For over two years now, though the attack is a lot sharper nowadays, Human Resources Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi has been waging a battle against what he feels is rampant elitism on the part of premier educational institutions like the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology.
According to the minister, these institutions don't justify the grants they get, they're overstaffed, do little research and basically cater to the needs of the elite.
And, using recommendations of the U R Rao committee set up to review the country's technical education system, Joshi is planning to radically slash fees in these two institutions, perhaps double the number of seats in the IIMs and even examine the possibility of some reservation for poor students, perhaps abolishing the group discussion portion of the selection process that he feels is a source of discrimination against students from non-elite backgrounds.
While few deans of the IITs or the IIMs are willing to take on Joshi directly (this could see Rs 600 crore of annual government grants disappear!), even a casual perusal of the Rao report suggests the minister has used the recommendations selectively.
Joshi, for instance, says the Rao committee makes it clear that fees in even US universities is not more than 30 per cent of the country's per capita incomes and that by using this logic, India's fee for technical institutions should not be more than Rs 6,000, going up to perhaps Rs 20,000 if the purchasing power parity formula is to be applied. If this is done, fees at IIT/IIMs will be a fraction of those charged by less-exalted private bodies.
Well, the Rao committee did not explicitly make this recommendation -- its recommendation (10.4.1.7) talks of how unaided institutions (ones that don't get government grants) are charging exorbitant fees, and suggests the All India Council for Technical Education fix guidelines on how fees are to be fixed for both aided- and non-aided bodies, including subsidies for poorer students. It suggests this be done by dividing up the cost of education between the government, the employers and the students.
But where did the Rs 6,000 figure come from? In an earlier chapter, the report notes that fees in US colleges are typically less than 30 per cent of the country's per capita income. But, the table that shows the fee structure in various universities like Harvard ($11,000), also shows that the assistance provided by the universities varies from half to two-thirds of the total cost.
Says P V Indiresan, former director of IIT, Chennai, and a member of the Rao committee, who came up with this formulation, "If you assume the average cost of an engineering degree is Rs 100,000, and you restrict the fresh intake to 50,000 a year, the subsidy that the government and industry will have to share is Rs 2,000 crore (Rs 20 billion)."
If, however, says Indiresan, you take the actual intake of fresh engineering students of 360,000 this year, the subsidy burden will go up to Rs 14,400 crore (Rs 144 billion) a year.
To put this in perspective, the government's total education budget is under Rs 10,000 crore (Rs 100 billion) a year, evenly divided between elementary education/literacy and secondary/higher education. The HRD ministry, however, dismisses this as hyperbole, saying that all that it's talking about is to lower fees in just the IIMs and the IITs, and so the additional cost will be marginal.
In any case, according to the ministry, it already provides a subsidy of Rs 250,000 a year per student for the IIMs and Rs 100,000 for the IITs.
As for the actual additional burden imposed by the planned move, the ministry's asked for costing details from the IIT/IIMs. A former head of one of the IIMs, who has requested anonymity, points out that while this is ostensibly being done in the name of the poorer students, there is not even one instance of a student having cleared the entrance tests and not being admitted because he/she couldn't afford it.
Another bugbear for Joshi is that while his calculations show universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Lincoln have a teacher-student ratio of 1:10, and others like Penn State and Pittsburgh a 1:17 ratio, the IIMs have a mere 1:4 in the case of Bangalore, 1:5 for Ahmedabad and 1:6 for the rest.
Not true, says a former head of an IIM. The Kurien committee, according to him, said each professor should do about 180 hours of teaching a year, and IIM professors do a lot more.
Unlike in the US, IIM professors even mark answer sheets. Devi Singh, director of the IIM, Lucknow, however, chooses to duck the question, saying he has not studied the data carefully, but "demanding higher performance from education institutions in terms of research is not a bad idea."
At a Roorkee University function, Joshi launched a broadside on the IITs, claiming that, relative to the aid it got from the government, Roorkee's contribution was a lot greater, in terms of the number of PhDs it produced, the research papers and the number of heads of the railway board and other such institutions who were Roorkee alumni.
Indiresan, however, says this is more political than anything else. "I was chairman of the committee that doubled Roorkee's grants to Rs 50 crore... does this mean Roorkee should produce double the number of PhDs now? Universities are not made by money alone and there's no point just counting papers, you have to look at their quality. At one time, Garhwal University gave more PhDs than the IITs, but where's the comparison?"
But while the Joshi-IIT/IIM row will sort itself out, one way or the other, the real issues in the Rao report have got scant attention. According to Rao, though the sector is booming, the quality is dramatically falling, with the number of adequately qualified teachers falling short by as much as 80 per cent in some cases.
Indeed, the report points out, India is just not producing enough PhDs and MTechs -- in a sense, even if one disagrees with Joshi's prescription, this is one of the points he's making. The report, of course, severely indicts Joshi's ministry and the AICTE, which presides over technical education in the country, when it says few technical institutes in the country have anywhere near the kind of faculty they need.
Says Nitish Sengupta, MP and director-general of the International Management Institute B-school: "I've been on an AICTE committee that inspected one potential B-school and it was obvious the 'library' actually belonged to a bookshop, the computers had been hired for the day, the 'professor' was an employee of the computer firm yet, three months later, the institute had been 'AICTE-approved'!"
The report recommends AICTE start de-recognising institutions that do not conform to basic standards, and regularly put out relevant data, like the performance of their students and the faculty qualifications, of the institutes under its purview.
According to a study by Professor J P Srivastava, the Rao report points out that India needs around 10,000 PhDs over the next three to four years to meet the basic needs of its engineering institutions.
Another report cited, one by Anil Kumar of National Technical Manpower Information System, says there is a 60 to 80 per cent shortfall in qualified teachers in engineering institutions in the country even today.
In 2000-01, Indian engineering institutions required 60,970 teachers and this was broken down into 8,710 professors, 17,420 readers and 34,840 lecturers -- in terms of professional qualifications, what was required was 26,130 PhDs and 34,840 MTechs.
What was available, however, was 5,862 PhDs and 11,035 MTechs. Even if you go by Srivastava's figures, the shortfall of PhDs has gone up from 33 per cent in 1990 to 55 per cent in 2000 and to around 70 per cent today.
Matters are worse in other disciplines such as MCA, MBA, pharmacy, architecture and town planning. Today, while 930 business management schools in India have an authorised intake of 64,403 students each year, they have less than 4,000 teachers -- that translates to around 32 students per teacher, as against the maximum permissible level of 20.
If you remove the IIMs, the rest of the B-schools have less than four teachers each on an average. Things are so serious that the report recommends that teams of experts be sent from India to the US/Europe to interview candidates there for faculty positions!If the NDA wins the elections, and Joshi returns as the HRD minister, he's going to have a lot more than just the IIMs and the IITs to worry about.