Education News

Education News


The Lavasa dream

Cooperation in education development loomed large on the crowded agenda of British prime minister Gordon Brown during his whistle-stop visit to India on January 20-21. Perhaps it was fitting that the British who endowed India with excellent boarding schools and established the first modern universities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, should lend a helping hand to post-independence India’s moribund education system which is on the point of collapse. Moreover with the US having emerged as the most preferred higher education destination of Indian students, Brown’s first visit to India as prime minister was a good opportunity for the large number of academics in the prime ministerial delegation to beat the British higher education drum.

Therefore apart from expressing firm resolve to press for a seat for India in the UN Security Council and recommending cricketer Sachin Tendulkar for a knighthood, Brown announced the setting up of an education forum which will encourage education partnership agreements between higher institutions of learning in the two countries. Brown also unveiled a joint action plan to teach English to 2 billion people around the world by 2020, in which India will play a major role and contribute more than 750,000 ‘master trainers’ during the next five years.

However the Indo-British education initiative which grabbed media headlines across the country was the promotion of a Oxford University India Business Centre (OUIBC), to be located at the Said Business School (estb. 1996) of Oxford University, which is expected to introduce India-focused executive development programmes in 2010. Dr. John Wood, vice-chancellor of the university, who was in Brown’s delegation, made this announcement jointly with Ajit Gulabchand, chairman of Lavasa Corporation Ltd, a subsidiary of the construction and infrastructure behemoth Hindustan Construction Co Ltd (annual sales: Rs.2,394 crore), which is developing Lavasa as post-independence India’s first hill station sprawled over 12,500 acres, near Pune, at an estimated project cost of Rs.40,000 crore.

OUIBC has been conferred an unspecified grant by Gulabchand, which will establish a new chair — ‘The Ajit Gulabchand Professor of Indian Business Centre at the University of Oxford’. The centre will research and develop a range of executive education programmes which will be delivered in India through an affiliated OUIBC facility in Lavasa. The memorandum of agreement between Oxford University and HCC was signed at the World Economic Forum at Davos on January 25.

"Our collaboration with Oxford University is in line with Lavasa’s vision to provide an appropriate environment for enabling high quality research. Lavasa will adequately support the infrastructural needs of the new executive education centre. The new centre will be seamlessly integrated with our objective of constructing a live, work, learn and play environment," says Gulabchand, an alumnus of Sydenham College of Commerce & Economics, Mumbai, and chairman of HCC since 1983.

Meanwhile even as a second education revolution is being planned in the PMO (prime minister’s office) and the Planning Commission with a little help from the country’s erstwhile British masters turned friends, the Delhi-based National Knowledge Commission has made a veiled attack on the Union human resource ministry and its septuagenarian diehard socialist minister Arjun Singh.

Presenting its second ‘Report to the Nation’ on January 12, the commission observed, "There is still resistance at various levels in the government to new ideas, experimentation, process re-engineering, external interventions, transparency and accountability, due to rigid organisational structures with territorial mind sets. As a result, the real challenge lies in organisational innovation with new regulatory frameworks, new delivery systems, new processes etc. In their absence, increasing resources could well result in more of the same."

The more things change…

Autar Nehru (Delhi)

West Bengal

Grant ping-pong

The University of Calcutta (U Cal; estb.1857) finds itself in a piquant situation: it doesn’t know what to do with Rs.100 crore! During the course of fiscal 2006-07, in an unusual gesture of generosity, the Union ministry of human resource development announced a handsome grant of Rs.100 crore to U Cal to mark its sesquicentennial, aka 150th, anniversary. The grapevine says this was no suo moto act of generosity of Union HRD minister Arjun Singh, but was pushed through the ministry by former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, an academic before he was plucked from obscurity and appointed President of India by the BJP-led NDA coalition government in 2002.

One would have assumed this once-in-a-blue-moon grant wouldn’t attract any political controversy. But it’s pertinent to bear in mind that U Cal is sited in benighted West Bengal where the commissars and comrades of the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist) control institutions of education — especially institutions of higher education — with an iron hand. Says Booker Prize winning author and social activist Arundhati Roy: "The CPM has been in power here for over three decades and so it has absolute control over every institution. From the panchayat member to the roadside cigarette seller, all bow to them."

