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The Rediff Interview/Dr U R Rao
February 11, 2004
From space to education is quite a leap. But Dr U R Rao, the high profile former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, has made the transition without any trouble. His report on technical education in India, submitted to the All India Council for Technical Education, has become the touchstone for government policy decisions on related issues.
Most recently, Human Resource Development Minister Dr Murli Manohar Joshi announced a 30 percent slash in the annual fees at the Indian Institutes of Management, again drawing inspiration from a recommendation of the Rao report.
rediff.com Special Contributing Correspondent M D Riti met Dr Rao at his office in Antariksh Bhavan, headquarters of the Department of Space in Bangalore, to discuss his controversial report.
The recommendations of your report have been generating a lot of interest.
You must mean the fee slash at the IIMs. That was an offshoot of just one of the recommendations I made, and that too one of the lowest priority recommendations! The report really said so much more.
This report was written by a committee constituted by the ministry of human resources and development to examine the functioning of the AICTE. Its aim was to ensure the maintenance of high curriculum standards in technical education.
Since it is the fee slash in technical education institutes, starting with the IIMs, that is now generating so much interest, perhaps you could discuss that first.
Fees are really that last issue we took up! Private self-financing institutions are charging a lot of money. For example, in Chennai, the fee paid by a student was much as Rs 30 lakhs for medical seats!
The directors of various medical institutions, they even offer something called a package deal. That is, you pay upfront one crore, and in seven years you get a guaranteed MD or MS degree. What kind of nonsense is this! I mean, who can afford this kind of money, unless you have black money?
Nowhere in the world is the total thrust of education borne by the student. Not even in the US. The students barely pay one third of the cost. Of course, those institutes have large corpus funds. We do not have that.
Should not the fees charged by technical colleges have some correlation to the earning power of people? If you see even if people pay $30,000, which hardly anyone pays in the US -- they pay more in the region of $11,000 -- even if they pay $30,000, that is the added per capita income of an American. The average per capita income of an Indian is just $450, that is, about Rs 18,000. How do you expect our people to pay $30,000?
Let us acknowledge that when a person gets educated, its not only he or she that benefits. The entire society around benefits, so does the industry. So it is only right that the costs must also be benefited three ways. I had a large number of discussions with industrialists. The final thing is that one third is all that a student should pay. If you take one third of the Indian per capita income, it is just Rs 6,000. If you take the PPP, that is, the per capita purchase parity, then it should be three times that amount.
We have also given a scheme of how the fee can be divided into three and shared amongst all the beneficiaries. The people who get employed, you should put a cess of them to be cut at the source itself. There should be a matching grant from the employer and from the university. All this should be put into a separate escrow account. This procedure should be totally transparent, the details should be worked out to ensure that there are no scams.
Essentially, it is immoral to charge the total amount. We should not deprive the deserving poor. It cannot, of course, be uniform, because in the IITs, the cost of education per student is around Rs 2 lakhs. In most of the other institutes, it is only around Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000.
Many of the institutes are not spending even a third of that amount. They are employing graduates who have just passed out, paying them Rs 5,000 and making them teach. I said all this must stop. We must insist they pay the right type of salaries, get PhDs etc, and make industry and society at large share the cost of technical education.
So have you said the IITs and IIMs should also only charge Rs 6,000 as fees?
No, obviously, the IIMs and IITs will be much higher than the NIITs, and the NIITs in turn will charge much more than the rest of the engineering colleges. Today, private colleges are charging, on paper alone, Rs 50,000, without any proper infrastructure.
There are hundreds of other hidden costs, like Rs 4,000 for hostel facilities, Rs 1,000 for using the bus between the hostel and classes. Then, they charge building fund. All these numerous ways of extracting money must be stopped.
Finally, we have said that for India to be able to compete in the global market, industry must be forced to participate in the cost of technical education. If we produce students of the IIT and IIM quality, we have the window of opportunity open.
Speaking of global comparisons, why is that engineers educated in India have far less communication skills than those educated in the US or some other foreign countries? This really handicaps them as the ability to communicate is essential in all disciplines today.
