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April 27, 1998


N Vittal

Calling for an educational emergency

Email this story to a friend. Such a declaration could turn the tide in the battle for IT-literacy and trained manpower. And it will have to start with the schools.

So it has finally happened. Information Technology has come of age in democratic India. It has started appearing in political manifestos and is now
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visible in the Indian political radar too. This is partly due to the success achieved by the Indian technocrats in computer software exports.

We are also fortunate we have some computer savvy political leaders like Chandrababu Naidu, who is trying to push IT in Andhra Pradesh. The fact that Microsoft's first resource centre outside USA is going to be in Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh shows that the chief minister's initiative is paying off.

The manifesto of the BJP has got a section on IT. More encouraging is that the national agenda for governance mentions specifically IT as an area of priority.

What we need is a strategy by which there can be a quantum leap in manpower for IT, say within three years. A very vast army of IT-literate students is vital if India has to make significant use of IT and, more important, meet the increasing demand for cost-effective IT manpower throughout the world.

Success, many a time, comes from converting a problem into an opportunity. If we look at the problem of scientific and technical manpower in India, we find there is a cancer that is eating into India's technical manpower base. There is a systematic fall in the number of admissions to B Sc courses throughout the country. It is these B Sc students who go on to further specialise in science, get doctorates and go in for research as a career. But most students in the tenth and twelfth standards who take up science are trying to do engineering or medicine.

Here we face another problem. Because of social developments and increasing assertiveness of the weaker sections in India, the entire education system is dominated by the principle of affirmative action. This is translated in terms of reservation for SCs, STs and backward classes. This is, politically and socially, a very important issue. I think that it is a very healthy development because it shows the process by which a section of the community that has been exploited for generations is now trying to catch up with the rest. But there are no unmixed blessings.

In the process, we are losing the brainpower of the non-reserved community who may make excellent scientific and technical experts. Many of them just can not get into the medical courses or other technical courses they want. What is more, we don't even appreciate the loss.

It used to be said that if Shakespeare was killed in his youth while poaching on some lord's estate, English literature would never have known what loss it suffered. We do not know the loss we are suffering today because many a bright student belonging to the non-reserved communities is losing a chance getting technical education.

A simple first step would be to introduce an IT module in all B Sc courses. Overnight two things will happen. B Sc students will become better employee material since IT will be essential requirement for any job in the future. Secondly, India will be generating a huge body of manpower, which is not only technically literate but also computer-savvy.

In fact, today there is another haemorrhage of brain power in our education system, that of bright students who would like to take computers as a subject in our secondary and high secondary school system. For marks in a course in computers for the 10th or 12th standard don't count for admission in the degree courses? In other words, our education system discourages our students from taking up computer science. I've been struggling for the last eight years to get the educational authorities to include this as a subject. But I am afraid practically 99 per cent of our higher secondary and secondary school systems have not woken up to this loss of brain power. This needs to be corrected immediately.

There will be doubting Thomases who will point out there aren't enough teachers to teach IT. True. So how do we get them? I have a possible solution.

The IT industry itself can come up with a series of video cassettes or CD-ROMs that can be marketed widely to supplement the teachers who teach such courses. This will also open up employment opportunities in teaching to bright students.

More important, many private enterprises which are in the teaching business can enter into contracts with the education institutions and provide teachers computers on a turnkey basis to tackle the issue of teaching of IT as a subject.

The lack of good computer education is partly due to the many hole-in-the-wall teaching shops that are exploiting students, charging them exorbitant fees and giving very indifferent IT education. There are excellent institutions like Aptech and NIIT. But for every good institute, there are hundreds of doubtful quality. By making IT a regular module in the B Sc courses, it would bring computer education to poor middle class students who can't afford such courses.

I wonder whether, with the new government's commitment to IT, at least this simple idea will be implemented. One danger is the educational bureaucracy. They have their own committees and sub-committees and generally provide an example of Parkinson's dictum that if you do not want to commit yourself, committee yourself.

Here, if government declares its intention clearly and acts as if India is facing an educational emergency, we will probably bring about the change within a month or so. Eminent Pakistani economist Mahboob ul Haque recently came up with the report about the pathetic condition of education in the south Asia consisting of India Bangladesh Pakistan and Maldives and said there was a need to declare an education emergency.

Why can't we act on the idea of Mahboob ul Haque and also call for an educational emergency?

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn | Heads 'n hands | Post-mortem | Where's the cash | Mr T S Eliot's digital wisdom | Banking on IT | R, R & R | Pots & Pans | The Changing Change | Reality check | Spectrum analysis | Global Slum | Rebooting democracy | Catalysts of change

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