Warning bells

Print edition : March 26, 2004

The U.R. Rao Committee, which has reviewed the performance of the All India Council for Technical Education, draws attention to the unsustainable expansion of technical education and makes far-reaching recommendations to achieve excellence in this sector.

AS a result of the controversy sparked off by the Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi's proposal to slash the fees at the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), ostensibly on the recommendation of the U.R. Rao Committee, the more substantive issues considered by the committee have unfortunately not received the attention and debate they deserve. The committee's report "Revitalising Technical Education" is a review of the performance of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), a statutory body under the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). The five-member committee was set up by the Ministry in November 2002, under the chairmanship of Prof. U.R. Rao, the former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Students who were allotted BE/B.Tech courses in `deemed universities', stage a dharna, along with their parents, in front of the Directorate of Technical Education in Chennai, seeking admission in colleges. A file picture.-VINO JOHN

The AICTE was vested with statutory powers by an Act of Parliament in 1987 with the mandate to organise, plan and administer technical education in the country. Technical education under the purview of the AICTE includes training and research in engineering, technology, management, architecture, town planning, pharmacy, applied arts and crafts, hotel management and catering. The Act came into force in March 1988 and the AICTE was established in May. The Rao Committee Report is thus a review of the AICTE's performance over the last 15 years.

The report, submitted to the government in September 2003, has not been made public yet. However, following the row over Joshi's decision on IIM fees, the report has been selectively cited in media reports. It should be noted that the committee did not deal with the IIMs at all, as with the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), as these institutions are outside the AICTE's purview. Also, the Committee's observation on the desired fee levels in AICTE institutions forms a small part of the wide-ranging review that the committee undertook. The report has also made a number of recommendations that would require numerous actions by the Ministry so that the Council could ensure optimal growth of quality technical education consistent with the country's economic development in the present globalised environment. But, what the Minister has chosen to do is to pick and act on a relatively less important aspect, and that too in a context in which the committee did not consider, notwithstanding the merits or otherwise of the decision to cut fees.

Legally speaking, no technical institution is outside the AICTE's purview. According to P.V. Indiresan, a member of the committee and a former director of IIT (Madras), it is only by convention that the Council does not exercise its statutory powers on institutions such as IITs and IIMs. Because of their pre-eminence, these institutions actually serve to set benchmarks and standards in their respective areas of education, just as institutions such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, or JIPMER, Pondicherry, are outside the purview of the Medical Council of India (MCI) by convention. From this perspective, the report's observations on the fee structure are, in principle, applicable to the excluded institutions as well.

Though the AICTE was set up as an advisory body way back in 1945, and the expansion in technical education in the early years was done with the approval of the Council and the government, the 1980s was a period of "free for all". The expansion, promoted largely by the private sector, was concentrated mainly in the four southern States without the approval of the AICTE or the government. It is this state of affairs that led to the AICTE being made a statutory body for planning, formulating and maintaining norms and standards. But despite this development, as the report observes, " a serious situation has arisen in recent years because of the mushrooming of a large number of private technical institutions and polytechnics. Barring some exceptions, there is scant regard for maintenance of standards".

Today, there are 1,208 engineering degree colleges (of which 986 are in the private sector) with a total sanctioned intake of over 0.36 million students. Further, there are 1,006 Master of Computer Applications (MCA) and 930 x Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree institutions, with an intake of about 53,000 and 64,000 students respectively. Obviously, this is occurring at the expense of quality. In Tamil Nadu, where the expansion has been the greatest in recent years, in a 2003 semester examination at Anna University, no student passed in five colleges, 28 had less than 5 per cent passes, 78 less than 10 per cent passes and 108 less than 15 per cent passes. Only 17 had more than 40 per cent passes, of which only eight had more than 50 per cent passes.

Consider the following data provided by the report: "As on May 2003, only 895 programmes from 202 institutions have been accredited (see box) as against a total of about 14,000 programmes in 3,589 approved undergraduate (UG) and post-graduate (PG) institutions and 1,608 approved diploma institutions. Fifty-three of these are government and aided institutions (9.3 per cent) out of a total of 567 such institutions and the rest 149 are private institutions (4.9 per cent) out of a total of 3,022 institutions at UG and PG level." Of the 53 government institutions, 12 (of a total of 17) are Regional Engineering Colleges (now called National Institutes of Technology). "It is a matter of great concern to find that over 90 per cent of technical and engineering graduates are studying in non-accredited institutions," the report observes.

From this it would seem that, in general, institutions do not perceive any value in accreditation by the AICTE. Unfortunately, the report too does not suggest any solution that would encourage institutions to seek accreditation proactively.

The AICTE also faces the tricky problem of bringing institutions that were established well before the Council acquired statutory powers under the purview of its accreditation programme. In fact, there is an ongoing court tussle between Birla Institutes of Technology (BITS), Pilani x a deemed university x and the AICTE in this regard. The case of deemed universities offering technical education is, in fact, another serious issue. As of 2003, there are 45 such deemed universities. The report has pointed out that, though the AICTE has laid down a detailed procedure for advising the University Grants Commission (UGC) for declaring any institution imparting technical education a deemed university, the AICTE has no authority over these institutions once they acquire the deemed university status. Recent Supreme Court judgments have implied that a deemed university has the autonomy to start any course and enroll as many students in a particular course of its constituent colleges. This contradiction negates the role of the AICTE in maintaining norms and standards and the legal authority that the AICTE can exercise in such cases is not clear, the report has observed.