Partly because of their lack of exposure, partly because they have not worked with their hands. Also, we have somehow made them depend on the job market, not on themselves. They are job seekers, not job creators. This has to change. That will happen with better interaction with industries.
We had some schemes to help entrepreneurs, but unfortunately we don't have enough. Countries like China have technology business incubators. Germany has about 6,000 of them, China has 4,000. Beijing University alone has about 500 connected with it.
I am not talking about the technology parks, that I feel are more like five star hotels. You have an expensive place that is well lit, power, and nothing else. Entrepreneurs cannot even pay these rents. Technology business entrepreneurs are organized businesswise.
Can you please sum up your other key recommendations for us?
Certainly. The ambit of this report included all engineering disciplines, architecture and town planning, the applied arts, hotel management, business management and pharmacy. How should AICTE be restructured to face the global challenges? The education system must now equip students to compete in the global market, you see.
Our committee had a large number of stake holders including representatives of a large number of private and government institutions, secretaries of government departments, directors of the IITs and IIMs, the UGC and so on. The first thing the committee did was address the mushroom growth of technical education institutions, especially in the last four years.
For example, two decades ago, there were less than 300 engineering institutions in the country, now there are something like 1,200 of them. The last few years have seen a similar spurt in MBA institutes to about 900, with an intake of about 60,000 students. There are only six IITs, but 1,200 other institutes, and only a few IIMs but so many other MBA colleges.
AICTE has a regulation that the teacher-student ratio must be 1:15, and there must be a complement of 1:2:4 or professors to associate professors and lecturers. However, because of this tremendous growth in institutions, propelled partly by a highly speculative demand by students and parents, who hope that they will land good jobs. There is a great amount of push by political entities and others in creating more self-financing institutions.
All this has led to a tremendous lowering of the standards of technical education in the country. Of the 1,200 engineering institutions, for example, almost 970 are self-financing. The Supreme Court judgment has said that they should not commercialise education, but could charge whatever amount they consider necessary. The definition of commercialization is very vague. Where do you stop?
For example, it might be quite right to say that an institution developing its own infrastructure is development indeed. But when an institution says it wants to grow another institution, is that commercialization or development? Eventually, students are made to pay an enormous amount of money under different headings. This is especially true of colleges offerings MBAs, medical and engineering degrees.
The first thing we looked at was the number of faculty required. The faculty requirement is so large and the infrastructure need is so huge that if we go strictly by the norms, we need today something like 30,000 professors to meet the needs of the engineering institutions. The country only produces about 375 PhDs a year. In disciplines like management, pharmacy, hotel management and pharmacy, it is negligible.
All these institutions, especially the government ones, have faculty that is underqualified, for this reason. They often hire graduates who have just passed out as faculty, whereas the minimum requirement is really an MTech or a master's degree. Likewise, there is a scarcity of at least 25,000 master's degree holders.
Obviously, the quality of graduates comes down. So, while we produce a large number of technical people, their quality is extremely poor. This is a very disturbing factor.
So, one our first recommendations was on how to control the number of institutions. This is hard because of the geographic inequity. If you look at the four southern states and Maharashtra, they have a concentration of 60 to 70 per cent of the country's institutions.
Kerala has about 77 engineering colleges as against Bihar, which barely has about 7! When you go to the North East and Orissa too, there is a severe paucity of such colleges. While it is true that students from there come here to study, it does not help the economic growth of those regions. People need to grow there and go back there for work, but if there is a lack of industries and infrastructure to absorb them, that is not going to happen.
Secondly, if you take the whole economic growth rate of the country, which is about 6% -- even if you take it as 8% -- the growth rate of engineers is 15 to 20%. The economic growth rate simply cannot support this high turnout of engineers. There is 15% to 20% unemployment in some disciplines, and much more underemployment. This is dangerous.
So, we said we must control intake more rigorously. Those institutions who do not have enough faculty or infrastructure must be ruthlessly stopped.
Then, there is the issue of accreditation. Every institution can seek accreditation to the AICTE two years after its first batch has passed out. Now, although accreditation has been mandatory, less than 5% of the institutions have been accredited! Unfortunately, there is no upper limit on how long an institution can wait to seek accreditation. There are institutions that are more than 25 years old that do not enjoy accreditation!
