In the past few weeks, two cases of student deaths have grabbed headlines. The suicide of Rohith Vemula at University of Hyderabad has given way to nationwide protests, with several activists, academics and students also assembling at the university campus.
Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, three students studying at a private medical college plunged themselves to death by drowning in a well due to the repeated financial harassment by the college administration and lack of proper infrastructure at the campus.
While in one case there has been high-decibel political furore, the Villupuram case has not evoked a proportionate political response from any side. But statements have been made by education activists on the need for stricter controls on private education or to do away with it completely.
The treatment meted out to Rohith is testimony to the Indian state's failure to provide social equality in one of its own premier institutions. The tragic death of the three Villupuram girls is a result of the state's failure to implement its own regulations, coupled with the ruthless greed of the private college owners. In both cases, the failure of the state to protect its own citizens is not only clear but emerges as the main reason for the tragedies. If one has its roots in social injustice, the other’s is in individual interest.
Unfortunately, neither social injustice nor individual interest will go away. If our social inequality is a result of centuries of oppression, then individual interest is a defining human characteristic. So at this juncture, what should one do?
Both the tragedies occurred in educational institutions, so the answer to the above question lies in ensuring institutional accountability.
In a detailed account of how the grand old private education scam operates, Arun Janardhan of Indian Express talks about how systemic corruption has led to near universal political silence over the Villupuram deaths. He is right, but systemic corruption is just a symptom, not the real problem.
Be it nepotism in public universities or systemic corruption in the private education sector, the solution lies in addressing the lack of accountability. And there is an important flaw in not understanding that our institutions - be it through teachers or the management - must first be accountable towards students, and not the government like it is now.
Thanks to a system which has enabled politicians to have a final say in appointing heads of universities, Vice Chancellors now walk all over the rights of students without any fear, because as far as they keep their political bosses happy, their position is safe. This can be seen clearly in the case of Rohith Vemula's suicide.
In the private sector, thanks to the overarching regulatory mechanism of the government coupled with rampant corruption, college owners don't have to be worried about student complaints because as long as the regulations are adhered to on paper and the inspectors are 'taken care of', their business is safe.
Ideologues on both the economic right and left would suggest going for the jugular of the respective systems. One side would ask for shutting down all private educational institutions, and the other would like to see the government have no role in education. The reality however is that we cannot do without either of them. If we need the public education system to provide access to the poor, then we need the private sector to fill in for the massive gaps left behind by the state.
In our public institutions, we need more devolution of power to the stakeholders in the university. The senate, teachers, non-teaching staff and students must have a say in decision-making. The Vice Chancellor has to be answerable to the university students first, and then the government.
In the private sector, we need a change in mindset and move away from stringent regulations towards market competition.
As I write this, I am on a private bus plying between Puducherry and Madurai. The bus conductor is at his rowdy best, cramming in more and more passengers into the already packed bus. Any protest by passengers is immediately met with a retort to take the money and get out of the bus. Any sane passenger would want to get off, but the problem is that the next bus would be packed too. There just aren't enough buses. If the supply were more, then people would wait for a less crowded bus. Since the supply is low, the crowd is more, and passengers are preyed on by greedy bus operators.
The same holds true for the education sector, or any market for that matter. The students must have the freedom to walk out of a college without fear, knowing that there are better ones out there. By keeping the number of medical colleges artificially low through a license raj, the government is helping private college owners prey on students. Market competition is the best way to ensure accountability in the private sector, and for that you need more private colleges and privatisation of the sector. That such reckless profiteering is happening in a sector which is by law only "not for profit" is laughable.
Quite obviously, education is not the same as transport, so the government will have to play an active role in creating awareness among students and parents, and have a foolproof ranking system.
The rhetoric to ask for better politics and less corruption is important to galvanize public opinion but if we fail to go beyond that, more Vemulas and Villupurams are only waiting to happen.