Published: 20th February 2019
The Bibek Debroy Interview: Today's students are willing to break the law but don't want to face the consequences
He is an economist who has immense knowledge of Indian epics. He learnt Sanskrit in his 40s and is now a pundit in that field. Bibek Debroy speaks about today's students, educational research and more
We are living in a time when every campus is bustling with complaints that there is no place for dissent in India. But economist and author, Bibek Debroy, who went to college during the turbulent age of Naxalite movements in Kolkata in the 1970s, says that there is no pride in disrespecting institutions and teachers. If you break the law, face the consequences, he says. Excerpts from a very intense conversation about education, rebels of today and the reforms we need:
Every young Indian is talking about dissent in campuses India. How were your college days?
My undergraduate education was at Presidency College, Kolkata. And those were the turbulent 70s. It was a bit of an exceptional situation. There is a huge difference between that time and now. I think we were far less conscious of careers at that stage. We were far less conscious of the options that were available. I accept that it is difficult to generalise but nonetheless I think that today's generation at that age is much more well-informed about the choices they have, what they want to do and how they want to go about it. I also think that in our time the parental pressure was probably a bit less. Now, don't misunderstand — the parental pressure was always there but parents did not go to colleges and ask the teachers how their wards were performing. I also tend to think that when you are a student you tend to violate rules — not necessarily in violent fashion. I think we were prepared to face the consequences.
And that isn't the case today?
Again. it is difficult to generalise but in many instances, I find the students, nowadays, are willing to break the law but are unwilling to face the consequences. Every country has some institutions and unless a country respects those institutions a country cannot function, it becomes anarchy. I am not suggesting for a minute that the institutions are perfect. It isn't. And it is legitimate to question these institutions. Principals and teachers have problems — they are not perfect either. But questioning the existence of the institutions per se is dangerous and that is what is happening. So, yes we were critical but I do not think we ever denied our teachers the due respect. What worries me today people have begun to question the respect that is due to the teachers. I do not regard this as a healthy trend. Earlier, I used to teach at my alma mater, Presidency College. Today I would flatly refuse to do so.
Because students do not respect their teachers anymore?
Look, students, by definition, are rebellious. But beyond that rebellion, there must be a certain amount of discipline. I am not saying students should dress up in uniforms and turn up in college. But if I have attendance requirements I must stick to those requirements. I cannot hope to bunk classes and then exert pressure to suggest that those attendance requirements be waived. I cannot question the attendance requirements per se.
There is a chicken and egg problem when it comes to colleges in India. teachers claim students do not come to college and students say that there are no lectures at college why should they waste their time. They would rather go to tutorial classes where they would be taught everything they need to pass their exams or even excel in them. How would you address that?
The chicken and egg problem is that today we have a large number of private universities that are coming up. And this is the extra bird that is coming into your chicken and egg problem, so to speak. They are attracting students even though their fees are way more than the public institutions. Simultaneously they are attracting faculty as the pay scale is better. It's too early to judge but certainly, the better private universities are much more desired by both students and faculty than our traditional colleges, most of which are public. The message of competition has worked everywhere. There is no particular reason why it should not work for the education sector also. But the university teachers are the most unionised section of the society and therefore they are resistant to change. We have known for years what the terminal goal of higher education reforms should be but we have not gone very far. And now the system is bypassing that. Now that is not good for the chicken and egg problem. There will come a time when people will not go to traditional public universities. That makes it even less viable.
Are private universities delivering a quality education?
You see, the better ones (private universities) have always been very good. Although I don't think it's a private-public issue so much. I think the issue is different. We do not an adequate flow of information. This is what economists call asymmetry of information. As a student or a parent of a prospective student, you don't know how good an institution is. You want information available on how they are earning their money, what are the qualifications of the faculty, what is the publication record, citation records, placement records, etc. Without that, you cannot even rate or rank these institutions. The ratings that are available now are all in absence of perfect information. I would like to see a unified regulator eventually who will demand information be made public. Then one will be able to make an informed decision.
What would you say is the immediate reform the Indian educational system needs?
I think we should not look at it in a binary way. What I mean by the binary way is we are point A today and we reform to point B tomorrow. Reform is not an overnight affair. What happened in 1991 was a bit of a rarity and whatever happened in 1991 was in the external sector. Domestic sectors will never have overnight reform. It will have incremental reform. No one will substantively disagree about the final goal of educational reforms — competition, choice, efficiency. There will be disagreement about some issues — whether profit-making should be allowed, private vis-a-vis public etc. But we will never get there instantly.
Should Indian epics be included in the formal system? Are we updating our syllabus enough?
All I am saying is that we all should be familiar with this literature because we are still familiar with it but we are misinformed. I just want us to know the correct version of our epics. Whether it should be done through school college texts, I don't know. For example, when we were in college, some of these texts were in the curriculum. Today that does not happen. Instead, Julius Ceasar, King Lear or Macbeth continues to be perennial favourties while these epics have been displaced. I don't think that's natural or desirable. Most syllabi I am familiar with are sufficiently vague. And then there are recommended texts — that is where the problem really lies and not with the skeletal structure of the syllabus. They should obviously be updated. But please remember that each book or syllabus is only as good as the teacher. We don't have good teachers. If you go back 50 years, teachers were relatively paid more than what they are paid now. The operative word being relative. Unless we get good teachers, changing the text alone is not going to change much.
Are profit-making educational institutions harmful to the education sector and the students?
Firstly, fees should be much more realistic. If a student pays x amount for school, I don't believe he or she will not pay the same amount for college. Fees should be more than what it is right now. There should be a subsidy that goes directly to the ones who need it. On the pure profitmaking issue, I see nothing wrong. It's not as if they are not making a profit today. Either there are under the table transactions or they are charging capitation charges. Even if you say we are not ready for profit-making businesses in this sector we should at least have reasonable fees. I had read an autobiography of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray where he writes about his time at the University of Edinburgh. He says they had no system of fees. At the end of the lecture, if you liked it you could leave some money on the table.