Technical education and some worries

Print edition : December 25, 2000

Delegates at the annual convention of the Indian Society of Technical Education voice concern over the state of technical education in the country.

PRIVATE enterprise in the field of technical education was the topic that dominated the proceedings of the 29th annual convention of the Indian Society of Technical Education (ISTE), held from December 10 to 12. Reflecting the rising profile of the new b reed of private college managements in the country, this year's convention was organised by a private engineering college, the Kongu Engineering College (KEC), located in a semi-rural setting at Perundurai, about 15 km from Erode in Tamil Nadu.

About 1,000 delegates from all over the country participated. They included academics, serving and former Vice-Chancellors, representatives of the managements of educational institutions run by the private sector and State governments, teachers and stude nts. However, regular participants in the annual event regretted that this year the representation of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Regional Engineering Colleges (RECs), and government-run colleges in the States was small. The level of atte ndance by technical education administrators from the States was also low. In fact, Dr.S.D. Awale, Joint Educational Adviser (Technical), Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, wondered in his valedictory address whether the ISTE was "becoming a f orum for the private managements".

The ISTE, formed in 1967, has a membership of nearly 31,000. Besides, it has a student membership of more than 75,000. The theme of the 29th convention was "Management of Technical Education in the 21st Century".

Although the role of private enterprise in technical education - mainly in the case of engineering colleges and polytechnics - was generally lauded at the convention, several uncomfortable questions were raised. In the corridors, the All India Council fo r Technical Education (AICTE) came under severe criticism for its failure to "regulate effectively" the mushrooming of engineering colleges and polytechnics. There are about 670 engineering colleges and between 1,400 and 1,500 polytechnics in the country . The AICTE, for long under a cloud for its failure to control the runaway increase in college fees and capitation fees, was generally perceived to have only performed the role of a licence-issuing authority and to have failed to regulate the "industry" that technical education had become. (see Frontline, November 1, 1996).

The AICTE has an accreditation system by which it grants "approvals" to institutions to start colleges and polytechnics. It is also responsible for clearing the launch of technical courses in specific fields by individual colleges. Representatives of alm ost all sections at the convention told Frontline that the AICTE had only functioned as a licensing authority. They alleged that it had failed to enforce certain standards to ensure quality. A number of delegates, particularly students and teacher s, were critical of the AICTE for its failure to prevent "racketeering" by many private college managements.

I.K. Bhatt, adviser, AICTE, said that the AICTE was in the process of finalising an accreditation scheme with universities in the United States so that students from accredited Indian technical institutions would have their degrees "recognised" by instit utions in the U.S.

The increasing role of the market in determining the direction of technical education worried many participants. Awale said that although the number of colleges was increasing, the quality of education, particularly the quality of teachers and students, was falling.

IN his inaugural address, V.C. Kulandaiswamy, former Vice-Chancellor of the Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi, and Anna University, Chennai, said that "totally outdated and obsolete" teaching practices must be dispensed with. He called th e university affiliation system a "curse on higher education in India". He also argued that the system of compulsory grouping of subjects be replaced by a credit system, which would give flexibility to the student to choose combinations that they wanted. He observed that in most universities in India, courses were not revised for five years at a stretch.

Kulandaiswamy also said that in order to deploy the "best engineering practices", a higher proportion of engineering graduates in India would need to pursue higher education. As an illustration he cited the case of Japan where 50 per cent of those who fi nish a graduate course work towards post-graduation and 50 per cent of the post-graduates work towards doctoral degrees. He said that the Government had to take steps to ensure that at least 20 per cent of the graduates in India were enabled to join post -graduate programmes.

Kulandaiswamy warned that with liberalisation, not only would imported technology be costlier but it might not be available at all. In this context, he cited the persistent decline in the funding of research laboratories and educational institutions. Fro m the highest level of 1 per cent of Gross National Product (GNP) in 1987-88, public funding for these activities had declined to 0.66 per cent, he pointed out. He said that funds for research activities had to reach at least 2 per cent of GNP by 2005.

