CNBC TV18 Column : Congress manifesto: Education, Science and Technology have long been the need of the hour

I write for CNBC-TV18

In 2015, the Government of the People’s Republic of China announced the “Double First Class University plan”. It is a 35-year vision for academic excellence in the country. By 2050 China aims to be a Higher Education Power. In 2017, they came up with the implementation plan that would help them achieve this. First, by 2020 they would have some world class universities that are top in their specialist fields. The second, to have even more world class universities in the following decade, and be ay the top in the top disciplines. And, the third, would be the number one power in academia, by 2050.

This is not the first time the Chinese government has laid out a vision for Academia. In 1998, they had announced the setting up of the first world class universities. This vision called project 985, involved large amounts of funding to a select set of universities kick starting research. And, this has seen China benefit for the next 20 years, with cutting edge technologies. And, today, they are one of the leaders in research in AI, data sciences, and many other fields.

What is interesting about the way the Chinese system works, is how the entire ecosystem is geared to delivering the vision. The ministry of finance clears the funds,  central and local governments clear the funds, teachers are trained, new subjects introduced, students learn, they produce more research, the cycle continues- and the vision is enabled. China currently spends 2.6% on it’s GDP on science and technology, up from 0.56% in 1996. And the state is directing the academic vision. The state is encouraging businesses in these areas, and they, in turn, are putting in more money into research in these areas, and there is an exponential effect in terms of scientific advance as a nation.

India currently spends between 0.6% and 0.7% of her GDP on science, a figure that has been more or less static for the last 2 decades. In a world where competitive advantage in key areas of science and technology are going to be vital, this figure has to be revisited.  Also needed is a plan to revitalise Indian universities and make them a  hub for science and technology. It is in this context that some of the announcements regarding Education, and Science and Technology made in the Indian National Congress 2019 manifesto are interesting.

Education is promised 6% of the GDP. With this comes a promise to look at three separate organisations that would look at regulation, grading, and funding, of the university system. The funding organisation would be given a large enough corpus to fund cutting edge research in universities. This separation of tasks is a good idea. Competencies needed for each of these roles is different, and they are best served by organisations specialising in that space. Across the world, governments are setting up apex funding bodies that are able to deliver focused areas of research based on national priorities.

The second is setting up new institutes in pure sciences. With this needs to come an open hiring policy, where these institutes are able to get teachers from all over the world. And, that means working across departments of government to bring about policy to make this happen. Otherwise we will have lovely buildings with few teachers.

The INC manifesto also talks about setting aside 2% of the GDP for science and technology. The vision is to strengthen labs within the NAAC accredited colleges. Again there, care needs to be taken to ensure that this is not just about spends, but also results. 

Somehow, in elections, both education, and science and technology, seldom become the issue of debate. But given their importance in terms of long-term health and development of a nation, it seems prudent to spend some time looking at the manifesto of the parties to see what they have in mind. Ultimately these two areas need to be bipartisan in terms of approach, for the greater long term good. Policy in these areas, must be consultative because the vision will stretch across many governments – not all form the same party.    

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