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Is college education truly necessary?

August 05, 2004

On July 22, Rajni S Anand committed suicide by jumping off a building. She did so, as she confessed in a note, because of her despair at being unable to pay her dues. 

The tragedy sparked off riots in several places across Kerala. When the matter was debated in the Kerala assembly, the Left Democratic Front blamed the A K Antony government for its part in the 'commercialisation' of education; the chief minister in turn pointed out that his predecessors in the Left had actually made the schedule of fees!

A K Antony did not cite, as he might have, the death of Zheng Qingming on June 4, 2004 to buttress his case. His teacher publicly scolded this young Chinese from a poor peasant family because he had not paid his college entrance examination fees (approximately the equivalent of Rs 3,700).

Ashamed and angry, he killed himself by throwing himself in front of a train. The Communist People's Republic of China is evidently as 'commercial' as any other nation when it comes to higher education.

But let us forget about the point-counterpoint of the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front. The circumstances of young Rajni Anand's death throw up a couple of other issues (which I hope will be debated as
dispassionately as possible).

Also Read: Rajeev Srinivasan: Here's the bill for your recent riot

First, who is to pay for higher education?

Second -- and at the risk of sounding like an absolute Philistine -- is it really necessary to send everyone through the grind of getting a college degree?

It is universally agreed that primary education should be available to everyone; it is also agreed that the State should step in if a child's guardians cannot afford the school fee. Unfortunately, in India we have stood the principle on its head even as we accept it in theory.

A really good private school in Delhi will charge fees that are several times greater than the best college in the University of Delhi.

Also Read: Ashwin Mahesh: Caste out of class

I find it ridiculous that taxpayers should be subsidising college fees even as government schools are so starved of funds that they are forced to hold classes in tents. (Or, if they are really unlucky, even under the nearest tree!)

College students in the United States -- which is generally acknowledged to have the best universities today -- must pay for their education. (The facilities and the pay offered by American universities are so much better that even the likes of Oxford and Cambridge have problems in retaining their best teachers.) Students have to approach banks for loans if their parents can't afford to shell out the money. P Chidambaram made a modest beginning to this effect in his Budget, promising loans up to seven-and-a-half lakh rupees, but it is anybody's guess whether the banks shall oblige. Let us not forget that one or two banks allegedly turned down poor Rajni Anand.

I can't really blame the banks for being prudent. Some weeks ago, there was a report that some banks were complaining that students from the renowned IIM (Bangalore) had failed to repay their loans. If MBAs from so prestigious an institution -- their starting annual packet is generally greater than two years' worth at IIM -- can play fast and loose, can you blame a bank
for being chary when approached by someone who really wasn't an outstanding student?

Before we get banks to be generous with depositors' funds we have to ensure there is some system of recovering those loans.

Which brings me to my second question: is a college education truly necessary? Or is just part of the general Indian attitude that pays an excessive reverence to a piece of paper? Professional degrees and diplomas -- from civil engineering to hotel management -- are one thing, but I do question the use of churning out thousands of graduates in, say, economics and

How many of these courses -- not really aimed at forging a professional in a given field -- are actually useful? How many of these graduates go on to pursue a career in research? Finally, given the state of several Indian universities, several of these degrees say nothing about the actual quality of education. (I have met several people who took up a course in English Literature yet are hard pressed to express themselves fluently in that language.)

Zheng Qingming's suicide demonstrated that even the famed Chinese economic boom provide sufficient funds to send everyone to college. But it is open to question if the State has a duty to do so even given ample money.

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T V R Shenoy

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