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`We must make education priority No 1'

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The economy is in good shape, employment is being generated, but we don't have enough people with the required skills and educational background. MR T. V. MOHANDAS PAI, MEMBER OF BOARD AND HR CHIEF, INFOSYS.

Rasheeda Bhagat

In the coming decade, India is going to face the massive challenge of finding educated and skilled people to man the various sectors of the growing economy. If we do not get our act together and work on this, we are in trouble, says Mr T. V. Mohandas Pai, Member of Board and Human Resorce chief, Infosys.

Excerpts from an interview:

The Indian economy is poised to take off; we are growing at 8 per cent and all sectors are bullish. But where will the manpower come from?

The biggest impediment to growth this decade will probably be human resource. The economy is in good shape, employment is being generated, but we don't have enough people with the required skills and educational background. We now have a GDP of $800 billion; if we grow at 7 per cent, it will double in 10 years, and become $3.2 trillion in 20 years, a four-fold increase. We have about six crore people in the organised sector, of whom about two crore will retire in the next decade.

By this arithmetic, we may require six-eight crore talented and educated people. This may be difficult with colleges producing only about 30 lakh graduates per year...

That includes engineers, graduates, etc?

Yes. And the education system in colleges is deteriorating rapidly. While the entire workforce need not be skilled and college-educated, those with degrees will have greater opportunities. And we have not done much to develop the skills . Try getting a driver, mason, plumber, electrician, welder... they are just not available in the numbers needed. And the burden of enhancing skills is falling on industry.

But, then, everybody today wants to sit in an air-conditioned office...

No. There are many people in the smaller towns and interior areas who are not well educated and want to be drivers. But how many driving schools do we have in the formal sector? Our auto manufacturers are not investing in them. Maruti is now doing something as also (Ashok) Leyland, but that is not enough. Look at the data. We produce about 1.2 million cars, about five lakh LCVs and other vehicles including good carriers, auto-rickshaws, and so on. I estimate about 1.6 million drivers will be needed for the transportation industry every year on an incremental basis. Where are they going to get them? Who will train them? Take the hotel industry; we have about 96,000 rooms in India. In the next five years, we'll probably add another one lakh rooms. The hotel and the airline industries are not able to find people.

So what needs to be done?

In the last decade, we have put in place hard infrastructure, organised our policy for ports, national highways, power, airlines, telecom, which are working. But in the soft areas, where the gestation period is long, we have not applied our mind, and have messed up very badly.

Why has the quality of our education deteriorated?

Because the teachers are not up to the standard; 25 years ago, when we were growing up, the aspiration for one to become a teacher was much higher.

Because we had teachers who inspired us!

Yes, my mother became a teacher in the first decade of Independence. In the second decade, everybody wanted to become engineers, in the next decade, the craze was for doctors, followed by software engineers, finance professionals, etc. For three-four decades, we have not had the best and the brightest going into teaching because society has downgraded the importance of the teacher; the respect for the teacher has come down.

The government has stifled private and community initiatives in education and has taken control. And when governments do that, there is nepotism and corruption in appointments. You appoint thousands of teachers and then politicians make money in transferring them! Also, teachers have become politicised. And their salaries compared to other professions have not gone up. Yet, teachers are willing to teach for less pay, provided they have the academic freedom.

Which they don't have...

No, in the college, teachers cannot change the syllabi, their promotions are based on the whims and fancies of the management and there is no openness. As a society, we have to wake up and make education the No. 1 priority.

Sure, but what is the contribution of the private sector?

We have to throw away the dogmas of the past. First and foremost, we must open up the education market to the private sector if it wants to invest and set up premier educational institutions.

Our students are already paying phenomenal fees abroad.

Yes, fees have to be paid. We have to accept the social reality of the large segment which cannot pay the fees; but, nevertheless, they must be given access to education through national scholarship programmes. Today, we have a large private sector presence in education in South India, though the quality leaves much to be desired. So the same upsurge against reservations is not seen in the Southas in the North. But a large number of the institutions in the South are run by politicians or people affiliated to them. Because of this nexus, the education sector is not open to those who really want to set up good institutions. Herein lies the challenge. If you create a transparent policy, removing government control and, say, you can set up colleges, get accreditation and charge fees in a transparent manner, you will see an upsurge of good institutions coming from the private sector.

But do you see it actually happening?

The time is right; we are at an inflection point when it can happen. I suggest strongly that the Prime Minister invite eminent people to come together and start five-six universities... institutions dedicated to excellence, with the assurance that they would be given operating and functional freedom. Next, we must give full functional freedom to existing universities. Now, how do we treat our vice-chancellors?

Shabbily.

At the time of Independence, the vice-chancellor was an important person, but no longer. We don't treat him with respect though he heads a university. We have enough reports on all this by eminent educationists; we must act now. We need younger people with vision at the Centre to change the educational system.

That is an interesting comment!

Look at the tragedy of the situation; 650 million people below the age of 30, 450 million people below 20; India has a young population. But does our political leadership reflect the aspirations of the young?

No. Most of them are pretty senior...

They are far removed from the aspirations of the young. The political leadership has memories of Partition, the past. But the younger generation has no such memories nor does it relate to such events. How can they relate to what happed 55 years ago; nobody cares. If we have people who are very old, out of date, out of touch, then what policies are we building for this country? We need an education policy.

What do you feel about reservations?

My personal view is that every Indian should have access to quality education. As long as you create capacity in institutes of excellence, where admission is purely merit-based, it is all right. Unfortunately, there are debates against merit and excellence.

You had a problem in accommodating your visitors as there were not enough hotel rooms in Bangalore. So you set up your own hotel. So why not your own college or university to meet your HR demands?

People tell us this, but it is not a scaleable model. If you're hiring 25,000 people, as we're doing today, no college or university can turn out 25,000 people. And to set it up will take 10-15 years. Also, all the graduates should not join you or else it becomes an incestuous relationship.

That's an interesting description!

Young people should have a choice. It is in their hands to join Infosys or others. We should become attractive enough for them to join us.

So that's not on the cards?

No, it's not a scalable model. But if the government says why don't you set up something and create a model institution; that is something we'd have to think of.

(To be concluded.)

Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 5, 2006)
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