THE problem becomes particularly serious in cases where the deemed university status is accorded on political considerations and other dubious grounds or where a mediocre deemed university runs hundreds of "study centres" all over the country. "There is neither any independent check nor has the review committee seen any evidence of such institutions having a transparent and rigorous independent audit on the quality of education they are imparting," the report has said. The committee has called for application of rigorous criteria for recognition of deemed university status and mandatory requirement of periodic validation, at least once in five years, of the quality of their programmes.

The committee is of the view that granting deemed university status to well-established institutions that have a credible record of maintaining high standards, is a welcome trend and should be encouraged as the attendant autonomy would be good for improving the quality of technical education. However, it has cautioned against the provision being misused for the back-door entry of mediocre institutions. In this respect, the committee has recommended that a technical institution may be declared a deemed university if it had been set up with the AICTE's approval and had been running AICTE-approved courses for 10 years at least and should have consistently been graded "A" in accreditation of all their programmes. Noting that the AICTE's role should not be such as would jeopardise or limit the autonomy of the institution. The report also says that its role should be consistent with its statutory responsibility as well as with the need to protect institutional autonomy. To realise this, it has suggested the setting up of a joint UGC-AICTE committee that would monitor periodically the functioning of a deemed university and recommend whether or not the status be continued.

Accreditation is another area of conflict and confusion for deemed universities as they come under the purview of two accreditation bodies x the non-statutory National Accreditation and Assessment Council (NAAC), which functions under the UGC, and the statutory National Board of Accreditation (NBA) under the AICTE x which differ in their approaches, procedures and criteria for accreditation. Significantly, the committee has recommended that "the accreditation of any institution of technical education, whether under the UGC or outside, it should be the responsibility of the (statutory) NBA and that the accreditation would be mandatory. This would ensure that there is a common standard and procedure for accreditation."

THE virtual explosion in the number of technical institutions, fuelled by speculative rather than real demand and exploited by self-financing enterprises, has resulted in technical education expanding beyond sustainable levels, the report observes. Given that the economy has been growing only at a compounded rate of about 56 per cent and global competition should result in higher industrial productivity, a combination of these two factors would mean that the country can sustain a growth rate of only 23 per cent per year in technical education. Even if the country achieved a growth rate of 8 per cent, a growth rate higher than 4-5 per cent cannot be sustained as against the current 15-20 per cent growth rate in intake, the committee has pointed out. Taking 1981 as the base year, when the total enrolment in engineering and architecture was 1,15,000, the committee has argued that the economy could at best absorb only a 75 per cent increase between 1981-82 and 2003-04. This works out to about 200,000. In other words, an intake of about 50,000 (for a four-year degree course) x seven times less then a current intake x would be barely sustainable thus pointing to a gross mismatch between what the economy can support and what has been sanctioned by the AICTE.

The report observes that employment in the primary sector has been declining steadily and overall employment opportux nities in the primary sector would continue to shrink even if the gross domestic product (GDP) contribution of the sector rises. The growth of the traditional sector of manufacturing in recent years has largely been jobless. Further, employment opportunities have become more sensitive to the quality of technical personnel. This, combined with the unsustainable output of technical manpower, has resulted in under-employment and even unemployment of graduates, whose combined rate is so high as to cause serious concern. According to recent estimates by the Planning Commission, the unemployment rate of engineering graduates exceeds 20 per cent. The Committee has called for closer interaction of the technical education system with the industry and has urged the industry to take greater interest in the operation of technical institutions. It has also advised the AICTE to examine the implications of the shift of employment opportunities to the knowledge-intensive service sector and restructure educational programmes accordingly.

The explosive growth has been mostly in the southern, southwestern and western regions of the country, creating geographic inequity in the growth of technical institutions. More than 54 per cent of the institutions are located in the south and southwest as against 8 per cent each in the east and north respectively. The AICTE's failure in planning and regulating growth to match demand and supply, coupled with its ineffectiveness at various levels, is largely responsible for the present state of affairs.

In light of this, the committee has recommended that approval for new UG technical institutions should be stopped for at least five years where the student intake exceeds the national average of 350 per million population. Currently, the figure for the south is 1,047, the southwest 689, the west 486 while for the north it is only 102 and east 131. To offset the geographic disparity, the committee has recommended setting up of two NITs in the unserved areas in each Plan period, joint ventures with private industries in such regions and other measures including extensive use of distance education facilities.

