do it for everyone with the result that the reputation of these painstakingly developed institutions will suffer, he reasons.
But Singh is obviously in a minority in a state where political involvement in education has spawned a new breed of politico-educationists for whom education is a high-returns business. For instance, of the 16,000 secondary schools in Uttar Pradesh, only 550 are run by the government while 4,500 receive government aid. Many on the government aided and unaided list of schools are run by politicians. This may be in the form of a politician directly running a school, or bulldozing his way into the management committee. Similarly the scheme to establish schools in unserved blocks (development blocks without a school within one kilometer radius) has been used to dole out favours to party workers by granting them quick licences.
Sarvendra Vikram Singh, additional director, secondary education, UP, says that financial considerations apart, there are several valuable non-monetary pay-offs. Owning or managing a school or college also confers social respecta-bility and power. This matters during elections. Not only do school buildings double as polling booths, school staff and teachers are deployed to canvass for promoter-politicians. Invariably, when a politician comes to me for help to promote a school, he is uninterested in rules and procedures. ‘Tell me how it can be done and if you cant do it, tell me who can is the usual refrain. Their intentions are mala fide from the very start, says Vikram Singh.
Yet although its true that politicians countrywide tend to have the insiders advantage in getting project clearances and can flout rules and cut corners, they cant bulldoze students into enrolling with sub-standard instit-utions. Students countrywide are becoming increasingly well-informed and tend to apply to institutions with requisite academic infrastructure, high-quality faculty, contemporary curriculums, and sound reputation, shunning schools and colleges deficient in these attributes. For instance last year almost one third of the 7,000 engineering seats offered by private institutions in Uttar Pradesh remained unfilled, as students who qualified in the states common engineering test refused to enroll in colleges with questionable academic credentials.
In higher education, quality is all that matters. The colleges promoted by politicians in Uttar Pradesh are far behind those started by their counterparts in the southern states when it comes to offering good infrastructure and qualified faculty. The result is that there are enough takers for seats in most southern colleges. There is no money to be made without delivering quality education as students cant be gulled into enrolling in substandard institutes, says Jagdambika Pal, former chief of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh who has promoted eight schools in two districts (Basti and Siddharthnagar) of the states eastern belt, in addition to three colleges (pharmacy, engineering and management) with an aggregate enrollment of 1,420 students in Lucknow.
With increased student and parent awareness and an ever vigilant print and television media on the prowl, its hard for politicians actively involved in education to get away with dumbed down academic standards and/or brazenly furthering their vested interests. Nevertheless there is an urgent need for greater accountability, local community involvement, and citizen activism to ensure politicians and education entrepreneurs deliver a combination of quality education and market-related skills. Moreover the public needs to support liberalisation and deregulation of the education sector, to ease the stranglehold of politicians on education and stimulate competition.
In the final analysis, theres no wishing away politicians from education. Given its nation-building potential, the under-serviced education sector needs all the help it can get. Although there is much head-shaking about the incremental involvement of the countrys infamous politicians in education, theres no denying that they have addressed the supply side of the rising demand for secondary and collegiate education. The public interest demands that they are equally regulated within the system, rather than prevented from entering it.
With Autar Nehru (Delhi); Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai); Harshikaa Udasi (Mumbai) & Debolina Sengupta (Bangalore)

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