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The next exodus will be of teachers
June 02, 2006
I spent my formative years in Cherai, a village so small that most maps didn't even acknowledge its existence. Up to the time that I left for college we had no electricity or piped water, while the path outside my house was packed sand rather than a tar-topped road.
But neither then nor now can I say that I felt deprived in any way. We had wide, open spaces, fresh air blowing off the Arabian Sea, and the water drawn from the well was sweeter than Delhi's notoriously horrible supply. The congestion, the pollution, and the constant worry over water are factors that hit me in the face as soon as I came to live in Mumbai (then Bombay), and later in Delhi.
But there was one blessing that took me a little longer to realise -- the wonderful schooling I had taken for granted. Indeed, looking back over the decades, I think Saraswati blessed my generation with great teachers, not just in college but even village schools. Can you imagine a teacher rising to become governor of Andhra Pradesh, without ever being a politician?
Yet that is precisely what K C Abraham achieved. (To put that in perspective, his successors in the Hyderabad Raj Bhavan included the future President Shankar Dayal Sharma and the future vice-president Krishan Kant.) Abraham Master's generation was one of supremely gifted men who possessed such enthusiasm for their profession that they sparked a desire to learn more in their students.
I doubt they earned huge salaries but the status of the teacher in the unwritten social hierarchy was higher than that of several far wealthier men. I cannot quite put a finger on it but at some point in the late 1960s or early 1970s -- perhaps later -- the worm crept into the apple. The respect given to the teacher eroded, and education became a mere job rather than a true calling.
I think we knew an era had ended for good when the first teachers' strike took place in Kerala. I am reminded of the decline each time that I return home around the time of school admissions. Parents vie to put their wards in either private schools or in the Kendriya Vidyalaya system. It is taken for granted that Kerala's own state-run school system is, largely, incapable of providing a decent education.
One of the chief drawbacks is the shortfall in the number of truly good teachers. If one does turn up through some stroke of luck it is a matter of time before being lured away to a private school with an absurdly larger pay packet. What is true of the schools also holds good of the colleges. The cream of Kerala's teachers -- and her students too -- make a beeline for universities outside the state. The fall in the reputation of some colleges has been so great that, I am told, there are some engineering colleges where seats go a begging.
There are still teachers of the old school but there are simply not enough good replacements coming up for them. What happen if such a decline is replicated elsewhere? I have reasons to believe that the United Progressive Alliance ministry's ill-considered decision to increase seats is hastening the process in universities across India.
I cannot mention names but several professors independently told me they are considering offers to move abroad. One reason is that they don't want to teach unqualified students. Forget the IITs, today even the management schools require students acquainted with, for instance, calculus.
But even engineering college professors state that some of their students are unfamiliar with concepts taught in high school maths. College professors as a class are not as patient as school teachers, and they resent the call on their time when bringing backward students up to speed.
The second reason is that they fear not just a (further) dilution in the quality of students but also in the quality of the teaching staff. If you increase the number of seats by roughly 55 per cent you must also increase the number of teachers. Teaching in an IIT or IIM is not a joke. Where are the qualified personnel? It is galling for a professor who has put in the hard years to be told to share his space with someone who is much less qualified.
A professor in a reputed American university can easily earn ten times as much as his colleague in India (to say nothing of superior research facilities). But salaries are not at the top of the list when considering options outside India; some are people who came back to India rather than stick around in the United States or Europe.
Yet coupled with the prospect of dealing with poorly qualified students and colleagues those pay packets suddenly loom large. I know for a fact that it is not just western universities who are rolling out the red carpet, Indian professors are being offered posts everywhere from Dubai to South-East Asia.
The quality of Kerala's educational system started declining when Keralites lost their respect for teaching. I wince every time I hear that pernicious adage 'Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach!' Now, that lack of respect is being replicated on a national scale.
Did anyone in the Manmohan Singh ministry actually talk to the teachers in the IITs, IIMs, or AIIMS before deciding to increase numbers wholesale? If you don't consult teachers in decision that directly affect them aren't you treating them as lackeys who must do as they are ordered? And why should someone labour away in a job that is not respected when there are greener pastures -- and Green Cards -- to be had?
I am afraid there is going to be an exodus of teachers over the next decade or so. And replacements will be impossible because, just as happened in Kerala, the best and the brightest simply won't find any job satisfaction in teaching. A sorry legacy indeed for an academician Prime Minister!
T V R Shenoy