In the first of a five-part series on the likely defining themes of the Union budget, National Knowledge Commission (NKC) chairman Sam Pitroda shares his views on education. The commission, an advisory body to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, completes its term in March.
Redefining objectives: A government school in Faridabad. Pitroda says the education system in India has to be changed from spoon-feeding to instilling inquisitiveness in students and encouraging them to ask questions. Rajkumar / Mint
The Planning Commission has allocated $67 billion (Rs3.25 trillion) for education in the 11th Plan (2007-2012). So I think this budget will reflect that allocation. Compared with the allocation in the 10th Plan, it’s a significant increase. A substantial amount of financial resources will be allocated to education, but in a country of this size, the government also needs to spend money on roads, energy and other sectors. There is never enough for education. The key challenge is how to use the available resources to really do things we need to do. Also, education is not just constructing buildings; it’s about content, quality and people. So our limitation at this point may not be just money. We need to focus on new processes and innovation.
I do not agree with the criticism that the government is emphasizing higher education at the cost of school education. Higher education gets a lot of publicity but there is emphasis on the Right to Education Bill (which guarantees education to all children in the age group of 6-14 years). This government has paid attention to all three major segments of education: school, vocational and higher education. A lot of money is being spent on vocational education, since industry needs trained people. That’s where job creation is going to matter. Then comes higher education to create more teachers, scientists, research, innovation among other things.
NKC is also working on a National Knowledge Network (NKN) under chairmanship of Dr (Rajagopala) Chidambaram, scientific adviser to the Prime Minister. This will connect all the big universities and research and development labs with 10 gigabit bandwidth. We have 2.5 gigabit bandwidth in operation today.
NKN will be useful in sharing data, such as weather forecast data or mathematical modelling. It will also carry networks such as the Ernet (Education and Research Network). Local area networks will be connected to NKN, which will save costs. Right now, this network has just 15 modes; it’s operation has to be expanded.
Education today, including the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (a programme aimed at putting every child in school), needs a lot more innovation than we are willing to accept. To me, we have a big opportunity now to redefine education objectives and methods. We have not used technology in a very effective way.
We are not thinking about generational change in education. Much of the thinking revolves around incremental changes. This is the time for generational change because of Internet connectivity, technology, mobility, new software and content. Most of the education in India is spoon-feeding and we need to change that. Our education system does not instil inquisitiveness, that’s why very few students here question things.
I am big on using technology as a tool to improve productivity, cut costs, efficiency and flexibility.
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If I had to add something to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, I would use more technology at all levels—for teacher attendance, student attendance, classroom lectures, etc.
There is enough buzz over the $10 laptop. Let me tell you, there is no such thing as a $10 laptop today. Anybody who talks about a $10 laptop is ignorant. It’s not easy to develop technology and, with due respect, India has not yet developed any good products..., one can argue.
On the way expansion has happened in the higher education sector last year, you need to first look at how the first Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) was set up. It started off in a garage and looked like junk. So it is okay to launch IITs from temporary campuses. That’s how all seeds are planted. Some may not flourish. Today, we need to plant lots of seeds. You cannot compare a private university set up today with the IITs set up 50 years ago. That’s not fair. You can’t have same level of education and faculty everywhere, you have to accept this. This doesn’t mean you don’t let average institutes flourish.
Albeit, to ensure quality, a Higher Education Council is needed, which we have recommended in our report. The structures created 50 years ago cannot respond to the needs of today. It’s hard to find someone in the government who says I am preparing an email on something; everyone talks about files. We also need to look at tools and needs of today.
As for NKC recommendations, the former HRD (human resource development) minister didn’t see eye to eye with NKC. Now, the new government has to respond to our recommendations. Our job was to submit them. Pushing for reforms is my moral responsibility and I will do it. But quest for knowledge in India will have to continue. There is lot of work ahead of us.
As told to Pallavi Singh
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