The Winning Poll Platform

Business Standard - March 19, 2011

Kenichi Ohmae famously said the heart of strategy is not about beating the competitor but about adding value to the customer, and avoiding the competitive battle altogether. India's beleaguered prime minister could still go down in history as the man who made India fulfil her destiny not just through paradigm shifts in economic thinking and action, `but also as someone who brought real and widespread changes in access to quality knowledge-building and skill-building education for all. That would be a great election platform in a child-and education-obsessed young country. And who can do it better, given Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's background anderudition, and his children's education and meritocracy-led achievements? Who else in the world, except arguably the US president, has the opportunity to change the lives of such a large part of the human race, not just at present but for generations to come? If he chooses to pursue this opportunity, he has enough time left to take it past the point of no return. So it is well worth the effort.

What does it involve? Ironically, the exact opposite of what the economic liberalization involved. It isn't about opening markets to foreign money to help achieve goals. The courts in India have often pointed out that there are no super profits to be made for the innovative or super-efficient people, there is no pricing according to what the markets can bear, or real choice of customer mix, as this prime minister's government has decreed. Theswadeshi and self-reliance mantra is the only one to be invoked - offering the Foreign Universities Bill as a solution to our education problems is a cruel and callous joke on the average young person of this country. India needs to educate its own children. This can't be done by passing the Right to Education Bill. In fact people say that inserting the word "quality" into the Right to Education Bill will be a retrograde step because the government is the arbiter of what quality is, which may kill the entrepreneurial mushrooming of the mom-and-pop private schools in large towns. It is about executive action, central incentive-based subsidies and technical support mechanisms to encourage those interested in education, the right kind of monitoring institutions run by educationists in a "nose in, fingers out" manner.

First of all, India needs three ministers instead of a single part-time one and ministers who are action-oriented and experienced in setting priorities. The three ministries would be for school education, college education, and skills-based/vocational training and continuing education. Of course, conventional wisdom in India is that inefficiency will triple. But getting the world's youngest country to become a knowledge economy with a deficit in education infrastructure, and not being able to outsource it as a market-business opportunity, means there is a lot of work to be done. For example, the ministry of school education will figure out how to frame a web of policies, incentives, centralized support actions including standardised curricula (properly done with the best educationists in the country), cheap but sturdy equipment design and manufacture so that schools can have a dedicated bandwidth for distance learning, training for teachers in using it as an aid, standardized testing so that scores can be compared across the country, designing grants that are tied up to performance, and incentivising kids to stay in school. Since it is a state subject too, we need an experienced and persuasive politician who understands how the system works.

The vocational training and skills development initiatives are being housed in different places - the PMO and finance ministry - and are entrusted to people who have never done this kind of work before, and who have no idea what real scale really is. Why can't it be with one new ministry which can develop a proper plan for it? Much as many of us are sceptical of bureaucrats, if the choice is between someone with a narrow corporate world experience and an expenditure budget of Rs. 5,000 crore, and someone with broader experience in dealing with a mind-boggling scale and multi-stake holder management, the answer is clear.

For higher education, the government should, as Jaithirth Rao has been saying, pick 100 colleges with potential, given them a one-time grant of Rs. 100 crore each and ask them to convert into universities. Funding is what higher education needs from the government. To say that you have to be self-funded or we will interfere is totally wrong. The HRD minister is inviting presentations on how to raise funds from alumni. Isn't his time more valuable than that? Why shouldn't our money be spent on the one thing common to the rich and the poor in this country? How can self-sufficiency, price control and 50 per cent reservations go together?

All in all, this country's young deserve better than a part-time minister who has neither the time nor an inclination or vision to create a comprehensive- not piecemeal- programme for change in all parts of education. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is good, but building human capacity through education is even better.