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V.C. Kulandaiswamy, former Vice-Chancellor, Indira Gandhi National Open University, delivering the inaugural address at the 29th Annual Convocation of the Indian Society for Technical Education.

Kulandaiswamy argued that since infrastructure including advanced instruments, machinery, books and journals were expensive, institutions of technical education "must take full advantage" of information technology (IT) for "networking". He said that "bas ic education for all and the highest education for a few are equally important".

He deplored what he described as the "tendency to de-emphasise the responsibility of the government in the matter of higher education. He criticised the Union Finance Ministry's discussion paper on subsidies, which was issued in 1997. The paper, he said, assumed that while elementary education benefited the entire society, higher education bestowed benefits on only the recipients.

Although he was addressing a convention where most of the delegates were from private colleges, Kulandaiswamy made the rather sharp observation that "the self-financing colleges in India are a new phenomenon that does not exist in this form anywhere in t he world". He said that although education as a "commodity" was now a "fact of life", it was necessary to regulate it so that it played a role that was consistent with the larger interests of society. Later, a teacher-delegate told Frontline that regulation was needed to ensure that only those private managements that had a long-term stake in technical education should be allowed to function.

SPEAKING to Frontline, C. Devarajan, correspondent of the KEC, said that the college, established by the Kongu Vellalar Institute of Technology Trust in 1984, ensured that all the revenue it raised was ploughed back into the development of infrast ructure. This, he said, did not happen in many other private colleges because the members of the trusts which manage them do not keep the institutions at arm's length.

The need for regulation was also articulated by some representatives of private managements. Fears were expressed about the declining quality of technical education. However, several speakers wondered whether the AICTE would be able to perform the role o f a quality control authority. A senior bureaucrat from the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development told Frontline that although the AICTE was "legally equipped with sufficient powers for enforcement of standards, it has hardly lived up to th e task that was envisaged for it". He said that there was "wide variance" in the quality of education offered by different private institutions.

The decline of mainstream courses such as civil, mechanical and metallurgical engineering was also highlighted by many speakers. A delegate from Madhya Pradesh rued the fact that while India's developmental needs called for the training of engineers in t he traditional branches, to build bridges, roads, dams, irrigation works, sanitation facilities and other basic infrastructure, there was a "mad rush" for courses related to IT. He said that even graduate engineers from other disciplines moved over to IT -related fields. He said that this was a "tremendous waste of human resource".

There was also the perception that the market orientation of technical education was leading to a situation where the "traditional courses" did not receive attention and funds from managements and the government. A senior administrator told Frontline< /I> that the prolonged neglect of these courses threatened to jeopardise the future of many of these courses. "If and when there is an increase in demand for civil engineering graduates some time in the future, the system may not be able to respond."

Many participants were also worried that often the brightest engineering students were not motivated to teach in colleges and universities. Awale said that while teachers were "waiting for students" in departments like civil and mechanical engineering, q uality teachers were sometimes not available for many IT-related courses. Bhatt informed the convention that in order to attract talent to teaching, the AICTE had launched a scholarship scheme for students in the last stages of their graduation. He said that 300 students would be selected and trained in the premier educational institutions and be employed as teachers. They were to be paid Rs. 10,000 a month.

Prof. N.A. Gnanam, Director of Technical Education, Tamil Nadu, suggested that the ISTE undertake a survey to forecast the job opportunities available to engineering graduates in different fields. However, some other participants wondered how this would be possible in an uncertainty-ridden, market-driven situation when companies were unable to predict the market for their own products, let alone predict their manpower requirements in the future.

The high cost of technical education was a common complaint from student and teacher-delegates. For instance, the annual fee for a "payment seat" in self-financing colleges in Tamil Nadu amount to more than Rs.50,000. This is in addition to the capitatio n and other fees that many private colleges charge. In fact, many delegates from other States told Frontline that the fees in private colleges in Tamil Nadu were far above those in their States. A senior administrator from Maharashtra said that th e high cost of technical education in private colleges was making technical education the preserve of the affluent. He contrasted this to the once famous government-run engineering colleges, which are now neglected and "almost in ruins."

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