When it was announced that Smriti Irani was being elevated to the Union Cabinet and given the Human Resource Development portfolio, to say that such a move was not universally hailed would be an understatement. The weeks ahead saw repeated references to her educational background, the presumption being that only a string of degrees would qualify an individual to be an effective HRD Minister. This despite the fact, that the country is littered with those carrying trainloads of qualifications, who are proving to be less than stellar in their work. Raghuram Rajan is an example. Despite — or perhaps because of — his academic pedigree, the Reserve Bank of India Governor has continued the high interest rate policy of both his predecessors, thereby ensuring that company after company be rendered unable to compete domestically or internationally, with several ending up in the non-performing asset books of public sector banks. There is much buzz about a "Harvard degree", with few pointing out that what is usually needed to acquire such a distinction is not IQ, but parents who have the financial means to spend more than $400,000 on their ward's education in that well-funded institution.
In contrast to the doomsday prophets, this columnist was glad that Smriti Irani was made the Union HRD Minister. Education in India needs to get modernised, and Minister Irani is certainly modern. Hence the expectation that she would bring at least a whiff of the 21st century into what is still a cram-filled 18th century educational process in India, a system that has stamped out excellence so effectively that no university in India comes anywhere near desirable standards of global excellence. A dull uniformity has been imposed across the spectrum of higher education, with almost no discretion given to universities in matters both academic as well as administrative. What is needed is to free higher education from micro-management, and convert the University Grants Commission into an institution, not focusing on control, as on coming up with innovative ideas by ensuring that those wedded to innovation and excellence occupy its highest offices rather than bureaucrats obsessed with detail to the exclusion of the bigger picture. Hopefully, Minister Irani will work on this, so as to fulfil Prime Minister Narendra Modi's agenda of "Minimum Government, Maximum Governance". In such a context, it was a surprise when the HRD Ministry abandoned — in midstream — the teaching of German in around 500 Kendriya Vidyalaya schools across the country, replacing that language with Sanskrit.
Sanskrit certainly needs encouragement, and a good way of doing so would be to set up an academy on the lines of the Goethe Institute, Confucius Centre or the Alliance Francaise, which would be tasked with teaching Sanskrit across the globe. Meanwhile, in India as in other countries, the decision as to what foreign language to learn should be left to the student rather than to the state. Most likely, the Goethe Institute will now look towards private schools (for example, the many run by the Catholic Church or by the Anglo-Indian associations) as alternative vehicles for the teaching of a language, mastery of which would enable tens of thousands of our youth to get jobs in German companies across the globe, thereby depriving the Kendriya Vidyalayas of an advantage. Instead of blocking access to the German language, what the HRD Minister needs to do is to ensure that facilities get created for school students to learn those foreign languages, which would help them get jobs, such as Chinese or Spanish.Additionally, facilities need to get created to teach Portuguese to those looking at migrating to Brazil, a country in need of teachers, nurses, engineers and other skilled manpower. Perhaps Russia could be tapped to ensure the teaching of Russian so as to ensure that more people from this country settle in that vast country of immeasurable potential.
Forcing choices on students by fiat is a style of governance alien to the philosophy of governance of Prime Minister Modi, and as the minister in charge of a portfolio crucial to the future of hundreds of millions of young people, Smriti Irani needs to not only avoid blocking German in schools, but adding to the mix Chinese, Spanish and other foreign languages of value in the job markets of the future, thereby giving students more, rather than less, choices in schools across the country.