'I am doing all this for the students of Kerala, and when they come and hit me, it is very frustrating.'
'My regret is that something that could set off for the future has been thwarted.'
'We have not changed the syllabus for decades, we have not accepted norms in education and technology is hardly used. Today's students are studying what I studied decades ago.'
T P Sreenivasan, a former ambassador to Austria and Slovenia, and Rediff.com columnist, served in the Indian Foreign Service for 37 years. He was also a governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
After retirement, the diplomat settled in Thiruvananthapuram and is currently the vice-chairman and executive head of the Kerala State Higher Education Council with the rank of vice-chancellor.
In that capacity, he organised a Global Education Meet in the state capital last week, with the support of the Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Over a hundred academicians, academic administrators and education providers from around the world attended the meet.
That was when agitating Students Federation of India 'activists' attacked him. The SFI is the Communist Party of India-Marxist's 'students' wing.
Ambassador Sreenivasan spoke to Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com about the incident, the global meet and the education scene.
The Left parties allege that higher education in Kerala was going to be sold to private players at the meet.
The whole accusation was because of a misunderstanding. We had explained to them that there were three purposes behind the meet.
One was to increase international cooperation and contacts with foreign universities, but within the existing laws of the state as well as the central government.
As per existing state law, you cannot have private universities. But there are certain things we can do within the guidelines of the University Grants Commission, and without having private universities and foreign universities having campuses here.
You can have twinning, you can have dual degrees, you can have exchange of students, you can have one semester here and another there. Most of the universities here are not even aware of the possibilities. So, we thought we could make them familiar with these.
We had 160 participants -- including 23 from ten countries -- at the meet.
So the Left's accusation is baseless?
We are nobody to bring private universities here; we cannot as per existing laws. This misunderstanding is because my council has recommended a few months ago that private universities should be allowed in Kerala, but it is still under the consideration of the government.
Don't you think the Left has a phobia against anything that is private?
It is ideological. Earlier, the Left opposed the introduction of computers fearing that there would be loss of jobs and there were many strikes.
Then they opposed self-financing colleges, but today, the CPI-M runs self-financing colleges.
So, you can say they have an initial phobia against any private participation especially in education. But eventually they themselves join in. So, we thought there would be resistance initially.
As the vice-chairman of the Higher Education Council in Kerala, how do you describe the higher education scene in Kerala and the quality of students?
We have identified three areas as important in higher education. First is access, which means there must be enough colleges and universities. Then, there should be equity in education. In both access and equity, Kerala has done well.
Enrolment in Kerala at 27 per cent is higher than the national average of 20 per cent.
Third is excellence in which we have not focussed at all. We have not changed the syllabus for decades, we have not accepted norms in education and technology is hardly used. Today's students are studying what I studied decades ago.
I have identified infrastructure, teachers' training, technology, research, autonomy and internationalisation, as areas to reform. The present council has only two more months to go, but we have given a report.
We were doing the internationalisation aspect to modernise education through the meet that day. It was a mere theoretical study.
Because I have come from abroad, I was labelled as the agent of the Americans. I feel what they are doing is poisoning the people.
The other day when I interviewed a person who has been associated with the start up scene in India from the 1980s, he was saying that unless we revolutionise the education system in India, India will not have great entrepreneurs.
This is what I have also been saying. You cannot have the fourth industrial revolution the world is promising, without an up-to-date higher education.
To make it up to date, you need international contacts. You must know what they are doing and must try to emulate them to an extent possible.
All these ideas are anathema to the Left and they are expecting to come back to power.
Recently a report said that 80 per cent of India's students are unemployable...
Unless there is private capital, you can't improve the scene. The Narayana Murthy committee report says at least 50 per cent of the outlay in higher education must come from the private sector.
The whole world is moving towards privatisation, but in Kerala, there is a resistance to that. They need not have expressed that resistance in this way.
Do you feel the attack on you may have spoiled the mood of those who had come from different countries?
No, they couldn't care less. I explained the incident as militant democracy. They then said that they didn't approve of this kind of democracy.
Other than what we at the council had suggested, there were two more suggestions by the minister. He had seen the Academic City in Dubai and got dazzled by it. He came back and said let's have an Academic City in Kerala.
I explained to him that an Academic City without private universities couldn't be an Academic City.
Dubai allows both private and foreign universities. Then, we devised an Academic City without private universities, but universities with foreign linkages. It is only in theory.
For example, Oxford University will not come here to affiliate with Kerala University and give a Kerala University degree. It is not practical, but still, the government wanted to explore the possibility of an Academic City.
The third idea was to have international higher academic zones. Anybody who has 20 acres of land can set up any institution with foreign linkages while the government will give them infrastructure.
The idea is to bring in entrepreneurs in the self-financing mode, and not the university mode.
In other words, nothing was supposed to change by the outcome of this conference. But nine former vice-chancellors of Leftist orientation started saying what was happening was commoditisation, commercialisation and sales of education to the rest of the world.
The CPI-M embraced the idea that the meet was against the interest of the state.
Do you think the attack on you was because of this propaganda?
The atmosphere in the state was also very tense with the writ petition against the chief minister and the news about the solar scam and all that.
That morning, they were ready to demonstrate outside the meet and all these people had assembled outside Hotel Leela (the venue of the meet) the previous night.
In the morning, both the chief minister and education minister did not come for the meet, but nobody had warned me against going there. I went to the conference and found these boys shouting.
I asked the police what to do. They said the car could not go, but I could walk through. That was why I went.
Otherwise, why would I go where some angry mob was shouting?
I almost crossed the crowd when somebody shouted, 'This is the vice-chairman.' They were actually looking for me as they admitted later that their plan was to block three people -- the CM, the education minister and the vice-chairman, which is me, so that the conference didn't take place.
When somebody identified me, they started beating me up.
It must have been a huge shock for you.
Yes, it was a terrible shock. Though they hit me from behind, it was not in a very hurtful manner, but in an insulting manner.
I quietly walked towards where the policemen were standing. That was when this guy came very slowly as if to protect me, but then he slapped me very hard on my right cheek and I fell down.
Because you are an international figure, what happened to you got international attention. Don't you think it will affect the image of Kerala?
Yes, it was international news. And what happened to me will definitely affect the image of Kerala. Whenever they think of Kerala, this is the image they will have.
They will say a man who tried to reform education was battered on the streets. Won't they feel uncomfortable investing here? That is the tragedy of it.
This incident has become a big problem for the Left. Earlier, they didn't condemn the incident, but they condemned it on the second day.
CPI-M leader Pinarayi Vijayan said you may be a well-known diplomat, but your contribution to education was nothing.
Yes, he said he appreciated my work as an ambassador, but I was not an educationist. What does that mean? If you are not an educationist, you should be beaten up or what?
The next day, after seeing the strong reaction from all the people, he condemned it.
My regret is that something that could set off for the future has been thwarted.
Do you feel sad for the students of Kerala?
I am doing all this for them, and when they come and hit me, it is very frustrating.