INDEED, the committee has viewed matching supply and demand as one of the most critical issues confronting the AICTE. Planning for the supply of any kind of technical power should be based on exercises on projection of manpower needs, preferably on a State-wise basis. The National Technical Manpower Information System (NTMIS) operated by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research (IAMR), has been carrying out State-wise manpower projections. Despite certain limitations and scope for improvement, the committee hav noted that the NTMIS data have never been used either by the States or by the AICTE. The report has recommended that granting approval to new institutions or programmes or altering intake in existing programmes by the State governments and the AICTE should be based on projections of manpower requirements. It has also said that AICTE itself should begin to undertake the exercise of technical manpower projection through an independent Centre for Human Resource Information System (CHRIS) under its aegis.

Counselling in progress at Anna University in Chennai.-N. BALAJI

One of the serious consequences of virtually unregulated growth of technical institutions is the extreme shortage of quality teachers at various levels. According to one recent (though conservative) estimate, over 10,000 Ph.Ds will be required in the next 3-4 years to meet the basic needs of the engineering institutions in the country. According to NTMIS estimates, however, the situation is far worse. For the desired teacher-student ratio of 1:15 and professor-reader-lecturer ratio of 1:2:4, the estimate for the total faculty for the current intake of 359,721 students is 95,924, comprising 13,703 professors and 27,407 readers (requiring as many Ph.Ds) and 54,814 lecturers (requiring as many M. Techs). According to the report, there is a shortfall of nearly 26,000 Ph.Ds and 30,000 M. Techs. Even if the teacher-student ratio is relaxed to 1:20, the shortfall would be enormous. The committee has also noted that "the faculty position in other disciplines is as bad, if not worse".

The number of recognised PG engineering education and research institutions is 321 with an intake of 26,000 students in 1,552 programmes. However, the turnover is just around 8,000, a little over 30 per cent. The number of Ph.Ds, on the other hand, is just around 375; 80 per cent of these are from the IITs, IISc, and a small x number of selected universities. In the fields of business management, hotel management, architecture, pharmacy and so on the number of Ph.Ds is practically negligible. It is clear that this pool is too small to generate adequate faculty generation for the country's technical institutions. The committee has, therefore, called for urgent measures to remedy the situation, including integrated M.Tech programmes after 10 plus 2 schooling, attractive stipend schemes to encourage greater enrolment into PG programmes and other incentives including a guarantee of better post-Ph.D prospects to encourage PG students to take up doctoral studies.

Assuming that a Ph.D will have a career for 30 years, the country will have to produce 450-500 Ph.Ds a year to meet teaching needs alone. According to the committee, the university system should be able to generate 700-1,000 Ph.Ds a year in engineering and architecture alone, provided there are suitable financial and other incentives. It has urged the AICTE to survey the extent of the need for doctoral and master level programmes to meet the need and take steps to start such programmes. It feels that to produce 1,000 Ph.Ds a year, the burden on the government would be no more than Rs.50 crores a year if the entire cost of providing doctoral training to teachers and researchers. A sum, the AICTE should be able to provide, the committee has said.

Though the aspect of fee structure was not one of the terms of reference of the Committee, in the context of the growing commercialisation of technical education in the country x a situation created by government abdicating its responsibility in higher education x students are forced to pay exorbitant fees. Many private institutions have become money-spinning machines, with capitation fee being the most rampant form of commercial exploitation. Given the mandate under the AICTE Act for the Council "to take all steps to prevent commercialisation of technical education", the Committee has opined that AICTE can fix limits for different categories of students. It has recommended the setting up of a committee under AICTE to arrive at guidelines for the same. It also observed that AICTE has powers to penalise defaulting institutions.

Prof. U.R. Rao-K. GOPINATHAN

Observing that students are not the sole beneficiaries of higher education, employers and society (the government) are equally so, the report says that all three should share the cost as is the practice in countries like the United States. "Normally," the report adds, "student fee meets only 15-20 per cent of the total cost and in no case it should be more than a third, if education is to be accessible to the deserving poor. Citing examples of front-ranking U.S. universities, the report says that the average fees paid by U.S. students is less than 30 per cent of per capita gross national product (GNP). By the same measure, a student should not spend more than Rs.6,000 a year on technical education.

Noting that the cost of technical education is Rs.50,000-100,000 a year per student, the committee believes that the government should be able to bear a large component of this cost for a realistic enrolment of about 200,000, and not for an unrealistic speculative enrolment numbers evident today. Besides suggesting that employers should meet a share of the cost through endowments and projects, the committee has made an interesting recommendation of levying a 1-2 per cent cess on the earnings of technical professionals. The argument being that they get private benefits in the form of more lucrative careers as a result of technical education. This fund may be maintained as an escrow account to be used for technical education only. It is this part of the report that Joshi has used to lower the fees in IIMs from Rs.1.5 lakh a year to Rs.30,000 a year. Though the IIMs have not been considered by the committee, the above observations, if valid for other institutions, it may be argued, are equally applicable to them as well.

"Till now," the committee noted, "AICTE may be said to have been passing through its infancy phase. During this period, it has seen considerable quantitative growth, but with comparatively less emphasis on quality and discipline. It has now reached teenage where discipline and pursuit of excellence have to be inculcated." Indeed, the performance in its early teenage phase, AICTE has been immature and in many ways unprofessional. It is time that it became a truly professional outfit for guiding the growth of technical education in the country. Hopefully, the Rao Committee report will help it in achieving that.

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