U Cal is no exception. In West Bengal’s groves academe, it’s hardly a secret that the university’s apex policy formulation bodies — the senate and the syndicate — are dominated by CPM loyalists even though some of them may not carry the party’s membership card in their pockets. Therefore it’s unthinkable for U Cal to even dream of handling Rs.100 crore, let alone spending it, apolitically.

The Centre’s Rs.100 crore grant was approved in 2006 with the caveat that it must be spent by 2009 on hi-tech projects, which will become self-sustaining. In particular the HRD ministry has directed U Cal to spend the money on developing study and research programmes in 21st century subjects such as nanoscience, nanotechnology and biomedical nanotechnology, advising U Cal to establish a nanotechnology centre on its new technology campus at Salt Lake in Kolkata’s eastern suburbs, while spending "as little as possible from the fund on construction".

Quite obviously the fine print of the generous sesquicentennial grant to U Cal hasn’t gone down well with 6, Alimuddin Street (headquarters of the CPM in West Bengal) or with fellow-travelling members of the U Cal senate and syndicate. As a result, the first tranche of Rs.10 crore released by the Centre is resting unspent in the university’s bank account for months together. This academic inertia prompted the HRD ministry’s high-powered 21-member parliamentary standing committee chaired by Dr. Thokchom Meinya (Lok Sabha MP elected from Manipur on the Congress ticket) to visit U Cal on December 17-18 to "inspect" how it intends to spend the Rs.100 crore grant.

As per democratic tradition, parliamentary standing committees have no overt political leanings since all parties are represented therein. How-ever, the CPM has only two nominees (Brinda Karat and Basudev Acharya) on the Congress-chaired standing committee and is outnumbered 19-2.

Early feedback after the standing committee’s mid-December visit to U Cal indicates CPM strategists are fast learners. U Cal has neatly lobbed the ball back into the Centre’s court, urging the committee members to ensure that the Centre issues "guidelines" on how the university ought to spend the money. It even wants the standing committee to ensure the Centre’s guideline reaches U Cal in time to enable it to meet the 2009 deadline. "The funds will not be touched until we get a clear instruction (sic) from the Centre," says a U Cal official who requests anonymity, adding that the university wants the Centre to clearly state its conditions.

"This committee has studied and discussed U Cal’s proposed plan of action. We are doing the needful to ensure that the funds disbursal deadline will be met," says standing committee chairman Meinya. If the "needful" is not done, U Cal’s Rs.100 crore 150th anniversary fund will lapse. The state will blame the Centre. The Centre will blame the state. Politics will prosper even as education suffers — as usual.

Sujoy Gupta (Kolkata)

Uttar Pradesh

Uneasy campus calm

On January 8, a group of students owing allegiance to the Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha (SYS), the student wing of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s now out of power Samajwadi Party (SP), disrupted a meeting addressed by higher education minister Rakesh Dhar Tripathi, precipitating a massive statewide law and order problem. The minister had just taken the mike to address a gathering at Lucknow’s Kanya Kubj College when a horde of flag wavers began to shout slogans demanding withdrawal of the September 7, 2007 government order banning student union elections in all of the state’s 13 universities and 242 government and government aided colleges.

What happened after the sloganeering and flag waving is disputed. According to the police, SYS students turned violent, breaking flowerpots and damaging furniture, and forcing the police to lathi charge them. SYS spokespersons maintain that a peaceful attempt to present a protest memoran-dum to the minister was denied by the police who assaulted the students. Nineteen student leaders and SYS activists were arrested on the spot and from a hospital where the students were sent for first aid. Eight of the arrested students who allegedly had criminal records ranging from extortion to illegal use of firearms were charged under Uttar Pradesh’s Gangster Act, 1986.

A day later, the Samajwadi Party launched a statewide agitation with the strongest protest emanating from the Yadav stronghold of Etawah where the party’s youth brigade fought a pitched battle with the police prompting firing, in which Mukesh Kumar Yadav, a third year student of Kanpur University was killed and two others seriously injured.

