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Why doesn't coporate munificence fund education?

October 27, 2010 16:59 IST

Major corporate giants could, as part of their corporate social responsibility, set up educational institutions but does not seem to be the priority, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

A short while ago, Ratan Tata gifted $50 million to Harvard Business School to set up a new centre and residential building. Much earlier, Anand Mahindra is said to have contributed to the university he studied in, in the United States. Closer home, the beneficiaries of some munificence were the IIT, Bombay and IIT, Kharagpur from where Nandan Nilekani and N R Narayana Murthy had graduated. Remembering an alma mater for making them the men they turned out to be is natural and expected, especially when you have the moolah.

Not for a moment does one suggest that the Tata contribution Harvard was misplaced or avoidable. Nor does one begrudge the institution which received such contribution. It is their personal choice, well within understandable reasons. These, it appears, are individual expressions of gratitude and wanting to help institutions which are already doing well.

Most major institutions, whether the BITs, Pilani, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Institute of Science, Bangalore, are examples of such munificence which left deep marks in improvement of education in India. An institution teaching management in Mumbai bears the Bajaj tag.

Unfortunately, such endowments are becoming rare within the country where major corporate giants could, as part of their corporate social responsibility, set up institutions but does not seem to be the priority. When, for instance, have you heard of an Ambani -- they figure in virtually every rich list -- or a Sunil Mittal being involved in such grand and useful gestures? If they decide, they could make a difference, just as by their enterprise, they made a difference to the country.

Of course, Anil Agarwal has set out to set up a university near Puri in Orissa. But he seems to be the single swallow trying to making a summer. I am not sure if one can expect this to be the forerunner of other corporates getting into the act via their charitable trusts. Barring this, one does not recall anyone endowing a university in India for a long, long time.

Before education became a business, schools and colleges were being set up by the local bigwigs who had money, but nowhere near the millions and billions the tycoons count these days. Name a school and a college, they came from someone's purse and countless generations today count their blessings; they had got the education, hardly at any cost to their parents, because of these schools and colleges.

Such philanthropy has disappeared, much to the loss of the larger society. We could do with that revival.

Now, a school, or a college cannot come up, unless you are a politician, or a person with political connections, and know how to convert the opportunity arising from permissions wheedled out into a cash cow. Even deemed universities, which fell foul of the rules and authorities continue to function because of the political linkages their owners have. Yes, owners, the word is used advisedly here. The remarkable thing is that most new institutions have a political dimension to it.

One recalls S Ramadorai of Tata Consultancy Services lamenting about the crop of students sent out from colleges who have degrees but in terms of skill sets, are just unemployable. Which means, they need to be retrained at some cost, measured in time and money, to the company. I always wondered as to why they plough into the business of business with very low margins to meet the pretence of CSR and yet help enhance skills on a larger platform that in-house induction programme when they are endowed with skills?

Ramadorai's view is the saddest commentary on the system which is expanding but has not managed to secure the depth requisite to ensure quality, enable the students to be in sync with the evolving world where changes are far speedier than one ever assumed was possible, say, a decade or two ago.

The thing is that students who enter universities are the one who cannot compete for seat there, especially in professional courses, without help from the tutorials which cost their parents a bomb. If tutorials are to hone the intellect of the students -- one assumes, guardedly, that tutorials are not teaching the rote method by really enabling -- don't laugh, please -- them to sharpen their minds, then what price the schools?

If they do, and work with the efficiency they show in running their own world class businesses, the country and they themselves would stand to benefit enormously. They could come in and set new benchmarks in search for excellence because others who have invaded the education sector have the profit-making inclinations of a trader who wants to cream off profits with poor quality scholastic programmes.

The country either has IITs and IIMs of the calibre they are, or universities which do not give two hoots about the quality of their products, or the money-spinning private education sector where nothing else matters -- not even the salary of the teacher who are often paid less than the scales meant to be paid. Their excuse -- they get no grants, so pay less. Also because they are unaided, they charge more. A win-win for the owner, a lose-lose for the other stakeholders.

This is the case with schools too, where quality is not the purpose but making money is. Small apartments serve as nurseries and pre-school ventures where a bored housewife with an entrepreneur spirit steps in and offers a facility for a harrowed working mother. It is better to send the kid there than leave him or her in the custody of the illiterate maid who watches the television soaps and helps, in the bargain, the child to become a TV addict.

Sad, that.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs

Mahesh Vijapurkar