Ramblings on Undergraduate Education in India

Swami Manohar August 29, 2010


Impact of the IT success story

Pages have been written about the fantastic achievements of the Indian IT industry and its positive impact on the economy, the psyche of the population and the brand image of India abroad. However, the negative impact of the rise of the IT industry in India is deep and pervasive and completely outside the radar of policy makers as well as industry. The irony is that the success of the IT industry in its current form, predominantly services oriented, is in itself a major bottleneck to its growth as will be seen shortly. The primary symptom of the malaise is the inverted salary structures that have become the norm in the IT industry when compared with non-IT industry. For instance, fresh engineering graduates from top engineering colleges are offered a starting salary of Rs 6 lakhs per annum. This is far more than the salary of a senior manger in a traditional industry like the automotive industry or the manufcaturing industry. Even with the revised salary structure, an Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Science, the premier research Institute in the country, with a PhD from a reputed global institution and possibly with a couple of years of post-doctoral experince draws no more than about Rs 5 lakhs a year. At the higher ends of the spectrum in the IT sector the compensations reach stratospheric heights, especially when expatriates at the senior mangement levels are considered. What is the impact of this? The aspirations of millions of youngsters are set at this high levels. There is nothing wrong with increased aspirations, but the result of this unrealistic expectation is insidious. But first, why is this an unrealistic expectation? Even though there are fresh graduates being paid Rs 5 lakhs to even Rs 10 lakhs per annum (some of the IIT graduates hired by finance industry MNCs are indeed offered such salaries), the number of such offers is very small, compared to the annual turnout of engineering graduates in India, which is close to about half a million. The reality is that more than 80% of these are unemployable, and some fraction of these eventually find employment at annual salaries no more than Rs 1 lakh, in domains as disparate as call centers, data entry shops, as teachers in polytechnics, and computer training shops. Many of these youngsters completed their BE by borrowing money from banks to pay private engineering colleges and thus at the age of 21 are left with an useless degree, a bank


loan to pay off and a battered self esteem. For most of these kids the toil started when they were in the 9th standard: given the irrational pay structure for (some) BE graduates that were prevalent in the industry, there is enormous parental and peer pressure on school kids to start preparing for an entry into some engineering degree and with a well defined caste hierarchy among possible colleges: The IITs at the top (within which the older IITs are above the newer ones and there is a finely nuanced ranking), followed by NIITs, followed by specific colleges in each state that are ranked as the top. And there are a slew of entrance tests (JEE, AIEEE, CET, COMED-K, numerous state-government run exams and exams conducted by a host of private autonomous universities). Preparation for these exams starts as early as the end of 8th standard (to start training classes for JEE!) and continues till the summer of their 12th standard exams. At the end of these exams and a highly analysed and watched selection process these kids end up in various colleges.


Engineering College Admission process

A snapshot of the process is important to understand the shakiness of the foundation on which today’s engineering education rests on. In TamilNadu, one of the three biggies of engineering education, a recent government order has enforced the use of 12th standard marks as the sole criterion for admission to the ’merit’ seats of all engineering colleges. Leaving out the complexities of multiple school boards (CBSE, ISE, Matriculation, and State Board), and simply looking at kids in the State Board. All the students are ranked on the basis of the 12th standard exam and here is where things immediately get interesting: there are about a few hundred students who usually score 100% on all the four subjects that are used in the ranking. Hence these names are ranked in random order for the basis of admission to specific colleges and branches. For example, Electronics and Communication engineering branch in Anna University Guindy will be deemed the top choice by several thousand aspirants and hence the first two hundred rank holders will fill this branch up.


Selecting the College

The counseling center during the engineering admission is a place of enormous stress. Each student is allowed to come in with one parent/guardian. The aspirants are seated according to the ranking that had been established and communicated to them. Each of the students has a list of names of colleges and branches in a clear order of priority. This order is normally arrived at using a diverse mix of inputs that will put ancient alchemists to shame. First there are well publicised rankings of engineering colleges brought out by general magazines and some newspapers every year (for example, Mint, Outlook, India Today, Dataquest and EFY). The methodology used for this ranking is described sometimes, but given the high stakes involved for the colleges, it is not clear how scientific such rankings are, even if we allow for the possibility that a college can be ’ranked’. Second, there are numerous inputs from friends, family and well-wishers on which college is the best 2

