New Delhi: Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda, better known as Sam Pitroda, is often hailed as father of India’s communications revolution. An entrepreneur and inventor with many key patents to his credit, he is currently involved in formulating a road map for India’s education sector as chairman of the National Knowledge Commission (NKC), an advisory body to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The commission completes its term in March. In an interview, Pitroda speaks on the commission’s recommendations and why he is not happy with the ministry of human resource development forming a series of committees to study the knowledge commission’s wide-ranging recommendations. Edited excerpts:
You have often expressed concern over resistance to new ideas in this country and attributed it to rigid organizational structures. Recently, a government-appointed panel led by Prof. Yashpal has suggested drastic changes such as abolishing the University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council For Technical Education (AICTE), the top two regulators, and creating a Higher Education Commission instead.
Our systems are always resisting change. That’s the nature of (our) system. I remember even in the 1980s when we were trying to bring about the telecom reforms, tremendous amount of resistance was dealt with. In some cases, we had to do a bypass. For example, CDoT (Centre for Development of Telematics, under which India started setting up rural exchanges and laid a nationwide telecom infrastructure) in 1984 was essentially a bypass. I think we need a lot many bypass surgeries in this country. Oganizations have become old...and we really need to think if we should restructure.
Global window: Sam Pitroda says india needs to welcome anybody who wants to educate its children. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Do you think the government will dissolve UGC and AICTE?
I can only talk about NKC recommendations. According to me, having set up NKC, there was no need to set up another committee. You do not set up a commission to review something with distinguished people and then set up another committee to review it. We worked very hard based on our knowledge and our understanding of the world. We recommended reforms in higher education as we saw it and our views really take into consideration future needs of the country, global trends, reality of the technological input, and we think it is time to pay attention to these things. At the end of the day, we are an advisory body. It’s the government which has to implement these things.
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You have also recommended autonomy for IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management). The RC Bhargava Committee, also appointed by the human resource development ministry, has recommended a pan-IIM board to govern the IIMs. Some in the IIMs view this as interfering with their autonomy.
The bottom line is very simple. All our recommendations are geared towards autonomy, decentralization and respect for professionals. We are a very large country and we need to really trust people and give them autonomy to do whatever they want to do.
Unfortunately, our system is geared towards control. I do not understand why we should be interfering with selecting vice-chancellors. Let the universities select. If they make mistakes, let them. We have too many things to look to rather than distributing favours, trying to control appointments. But that’s the way our system is. What can you do? Keeping control and power according to our system go hand in hand.
The Union cabinet recently cleared the Chadha panel’s recommendations for raising teachers’ pay. But how do you create a system where teachers are accountable? How do you make sure teachers don’t deliver notes they made 20 years ago?
Maybe the pay scale for a teacher was too low so we have raised the platform, but the issues remain the same in terms of innovation and technology inputs. The whole learning paradigm has changed. When we think of teaching, we automatically assume duster, blackboard, chalk, teacher, exam, workbook, grades and certificate. This has changed in last 10 years because of the Internet.
Typically, teachers deliver content, some teachers take great pride in the fact that their content is 20 years old but today, content is available on the net. MIT has 200 courses on its open courseware consortium. So content is available on the net and can be delivered on laptops through the Internet and cellphones. So, the teacher’s role will change to that of a mentor. In this kind of an environment, we need to be clear about what kind of universities we want to build. Universities are no longer about 100 acres of land, football fields, libraries, and classrooms. Universities in the next 50 years are going to look very different from the universities of 1850. Unfortunately, the education system has not changed for hundreds of years. For example, who decided that we should take four years to get a degree? These things need to be questioned. We tend to specialize too quickly. We really need broader education. I wish as an engineer, I had learnt a lot about psychology, anthropology, philosophy, economics et al. Nobody taught me all that.
Yashpal panel also wants IITs and IIMs to broaden their menu.
Absolutely. I agree with that 100%. I think it is very important to learn humanities. We need good liberal arts schools. We do not have as good arts schools as we have engineering schools. Even doctors should learn about liberal arts. In the US, one goes into liberal arts in the first four years and then specialization. Humanities is very fundamental because we need those soft skills. What happens today is that a lot of our doctors and engineers cannot write, communicate, are not good team players, have very little human skills.
You have said yes to foreign universities entering India. But the government is yet to clear it.
All I am saying is that in this globalized world, we need to welcome anybody who wants to come and educate our children. Japanese, Chinese, Koreans—it doesn’t really matter. Let there be more openness. We definitely need private players in education. Some will misuse it, some will make money but that’s all part of the package. We know the government alone can’t meet the needs of the society. We have a huge gap between supply and demand. So we must increase supply substantially. Inefficient, corrupt people will fall by the wayside over time. In between, there will be problems so one has to accept that.