Curing India’s education system

Prof. Arvind Panagariya writes about what is ailing Indian education system. Honestly, there is nothing new in that. It has been argued by several people that government control in general and UGC/AICTE/BCI (At 14 other regulators) are responsible for ensuring that mediocrity is the objective of Indian education.

Smriti Irani who herself does not know what exactly her own education qualification is, who mistakes certificate from Yale with degree from Yale. Degrees are mere certificates and competence is all that matters, but Smriti Irani has proved beyond reasonable doubt that she is not capable of handling MHRD.

Prof. Panagariya outlines various important points as how our MHRD and its regulations have converted the higher education space into a bog in which talent is sucked in and destroyed.

India lags behind comparator countries in both the quantity and quality of education. Gross enrollment ratio-the proportion of those enrolled in higher education to the total population in the age group 18 to 23 years-remains around 20 per cent compared to 28 per cent in China, 36 per cent in Brazil and 55 per cent in Japan. None of the Indian degree-granting institutions appears in the top 200 institutions worldwide in the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. In contrast, each of Hong Kong, China, Singapore, South Korea and Japan has two or more institutions represented in these rankings.

None of the Indian institutions feature anywhere in the top 200 institutes in the world. Which means 1/6th of world’s population which was unfortunate enough to be born in India does not have access to world class education no matter how rich or smart a student be.

We always have our own reasons to dismiss why we cant feature in that list. Someone its is diversity or sometimes India has bigger problems to solve. But in reality it is the government control that alone is responsible for holding education back.

Post-1991 reforms have entirely bypassed higher education in India. Successive human resource development (HRD) ministers have either neglected reforms or tried to implement them, but failed. The essential governance structure in the sector has remained unchanged for more than five decades. The University Grants Commission (UGC), originally formed in 1952 and given statutory status through the UGC Act of 1956, stands at the apex of the system. It, along with its various councils such as the Medical Council of India (MCI), the Bar Council of India and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the Central and state governments fully control different aspects of higher education such as the creation of universities, their internal governance and regulation.

There are only two avenues to the creation of universities in India whether they are in public or private sector. Under the first avenue, the Central or a state government must pass legislation; and under the second, the UGC deems an existing institution to be university. Degree-awarding institutions of national importance such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and All-India Institutes of Medical Science (AIIMS) are created by central legislation and are outside the ambit of the UGC. Management institutes such as the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) in the public sector and Indian School of Business in the private sector are also outside the UGC ambit because they award diplomas and not degrees. All degree-awarding colleges, whether owned by the Central or state governments or private entities, must be affiliated to a Central or state university. Private and deemed universities are unitary with no powers to affiliate colleges.

Both IITs and IIMs are outside the purview of UGC and they seem to have done much better than the other tinpot colleges. That should be the first lesson.

Most of the MBA colleges in India give PGDBA which is a diploma and are outside the purview of UGC. Not only these colleges have done well, they seem to do good to lot of smart non-engineering/non-medical students get much higher salaries than what they would have got with mere B.A. or B.Com.

Control of the UGC, its councils and Central and state governments over governance of universities and colleges is near absolute. Central and state governments fully control the funding of the universities they own. They routinely intervene in the decision-making processes of these universities. Government appointees often sit on the governing bodies of the universities. Universities must seek government or UGC approval for starting new academic programmes and disciplines.

Faculty hiring is subject to interference from both the government and judiciary with the latter granting stay orders on university hiring decisions at the drop of a hat. The governments and UGC determine tuition and faculty salaries as well. Colleges require approval of the affiliating university for introducing any new courses and changing the subject matter of existing courses. No new degrees can be introduced without the approval of the UGC.

Often the law says that a teacher can not be paid more than secretary level IAS officers. As a result even if a college may get a Noble Laureate to teach, that person can not be paid a high salary because of some random law. There is hardly any incentive for good competent teachers to get job into educational institutes if their worth is more than the maximum salary permissible by law.

Indian government can do the most basic thing:

Begin with the entry of new universities. The requirement that legislation must be introduced to start a new university must end. A set of norms in terms of basic infrastructure, faculty, curriculum and endowment may be laid down. Any institution, whether public or private and whether for-profit or non-profit, that satisfies the norms should be granted approval as a university.

But that wont happen. Private players will make profit, private players will fool students, we will be told. It wont matter that government controlled colleges and universities have fooled a million and wasted uncountable amount of money provided by taxpayers while making lakhs of students unemployable.

Smriti Irani is not capable of doing this job. This job should have gone to someone much better.

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