When I christened my column The Sceptic, I had no idea that the first piece I would write would demand far more than mere scepticism. Yes, I write in wonder mixed with disbelief.
Union human resource development (HRD) minister Kapil Sibal has announced that Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) graduates would have to start paying back the money that the government incurs on their education—Rs6 lakh over and above the Rs2 lakh the students pay for a four-year course—as soon as they find a job. But this will not apply to those who opt for higher studies in any of the IITs.
The aim is to make the IITs centres of cutting-edge research, by scaling up from less than 1,000 PhD graduates per year today to 10,000 by 2020-25. The carrot for going in for research: you don’t have to pay back anything. Join the industry, and you have to shell out Rs6 lakh in equated monthly instalments (EMIs).
I have a feeling this violates some sort of individual right—after all, the government is making it unattractive for me to take up a job and trying to force me into research. It sounds suspiciously like the bonds that companies used to make recruits sign in the 1970s and 1980s—that they could not quit before a specified number of years—and the courts have ruled a long time ago that such bonds have no basis in law. Also, the IIT proposal treats the business sector as second-class citizens, which is wrong and stupid. It implies that all valuable research in India takes place in the IITs and none in the industry—whereas all one has to do is talk to companies such as GE, Texas Instruments, IBM, Nokia, Oracle, Hyundai, or Philips.
Lastly, the assumption is that if you churn out enough PhDs, something will stick somewhere in terms of invention and innovation. Well, this certainly is a novel strategy: Research and development by brute force and chance.
That’s the macro part. The micro aspects are simply mind-boggling. Let’s say IITian A gets a job in a public sector unit (PSU), and B in a multinational consultancy; B’s salary is four times A’s. So their EMIs have to be different; so too, the payback periods. Scale this up to say 100 firms, each with its own salary package, which have hired IITians—so 100 different EMIs and payback periods. Does the government sign agreements for each IITian with each employer? Who keeps track when the IITian switches jobs? And what happens if he decides, after a year or two, to join a PhD programme in an IIT? Does he get back the money he has already paid, or does he have to write it off as punishment for the sin he committed by joining a job?
Now, IITian B is transferred by his employer to New York, with a dollar salary. Does his EMI change? And who pays it, the US firm or the Indian firm? Then, B quits and joins a German firm which posts him in Brazil. There is certainly no agreement signed between the Indian government and the German firm. How do you make B pay? Or, tired with the corporate life, B joins Stanford for a PhD. Does he still have to pay? If so, how? Is the government going to hold his family in India at ransom till he pays up?
Meanwhile, after working for four years in the PSU, A decides to take two years off to write a novel. Since the government has announced that the unemployed won’t have to pay EMIs, A is free. Two years later, his novel having been rejected by 23 publishers, A starts an IIT entrance coaching institute in his hometown Kakinada. How on earth will the government locate him and start demanding EMIs? And what about IITian C, who, three years after graduating, finds himself working for the Singapore government? Will a bilateral treaty then be necessary to get the Singapore government to deduct the EMI from his salary and remit it to the Indian government?
What about the IITian who joins a business school after graduating? He is not pursuing higher studies in an IIT, but he is definitely not employed. Should he pay EMIs? Or should he start paying once he gets a job, and if so, how does the government get to know when and where he starts working?
Sibal has said the problem of IITians not paying up will be tackled by “dematerializing” degree certificates. I am not sure what that means, but certainly that cannot stop a graduate from taking 25 printouts of his certificate at one go and get them attested, which would be sufficient to last him a lifetime. Besides, other than your first employer (if at all), who asks to see your graduation certificate when hiring you?
Of all the responsibilities of an HRD minister, premier institutes like the IITs are the “sexiest”. So minister after minister is drawn like a magnetic sticker to a fridge door to try to “improve the IIT system”. Most of their meddling has had unhappy or no results. But this one surely takes the cake.
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.
Note: The Sceptic is a new, fortnightly column that will question status quos and establishment wisdom in public life.
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