Minister of State for HRD, Thiruvananthapuram MP, author and columnist, Shashi Tharoor, was schooled at Montfort School, Yercaud, Campion School, Mumbai, and St Xavier’s Collegiate School in Kolkata. He went on to complete his bachelor’s at St Stephen’s College in New Delhi and graduate studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, USA, from where he obtained an MA in 1976, an MALD in 1977 and a PhD in 1979 at the age of 23. He was also a career official at United Nations until 2007, when he lost out to Ban Ki Moon in the race for UN Secretary General. He is well-read and well-spoken, making him a favourite among many. He recalls his younger years and addresses some pressing issues of today in a special with Edex.
What did college teach you?
School taught me to answer the questions; college taught me to question the answers. It really is the time you actually grow up, learn to think for yourself, make friends and enemies, and decide how you wish to relate to the rest of the world. It’s also the time your political beliefs evolve and your value system gets settled. College is really the most important time of your life.
What was your proudest moment in college?
There were several, but if I had to choose one, it would be a toss-up between winning the elections to become President of the Students’ Union and topping the University in my history (honours) exams.
Have you had any embarrassing moments in college?
Several, starting with ragging and going on to my parents getting a letter from the principal in my final year saying my attendance record that year was 15 per cent! (There was just so much more to do in college outside the classroom). Amongst the most embarrassing was during the Practical Joke Week (Sadly, they no longer have those in St Stephen’s) when I was President of the Union and was duped by a student into believing he had smuggled a lady of easy virtue into the hostel and needed to get her out after the gates had been locked. The “lady” in question (we were an all-male college then) was actually a fresher in drag and my earnest and censorious efforts to smuggle “her” out without getting the student expelled made for much hilarity after the jape was revealed.
How did you score points with the ladies you studied with?
I didn’t study with any ladies. St Stephen’s was an all-male college in my time.
Was bunking a part of your college routine?
Oh God, yes. There were so many extracurricular activities in college and outside — plays to act in, debates to prepare for and girls to woo… We had fun for three-fourths of the year and then crammed massively for the exams. (A very good argument for the semester system and course modules, by the way).
Did you have any rifts with professors? Why?
Actually, no. I was rather fond of my professors and they of me, and I kept in touch with many of them for years afterwards.
Where did you hang out in college with friends?
Everywhere. The College Café was a favourite hangout, as was the Delhi University Coffee House. The Tibetan Monastery near Ludlow Castle offered an inexpensive and delicious meal by the Jamuna on nights out.
What extracurricular activities were you involved in?
Debating: I debated a lot for college and won all but one of the 60-odd inter-college debates I participated in. Theatre: I acted in plays for the Dramatic Society and the Shakespeare Society, memorably playing Mark Antony to Mira Nair’s Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra in 1974. I helped revive the Wodehouse Society, the humour centre of College, and founded the Quiz Club, which is still in existence. And of course, student politics: I was a member of the Cabinet in my second year and elected President in my third.
Why aren’t students given more of a place in the decision making as far as higher education policies go?
Students and parents are important stakeholders in our system of education. They provide constant feedback through many formal and informal means. However, there would be practical difficulties in inducting students into apex bodies such as the UGC and the AICTE.
Why do you think our students are not considered employable?
The low level of employability of our students is not a mere matter of perception. Rather it is a reflection of the mismatch between the dynamic demands of the marketplace and the rather static approach and uneven quality of our undergraduate education. A study of 1471 colleges and 111 universities by the UGC revealed that 73 per cent of these colleges and 68 per cent of universities are of medium or low quality. Once the elite institutions are accounted for — the IITs, BITS, Indian Institute of Science, St Stephen’s and a few others – what remains is of decidedly uneven quality.
A 2009 World Bank and FICCI Survey highlights that only 64 per cent of employers are “somewhat satisfied” with new graduates of Indian engineering institutions. I have spoken to many CEOs who tell me that many, if not most, of their new hires require remedial training — not “on the job” training but training before they can take up their jobs — to compensate for the deficiencies of what they have learned in their universities. That’s why Infosys runs a huge campus in Mysore and TCS has one in Thiruvananthapuram — to educate the supposedly educated, so they can become employable.
Don’t you think democracy should extend to social media as well — with reference to you being under attack for your tweets?
(Laughs) Is there something new today that I haven’t read about? Because I haven’t tweeted at all today! But I will tweet about this event later. On a serious note, of course, social media is a manifestation of democracy. And one of the things about democracy is that you never have unanimity, you never have agreement all the time. One gets some fairly nasty stuff and some fairly admirable stuff. And you take both the pleasure and the pain.
But there is a certain clampdown and restrictions have been imposed in the past. In that sense, it’s really not a democratic state. Your take?
Not entirely fair. Every single one of those incidents have been linked to a mass panic and hysteria among people. So the attack wasn’t on social media entirely. You can’t incite hate; you can’t incite panic or create conditions that threaten the safety and order of our country. I don’t see any threat to freedom. On the other hand, I see lots of anti-government comments in social media. If anything, they tend to outnumber the pros. So really, there is no threat to freedom because freedom is being exercised every day!
The writer caught up with Shashi Tharoor when he was present at the ThinkEdu Conclave held in Chennai on Feb 7 and 8 to deliver the closing address.