Following this, the violence spread across Uttar Pradesh (pop. 180 million) to Aligarh, Etah, Meerut, Bareilly, Agra and Allahabad, where SYS activists burnt effigies of chief minister Mayawati. In the holy city of Varanasi following a state government decision to shut down three state-run colleges in the wake of the violence, several vehicles were set on fire and property worth lakhs was destroyed. The protests also merged with the SP’s agitation against the implementation of the value added tax (VAT), and two buses were torched in Kanpur.

"The government cannot crush dissent in this barbaric manner. The students have a right to voice their legitimate demands," says Akhilesh Yadav who seems to have forgotten that when the Samajwadi Party revived student union elections in October 2003, there was a wave of violence, after three years of relative peace on UP’s campuses when elections had been suspended.

But Mayawati, who in addition to banning student unions has also scrapped the unemployment dole decreed by her predecessor, is in no mood to relent. "Let me make it loud and clear that even Mulayam Singh Yadav or his brother won’t be spared if they support anti-social elements indulging in violence. This is not Mulayam Singh Yadav’s regime under which goondas have a field day. I mean business," she told a press conference.

But if the chief minister is standing firm on the issue of continuing the ban on student union elections, the mood within SYS is also unrelenting. On January 15 when Mayawati’s birthday was celebrated in grand style by the Bahujan Samaj Party which she heads, SYS activists took to the streets with begging bowls to raise funds for the bash. The state police however was unamused, and five SYS leaders were arrested when they tried to enter the Lucknow University campus to solicit alms.

At the time of writing this dispatch (January 24), the SYS state-wide protest has lost much of its steam. And while student activists of the BSP and SP lick their wounds and regroup, there is little news about the 19-year-old student who lost his life, and for a while became the focal point of the SYS agitation. According to media reports in Lucknow the late Mukesh Kumar Yadav had no interest in politics and had been press-ganged to participate in the SYS protest rally.

Vidya Pandit (Lucknow)

Tamil Nadu

Lost partnerships

Hitherto isolationist Indian universities are rapidly expanding their horizons by signing memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with foreign universities, industrial establishments and multinational companies. In Tamil Nadu (pop: 62.1 million), the University of Madras and Anna University are particularly active on this front and have signed partnership agreements with a host of reputed foreign institutions in several countries over the past four years, to share best practices and expertise through joint education and research projects. However, a major concern of educationists and heads of the state’s universities is lack of infrastructure and funds shortages which are threatening the progression and sustainability of inter-varsity collaborations.

Institutions of higher education were given a push to globalise during the Xth Plan (2002-2007) period when the University Grants Commission (UGC) started an initiative entitled ‘Promotion of Indian Higher Education Abroad’ (PIHEAD) and launched a programme to attract international students by promoting Indian institutions abroad. Since then several universities have signed formal agreements for student and faculty exchange programmes, faculty training, joint research, study abroad programmes, summer projects in foreign countries, and other partnerships to provide Indian students and faculty international exposure.

Chennai’s showpiece Anna University (trifurcated into Anna University, Coimbatore and Anna University, Tiruchirapalli in 2007) which has 12,000 students, 800 faculty members and 108 affiliated colleges, has signed collaboration agreements with 55 foreign universities, 25 industrial establishments and ten multinational companies. "Foreign universities and multinational companies are becoming increasingly aware of India’s research and development capabilities and are eager to sign collaborations for joint research projects for student, faculty and research scholar exchange programmes. These partnerships provide an opportunity for us to train our faculty in state-of-the-art laboratories of foreign institutions, enabling them to set up similar facilities for us when they return. Faculty from abroad who visit us or affiliated colleges conduct short-term courses for our faculty and students. We are also planning twinning programmes with foreign universities for postgrad students under which our students will spend the second year of study abroad or vice-versa," says Dr. D. Viswanathan, vice-chancellor, Anna University.

Likewise, the University of Madras, which has over 2,000 postgrad students, 300 faculty members and 199 affiliated colleges, has signed MoUs with 79 foreign universities in Australia, US, UK, Japan, Korea and France. "These agreements are primarily for student, faculty and research scholar exchanges. Unfortunately, we don’t have world-class hostels to accommodate visiting students and faculty and can host only a limited number of students," says Dr. S. Ramachandran, vice-chancellor, University of Madras.

