“Top priority needs to be given to education & skill development”: Dr. Shashi Tharoor

EducationWorld February 2021 | Interview

Dr. Shashi TharoorDr. Shashi Tharoor is Member of Parliament and former Minister of State for Education in the Congress-led UPA-II government at the Centre. Also a skilled debater and spokesperson of the Congress Party, Dr. Tharoor is a prolific, multiple awards winning author having written over 20 bestseller mainly non-fiction books. Excerpts from an interview with Dilip Thakore (See full video interview here: EW Interview: Dr. Shashi Tharoor)

Although you had a short stint as a junior minister in the HRD ministry of the UPA-II government, you are the Union education minister the country needs, but never got. What would be your major education reforms, if this wish is fulfilled?

Obviously, the list of answers would be so long that we would take up the entire discussion answering just this one question. So let me try and give you a few headlines. It’s been a matter of great frustration for me that we have not been able to make the progress we need starting with basic universal literacy, which, as you know, is climbing towards 80 percent for men, but is still in the high 60 percent for women. We need to go all the way in improving literacy through primary, high school, college education to strengthen our gross enrolment ratios. At all these levels, we are below the world average. This is very disappointing.

I think I tend to agree with Nehruji’s decision that in a time of scarce resources, he could focus on only one sector in the education arena. And he chose to invest in high quality higher education institutions. But the problem with that is they became islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. We have to do much more to liberate them by giving them greater autonomy. Our higher education system is over-regulated but under-governed. I believe there’s a great deal we can learn from the successful systems of countries like the US, which is a paradigm for excellence in higher education.

Moving down to high school, we have an extraordinary high percentage of dropouts especially of girl children from class VIII onwards, in fact class VI onwards for banal reasons such as the lack of decent usable toilets. For girls, toilets are very important, once they reach the age of menstruation. These infrastructural deficiencies have to be remedied. But equally, the quality of education has to be improved so that families consider it useful to retain their kids in school rather than pull them out.

This apart, we also need to ensure that learning outcomes are given greater importance. At the moment, we are putting more children in schools. But the problem is they’re not learning much. Too many studies have established that the vast majority of our class V children cannot read textbooks and manage class II maths. This untenable situation needs to be urgently remedied.

In this connection, very interesting pedagogical research is being done by Prof. Karthik Muralidharan in the University of California, San Diego. Following groundbreaking research, he has advanced the unconventional suggestion that primary schooling would be greatly improved by the appointment of teaching assistants to prowl through classes while teachers are teaching, to ascertain children who need help and immediate remedial education. There’s also a lot of interesting work being done by other scholars, and we ought to pay attention to it.

Way back in 1967, the Kothari Commission recommended that we spend 6 percent of our GDP on education. But it hasn’t happened for the past 70 years. How do you explain this?

The 6 percent recommendation was perhaps a bit of a fantasy because it was propounded by Dr. Kothari at a time when education expenditure was well below 2 percent of GDP. Since then, it has risen to 3-3.50 percent. But the problem is that governments have always had too many urgent and conflicting demands on the same pot of money, to be able to allocate more for education. It’s also true that our GDP has grown exponentially since that target was enunciated. What we are spending today is certainly much more than 6 percent of the GDP in 1960-80.

But I’m sure you’re aware that the Western countries which have much larger GDP than ours, are spending 6-7 percent of their GDP…

That’s not necessarily constructive expenditure. If you look at what it costs to get a college degree in America, it’s way too expensive and costs that much to sustain the massive endowments of American universities.

What concerns me as a policymaker is that Indian parents are spending $5 billion per year for their children’s education in foreign universities. Therefore, we need to urgently establish world-class universities in India. There was a time when many foreign universities were looking for opportunities to establish campuses in India. But our very restrictive laws prevented that and no government at that point had the clout or determination to pass the required laws.

During my brief stint in the HRD ministry, we tried to enact some laws that could have made it possible. But vested interests in the political class sabotaged this initiative. So what I want to stress is that policy changes need a buy-in from the political establishment, prioritisation by government. The finance minister has to agree that 6 percent for education is more important than her other spending priorities.

As a historian and political analyst of repute, to what extent do you agree with the statement that education, aka human capital development, has been severely neglected in post-independence India?

