Saturday, Jul 13, 2002
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By Dipankar Gupta
MURLI MANOHAR Joshi believes that renaming the Regional Engineering Colleges as National Institutes of Technology (NIT) will enhance their reputation. In his view they must be of comparable rank to the IITs, and some tinkering with their nomenclature and charter should do the trick.
Perhaps such a manoeuvre will make the RECs look good, but what about the status of education in the country in general, inclusive of our prestigious IITs? What happens to our engineers and doctors when they come out of these centres of higher education? Indeed, what is the fate that awaits the intellectual elite of our country in general?
It is at this point that we could learn from the French experience. After the Third Republic was established there was a systematic campaign to ingrain among students pride in being French. By the late 1880s, France had already conscripted an army of hussar noires, or soldiers in black, as schoolteachers, to spread the message of the republic to children across the length and breadth of France. They were called soldiers in black because they wore dark suits to work, but the term was appropriate in another sense as well. Though they did not wield weapons, these teachers functioned as soldiers insomuch as they endeavoured to consolidate the gains of the republic deep in the hearts and minds of young citizens.
The legacy of the Third Republic continues in many ways in contemporary France as well. The most prestigious schools in France are state run schools or lycees. There are a few private schools in France, generally run by the Catholic establishment, but they are usually for those who have a learning disability or whose parents are unusually religious. For the rest of France, the best and the brightest go to some of these well known state-run schools, from where they hope to make it to the very exclusive Grand Ecoles for higher education. The chances are that if a student gets into one of these prestigious schools then the prospects of entering the Grand Ecoles increase tremendously.
Entry is by merit, and no amount of wealth and power can get a child into any of these establishments. Unlike America, a huge grant from a benevolent grandparent will not win a student a place in any of the Grand Ecoles. There are many Grand Ecoles for different specialities from engineering, to medicine, to national administration, and even commerce. Admission immediately makes the student a servant of the republic. In some cases, these students are also required to wear the uniform and participate in France's annual National Day parades.
All this is important, and interesting, but what is truly striking is that a student who passes out of these Grand Ecoles is contractually bound to serve France for five to ten years. If they want to leave the country, they have to buy their way out. Unlike our medical and engineering graduates in India, they do not take off for Silicon Valley in California once they get their degrees from home.
But this is a realistic measure in France, and one that has not aroused any meaningful opposition so far, primarily because it is not a stand-alone policy. Once a person passes from any of these Grand Ecoles a job is guaranteed to him or her. When I asked several experts in France what would happen if a graduate from a Grand Ecole did not find a job, they looked at me in amazement. As far as they could recall this had never happened, and the prospects of it happening are absolutely unimaginable. Not just are they guaranteed state jobs, but these are all well paid and enjoy high status in French society. Salary scales in France are very different from other western industrialised countries not to mention India. A public sector employee in France is better paid at the junior to upper middle levels than in the private sector. It is only at the upper levels where the private sector occasionally takes over.
This kind of salary structure allows the young French graduate from any of the Grand Ecoles to look forward to a career in the French Government. In fact, even at the upper levels the difference in salary structure between the private and the public sectors is in the ratio of 1:2, and not like 1: 5 or 1: 10, as in many other societies. This is why working for the public sector is not looked down upon in France. It is quite common for an ambitious French bureaucrat to build up an impressive bio data in the French Government so that a high level transfer could be effected to the private sector later in one's career. To work for France is a worthwhile option one that has high rewards. Some Grand Ecole graduates even spurn the private sector and spend their entire working life with the Government in the hope of occupying the top spot one day in one of the many state-run monopolies that still exist in France.
What matters is that they are ecole products, who are proud of their education and are putting in the best years of their life in serving their country. This pride in being French is not around jingoistic postures, around religion, around history, and so on, as it is in the fact that France is an important knowledge state. Thus the best hospitals in France are public hospitals, the best transport system is also public, and the largely state controlled power company of France is about the best in the world. France is also renowned for its nuclear energy programme, as it is for medical research in a variety of fields, including AIDS. Most people of substance in France are ecole products. All the presidents of France, after Charles de Gaulle, have been ecole graduates, in fact even to be a respected member of the opposition it pays to have been to an ecole, preferably the Ecole Nationale Administratif.
It is really quite surprising that France has never been a model for India. For many years, especially in the period after Independence in 1947, France was represented in this country by some truly extraordinary diplomats. Count Ostrorog was the French Ambassador to India for more than one term, and from all reports he enjoyed the goodwill and friendship of Jawaharlal Nehru and some of his close colleagues. Why then did the French experience not leave any impact at all on our policy makers when India began its career as a nation-state? India in those days aspired to have a strong state sector, and France already had one. What is significant is that the French public sector was not just public, but it was also efficient and functioned well. India was keen on engendering a republican and secular spirit in the country, and here again France could have provided a model. But for some reason the French experiment which could have been so useful for India was completely overlooked. It could be that Nehru had imbibed the Englishman's prejudice regarding things French, or it could well be that the French were not keen to display their wares like the Russians and Americans were. Be that as it may, we lost a good chance to learn from a successful experiment.
Back to Mr. Joshi and his renaming of the RECs. Will such a renaming give Indian engineers pride in being Indian and staying in India? Far from it. It will probably make their exodus to Silicon Valley easier. Should we grudge their departure? What scope do we give our Indian graduates to lead a fulfilling life in our state sector? Just renaming institutions won't do. We have to reflect deeply on our peculiar national predicament where we have talent aplenty but we cannot retain them at home for our own national development.
A concerted policy that takes into account education, employment and republican values can alone provide the answer, and not half-hearted cosmetic measures.
We should spend a little more time taking French lessons.
(The writer is Professor, School of Social Sciences, JNU.)
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