There is now an increasing demand among the Indian students for admissions into the engineering courses. Explaining the current landscape of engineering education and its evolution, Rakesh Barve argues why we should learn from great institutions elsewhere while still adapting to very peculiar India-specific situations.
In the noted historian Stanley Wolpert’s words, higher education opens “the swiftest elevators to the pinnacles of modern Indian power and opportunity”. However, there is, in fact, no clear agreement on the “social rate of return” of higher education, i.e. there is no universally accepted analytic framework that quantifies the ‘goodness’, in socio-economic terms, of higher education for developing countries. This means that the government has to take a somewhat subjective judgement call regarding allocations to be made to the higher education segment of the economy. Furthermore, in the Indian context, these allocation decisions have been made often without open and serious debates and these have been politically extremely contentious issues .
As a result, in spite of liberalisation in other spheres, government wields a stranglehold on the higher education sector, including engineering. Government policies and regulations have had adverse impacts on the engineering education sector in a variety of ways. Even though the number of engineering institutions in India has increased dramatically over the last couple of decades, and so has private investment, infrastructure investment has not been commensurate with the rise in the number of engineering students. So the expenditure per engineering student has in effect gone down. All these factors are intertwined and are together responsible for the low quality of the bulk of engineering education in India.
Factors pertaining to the diminishing signalling effect of educational institutions
A bunch of fortuitous events, decisions and circumstances set in motion the private engineering college juggernaut, starting from the Southern states and then spreading North over time.
While enrolment in higher education tripled in two decades (from the mid-1980s), public spending grew much more gradually—Real public expenditure per student in higher education declined by 21 per cent between 1993-94 and 2003-04. Most expenditure goes to salaries and other rent-seeking activities at private institutions: Decrease in revenue per student implies decreased in quality of teaching and of infrastructure.
As a result of overall ensuing bad quality, degrees from many private engineering institutions cease to perform a primary function of a degree: that of “signalling” quality.The variance in quality of knowledge or skills among students was so high that the degree did not signal or represent anything specific.
When the degree’s meaning becomes diluted, its curriculum and pedagogy become less compelling.
As a result, institutions outside of the formal degree conferring engineering colleges started taking up the mantle of the signaling function: Entrance exams, private institutions offering diplomas (such as NIIT, Aptech), coaching classes. (One hears anecdotally how engineering students claim to learn more while preparing for GATE than in engineering classes.)
The overwhelming demand for engineering seats in relation to supply and assumed effectiveness of corporate training programs is such that this bad quality doesn’t deter continuing admissions into engineering colleges.
A so-called ‘information asymmetry’ — wherein student candidates don’t really get enough information (such as tracking of past alumni etc) about differences in engineering colleges — works to maintain the low quality and price of an engineering degree. Moreover, education as a service is malleable in the sense that it is possible to trade-off quality with cost flexibly in the process of churning out a degree.
Accompanying the processes shown in the above “Box” are a bunch of policy and regulatory factors, stemming mostly from the government’s ideological entrapment between half-baked socialism and half-baked capitalism, with the benefits of neither, and also from bad implementations of policies these are:
There is immense reluctance to view education as an industry or business or for-profit enterprise. Educational institutions are trusts and societies, which don’t have to be as rigidly transparent as do for-profit enterprises adhering to the Companies Act. This causes a lack of transparency and also makes it very difficult for entrepreneurs who want to offer educational services to enter this arena.
In being strict about merit-based admissions (barring affirmative action), the government has been rigidly un-innovative so far, causing a perverse prohibition on public institutions mobilising private resources in any form—higher fees, licensing arrangements, or philanthropy— and as a result, precluded them from mobilising the vast reservoirs of private money available for higher education.
Both private and public institutions have the above perverse resource issues, lowering quality/signaling and this has resulted in hundreds of thousands of students spending private capital (estimated around $3 billion in 2005-6) on education abroad. Again, there is no avenue to tap this source in order to raise standards.
Even though China has allowed FDI in education, India has so far not allowed this source of funding.
Although private institutions have helped address the demand, because they’re in principle governed by the same set of regulations, they often have to have degrees conferred by state universities and are determined by roughly the same curricular guidelines and rubrics as public institutions.
There is very little drive for institutions to strive for pedagogical innovation, excellence or a sense of creating a market niche.
In pursuing a goal of enhancing the median level of skills among citizens, the system of higher education ends up not distinguishing the skills and qualities of its students and there is a suspicion of excellence in Indian higher education.
There are loopholes in implementation of regulations. For instance, although engineering colleges are supposed to get accredited by the AICTE, a very small fraction have received this accreditation and furthermore because of the high variances in the infrastructures of institutions that have received this accreditation, even this accreditation would seem to have lost its signaling.
Separation of research and education at policy level is having an affect even in elite institutions in India.
There is a shortage of faculty at IITs and IIMs due to the global market for this kind of talent.
There are some relevant interesting studies. For example, it seems that China retains state control over its educational institutions but has made progress in having its institutions raise funding through research and consultancy, training programmes, services to industries, private and overseas contributions. How successful or effective this has been is not clear: Studies have cited quality problems with students in China too; and some studies have shown that at least in some years even as the number of graduating students increased, the number of job opportunities actually declined. Also the strive to push out more students and research papers has led to academicians citing the rise of ethical issues in the system.
Other interesting topics include the way Dubai and Singapore are experimenting with getting international institutions to set up campuses there (even some Indian institutions) and the merits of technology and online courses in higher education for developing countries.
Addressing the problems in India will require persistent efforts, including policy changes recognising the following :
Policy-makers must realise that competition for talent is genuinely global and the design of institutions—freedoms/ incentives/quality benchmarks— have to be commensurate with this reality.
Creating a vibrant system requires competitive energies of the market, a flexible/supple state system and a genuine non profit sector.
To conclude, specific suggestions for institutions is to simply focus on improving the signal value of their degree are:
Having more effective accreditation rules—maybe government must encourage multiple competing accreditation agencies.
Have more transparent and available tracking of alumni etc so students have more information about engineering colleges.
Goals for institutions to strive to innovate and excel, differentiate, create a niche with respect to educational experience of students at universities to wrest back the mantle of signaling that extra-institutional agencies currently own.
I have anecdotally seen some progressive private institutions actually taking steps to improve on all the above points.
The role of large, visionary and endowment-model institutions will also be crucial so space must be created for these to proliferate. Also, one increasingly reads about developments both in government thinking and in enterprising activities undertaken by engineering colleges, which suggests things are likely to improve.
(The author graduated from IIT, Mumbai)