Monday, June 20, 2005

Killing Higher Education in India

Gurcharan Das, describes with great distress how the attempts of his friend - the president of a prestigious American university to set up a branch campus in India were brought to a nought by mindless red tape.
Two years later I heard this tale of woe. His university's application to the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) for an equivalence certificate went unanswered despite three reminders. Their meeting with the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) resulted in the demand for a huge bribe. Their efforts with the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry entangled them in miles of red tape. After knocking about like this for a year they concluded that their only hope was to go to Chattisgarh, which allowed private universities. Just as they were about to acquire 25 acres of land and make the Rs 2 crore mandatory deposit came the infamous Supreme Court ban on Chattisgarh universities.
Eventually his friend concluded that India is a hopeless cause and decided to set up a campus in China.

In the same piece, Gurcharan Das also comes down heavily (and with some justification) on the University Grants Commission (UGC):
[. . .] hasn't UGC, in fact, killed off higher education? Only two dozen out of its 200 plus universities offer reasonable teaching and most of these existed prior to the birth of UGC. For 50 years it has promoted rote learning, incompetent faculty, and mediocrity. It has punished original thinking and failed to create an employable graduate. Hence, students have been pushed into a parallel universe of coaching classes, which ironically take their obligation to students far more seriously.

[. . .] Who could be against enlightened regulation of private higher education? We all wish for a body that ensures standards. But if this is how we regulate-with corruption and red tape-isn't it better to give universities autonomy and leave it to parents and students?
Gurcharan Das' grouse against the UGC is very much justified. Incompetent faculty and mediocrity rule the roost in most colleges. The rules laid down by the government and the UGC are such that even the best of colleges are not free from this malaise. UGC controls the grants and colleges have to toe the line. No degree college in Maharashtra (except for minority colleges) has been allowed to recruit new full-time faculty in the past one year. A fully qualified (masters degree + NET/SET certificate) candidate is asked to work on "clock hour basis" (the last I heard, such teachers are paid 70 rupees an hour. By some quirky rule introduced about a year back, each lecture in a degree college lasts for 48 minutes. Yes - not 50 or 45 - but 48. A teacher takes about 20 lectures a week -- often less. That's roughly five thousand rupees a month). If the candidate is lucky, he/she might get Rs. 8000 a month. No person with any modicum of intelligence will take up teaching as a profession. Consequently all that the colleges are getting is chaff. I have seen such "teachers" refusing to teach a text in a literature class because it was never taught to them as students. And I have known of teachers who eagerly await for study guides to hit the market so that they can decide the "topics" to be covered in a class. Unsurprisingly all (except one) of my batchmates, who went into education after completing our masters, have quit teaching and joined the private sector without much regret.

Standards in education are going down (not that they were too high to begin with). After failing to ensure standards, UGC in its wisdom came up with an idea - a new body to assess and rate colleges. UGC set up the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) as an autonomous institution to monitor the standards of all colleges and rate them accordingly. UGC also made a NAAC accreditation compulsory for all colleges. So far so good. NAAC did put the fear in some colleges -- the good colleges tried their best to get a fair assessment but quite a few other colleges have managed to circumvent NAAC effectively.

This is what happens. A week or two before the NAAC committee arrives for assessment, the college is given a fresh coat of paint and spruced up. If needed, equipment for the labs, books for the library, etc are hired or borrowed from other colleges. Teachers are given a crash course on what to say to the NAAC committee. Of course the NAAC committee is put up in the best of hotels and guest houses. Personal equations with UGC members and NAAC members also come into the picture.

More often than not, the assessment and ratings are often funny. How else can you explain that Ruia college is ranked lower than either CHM college in Ulhasnagar or Birla College in Kalyan? And did you know that according to NAAC ratings, Birla college is in the same league as Xavier's or Kelkar? This is not to take away anything from Birla college -- it is doing quite a bit of good work in Kalyan -- but it is not a Xavier's, nor is it a Kelkar. When it started, NAAC was looked upon as a good thing. Sadly colleges now look upon NAAC as yet another fixture in their academic calendar. NAAC no longer inspires the same confidence.

Autonomy might just help -- if the various teachers' unions agree to it. There is so much mediocrity in education that the unions know that most of its members won't survive in a free market without "protection." So they take care of their constituency and fight autonomy tooth and nail. The unions have, as of now, managed to effectively scuttle the movement for autonomy. With all their objections, doomsday scenarios and pleas for protection, the UGC decided that the colleges will have only the autonomy for deciding the syllabi. UGC will decide the course fees, student intake, and infrastructure. Any non-compliance and the management and principal will be prosecuted. After this decision Xavier's and Kelkar, two colleges in Mumbai that were in the forefront with their demands for autonomy, have decided to give autonomy a miss.

No wonder higher education is on a decline. And we don't even allow, with our red tape and corruption, for quality educational institutes to enter our country.

Amit Varma has an excellent post on the same topic: Killing higher education; and free markets.


Satya said...

There is a more enlightened regulator of higher education in India than the UGC - the Director General of Shipping (DGS) who regulates maritime education in India. DGS has proposed and put in practice a model of getting all institutions it regulates to have themselves rated by one of the three independent rating agencies, CRISIL, ICRA or CARE.

See my post at for more details.

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