Madurai-based Aravind Eye Care hospitals are known all over the world for their philanthropic work in the fiercely commercial world of healthcare. They hold the world record of conducting over 4 million eye surgeries, a majority of them done at cheap cost, or free of charge. Chairman P. Nalperumalsamy, a Padmashri, has been the leading light of this institution for long, so much so in 2010, Time magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In a relaxed interview with Arindam Mukherjee, the 73-year-old group patriarch stresses that the government needs to tighten control over private sector educational institutions while simultaneously strengthening public sector colleges. Excerpts:
What is wrong with the education system we follow today in the country?
The general education system is focused only on examinations rather than training students for the future and really testing their knowledge. Because of this, students are forced to take tests that show only their retention powers, not their actual capacity or knowledge. So engineers today cannot do actual work in technology and doctors do not go to people who need their services.
Is the problem with the system or the approach towards education as a whole?
Today, students are completely professionally-oriented and they take examinations for the same rather than to gain knowledge, or do research in the subject. In our colleges, we have infrastructure and good faculty, but there is no motivation to do research. Even in the field of medicine, no one is motivated to do research because everything is so examination and job-oriented.
But that is also a requirement of today’s times.
Yes, but not at the cost of real learning. India’s education system looks at commercial gains only and students are trained to look at their monetary future. The curriculum is also built around clearing an exam and getting into particular professions. Learning is not a priority.
So who is at fault for this mess?
Those regulating and those making policies are equally responsible. If the system has deteriorated to this level where learning has been substituted by a race to clear an examination, regulators and policymakers are to blame for not acting on time to correct this anomaly. It’s also not enough to have rules and regulations, it is important how they are implemented. Government bodies are not controlling institutions. That should become a priority. Also, for good institutions that are promoting real learning, there should be no interference.
Is the present practice of allowing the private sector indiscriminately into education the right approach?
Most educational engineering and medical colleges owned by the government are not equipped in terms of infrastructure and faculty and their quality has been suffering. The better government institutions cannot accommodate the vast number of students who are seeking to get into them. So the need for the private sector comes in. They are filling the gap.
But private sector institutions also charge very high fees.
Yes, many of the private institutions take advantage of the situation and charge high fees. There are very good students in rural areas but they can’t afford good education today.
In some states, the government does regulate fees, including your state (Tamil Nadu).
Yes, but instead of concentrating on just the private sector institutions, the government should strengthen and improve the quality of the government educational institutions. Once that is done, quality education will become affordable and everyone would be willing to join them. Now the standard of these institutions, barring a few leading ones, has gone down so much that no one wants to go there. Everyone is going to private sector colleges, even at a much higher cost.
What’s the solution? How can we put the system in order?
One way to do this is through public-private partnership. It has succeeded in many sectors, so why not in education? The private sector can develop the institutions and provide infrastructure and the government can build the curriculum and run them. In fact, policymakers, professionals and the public should come together with an aim to build good educational institutions. It is good to have as many universities as possible, because many students do not get an opportunity to get into good colleges. But the government should have a strict control on every aspect, like infrastructure, faculty, facilities and curriculum, right from the time they are set up. There should be a periodic accreditation system where once every two years institutions seek accreditation and the regulatory bodies check if all norms are being followed, for it’s often seen that once a sanction comes through, institutions openly flout norms.
Corruption is rampant at institutions as well as regulatory bodies.
Yes, and seats are today sold for a lot of money. This is because private institutions spend a lot of money to set up infrastructure and they try to get that back in any way—scrupulous and unscrupulous. This is something that needs to be totally weeded out.
There is a big debate on the combined engineering examinations. Is that a healthy idea?
It is a good proposal and should be extended to the medical colleges too. Without the entrance exams, many rural students cannot get in because those from the big cities have the advantage of coaching and scoring high marks. With a common exam, everyone will be on an equal footing.
Your institution, Aravind Eye Care Group, has set examples of fair play and stands out in this system with values and principles. How do you continue to do that?
We have set our own standards and we select purely on merit. Our tuition fees are not enhanced to suit our needs and we provide value-based education. We ensure that adequate facilities like infrastructure and faculty are available before we start a course. We cannot forget that students sacrifice a lot to come to learn. And we do periodic evaluation.
Is there anything you want to tell today’s students?
They must remember that college education is the basic foundation. It’s the only place they will get to learn. Once they are outside, they will have to practise what they learnt here...they will not get a chance to learn outside. So they should seize the opportunity, make the most of it.