Private sector education entrepreneurs experiencing “schadenfreude" (German for joy in other people’s misery) in the Manipal group’s confrontation with the medical education regulator have much to learn from a poem written after World War II by a German pastor called Martin Niemöller about the Nazis. He wrote, “First they came for the Communists,/ and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist/ Then they came for the Jews,/ and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew/ Then they came for the Catholics,/ and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant/ Finally they came for me,/ but by that time there was no one left to speak up."

Photograph: Mustafa Quraishi / AP

Irrational, corrupt and autocratic regimes must always be stood up to because there is no place to hide from them. Making peace (or an off-balance sheet settlement) only makes things worse because this beast feeds on itself. Medical education in India is regulated by an autonomous body called the Medical Council of India (MCI). MCI, like other vertical ayatollahs of education, has created a toll gate in milking education institutions with irrational capacity licensing norms around infrastructure sharing, faculty, curriculum, governance and much else. In true licence raj tradition, they have draconian inspection powers that create regulatory arbitrage with an answer looking for a question. MCI has arbitrarily halved the number of medical seats for Manipal and continues to make public noises about derecognition. Being singled out for selective enforcement means that an institution with students from 53 countries now mostly spends its energy (and money) expanding overseas because of regulatory cholesterol in India.

The case is in court, but it is symbolic of the broken education regulatory regime across business, medicine, engineering and much else. This is important because the biggest lesson of 18 years of reform is that economic growth is a necessary but not sufficient condition for poverty reduction. Poverty reduction needs access. And access comes from the three Es—education, employability and employment.

When I began engaging with public policy on employment and employability, I didn’t pay much attention to education. I thought I was a dispassionate observer in that debate because repair is different from prepare and I didn’t have a “dog in the fight". But I now realize most children are not “work ready" and we can’t teach them in six months what they should have learnt in 15 years. At a recent conference organized by the Gujarat government on making education more children-centric, a vice chancellor of a traditional university got very upset when I suggested we needed to reorient to “learning for earning". He said learning was for living and felt a commercial perspective would ruin education. I find it hard to believe we could ruin it further, but I think he misunderstood my point; we can teach somebody to be a plumber, electrician, salesperson, mason or bartender in six months, but we can’t teach them to be curious, confident, creative, risk-takers and team players. I couldn’t agree more with Einstein’s definition of education as what is left behind after you’ve forgotten what you learnt in the classroom. Work skills are about getting the “neev" or foundation right and today we fail with 58% of our youth suffering some degree of skill deprivation.

Quality and quantity are conflicting objectives only in the cerebral cortex of our education regulators. There is no demand for reservation in schools because capacity is exploding. The engineering colleges of the early 1980s were hardly high quality at the beginning, but their self-healing provided the bodies for India’s IT explosion. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan may not have fixed the quality issue, but it got kids into classrooms. Now, we can fix multigrade teaching, instruction quality, learning outcomes and more. The good is not the enemy of the great.

The reform agenda is complex—reversing over-regulation and under-governance, separating financing from delivery, linking financing to outcomes, creating infrastructure for information asymmetry, recognizing multiple intelligences, toning down rote learning and much else. But the most important step is the formation of the Education Regulatory Authority of India (Erai). As the global crisis painfully demonstrates, harnessing markets does not mean the absence of regulation. But as the father of Greek medicine, Paracelsus, said, “the dose makes the poison". Anything powerful enough to help has the power to hurt. Today’s education regulatory regime is friendly fire that reinforces the status quo and hurts the very people it pretends to protect. An independent, professional and balanced regulator would bring objectivity, effectiveness and scalability.

I have a ringside view of the employment tragedy waiting for our educated and trained output; these kids are losing their future and losing your future is not like losing a few points in the stock markets or like losing an election. We need to replace MCI, AICTE, UGC and the rest of the regulatory cholesterol perpetuated by the geriatric ward we call the ministry of HRD. India can’t put poverty in a museum without an education regime that creates equality of opportunity. A first step is abolishing the licence raj in education and creating an honest, rational and competent regulator.

Manish Sabharwal is chairman, Teamlease Services. Comment at