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The turmoil in technical education

RECENTLY, the HRD ministry put up in the public domain a hugely significant report that bids fair to rewrite the educational status of this country vis-a-vis the rest of the world. There was a time when India was the Teacher of the Planet, the Jagadguru, and students from all over the globe flocked to our universities. Then the evil rapacious eyes of greedy nations invaded this peace-loving civilisation and denuded us of our wealth, our learning and our wisdom.

The reference is to the report of the AICTE (All India Council of Technical Education) Review Committee, which was constituted on October 22, 2014 with the direction that it would submit its recommendations within six months. And submit it did, when a copy of the report titled “Technical Education in India: A Futuristic Scenario” was handed over to Satya Narayan Mohanty, Secretary (HE), on April 22, 2015. HRD Minister Smriti Zubin Irani discussed the report with the members of the Committee and Ministry officials for one-and-a-half hours on June 12, 2015 and ordered that the report be placed on the website along with the comments given by a group of experts. This was done in the first week of July.

The thrust of the report is revealed in a dramatic manner when, in the very first sentence of the Preface, it says: “In 1947 India liberated Durga from the shackles of the British Raj. In 1991, we liberated Lakshmi from the fetters of the licence permit raj. Now in 2015 it is the turn of Saraswati to be freed from the yoke of regulation by multiple agencies.”

The report reveals a little known fact of the higher education system of India: that there are only four countries of the world where the system of affiliation of colleges to universities is still in vogue. These are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, all remnants of the British Empire.

A major recommendation, therefore, states one of the prime goals of the next decade to be the end of the tyranny of affiliation, by upgrading all institutions to autonomous status, with full academic autonomy, financial autonomy and finally the power to hold examinations and award degrees.

Those who think this too revolutionary forget that all the stakeholders have matured over the years and now market forces have started dictating the success or otherwise of any educational enterprise.

Autonomy is, therefore, the mahamantra of the report.

But first, the AICTE itself. A historical review of this apex body reveals a sorry state of affairs. Set up in 1945 as a nonstatutory body, it remained an appendage of the Ministry of Education in the Central Government till 1993. The Minister was its Chairman and the Minister of State its Vice-Chairman, while the roles of the Member Secretary and other functionaries were performed by officers of the Ministry.

This situation improved only marginally when it got statutory status in 1987. Even today the Chairman continues to be a political appointee. He is selected for a term of three years and could be given a second term of like duration. Even today, the bulk of the staff is drawn on deputation from other institutions. They have no stake in the success of the Council. Nor can a coherent policy emerge from a group of motley elements drawn from differing backgrounds with nothing to weld them into a cohesive whole.

On the controversial question of charting of jurisdictional territories, the AICTE committee report gives a clear dispensation. The system of affiliation which is currently the turf of the UGC and the universities is to be phased out within a decade. The AICTE will be the sole regulator

A major set of recommendations, therefore, relates to grant of complete autonomy to the Council. It is suggested that the AICTE should have constitutional status (somewhat like the Election Commission of India) and there should be a special mechanism for appointment of the top leadership, to insulate these high offices from political and bureaucratic manipulation. They should be given a single tenure of five years, with impeachment being the only mechanism for premature removal.

The report recognises the fact that there has been a massive influx of private enterprise in the sphere of technical education. This phenomenon has had a mixed impact. As far as numbers go, it has to be conceded that the enormous expansion that the economy required could not have been possible through public investment alone. Even in terms of the quality of education imparted, there are golden examples of high performance in the private sector. At the same time, it cannot be denied that fly-by-night operators, whose sole motivation is to make a fast buck, have also been able to obtain approvals from the Council. This has brought the activities of the Council somewhat into disrepute.

The report has noted the fact that the indiscriminate grant of approvals has partly been occasioned by the failure of the manpower planning mechanism. The National Manpower Information System hinged entirely on data collected by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research. Defects in the agency and the process of collecting and analysing data and delay in the submission of information led to a demise of the system, with nothing to replace it.

The report notes with approval the e-governance introduced by the Council. This has made online submission of applications possible and has reduced the processing time from one year to three months. Hopefully, the reduction of human interface should have limited the opportunities for graft.

As quality of education imparted is a major issue, the report gives a lot of time to devising a fool-proof mechanism for upgradation, maintenance and monitoring of quality. It pleads for adoption of rating as the fulcrum of regulation. Rating is to be done by agencies of high credibility duly licenced by the Council. The examples of CRISIL and ICRA from the financial sector have been quoted with approval. Rating agencies could be spawned by the financial agencies or by industry associations like Assocham, CII, Nasscom, Ficci and the like. A whole cadre of educational experts will have to be trained and developed for a credible system to emerge. The idea is to subject all educational institutions to an intense examination, both when they wish to enter the market as Greenfield institutions and later on an annual basis, so that the regulator is enabled to keep a watchful eye on their performance in order to determine its line of action.

