S.M. Munjal, Chairman of Hero Enterprises, was recently appointed Chairman, Board of Governors of The Doon School, Dehradun. Excerpts from an interview in which he talks about the future of one of India’s leading boarding schools, and the education system.
Over the past few years, there have been several changes that have been made at The Doon School to gear up for the future. Can you take us through a few?
The Doon School, in terms of high school education, has been the leading school in India, for a long time. Over the last 10 years, some big changes have taken place, and we are now gearing up to make it among the best globally. We have revamped the school’s physical infrastructure and have more importantly, made changes in the softer aspects. We have introduced IB and IGCSE with the belief that these Boards are more practical and stress on application of thought rather than mindless learning by rote. They help young adults make better decisions for themselves and foster all round development. We have also spent a lot of resources on teacher training so that they can make the best use of technology and educational tools.
The school fee has also gone up considerably, giving the impression that it is a rich-boys’-only school. What challenges did that pose when it comes to the diversity of students?
The impression about The Doon School being an elitist school needs to be corrected. It is an elite school but not an elitist school. The impression that it is a rich-boys’-only school cannot be further away from the truth.
On the financial side, over the past few years, the school needed to cover its full cost with the fees. Before that, the full cost was not covered through fees. However, it is still not as high as some of the other residential schools in the country. One of the challenges we faced was that earlier, the school had a good mix of people from all backgrounds, geographies, professions and income brackets. That started to change with higher fees. Therefore, we have introduced a number of scholarships given to boys for parents who cannot afford to send their children to our school. We have ramped up this initiative significantly with the hope of attracting the best. We are also making an effort to reach out to parents across the world to send their children to Doon to further enrich the mix of boys studying together.
What are the values that the school inculcates that sets it apart ?
In the Indian education system, the focus is on high marks and learning by rote. High marks are definitely a requirement, but out belief is to look beyond marks and to be able to produce adults who are free thinkers, have the ability to stand on their feet and have the ability to understand the ethos of what it means to be a responsible member of society. There are less than 5,000 former students of the school and you will see these values in each of them.
If you look around the world, in any profession, there will be somebody from Doon doing well at the top because the school does not force people to become robots or enter a single profession. It is almost impossible to explain to someone who has not studied at Doon about how much time is spent on non-academic pursuits that shape the character of every student for life after school. Midterm treks, for example, teach a boy about making decision and survival when you do not know when or how you are going to get your next meal. The ability of young boys to take decisions is high in Doon, as they have an equal say in every decision-making committee in school. This prepares them for challenges in their adult life.
There is a feeling among parents that if you study IB, you need to go abroad to study. Do you see many students aiming at going abroad ?
All top Indian universities now accept IB, and they are beginning to admit that IB is a course that has created better students who apply their mind. One of the things that has happened in India, over the past 30 years, is that college admissions have become hyper competitive. Some universities won’t even give you a form if you do not have 95%. At Doon, we stress on academics but we also realise the long-term benefits on not focusing only on academics.
What is unfortunate but a reality is that kids are going overseas to study, but they are going to universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Yale. Earlier, we used to call this “brain drain”, but now it is being called a reverse brain drain because most students are coming back to India as there are so many opportunities. Overall, it is a positive sign that students are getting the exposure abroad, forming a vast network, and coming back.
Do you have any recommendations on policy to improve government school education?
The public school system is currently broken. One of the problems is reach, and the other problem is quality. There needs to be a mechanism that ensures that teachers are going to class and that students are actually learning. There needs to be a measure of learning outcomes. Unfortunately, in many schools, teachers are not going to classrooms. We need to involve parents and the community at large to ensure that this is not happening.
My family foundation runs schools in rural areas that have over 30,000 students, and the results are unbelievable as there is a proper assessment method. There is not a single parent in India who does not want to educate his or her kid, and all it needs is a mechanism to monitor the situation and set it right.
Do you feel there is a need for more philanthropy from corporate houses in India, when it comes to higher education?
Worldwide, higher education is a system where people pay, but they get student loans or scholarships. Philanthropy needs to be encouraged by the government of India. Despite that, corporate houses have already started setting up educational institutions that are not for profit. We are seeing the early signs of corporate, and wealthy families setting up scholarships, schools and universities. Indians, earlier, had less ability to give as there were high taxes and not much money being made.
Also, the family structure was such that parents leave money for their children and extended family instead of supporting education, healthcare, or the arts.
But, things are moving in the right direction and I am sure India will see a lot more philanthropy in the years to come.