Sunday, May 29, 2005

Higher v/s Primary education

Economists of most hues have for long, proposed that governments have no business funding higher education, and so must focus on primary education while leaving the pursuers of higher education to bear its costs. Among them are highly rated leftist economists like Amartya Sen. The current UPA government, advised by the left-dominated National Advisory Council seems to agree with this school of thought.

Nothing, I repeat, nothing could be more dangerous to the economic future of this country.

India is today acknowledged as an emerging economic power, led by her strengths in 'high-technology' areas. How did we, a 'poor' country, manage to get such strengths? Simple - it was because of the innate Indian respect for higher education, and the opportunity provided by successive governments by keeping costs low. If we have the world's second (or third) largest pool of talented man-power, it is mainly because of our 'cheap' higher education. Imagine, would Kalam have completed his bachelor's if he had to pay the equivalent of 25,000 US$ for a year? Would Amartya Sen have gone to Presidency college if he had to pay 20 lakhs for a degree?

Not to forget the point about equal opportunity. While our leftist ideologues cry themselves hoarse over equal opportunity, how can they forget about equal opportunity in higher education? Why should higher education be the preserve of the rich (which will be the result if the government withdraws from higher education)? What our leftist pals seem to say is: "It is OK for me, (put the name of your favourite idealogue here) to get affordable higher education, but it is not OK for others". Animal Farm, anyone?

Primary education is extremely important, yes. But so is higher education. It is higher education that will give students the skills to survive in tomorrow's world - where jobs will be based on creativity and high technology, not on mass-manufacturing. It is research funding that leads to technological innovations and breakthroughs, not mass-manufacturing. But, when were the leftists interested in technology anyway?

Finally, the background to the leftist argument. The scarcity mentality. "Oh! we are a poor country, and we have too many people. So, we can't afford higher education, we can't afford nuclear power, ad infiniteum". I am no economist, but I am sure that a fraction of the money the government spends on itself or a fraction of the black money in India will suffice to finance higher education for our masses.


Vinod said...

If I had seen this argument, say 10 years ago, I would have arguably agreed to the point that we need to continue govt funding of all forms of higher education.Before I get to why my opinion would be different now (and my views on forms of higher education), I want to question another given - why should increased spending on primary education always come at the cost of spending on higher education?Spending on primary education lays the foundations of a civil society more than anything else, a society which is able to understand issues which affects them and which is able to express its views on the same.It is not a panacea for the unemployment issues that we have but rather a tool for directing a democracy.It is high time that we see the issues of spending on higher and primary education as disparate issues rather than on the myopic terms that if public spending on one gets cut, then maybe the other can be subsidised with this cut.
Now, the issue of state spending on higher education(HE).Till 10 or 15 years ago, we had a situation where there was no way one could recover the costs associated with HE, if the individual were to pay up the sizeable costs himself and continue working within the country.This was a time when private sector was non existent.Again, I would like to make a distinction on research oriented work and HE that simply delivers higher value skills (like IT skills or financial analysis skills).Given the current economic climate, there is a high probability that a student who acquires higher education in IT or financial analysis or molecular chemistry finds a rewarding career without leaving the shores, which will also comfortable let him pay for his eduction.So isn't it high time that we question the treatment of govt spending on all forms of higher eductaion as a holy cow?To conclude, more govt spending on research in basic sciences (be it economics, nuclear physics or theory of finite state automata),YES.As for public funding of other HE, how much is appropriate, who is a deserving candidate and on what the basis?

Gops said...

Well said, Vinod!

Yes, why should higher spending on primary education reflect in a cut in higher education? Because the people who rule the country are still caught in the scarcity mentality that I was talking about.

I don't agree that people today can 'encash' their degrees easily. Things are still tough for people who are not in IT/management.

Finally, on who should be subsidised - I would say everyone, with a provision to repay a portion (or the entire amount) once the student lands a job. The timeframe can be 10 or 20 years, and the amount to be repaid can vary depending on the course that was subsidised, employment opps, etc.

Or there can be a better model - I don't know. But I am sure that higher education _must_ receive funding.

kattricker said...

Gops, you have a valid point. But I tend to disagree with the idea of subsidies. They havent worked in electric supply and they havent worked in foodgrain ration, they havent worked in rural education etc. Subsidies muddle up the balance sheet. They are very speculative investments where returns are hazy resulting in an opportunity for corrupt officials to embezzle and siphon off funds for there is no accountability.

