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The degeneration of India's universities

By T V R Shenoy
May 10, 2010 09:14 IST
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India's universities are degenerating into citadels of the highest corruption, says T V R Shenoy.

India's institutions of higher learning are degenerating into citadels of the highest corruption. Is it already too late to stop the rot?

In 2006 a study conducted by NASSCOM (the National Association of Software and Service Companies) concluded that only one in four engineering graduates was employable. The rest apparently lacked the requisite technical skills, or the ability to make even a simple oral presentation in English, or even the ability to work in a team.

That tied in with an earlier report by global consulting powerhouse McKinsey, to the effect that only 15 per cent of India's finance and accounting professionals met the standards required to work in a multinational. For good measure that study added: 'Only about 10 per cent of Indian students with generalist degrees in the arts and humanities is suitable, compared with 25 per cent of all Indian engineering graduates.'

The reports fell on deaf ears. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they fell on ears deafened by the crisp crackle of currency notes.

In July 2009 the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested K Narayan Rao, member secretary of the All India Council for Technical Education, for bribery. He had reportedly demanded money from an engineering college in Andhra Pradesh in return for a 'favourable' inspection report.

A few months later, the CBI registered cases of corruption against the chairman of the All India Council for Technical Education, R A Yadav, advisor H C Rai, and deputy director R Randhawa. (These were not connected to the case against Narayan Rao.)

Meanwhile, in another unrelated case, the CBI searched the All India Council for Technical Education office in Bhopal. This followed reports that the regional office had given its approval to an engineering college chain that lacked the necessary infrastructure.

You get the picture, do you not? The All India Council for Technical Education is the statutory body responsible for setting and maintaining standards. Its highest officers could be bribed to look away by colleges -- perhaps universities? -- that did not meet the minimal requirements. The going rate, judging by the case of Narayan Rao above, was twenty lakh rupees (Rs 2 million) for each such instance.

The AICTE officials made a neat packet, the owners of the institutions did not have to bother with expensive facilities, and everybody was happy -- except the students who found that potential employers thought they were not worth hiring.

Union Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal has made it clear that he for one has no illusions about the All India Council for Technical Education. He has already announced that the National Board of Accreditation, hitherto a wing of the AICTE, will be made an independent body.

So much for many of India's engineering colleges! (And, if we are to believe the McKinsey study, for the bulk of our commerce and arts colleges too.) But you would be mistaken if you thought the medical colleges at any rate were unsullied.

In April 2010 Ketan Desai, chairman of the Medical Council of India, was arrested for taking a bribe. (As a piece of melancholy trivia where Narayan Rao was content to ask with a 'mere' twenty lakh the enterprising Ketan Desai demanded ten times as much -- two crore (Rs 20 million) to recognise a medical college in Patiala.)

According to reports the Central Bureau of Investigation suspects that several others institutions might have been recognised by the Medical Council of India thanks only to bribes.

Of course, there were some cases where neither the All India Council for Technical Education nor the Medical Council of India could be blamed. When the Congress was in power in Chhattisgarh, with Ajit Jogi as chief minister, it seemed to go on a university creating spree. At one point as many as one hundred and twelve private universities were created in a single year; that is pretty good going -- better than two a week -- given that there are only fifty-two weeks in the year.

Some of these institutions were unfit to be described as 'colleges' leave alone 'universities'. After it turned out that one or two were literally operating out of a single room it was joked that in Chhattisgarh higher education was literally a cottage industry!

All this proved too much for Professor Yashpal, a former chairman of the University Grants Commission, and he appealed to the Supreme Court. Their Lordships decided that portions of Ajit Jogi's controversial ordinance from 2002, the 'Chhattisgarh Niji Kshetra Vishwavidaylaya (Sthapana Aur Viniyaman) Adhiniyam', were ultra vires. The so-called 'universities' established by the ordinance were erased out of existence.

That was not the Supreme Court's sole contribution to cleaning up the mess. Responding to another case the Union HRD ministry admitted to their Lordships in January 2010 that forty-four 'deemed' universities would have to be de-recognised.

One of the reasons cited by the ministry to the Supreme Court was a management structure where families rather than academics ran the show. Other charges were that some were 'engaged in introduction of thoughtless programmes' while yet others showed 'little evidence of commitment towards research'.

How is this lemming rush to decay to be halted before Indian universities become the laughing stock of the world, the (few) good ones unfairly tarred by the misdeeds of the worst of the lot?

For starters, I think the University Grants Commission has outlived its usefulness and should be put to rest. For a second, I hope Kapil Sibal decides to make the National Board of Accreditation totally autonomous, possibly staffing it with non-bureaucrats. For a third, I hope our leaders -- the media too -- pay as much attention to the shenanigans in higher education as to those in the Indian Premier League.

Or, of course, we could continue as we are -- with 75 per cent of our engineering graduates and 85 per cent of our finance and accounting graduates being unfit for employment.

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T V R Shenoy