The student agitation in one of the most prestigious universities of the country – the Jawahar Lal University or JNU as its popularly known has once again brought the focus back on the costs of quality education in the country. And it is not just in institutes of higher education. Whenever and wherever (school, college, university etc) there has been a fee hike, there has been a protest. Why?
As a welfare state, it is the duty and responsibility of the government to provide quality education at reasonable cost. Though a lot needs to be done on quality, the governments have done their bit on the cost factor. School education in India is compulsory and free for every child up to the age of 14 years. Schools run by private managements too have to reserve up to 25 percent of seats under the Right To Education. In government schools, not just education, mid-day meal, uniform, and books too are free. Besides, there are scholarships for students, especially for those coming from under privileged sections of the society. So, there can be no real complaints in school education.
The scenario is similar at college level. Most Indian states, if not all, offer higher education at a nominal fee. It is free for girls in most states. At university level too, the fee by no means can be said to be high. Premium institutes like the IITs, IIMs, medical colleges and other universities offer highly subsided education. Think of the getting a room in JNU at just Rs10. Even a bedding costs Rs 20 per night. If we compare the increased salaries and expenses over the years with the increase in fee, the disparity becomes very clear.
Political populism has taken its toll on financial health of our country. We need to understand, government needs to generate funds to provide subsidised education, healthcare and runs other welfare schemes for people. It just can’t print more currency to finance them. And where does the money come from? Taxes. And for its population, the collection of taxes in India is very poor, to say the least. If taxes are increased, again it goes from our pocket. Now, if we understand the situation, nothing is free. Somebody has to pay for the subsidy.
Those saying that poor students will not be able to pay the increased fees in JNU, I say to them- just put a hand on your heart and say it again with complete honesty. We need to empower our students, not handicap them with freebies. A couple of years down the line and out of JNU, how will these students earn their livelihood? And what salary do they expect to earn? More importantly, when we look at the welfare schemes running at central and state level for the poor and economically backward sections of the society, almost everything is taken care of by the government. From free housing to highly subsidised ration, to cheapest electricity and water to free education and healthcare.
Many quote free education in foreign countries. Interestingly, most countries do not have a system of private education. The education, healthcare, and social security system for citizens is excellent. However, people pay good taxes to get these services free. In India, we just want to pick and choose. It is like- As a tenant, you don’t want the owner to increase the rent, but as an owner yourself, you want to increase the rent to your tenant. So, how you see the fee hike depends on your status- tenant or owner.
And it is not that institutions run by private managements have a free hand. These institutes are governed by norms and regulations on facilities and fees at every level. They need to make huge investment in infrastructure to get recognition from the government. Then, there are regulatory bodies to keep a check on the fees charged. So, is it fair to expect them to provide the best of facilities at fee charged in government institutes?
And I am for free education to all. But then, let there be no private institutes of any kind like in developed countries. Let the government take over all of them. Only in such a scenario is free quality education possible. If the government allows private sector in education (as is the current situation), experts have suggested there should be no interference in functioning or fee of these institutes. Education is government’s responsibility, private institutions are at best in supporting role.
Times are changing. So is role of the government. As individuals and collectively as a society, we too need to change our perception of the government. Gone are the days of free lunches. If we do not keep an eye on our income and expenditure, we are bound to go burst someday. The government is no exception.
If we realise this, Rs300 for a room in JNU doesn’t sound that costly. Does it?