However a study conducted in 2006 by Dr. S.P. Thyagarajan, former vice-chancellor of Madras University, on the status of MoU projects that he had signed with 45 foreign institutions in 18 countries during his tenure (2003-2006) presents a dismal picture. Only half of the student and faculty exchange programmes (funded projects) were active while the rest were dormant. "To ensure the success of student and faculty exchange programmes universities must make separate budgetary provision. They should also design India-specific study programmes for visiting students and publicise them on university websites besides facilitating inter-institution credit transfers. Unless such groundwork is done, the partnerships are lost," says Thyagarajan, currently director of research at the Sri Ramachandra Medical College, Chennai.

Quite clearly, both Anna and Madras universities need to get their acts together to get something of value out of the rash of agreements they are signing with universities and institutions abroad. After collaboration agreements are signed and ephemeral news reports fade from daily newspapers, the real work must begin. Budgetary provision has to be made, resources have to be raised either by way of corporate sponsorships or endowments for study and research projects. Perhaps the nettle of higher tuition fees for undergraduate education with targeted scholarships for financially disadvantaged students has to be grasped, and cash-strapped universities must establish an exclusive body to facilitate foreign collaboration projects.

In short, signing high potential headline-grabbing collaboration agreements with foreign universities and corporates is the first, rather than the last step towards widening academic horizons.

Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)


Encouraging silence

The silver lining to the much publicised molestation of two women by a crowd of 70-80 men outside Mumbai’s popular J.W. Marriot Hotel on New Year’s eve, is that the south Mumbai zone of the Maharashtra state education board has initiated a sexual harassment study programme for school children. Comments Suman Shinde education inspector of the south Mumbai zone: "We had already conceptualised this initiative to tackle problems faced by girl children, but in the context of the New Year’s eve molestation incident, it could not have come at a better time."

Quite clearly education bureaucrats in the state had been hesitant about broaching sex education programmes for school children following the huge protest against a proposal to introduce the adolescent education programmes (AEP), approved by the Delhi-based NCERT (National Council for Education Research & Training), for class V-X students. In the western seaboard state of Maharashtra (pop.98 million) and even in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital currently dominated by the regressive right wing Hindu militant Shiv Sena party, sex education is unacceptable. But this time round there’s been little protest against the related subject of sexual harassment and ways and means to combat it.

The education department initiated the programme by circulating pamphlets on January 3 to about 50,000 girl students of class V and above in all-girls and co-educational schools in south Mumbai affiliated to the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) board. Now the education department is looking to extend the initiative to all SSC schools in the city numbering more than 1,200.

The pamphlet which is printed in Marathi will soon be translated into English as well. "We’ve had several meetings with teachers to discuss the sexual harassment of girl children. We thought of addressing this sensitive issue through this awareness initiative," says Shinde.

The pamphlet inter alia educates girl children to differentiate between the good and bad touch, and distinguish between affection and lewd conduct. It also instructs them on ways and means to reject sexual advances and overtures while providing advice on health and hygiene issues. It advises girl children to share confidences with parents and teachers. Significantly, it counsels them not be over-influenced by popular cinema and television serials, advising them that real life is vastly different.

This sexual harassment prevention initiative of the education depart-ment has been welcomed by the managements of private schools as well. Comments Fr. Gregory Lobo, secretary of Mumbai’s Archdiocesan Board of Education which runs 150 church-promoted schools in the city: "It’s high time we educate our children on the difference between an affectionate hug and lewd conduct. It is also important that they understand inappropriate behaviour and confide in elders. We will ensure these pamphlets are distributed in all our schools."

Praiseworthy though the initiative is, there’s still a long way to go before it is effectively implemented. Currently this new campaign is restricted to only 400 of Mumbai’s estimated 2,500 primary and secondary schools. But following the encouraging public response to this sex education initiative, education officials intend to extend it to all schools in Mumbai and beyond within the next few months.

"The department should also publish an English translation of the pamphlet so that teachers and children not conversant with Marathi can understand its contents," says Arundhati Chavan, president of the Parent Teacher Associations United Forum. "We have written to the state government regarding this and also requested this initiative is expanded to cover the rest of the state."

Hopefully this time round the Shiv Sena and other myopic self-appointed guardians of Indian culture will remain silent on this issue.

Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)