Editorial

End over-subsidisation of higher education

The enactment of the Right to Free and Compulsory (RTE) Education Act, 2009 and the Supreme Court’s substantial validation of its provisions by its judgement delivered on April 12, has belatedly focused national attention upon vitally important primary and upper primary education — the foundation block of national development worldwide. Despite newly independent India having adopted Soviet-style detailed central planning to ensure balanced growth in all sectors of the economy and inter-sectoral linkages, early childhood and elementary education for the masses proved to be a blindspot of India’s central planners. The price of this neglect of primary education the country has had to pay in terms of rapid population growth, poor agricultural and industrial productivity and mass illiteracy, has been very heavy. Therefore the belated acknowledgement of the fundamental importance of qualitative elementary (classes I-VIII) and vocational education, as prerequisites of national socio-economic development is as welcome as it is overdue.
 
But at a press conference in Bangalore on April 26, officials and members of the Education Promotion Society of India (EPSI) — an association of private colleges and universities in tertiary education — expressed alarm that the outcome of huge outlays required of the Central and state governments to implement RTE (which EPSI estimates at Rs.70,000 crore per year) will be that “higher education will end up having lesser resources”.
 
The fears of EPSI and other academics in higher education highlight the imperative to radically reform India’s obsolete tertiary education system driven by massive subsidisation of higher education. Tuition fees in Central and state government higher education institutions — which constitute the great majority of the country’s 31,000 arts, science and commerce colleges and 611 universities — are among the lowest worldwide, being frozen since 1950 at Rs.15-50 per month, even in the country’s top-ranked colleges and universities. According to one survey, tuition and development fees etc contribute less than 5 percent of the annual expenditure of Central and state government colleges and universities. And shockingly, subsidisation of higher education is indiscriminate and universal, which means students from the country’s richest households pay the same tuition fees as from the poorest.
 
Quite clearly, universal over-subsidisation of tertiary education is iniquitous and contrary to the national interest. It’s high time therefore, that tuition fees in higher education are raised to at least 25 percent of the actual cost of education provision, indiscriminate subsidisation of higher education is abolished in favour of targeted subsidisation of needy merit students, and a system of long-term, low-interest loans for students introduced.
 
The national interest demands that government allocations for higher education are steadily reduced to release resources for primary foundational education. In the final analysis, elementary education is a public good while higher education is a personal benefit.
 
Urgent clean-up needed in defence services

Two disparate events — although not linked directly — within India’s defence services have a common thread running through them. On April 20, India successfully launched Agni V, a 20-tonne missile with a range of 5,000 km which can deliver multiple nuclear warheads. With its launch, India joined the intercontinental ballistic missile club of the US, Russia, China, France, and Britain. However, on the same day, V.R.S. Natarajan, chairman and managing director of Bharat Earth Movers, a major public sector corporation manufacturing/assembling heavy duty defence equipment, was arrested for criminal conspiracy and corruption.
 
Natarajan’s arrest followed the sensational claim by Gen. V.K. Singh, chief of the 1.2 million-strong Indian Army, that he was offered a Rs.14 crore bribe to approve the purchase of 600 sub-standard and overpriced army trucks in 2010. Singh reported the bribe offer to Union defence minister A.K. Antony, who reportedly clutched his head in disbelief, but did nothing about it. The high-value trucks, priced at Rs.80 lakh each, were being manufactured in a Czech Republic-based company, Tatra, but were imported through a UK-based Indian-origin agent, Ravi Rishi, who owns the London-based Global Vectra. BEML came into the picture because it bought the trucks from Vectra and then sold them to the army adding a huge mark-up, even though the normal procedure is for the army to purchase directly from manufacturers.
 
The bribe offer to Gen. V.K. Singh was allegedly made by Lt. Gen. Tejinder Singh, who had earlier been the army’s chief of intelligence. When a shocked V.K. Singh refused the offer, Tejinder Singh reportedly said that former Army chiefs had accepted such bribes and future incumbents will also do so. Clearly, if what the army chief has said is true — and he is reputed for his integrity, having taken action against corrupt officers — the rot in the much-hyped Indian Army runs deep.
 
These sordid shenanigans raise several questions. Why did V.K. Singh take over a year to go public about the bribe offer? Did the disclosure have something to do with his date of birth case filed in the Supreme Court which effectively went against him? Was the outing of the bribe offer Gen. Singh’s revenge against the government? Moreover, why didn’t Antony, known for his ‘clean image’, take summary action against the alleged bribe offerer given that the buck stops with the Union defence minister?
 
Whatever the truth, which will eventually surface, the army’s reputation as being one of the most upright and non-political institutions in the country has taken a drubbing. Two Indian Army generals have already been court-martialled in the notorious Sukna land deal, and several senior officers are currently under investigation in the Adarsh building scandal in Mumbai. With the second-largest army worldwide, now equipped with nuclear missiles capable of reaching Europe, India is a formidable military power. But it has also become the largest importer of arms in the world. With such imports come ‘agents’ dangling bribes, and seeping corrup-tion, which is corroding the core of the defence establishment. A clean-up is in urgent order to restore public confidence in the defence services, and the Indian Army in particular.