That there are more children in India who have not seen the inside of a school than the entire number of children on the planet, is shameful. The fact that in a country with so many young people of potentially college going age, the gross enrolment ratio is still only 23 percent for university whereas the world average is 30 and in the developed countries 60 percent, suggests that there has been great neglect. But you should remember the British left us with barely 16 percent literacy, and only 3,000 colleges in the entire country. Look at where we were, and look how far we’ve come.

Nevertheless something more could have been done — differently, better and faster. For example, Sri Lanka was left in much the same mess as we were, but they reached full literacy while we are still 20-30 percent short. Therefore, prioritisation is important as are resources.

Moreover, our federal structure has complicated matters because school education is by and large, a state subject, whereas higher education is seen as the domain of the Central government, and resources are mainly with the Central government. State government universities are in a very sorry condition.

Do you believe that if human capital development — especially public primary-secondary education — had been given high importance during the past 70 years, the India growth story, in terms of economic development, would have been much better?

There’s absolutely no question about that. No country has become an economic success without first developing their human capital after which economic growth followed. Therefore, top priority has to be given to literacy, education and skill development. Yes, if we had done that, our economic growth would certainly have been more rapid.
How satisfied are you with the academia-industry engagement?

Not at all satisfied. When I was briefly a minister in the HRD ministry, we asked Mr. Narayana Murthy to do a report on this, and he wrote a good report on how to intensify the academia-industry engagement. Sadly, that report has been gathering dust under our successor government. In the US, for example, if a company has an idea to develop a particular product but doesn’t have the skill, researchers, engineers to develop it, they instinctively go to a university, provide seed capital and ask their postgrad students to conduct research and come up with viable products. This happens routinely in Silicon Valley. It almost never happens in India.

The Indian economy has been battered by the Coronavirus pandemic with an estimated 18 million jobs lost and 30 million children having dropped out of school. How soon do your expect the economy to recover its 7 percent-plus economic growth momentum?

You’re quite right to mention the large number of children dropping out of school. The reason that many children are sent to school from poorer families and in rural areas is to get things like the mid-day meal and to be put to productive learning in a formal school environment. If they’re sitting at home, parents have to feed them anyway, so they may as well put them out to work in the fields or in the carpets industry and as gardeners. The prolonged closure of schools has been a tragedy. It has also exposed the stark digital divide in our country. There’s a fond belief that we can educate children online. But can everybody in our population afford a mobile phone, let alone a computer or a laptop or any device that can connect to the Internet? Even if they could afford a mobile phone, would it be a smartphone? Is there enough electricity where they are? In a country where so many of the basics still have to be conquered, we just cannot ignore the challenges that the Indian reality poses to creating an online education solution to the problems of the Coronavirus. I hope we can expeditiously get back to normal schooling, normal college life, normal work life, to revive the economy and education. As for returning to the 7 percent annual GDP growth rate, it’s a distant dream.

Looking to the long term, say 2050, how optimistic are you that India can develop its human capital — the world’s largest child and youth population — and catch up with neighbouring China in the global development race?

I used to argue during my brief stint in the education ministry, that education is not just a socio-economic, but a national security issue. At that time, Maoist attacks big and small were frequent in 165 out of the country’s 700 districts. I said these were young people who had not been equipped through education, training and skill development, to take advantage of the opportunities that a 21st century economy offers. What we need to do is to give our youth a greater stake in India’s future, rather than leave them to be seduced by misguided ideologues, who offer them Rs.1,000 and a Kalashnikov. That’s an argument I advanced in a number of speeches and interviews.
Seven years later, it remains completely valid. We absolutely have no choice but to adequately school and skill our children and youth. Well before 2050, we need to take full advantage of our demographic dividend.

According to a 2020 ILO report, India has 116 million young people in the job-starting age profile of 19-23, whereas China has only 93 million. It means that we have the demographic advantage of becoming the dynamo — the engine — of the world, as China was for a generation. And yet sadly, we have not been able to take advantage of this opportunity, because we neglected to prepare our young people in terms of education, training and skill development. I would put this mission on a war footing.

Also read: EW Interview: Dr. Krishnamurthy Subramanian, Chief Economic Adviser, Govt of India

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