IF their performance does not reach a basic minimum preordained limit, they will be warned and if successive warnings do not make them improve, they could be (in the rarest of cases) closed down or merged with better institutions. The exact mechanism of merger with its attendant legal and procedural ramifications has to be gone into carefully and in depth, so as not to create problems for the various stakeholders.

A fundamental recommendation of the report relates to the true role of the AICTE. Currently, it sees itself primarily in a policing role so as to ensure that undeserving entrepreneurs do not take students for a ride. While not eschewing that role completely, the emphasis needs to shift to mentoring and development. This will be reflected in its organizational structure and the content and funding of development schemes.

Such a role cannot be meaningfully played with the kind of chickenfeed that is doled out to the Council. Currently, the Government expects the Council to implement 28 plan schemes for almost 10,000 institutions with a measly annual allocation of `200crore. The report boldly suggests that this be raised to at least `5,000crore and outlines the initiatives that need to be taken for strengthening faculty, leveraging ICT for imparting knowledge on a mass basis and setting up of a National Centre for Futuristic Education.

As quality of education imparted is a major issue, the AICTE committee report pleads for adoption of rating as the fulcrum of regulation

CHAPTER 9 of the report provides a vision for the future through a crystal ball exercise, where the elements of the new educational reality are spelt out. These are dynamism (the rate of change is getting faster and faster and we have to keep pace), modularity (education will now have to be imparted in modules), credit transfer (students will need a system where they can earn credits in a variety of ways and acquire the final degree at their own pace), flexibility (where the student will ultimately design his own curriculum), courage (with the student expected to challenge the received wisdom of today and indulge in innovative thinking), design spine (the induction of creative design in all educational programmes), experiential learning (learning will have to be through projects and papers with the teacher acting as a guide, an adviser, a bouncing board), earn while you learn, education on smart phones, churn (there will have to be dynamic experimentation while maintaining stability), and students as job creators, not job seekers (entrepreneurship should lead to start-ups, patenting and business ventures).

If India has to keep pace with the rest of the world, it will have to redesign all the institutions, policies, structures, procedures and processes. There has to be a lot of autonomy, lot of experimentation, lot of trust and courage and an ecosystem imbued with a whole lot of dynamism and faith.

With regard to the policy to be followed, the report does not mince words. It says the policy would have to be in tune with the other initiatives of the Government like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (aiming at universalisation of elementary education), Skill India, Make in India, and Digital India.

A momentous suggestion relates to declaration of technical education as a fundamental right. This is in continuation of an earlier decision that there should be a fundamental right to education. During discussions, some people have exhibited a misunderstanding of the suggestion. They want to know whether the intention is to make the entire population technically trained. A fundamental right confers a right on an individual if he wishes to be technically trained. It makes it incumbent on the government to provide facilities for technical education if there is a demand for the same. There is no compulsion to move into the technical education stream.

On the controversial question of charting of jurisdictional territories, the report gives a clear dispensation. The system of affiliation which is currently the turf of the UGC and the universities is to be phased out within a decade. The AICTE will be the sole regulator, in which task it shall be assisted by cognate autonomous bodies like the National Testing Agency and the National Rating Agency. It will also create a National Centre for Futuristic Education. The Subject Councils can raise issues relating to academic matters, but not publicly. They will send their suggestions to the AICTE which will place the matter before the respective Boards of Studies for taking a final view. Otherwise, the Subject Councils should regulate the professional practice. Suitable amendments in the relevant laws will have to be moved to make the situation abundantly clear.

Thus, the report of the AICTE Review Committee charts out a clear and detailed roadmap for taking India to its destiny. With its massive demographic dividend, India has the numbers. In the IITs and IIMs, India has the requisite leadership of world class that can, under the benign guidance of a constitutional autonomous apex body like the proposed All India Council of Technical Education, steer the country to its pre-ordained status of a “technical education superpower”.

All that the Central Government has to appreciate is that in this game of competitive excellence, it is not the piper who calls the tune. Whether it is Oxford and Cambridge or Harvard and Stanford, the government or the philanthropist has given the financial support without insisting on a say in the day-to-day governance of the institution. That is how world-class institutions get established and prosper.

The strategy can be summed up in two words: Autonomy and Finance.

MK Kaw is a former Secretary, Government of India

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