Last week, the director of IIIT-Delhi wrote in these columns about the need to reform the admission process for engineering and other courses. This week, Narayana Murthy made a high-handed comment about the falling qua-lity of IITians. While people seem obsessed about the IITs, other aspects of our higher education system deserve far more attention.
Barring a tiny percentage of elite colleges, higher education is of questionable quality. Ask corporates and they will talk about a serious shortage of talent. Ask students and they will say there are no good jobs. Clearly, students are not being trained properly to meet the demands of the globalised world.
Almost everyone agrees something needs to be done about the education system. Strangely, little is done about it. Money spent on education is never questioned, it isn’t really a politically divisive issue and fixing it is a matter of a few right policies and reforms unlike far more complicated problems like corruption.
We have good, reputed colleges that, at best, accommodate 10% of the applicant pool of students. What happens to the rest? Obsessed with starting salaries and IIT-IIMs and DU cut-offs, we ignore that millions don’t make it. Where do these students go? Do they have a shot at a good life?
Many of these students end up in private colleges. These private colleges have played the role of providing students with a chance to earn a degree of their choice. There is nothing wrong in this. It fact, it is even good that the private sector is playing a role in educating our students. But the quality of these institutions is an issue.
Thousands have opened up in the last decade. In NCR alone, there are over a hundred MBA colleges now. With such proliferation, quality standards vary widely across these institutes. While there is demand for them given our large student pool, what they are teaching and what students are learning is another matter. To ensure quality, the government has put in place procedures like elaborate approval processes and regular inspections. However, these are abused and corruption is rife. Many private college owners have personally admitted to me that they had to pay bribes at every stage of opening the college – from getting land and building approvals, to approving the course plan and to set fee structures. Corruption in the private education sector is such a norm that nobody in the know even raises an eyebrow anymore.
One big reason for corruption is the government’s no-profits-allowed policy for private institutes. Every educational institution has to be incorporated as a non-profit trust. Technically, you cannot make money from the college. The government somehow believes there will be enough people who will spend thousands of crores setting up good colleges for the millions who need seats every year, just out of the goodness of their hearts. On this flawed, stupid assumption that people are dying to run colleges without ever making money rests the higher education of our country.
Of course, none of this no-profit business ever happens. What happens is that shady methods are devised to take money out from the trust. Black money, fake payments to contractors and over-inflating expenses are just a few ingenious methods to ensure promoters get a return on their investment. This ensures that none of the legitimate players ever enter the field. Ex-academics, world-class corporates and honest people will never touch private education, for they do not want to pay bribes at every stage and devise shady methods to bypass no-profit rules. Thus, people like local country liquor barons, sari manufacturers and mithai shop owners open technical colleges for engineering and medicine. And we hand over our kids and their future to them.
You don’t need to be an expert to realise that what is happening is seriously wrong. However, policymakers are doing little about it. Perhaps, much like the bootlegging industry, so many regulators and inspectors are making money that nobody wants to fix it. However, corruption in the education sector is not to be taken lightly. When you have corruption in infrastructure, you have pot-holed roads. When you have corruption in education, you have pot-holed minds. We are destroying an entire generation by not giving it access to the world-class education it deserves.
I have nothing against commercialisation of education. Commerce and business are a good thing. However, when it comes to education, it needs a sense of ethics and quality. Good people must be incentivised to open colleges. Say, by a simple policy fix like allowing private institutes to make a profit. This would mean companies like Infosys and Reliance might open colleges, perhaps on a large scale, as shareholders will approve the huge investment required. If these companies open colleges, at least they will be of a certain standard. Competition can ensure that the ability to make profits never turns into greed. But if the business model is sustainable, many good players would be attracted to this sector.
This can be done. This needs to be done. Indians care about education. We can have one of the best education systems in the world. It is a matter of collective will and a few good leaders who will make this happen. It should not require a fast or dharna or yatra or anti-politician slogans. When something is sensible, it should just be done. For, that is what educated people do. And we would like to call ourselves educated, won’t we?