For over a century, Shikshan Prasaraka Mandali, an educational society, has been creating and operating educational institutes. From a pan-Maharashtra presence, it is now looking at other states as well. One of the trustees of the institution, Sohanlal Jain, who is also a director with an Indian conglomerate, spoke with Pankaj Joshi and R N Bhaskar, how the education sector is shaping up.
How did the SP Mandali society evolve in both size and structure?
SP Mandali was founded by four teachers— Krishnaji Ballal Dongre, Damodar Sadashiv Karambelkar, Krishnaji Govind Ukidve, and Ramchandra Gopal Deo. The eminent educationist of Maharashtra, Vishnushastri Chiplunkar, was a strong guiding spirit in this initiative. The first educational institution, the Nutan Marathi Vidyalaya came up in 1883 in Pune, and subsequently the parent body was institutionalised in 1888.
However the catalyst ingredient for starting their first college, in 1913, was the eminent freedom fighter, Lokmanya Tilak. He managed to help the Mandali get a 99-year lease on a 25-30 acre plot of land in Pune for a token sum of Re 1 where the college was set up. Subsequently, the Sir Parashurambhau College was built, largely through a donation of around Rs 3 lakh from the Patwardhan family.
The trust then expanded its activities to Mumbai, where it founded the Ruia College in 1937, through a donation of Rs 3 lakh from the Ruia family. The Poddar College of commerce was then set up, likewise through financial support from the Ramnath Poddar family. Today, the trust runs 45 institutions including one in the electronic city campus of Bangalore. The
Haribhai Deokaran High School at Solapur is more than hundred years old. The vision of the four founding teachers was to give quality education in Marathi— at both school and college levels, which was in tune with the spirit of the freedom struggle.
Our institutions have always delivered the best of international level education in their local language. To that end, we have generated a lot of high quality educational material in Marathi language. As far as quality of our education is concerned, all our colleges are A+ in the accreditation given by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. In the past 25 years, we estimate that 12 lakh students have passed through our institutions.
How would you look at the evolution of education sector over the past few decades?
The scenario of the education sector has changed a lot. Today, there are strong financial constraints on governments, in terms of providing grants to the sector. Therefore there is funding deficit even for the appointment of approved quantum of teachers in Maharashtra. In terms of actual versus approved staffing, at the overall state level there is a 40 per cent deficit. Secondly, the flow of students towards Marathi schools, and indeed all vernacular schools, has reduced.
In a time of constraint, it is more and more difficult to provide quality education in aided schools, and there is an increasing tendency to obtain education in English. To deliver quality education, you need facilities and budgets, but there are fee restrictions and capitation fees are not permitted. That restricts our capacity to invest and offer better education. On the other hand, you have regulations which have opened up the floodgates for foreign institutions. We have competition now from people with better resources.
In Maharashtra, there have seen a steady increase in the quantum of non-aided schools and colleges in the last 30-35 years. This growth has the tacit approval of the government, because their responsibility of providing education gets shared. Even at the regulation level, there is the concept of deemed and private universities. Another adverse trend is the hidden competition with private coaching classes. Practically all the credit for academic performances goes to them, which in many cases is not ethical. These institutions invest more, charge higher and recover their investment.
What does the future of education look like?
The education scenario is changing rapidly. Today, concepts of distance learning and open university have been accepted. Education in future will no longer be bound by physical classrooms. The classrooms of the future will be virtual and digitalised. The proliferation of the internet has diminished the dependence on classrooms for learning.
There are so many options now in education. The rule of the traditional education system has diminished, and also, for a number of reasons, it comes across as hidebound and rigid. One more challenge to the traditional education system is that of overseas studies.
Educational bodies today and in future will be categorised. First are bodies with the colour of public trust but actually run like a private organisation, and ownership is with a handful of individuals or families. Then there is the public trust, which is genuinely answerable to the public.
Such trusts typically have 3,000-4,000 members and will have genuine representation of a cross-section of society. There are then institutions which are genuinely private but conduct themselves as public institutions. These bodies have huge money and function in a corporate structure. Often they have the backing of corporate houses.
One segment will be the overseas players who will come in on their own or through affiliations. There would be certain overseas players primarily focusing on digital and virtual learning businesses. Then of course, there is the traditional component of the education system. It comprises of local body, state government and university-owned learning institutions. Last is the upcoming category of institutions which are autonomous and yet accessing public funding.
What is your view on the government’s approach and how could it be better for the sector?
The government in recent times has taken some good initiatives. One is the ‘Rashtriya Uchchattar Shiksha Abhiyaan’ (RUSA), wherein institutes are funded as per their performance. Through the autonomous college route, colleges widen their offering and create a portfolio of no-grant courses. Then there is credit-based education today, where students can take extra courses and earn more credits.
The setting up of the National Digital Library (pilot in 2016 and became functional last year) is a great benefit to students. Initiatives like annual Smart India Hackathon programme, Atal Tinkering Lab, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana and so on, are some positive government schemes. However, we also need to look beyond and see what more can be done.
Firstly, the government must have a comprehensive approach. They can take complete responsibility of the sector, as per the Constitutional right to education, or give everyone a free hand and let the fittest survive. Laws should apply to all. In this context, we would need measures to safeguard students from the detrimental effects of sudden closure of education institutes. Possibly institutions could put financial deposits, linked to the number of current students, in escrow accounts. In the event of a closure, the students would at least get their fees refunded.
Then we need a separate set of criteria for institutes focusing on distance learning and virtual learning. Other than technical practicals and similar matters, there is no stringent requirement for a specific size of their campuses and hence those statutory norms need to be relaxed. With respect to amendments, we generally suffer from the inertia of democracy and we must overcome this.