Sundar Pichai, Abhijit Banerjee, Nirmala Sitharaman, Shashi Tharoor, S Jaishankar, Indira Jaising, K Sivan – all of these names and many more have one thing in common apart from their excellence in multiple fields: an education from one of India’s public institutions.
The Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, more commonly known as JNU, has been on the boil over hikes in hostel fees and other deposits. There has since been a partial roll-back for those from economically weaker sections of society, but there has also been conversation regarding why such education is necessary. This has even extended to some people calling an education in social sciences ‘useless’, and questioning people studying humanities along the lines of, “If you truly are from backgrounds where you can’t pay the hiked fee, why are you even pursuing a course such as this?” Why should humanities and social sciences education be subsidised, ask many.
However, this criticism may not be the most fair. In India, education is either funded by the government or is an enterprise that has to be not-for-profit. Therefore, it is not wrong to question government institutions when they hike fees, for whatever reason, when the government spending on education remains consistently low, say experts.
Education, democracy, and upward mobility
Padmaja Shaw, a retired professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at Osmania University (OU), says that a public education is crucial not just for its affordability, but is an investment in any democracy.
“Many students in public universities come from the most backward communities – economically and socially – and they have this brilliant opportunity to attend a university like this. It is an education for the elite as well as the underprivileged. That interaction between these two divided Indias is absolutely essential,” Padmaja says.
India is reportedly the second-most unequal country in the world, and many economists, researchers and educationists have pointed out that education is one of the few ways to reduce this inequality. The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Chief Economist Gita Gopinath, also an alumnus of Delhi University, had said a few weeks back, “India should first think about the many other ways to reduce inequality through better education and health for people. More spending on these could help in reducing inequality.”
As per the 2017-18 annual report of JNU, 43% of its students were from lower and middle-income groups, with a monthly family income of less than Rs 12,000.
Education also enables upward mobility and holds a promise of a better tomorrow. As a user on Twitter answered when asked why he had an iPhone instead of a budget phone, and pay for JNU instead: “I WAS a student of JNU. That was 9 years back. Thanks to JNU education, I can afford this iPhone.”
U aren't being elitist sir. You either didn't read my tweets or you have a comprehension problem. I WAS a student of JNU. That was 9years back. Thanks to JNU education, I can afford this iPhone.— Shahnawaz شاہ نواز (@shahnawazk) November 15, 2019
An education at one of India’s many public institutions has enabled many to go on to get jobs and seek better opportunities across fields, and therefore it’s important for the government to keep the bar to accessing this education as low as possible, say educationists. Unfortunately, however, the government has budgeted only 4.6% of the GDP for education this year, across all levels, in a trend that has been bleak for several decades now. Experts say that at least 6% of India’s GDP should be spent on education.
Source: Ministry of Human Resource Development
Further, a lion’s share of this money goes to premiere Science and Technology, and Business Management institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), National Institute of Technology (NIT) and Indian Institute of Management (IIM). While former Human Resources Development Minister Prakash Javadekar announced after the 2019 Union Budget that efforts will be made to move spending towards 6% of GDP, he still focussed on the educational facilities being made better in IITs. This, despite the All India Survey on Higher Education showing that at the undergraduate level, the most number of students (35.9%) are enrolled in Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences courses. This is followed by Science at 16.5%, Commerce 14.1%, Engineering and Technology at 13.5%.
Engineering at the cost of humanities?
As of 2018, a little over 50% of the Union government’s higher education funds were given to the IITs, IIMs and NITs, which reportedly have 3% of the country’s students. According to reports, 97% of students, in 856 institutions, got the remaining funds.
Former OU professor Padmaja says that a social science education is essential to understanding the world around us, and society will be nightmarish without a strong public education system that focuses on subjects other than engineering.
“We need these subjects in order to understand one's own society and what exists around us, because as rational citizens, we need to have a good hold of our own literature, poetry, history, sociology. These things are essential to be good citizens,” she says.
Ramu Manivannan, Head of Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Madras, echoes this.
“If you're subsidising IITs, medical schools and IIMs, you are already ascribing a status to them. Any society that neglects social sciences is bound to pay a very high price. That is one of the reasons why we have such a huge gap in our social and political education. We question what one might become when they study history or politics,” he says.
Dr Pankaj Mittal, Secretary General of the Association of Indian Universities and Additional Secretary University Grants Commission, told News18 that the budget must focus on institutions that cater to a wider group of people. “There has to be a policy shift from elite institutions to the ones in remote and rural areas. With more funds, we can bridge the gap that exists between the elite and the lower rung state universities and colleges that catch masses. This is important as it is the lower rung where mass graduates are produced.”
This condescension towards social sciences and humanities exists despite several people proving how such an education is important to society, and can also lead to individual success.
Take for instance the most recent Nobel winner from India. Abhijit Banerjee, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics along with Esther Duflo, is a graduate from JNU, and Presidency College in Kolkata before that. Both these institutions are subsidised by the government. Following his Nobel win, he credited his time in JNU as being “hugely educative”.
“For me, it is easy to be a Bengali upper caste and say we have no caste war and then you come to JNU and you see there are all kinds of fractures here which we had never encountered at all in Bengal. For me, it was a hugely educative moment,” he told The Telegraph’s Aveek Sarkar and Paran Balakrishnan in an interview.
Public universities have also produced successful politicians of all colours and ideologies – while Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is an alumna of JNU, Congress MP and former United Nations Undersecretary General and former Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor graduated from St Stephen’s College in Delhi University.
“The universities that stones are being thrown at are hubs of excellence in the country, and are globally recognised,” says Padmaja, “What are they being attacked for? People here are handpicked, and in the current environment, there is an attempt to completely destroy the culture of argumentation, exploration, research, the innovation of new ideas and engagement with the world.”
Right to equality – and equal opportunity
That is not to say that private universities cannot – or have not – produced excellence. However, the cost barrier to accessing a private education is too high for most people in the country.
The completion rate for secondary school in India was 66.36% — 66.84% for boys and 65.84% for girls in 2016-17, according to Unified District Information on School Education (UDISE). However, for higher education, India in 2018-19 had a gross enrollment ratio of 26.3%, as per All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE). For male, the enrollment ratio is 26.3% and for females, it is 26.4%. Scheduled Caste students constitute 14.9%, Scheduled Tribe students 5.5% and 36.3% students from Other Backward Classes.
Private education is expensive, and in most cases only increases inequality, and does not bridge it.
India’s Constitution promises a Right to Life and prohibits discrimination. Right to Equality is a Fundamental Right in the country – and so is a Right to Equal Opportunity. A good education is necessary for one’s quality of life, and unless governments subsidise quality education, most people do not have access to equal opportunity.
Dr RS Praveen Kumar, an IPS officer and founder of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS), which provides residential education to children from marginalised backgrounds, has seen the changes that a public education can bring about first-hand.
In June 2018, a whopping 80 students from TSWREIS got admissions into premier institutions in Delhi University. The students, who were from SC, ST and OBC communities, were from social welfare and tribal welfare schools in the state. Many students of TSWREIS have pursued education in multiple prestigious institutions. The model even went on to become a Harvard case study.
Speaking to TNM, Praveen Kumar says that as citizens of this country, we must pay taxes for everybody’s education, and calls it the taxpayer’s responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to a good education. “Private universities cover only a miniscule percentage of those who require higher education which public institutions provide,” he adds.
Praveen says, “Public education gives you tremendous exposure. Your perspective matures, it shows you the challenges, it makes you empathetic and makes you very patient. You know reality very fast in public education when compared to private education. It’s more realistic, and exposes you to a lot of things.”