Education is about Power

29 May



Thursday, 29 May 2014 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

No real development in any sector, whether infrastructure or law and order, is genuinely possible if education remains neglected

‘Electricity’ said one. ‘Infrastructure’, nodded the other, in agreement. ‘Police reforms’, came the cry from another corner; ‘inflation’, insisted another. The new Government has been inundated with advice even before it has formally taken over serving the nation. The sad truth is that there are multiple fires that need to be put out. It can be done. But only if you pay attention to education first.

There is little possible by way of progress without good education available to all. Simple literacy enables economic participation. Comprehension improves health and longevity in families and villages. Higher order skills enable business enterprise to flourish. And so on — both common sense and research tell us how good education improves lives.

So, why is education for development a priority? All Governments invest in development. An education initiative anyway takes years to show benefits — they can bubble away on the back burner. I humbly disagree. I contend that if we continue to call education a development issue, India will continue to under perform.

The education sector is your strongest yet most subtle tool for power in the region and globally. Consider the education-based soft power initiatives of many countries that have been enabled by education. Consider the work done by the United Kingdom, the United States, China, Germany, Japan and others.

Classic tools of education as soft power have included internationalisation of education. London, for example, has traditionally been a hub for education for centuries and many world leaders find that they have been to college with their counterparts in other countries, often making the dialogue easier in fact. Universities in the US have not always made it obvious but the thousands of students who study there are clearly shown the benefits of the capitalist way of life — and this was more pronounced in the anti-communism years. China has its famous Confucius Institutes that fund programmes in global universities. India has very little in this space, nor does it bring international students into the country in large numbers to share its very own perspectives and attitudes. This is a lacuna that must be bridged.

India has a capacity constraint even for domestic students. There have to be many more places in education across all levels. In creating capacity it is time to think bigger than just domestic needs and build for global participation. Isolation in education has cost the country dear in many ways. Researchers struggle to create quality work and find the perfect audience and progress pathways. The quality of education too has suffered in the darkness.

The need to open the doors and windows via education is more than about stepping up and asserting itself. It is more than about creating channels for influence (no, soft power via Bollywood does not count, seriously). It is also about national imperative. India speaks of its demographic dividend, but even if these are educated are they employable? If they are employable, is there enough employment for them in India? We bank on growth, but run the numbers and it becomes clear that many will have to seek employment globally. Education will ensure that they are globally employable and can command a fair wage and decent working conditions. India will need to export some unemployment for at least a decade or two. Good policy design and quality education needs to ensure two things: First, Indians move up the remuneration ladder globally; and, second, India retains its fair share of premium, trained talent.

India’s brain drain was a natural consequence of inadequate opportunities in higher education, worse — inadequate recompense for higher order skills. The Indian diaspora powers a significant part of the world’s economic and intellectual engines, and must continue to do so. India needs to be able to build and retain the talent it needs for its own growth. Skills, vocations, research and creativity are about powering growth via education.

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