Having said that, I agree with you that higher education must receive funds. But not as a subsidy for education for everyone. As a research grant for instance in areas where good job opportunities are rare, scholarship for high performing students etc. Education is a tool for the citizens to contribute to the growth of our country. But it doesnt end there. To utilize this tool towards economic and social growth, we need to create job opportunities for the "educated" to work. So subsidizing only education will not help.

Also subsidizing for all is not an incentive to perform. Change it slightly - let every student pay the same higher fees and let the high performing ones, ones doing rare research get a scholarship or grant to fund their tuition. This creates an incentive to perform. This creates an opportunity for students to earn and learn.

But now coming to the students who cannot afford the higher fee structure in the first place. Let there be loans easily available to them that they can repay after they land with a job (or pursue research). This way you indirectly subsidize but get the advantage of more transparent balance sheets. Leave the management of schools and universities to private sector or autonomous bodies - which have shown an incredible performance compared to govt and govt controlled ones (subsidy results in govt control as we have seen in the case of the IIMs).

Gops said...


I must disagree...while I am all for private universities and privately funded education, I prefer the old Karnataka model of either paying for teacher salaries or giving land grants (as subsidy).

Unlike power or elsewhere, where we can follow the consumer pays principle, we can't do that with education - what about the average poor student who cannot get a scholarship? Where will he go? What about someone like me? I didn't make it to the NTSC, so I would have _probably_ flunked an exam of similar scale that awards would I have paid lakhs for an engineering degree?

I don't know if private institutes are doing such a fabulous job. See any list of top 10 institutes in Engg, Medical, may never find an UVCE, but you would rarely find one RV or one PESIT. Most other colleges are blood-sucking pests.

kattricker said...

I agree with your approach for primary education but not for higher education. The average poor student's primary education needs must be subsidized so that basic education is imparted and forms a foundation for self-sustainence.

Remember education is just a tool, the government can do a better job spending money and effort in creating opportunities for economic growth. In areas of scientific and space research (that involve heavy investments and might be unsuitable for private investments) or in incubating an industry by cutting on taxes or duties (where the very same subsidies could be used more economically).

Anonymous said...

Look outside IT/management as well.Most sectors have benefited from liberalisation.To name a few - Media (TV , print publishing),entertainment, hospitality, banking, insurance, BPO, textiles. Most sectors have gained sufficient momentum wherein a student who pays for a good degree can hope to recoup his/her investment.What's the point in the govt funding hundreds of thousands of BScs/BAs and tens of thousands of BEs every year with the taxpayer's money, which is no good to anyone?Agree that where there's no good career opportunity in the private sector (as in very specialised areas), we can do well with govt funding on higer education and research institutes.Making students pay in all other specialisations(need not be paying out of pocket, could be bank loans) will act as a powerful discincentive(for BAs , BSCs) and will help by channelising our scarce resources(taxpayer's money) elsewhere.

-- Vinod (Publishing as anonymous as I forgot my passwd)

Gops said...


How many paying positions do these avenues create? Now, the IT sector has around a million people employed in good paying jobs. How much does one get in textiles? My friend runs a textile company - he has been to the US/Europe to get know how many Textile Engineers he has hired? 0. Because he doesn't need to. So, if you paid 3-4 lakhs to get a textile engineering degree, where would you be?

I don't think funding BA's and BSc's is a waste. (Or for that matter, funding any other higher education degree). All my high-school teachers were graduates. If we are going to increase our high schools by 1.1 million schools (the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan talks about one school per habitation, and they say 1.1 million), don't we need proportional numbers of teachers, and teachers who would work at low pay scales? Now, imagine one's fate if he/she paid 3-4 lakhs for their education and then had to work for government salaries!

Even if everything else said holds, discrimination of the girl child is at least one reason why higher education should continue to be subsidized.

kattricker said...

Gops, even if the textile engineering student's education is funded, would that do any good in your scenario? I mean maybe he didnt have to pay 3-4 lakh and instead paid say 10k. He still doesnt have a job and there is no return on investment for the funding also. He probably will go to US or someplace else where there is a job for him. But who do you think will pay for his subsidy? you and me and all the tax paying citizens of our country - all for his contribution elsewhere. You may say that it comes back full circle (counter-argument to brain drain), but it does only if we create those opportunities. The reverse brain drain happened not because people willingly wanted to work here, but because the liberalization created more lucrative jobs. Imagine a similar situation in the textile R&D sector.