Photograph of Anil Chawla


Author - Anil Chawla

Analysis of the impact of the affordability of technical education on the country's growth.

The fees and other expenses that a student has to incur for getting technical education has increased to such a high level that good technical education has reached outside the budget of most middle and lower middle income families. It is easy to link the fees with the cost of technical education and argue for elimination of subsidies. However, the social ramifications of a technical education which is unaffordable by the majority of the population of the country cannot be ignored. Proponents of so-called economic reforms treat all technical education as elitist and talk of universal primary education. They refuse to treat technical education as a national investment essential for growth. Sinister designs of the developed countries behind their well crafted arguments need to be exposed. It is necessary that we understand the policies that have led to the development of India as a nuclear power capable of mastering the latest technologies. All attempts to change the policies which have been successful with ill-conceived systems that ape the American system of prohibitively expensive university education must be resisted at all levels.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the First Prime minister of India after independence saw technical education as the key to India's growth. It was due to Nehru's vision that large sums were invested in building institutions like Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT's), Regional Engg. Colleges (REC's) etc. The Nehruvian Socialist Vision looked at technical education from a dual perspective:- (a) Social Ladder for persons from the economically weaker sections of society and (b) Investment in development of nation's technical capabilities. Selecting the most talented students from a wide cross-section of society and giving them the best possible technical education at highly affordable rates was fundamental to the Nehruvian vision. It was due to this policy of highly subsidized higher technical education that the tuition fees in IIT's during the late seventies and eighties was just about Rs. 200- per year. In addition there were many scholarships for almost everyone who had trouble meeting the expenses of mess etc. During this period it was not unusual to meet the son of a roadside cobbler or street hawker or clerk studying at IIT.

Nehruvian policies led to admission tests for IIT's and REC's becoming national events wherein more than a million students participated every year and a handful were selected. Naturally, this selection process threw up the best talent that could compete eventually with the best of the world. The competitive advantage that India enjoys today as a technological powerhouse and the success stories of Indian technocrats across the globe are a result of the nation-wide selection and grooming of talent initiated by Nehruvian policies.

The western world criticized the Nehruvian policies as elitist and harmful for a developing country. The social development path recommended by the developed world prescribes that developing countries should concentrate their resources on primary education or basic technical skill development only and should not venture into highly sophisticated areas of technical education. This is a modern version of imperialist educational policy - the developing countries should produce clerks, workers, mechanics etc. and should be dependent on the developed world for all technology ; a developing country that tries to become self-sufficient in high technology or tries to develop capabilities to challenge the monopoly of the almighty powers in the area of technology needs to be condemned. History will always remember Nehru and Indira Gandhi for resisting the pressures of the developed world and building an Indian technological base.

Manmohan Singh and others who have followed him have fallen in the trap of the developed countries. It stands to reason that if the total number of candidates who are appearing for IIT Joint Entrance Examination is reduced due to economic considerations from Two Lakhs to may be One Lakh, even though the number of successful students will remain unaffected, the level of talent would go down and a large number of would-be-world-class -technocrats will lose the chance to be technocrats. This leads to a two-fold damage -

At present, the tuition fee at IIT Mumbai is about Rs. 14,000- per semester. An average student has to spend about Rs.5000- per month to study at IIT. Let us ask ourselves - how many persons in the country can afford to spend such a sum for their son/daughter's education every month. Almost ninety per cent of the persons cannot afford to do it. Cold statistics apart, if one looks around one can see that even the majority of the salaried class in organized sector and Government, who are supposed to be privileged members of the society, cannot afford this level of expenditure.

The situation in other engineering colleges is not much better. The tuition fees at Govt. Engineering Colleges of MP is Rs. 10,000- per annum, which leads to a monthly expenditure of about Rs. 3000- per month. Even this amount is not affordable by the son/daughter of a clerk or school teacher or marginal farmer or petty trader.

It is strange that the educational community of India has carried out no formal studies to assess the social impact of increase in fees and other expenses during the past few years. Many and may be most of us who take pride in our capabilities as engineers or technocrats must realize that we could not have become engineers if the fee structure in engineering colleges was on the present pattern a few decades back. It may take a few years for the academic and political world to take note of the social tensions caused by frustrations of talented youth who see no recognition for their talents and lose hope of moving up the social ladder. The impact on the national technical capabilities is likely to be felt after a still longer time-frame. Yet, it is imperative that the academic community takes a long-term view in the national perspective and advises the policymakers.

The arguments against subsidizing higher education and elitist institutions must be countered with careful studies that do a cost-benefit analysis comparing the money spent on technical education over the past five decades with the likely cost that would have been incurred by the nation for importing and maintaining (through imports) technology and expertise for all sorts of products including nuclear plants, nuclear weapons, missiles, supercomputer, high performing seeds, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, automobiles etc. In many cases the technology would not have been available. The lump-sump and recurring costs combined for technology imports for all the above products would have made India's progress impossible.

The arguments in favour of subsiding higher technical education to make it affordable by almost everyone are often treated as arguments against funding of primary education. This is most unfortunate. The country needs universal primary education as much as it needs technical education. It is necessary to increase the expenditure on education. Govt. of India provided for a sum of Rs. 70.5 billion for education in the budget for 1998-99. This amounts to less than half a per cent of India's GDP and is about 2.63% of the total Central Government budget. It is obvious that this is a grossly inadequate level of expenditure and must be increased substantially.

It must also be pointed out that the present fee structure amounts to subsidizing of the education of the rich. The engineering colleges and IIT's operate with substantial budgetary support. Closing their doors to the poor by charging exorbitant fees amounts to giving budgetary support to the education of those who can afford to pay high fees. Proponents of elimination of subsidies must (if they are true to themselves) argue for conversion of IIT's and REC's into corporations with no budgetary support and with adequate return on investment on all assets. Needless to say that such a step will sound the death-knell of these institutions as well as of technical education in the country.

Higher technical education is neither elitist nor a luxury. It is an essential input for the growth of an impoverished society and is the only hope for a person who has talent but is not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Taking away this hope from vast majority is likely to trigger a time-bomb that will explode a few decades later when the society would have been further impoverished due to the exploitative use of intellectual property ownership by the developed countries. The next millenium will see an extensive use of knowledge as an instrument of exploitation and neo-imperialism. It is hence essential that all those who are concerned about the growth and development of India should exert to convince the authorities to make higher technical education affordable by the poorest citizen of India.


20th October, 1999

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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