So, we have suggested that every institution must seek accreditation as soon as possible. Those that fall marginally short of the requirements of accreditation maybe given a grace period to overcome their problems. Those that fail to do so, and those that simply do not come anywhere near the quality required, we must reduce their intake as a first step, and then take more drastic action after that.
Even accredited institutions must seek re-accreditation every five years. The same holds good for the deemed universities. There are now many universities who somehow get deemed status, and then they stay deemed forever. I told the AICTE that I wanted to call them doomed universities in my report, only, I thought they would simply think I was making a spelling mistake.
When 3.5 lakh engineers are turned out every year, do we realize that in four years' time, we would have increased our population of engineers by 15 lakhs? What will we do with them?
We have made concrete suggestions to help the faculty paucity situation, such as utilizing qualified retired people, and having adjunct professorships.
A major problem is that there is virtually no interaction between technical education institutions and industry. In fact, we have said in our report that institutions and industry have become like two different castes. Unless we break this caste structure, we will never have the right kind of education system.
Unfortunately, except for a few industries like steel or automobile, we continue to depend upon imported know-how. Any imported know-how is at least a generation old, and we can never compete in the global market using it. The only alternative, then, is indigenisation. That's why it is in the interest of industry also to have a close association with institutes.
Do you think industry-institute interaction is better at least in premier institutes like the IITs and IIMs?
No, the interaction of even the IIMs and IITs is nowhere near what it should be. This interaction must be forced upon both sides. Industries must be mandated to spend a part of their money, whether gross profit or net profit, in supporting research. Otherwise, there is no way they will come together.
Unfortunately, institutions too have not made an adequate effort in this direction. Instead of calling people for the occasional lecture, why don't they appoint industry stalwarts as adjunct professors, ask them to give curriculum based lectures.
We have looked at other schemes like early induction schemes for staff, giving scholarships to poor students who execute a bond saying that after their studies, they will serve as teachers.
However, all this will take a long time to implement. An earlier report on the subject said that instead of 375 we should turn out 750 PhDs in a year. When I have 30,000 as the gap, when will we ever clear the shortfall?
Then again, there are a large number of PhDs in the US who are willing to come back if you guarantee them jobs. A few months ago when I was giving a talk in Houston, I told the NRI community there that there were plenty of good teaching jobs going abegging here. They promptly said, look, you say we must go through an interview, and for that we will have to fly all the way to India, with no certainty of a job at the end of the road. Even if you do offer us jobs after the interviews, then, you offer contracts for one year at a time. None of us is willing to take risks as large as that. Lets face it, Indians are not capable of taking that kind of risk.
In ISRO and IISc, we give jobs without interviews. They have just started this system at the IITs. Others do not even try these new systems. So, our committee has proposed a distance education scheme instead.
We suggest that the AICTE pay decent honorariums to some of the best engineering brains in the country, ask them to prepare 15 or 20 lectures on subjects that are clearly a part of the engineering syllabus, record these lectures on a disc and then broadcast them to the whole country.
AICTE will spend barely Rs 20 crores a year in preparing the lectures, hiring transponders, preparing the disc and then broadcasting it. Each institution can pay a royalty of Rs 2 lakhs for this. Every two years, change the lectures and the professors who have given them. Every institution has a couple of hours a day at least where teachers sit with students in classrooms and hear these lectures. Every institution has VSATs to make this possible. For this, they charge students about Rs 1,000 a year, and make up their money.
The committee has also looked at all possible ways to improve engineering college faculty. Everyone says teaching is a poorly paid profession, yet, some of the best brains in the world are teachers, simply because they feel that it is such a prideful thing to be. They come for the freedom the profession provides them, the opportunities for research and the interaction they can enjoy with the younger generation.
It is hard to provide these facilities everywhere. So we should have centralised research facilities provided by the AICTE in centralized places. Now they are spending about Rs 15 crores a year on preventing obsolescence and modernization of equipment. But that is not enough. These centers could also be used by industries, and thereby we could generate enough money to run these places.
Image: Uday Kuckian