Where is a govt policy that ensures entry for a majority of students into quality academic institutions?

Voices Saturday, July 12, 2014 - 05:30
By Kunal Singh The biggest criticism of Arun Jaitley’s maiden budget has been its inability to rock the boat. V. Anantha Nageswaran in his review of the budget writes, “This budget...demonstrates that Congress traditions can and will outlast the Congress party. That is a depressing thought.” To be fair to Jaitley, his efforts at not ushering in a complete upheaval was seen as him embracing continuity. And that shred of continuity became the biggest indictment of this budget. Irrespective of the cheerleaders and naysayers, one area where the Finance Minister has certainly ensured continuity is the announcement of new IITs. The UPA opened eight in its tenure. Most of them are living off breadcrumbs of funding, infrastructure and even faculty in some cases. Even if the government finds the resources to fix the logistical, infrastructural and faculty deficits, opening up new IITs is not a great idea. First of all, it propitiates excessive reliance on a fixed template of announcing IITs to fix all the problems in the technical and engineering education domain. It exposes the level of indifference our political class has for higher education sector. Right now, only 2 out of the 100 students that apply for IIT get into one. More IITs might get 4 out of 100 into the IITs. What about the 96 that will not find a place in any IIT? Is there any policy enunciated by the government which ensures their entry into quality academic institutions? Second argument against making of new IITs is the brute force with which we want to establish institutions of excellence in the country. Whether IITs are institutions of excellence or not is a question we will come to later, it is certain that our political class thinks so. Therefore, they want to christen new institutions as ‘IIT’ even before the first brick is laid. In doing so, we predicate their fate well before they do so themselves organically. It is true that the first batch of IITs were made in the same manner, but subsequently, IIT Roorkee and IIT Varanasi were actually upgraded to ‘IIT’ status into 155th and 93rd year of their existence. The brand IIT was made after years of existence of the older IITs and the upgraded institutes. Putting a board of IIT before laying down the first brick does not make an IIT, certainly not of the same quality. This denigration of quality accompanies the dilution of the brand of IIT. Third, let us address the question whether IITs are institutions of excellence or not. In Indian context, certainly they are. In global context, the case cannot be stated as convincingly. The move of the government to make new IITs assumes them to be model institutions and hence replicas should be made of it. The whole exercise completely ignores the need to make IITs more competitive globally. One reason for the sub-optimal performance of IITs is the lack of domestic competition. Our policies certainly allow a lot of private engineering colleges to mushroom. However, they do nothing to ensure a modicum of quality in these institutes. In his latest column, Devesh Kapur writes, “Consider this: between 2000-01 and 2011-12, the number of colleges in India increased from 12,806 to 35,539, which meant an average of nearly six new colleges a day for more than a decade. What a fabulously hard-working and accommodative regulatory system - unless, of course, one asks how this really happened, and what happens inside these institutions.”There are other stark realities that Devesh Kapur brings out in his column. He has pointed out how we have lost our comparative advantage in terms of scientific publications vis-à-vis China over the years. Now we are behind by a huge margin. (See the graphs below) It is clear that IITs cannot satisfactorily solve the problem of our technical education and the government has not talked about other measures that will. A mechanical calculation between two options – more IITs or nothing – will certainly point that new IITs will bring some net gains in the long run. However, it is not the net gains that I am worried about while arguing against new IITs, it is the opportunity cost of such a move that eats me. Since it is clear that the new Government will now go ahead and make new IITs, we should be more pragmatic and suggest measures that can still save the day for our higher education. The first measure is to clearly simplify the regulating norms and reduce the number of regulators. The Higher Education and Research Bill, 2011 tried to simplify the regulatory framework by creating a single regulator replacing UGC, AICTE and others. However the bill had certain deficiencies which came in the way of granting autonomy to academic institutions. Corrections must be made and the bill must be passed.Another bill which also has deficiencies and has not seen the light of the day is The Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulations and Entry of Operations) Bill, 2010. The bill has lapsed due to end of the tenure of 15th Lok Sabha. Certain provisions of the bill itself formed huge impediments in achieving the stated objectives of the bill, that is, to facilitate foreign universities to set up campuses in India. Some of the stringent measures like prohibition of repatriation of surplus revenues need to be relaxed if we want to get foreign universities interested. There is no dearth of examples we can learn from. The Songdo Global University Campus set up in Incheon Free Economic Zone, South Korea houses multiple foreign university campuses. Multiple academic institutes from Europe, United States, Australia and Singapore have set up their campuses in China. Such measures will end the monopoly over excellence of the institutes like the IITs and IIMs by increasing competition in attracting both the students and the faculty. The fashion of naming all new institutes as IITs and IIMs will, for good, see an end. A good regulatory framework free of political interference and a policy regime which allows profit generating academic institutions will encourage private investors set up their institutions of learning. This will further increase competition by increasing the supply of institutes. To ensure that all sections of society get access to good quality institutes, government must introduce scholarships and loans on a larger scale, allow students to defer the payment of their fees after they have graduated and put the institutes charging more in a higher tax bracket (as recommended by the Browne report of Britain). Further the Government must free up any restriction over the distance and online education providers. This will signal a larger shift of focus from degrees to skills. These measures, if sincerely implemented, have the potential of pushing India towards becoming a true knowledge economy. Hope the government is listening. Kunal Singh is a policy researcher with Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) project at Centre for Policy Research. He has graduated from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. He is also a public policy graduate from The Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think tank.

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