and which branch is the best. Third, the peer inputs on which colleges and branches are the most prestigious. Added to the mix are factors like the distance to the colleges from their place of residence, the proximity of some close relative to a college, presence of a close relative (’uncle’s cousin’s friend’s husband’) at a senior position (’assistant to the Principal’s secretary’) in a college, the cost of hostel and board, and so on. The top factor common to most of rankings is the ’placement record’ of the college in question. The placement record of a college is by itself a complex parameter. Most colleges and students have a classification of companies into Tiers. Tier-1 companies are the like sof Google, Amazon, General Motors, and Ernst and Young. Tier-2 are companies like Texas Instruments, Samsung, and Honeywell and Tier-3 are companies like Infosys, Wipro, L&T, and others. Of course a single parameter decides the position of a company in the order, the CTC (cost to company), three letters bandied about by everyone connected to engineering colleges. In other words, the annual compensation for the entry level position offered by the company is the only factor. It is agnostic to the nature of work done, the intellectual challenges involved, or the potential for career growth offered by the company. The placement record of a college primarily depends on ’Campus Placement’, not about employment of students after they have left the college. No college keeps track of such trivia. Hence there is a huge machinery at play in every engineering college (majority of them are private) to ensure that top tier companies come for campus placement as early as possible every year and recruit as many students as possible. Colleges advertise their placement percentage every year and list the names of companies that have recruited their students. For example, a top engineering college in Bangalore during the campus recruitment season has a big board proudly proclaiming that ’325 students across all branches have been recruited by Infosys’. Yes, this process is also called trawling. Companies like Infosys and TCS hire the top few hundred students from the ’top ranked’ colleges, irrespective of their branches of study. Thus a chemical engineer and a electronics engineer are identical in their view. And not surprisingly, this expectation is borne out. Neither knows any chemical engineering or electronics engineering. They posses the smarts needed for doing the work that is expected at Infosys or TCS after a 6 week training period. Let us leave aside, for the moment, the question of why then do a four year degree in chemical or electronic engineering and get back to the issue of college rankings. Colleges get highly ranked based on campus placements. Hence the top ranked students rush to join these colleges, irrespective of what branches are available. Top tier companies then target these top ranked colleges because they know that the smartest students have all congregated in these colleges. This vicious cycle is at the core of the decline in engineering education in India today. Let us get back to the aspirant waiting at the counseling center. The ranking list of colleges, as we saw, is primarily based on their ability to place their students successfully into top tier companies. we need to keep in mind that neither the applicant nor the guardian has any clue about what different branches of engineering mean. And as seen above, it is not of much significance. Except that there is a rank order among the branches of 3

engineering: so called circuit branches (Electronics and communication, Computer Science and its various alternate names, electrical, and instrumentation) are considered the top choice, with Mechanical engineering being considered by many as being a close second, chemical, civil and production engineerings relegated to the end.


The decision

When our aspirant gets into the hot seat, where there is a counselor in front of a computer terminal that gives up to the minute information about current seat availability (called the seat matrix). That is what branches are available in what colleges among all the colleges in the pool in Tamil Nadu that are under the single-window counselling process. The aspirant and the guardian have about ten minutes or fewer to make up their minds about which college/branch combination to choose. ”ECE in Sathyabama college just got filled, there is a vacancy in Manufacturing engineering in Anna University Guindy, and Oh, SRM university has both Information Science and Electrical and Electronic branches. If you want computer science it is available in Coimbatore”, and so on. Even though the tuition fee is fixed by government for the ’merit seats’ the other costs are quite variable. A decision is made to opt for a specific branch and a college. A decision that binds that student for four years of the most formative period of an youngster, with such a chaotic process.


The AIEEE exam

The results of AIEEE exam recently came out. All candidates had been ranked from 1 to about 300000. I was surprised to find out that there are websites that tell you the set of institutes that one will possibly get admitted to given the rank. http://questionpaper.in/AIEEE/RankAnalysis/ The complexities of this process are mind boggling. A friend of mine sent a query to our college batch yahoo groups, stating his son’s rank (very good, around 150, AIR, which incidentally means All India Rank), and wants any inputs on whether his son is eligible to get into REC Trichy. And there is a group of helpful friends who make suggestions. And I find the above site and send him mail with my unsolicited suggestion that REC Trcihy is not great anymore (compared to the late seventies when it was ranked the second most preferred college after College of Engineering Guindy). One can only imagine the stress that the younger generation is going through and the immensely higher levels of stress the parents are going through. And all of this discussion without the said son having any clue about what REC Trcihy (currently called NIT Trichy) is really like. And he will find out on landing there the first day after paying all the fees and shutting out other options, only to find out that may be he should have joined some other college. But by the time it is too late. My suggestion to him, for example, is that he should put his son in IIIT Hyderabad. This is because of my personal knowledge about the quality of the faculty and hence the high quality of the undergraduate program there. However, given the volley of suggestions


and comments that he is getting, it is likely that this really objective advise will get lost in the crowd. A major confounding factor is that any decision made in the choice of the college is heartbreakingly final in most cases. If you pick a college in your home state based on the AIEEE rank, pay the fees and join it. Then for whatever reason, you want to change your mind and go to another college, it is almost impossible. The process is so complicated, that the easier option is to just quit, wait another year and apply to join to the different college again. Since losing a year is considered a great calamity in India, most people do not even consider this possibility. hence kids who have landed up in the wrong college, grit their teeth for the next four years and get out with a degree. That brings us to the the really blighted lot, the students who ’fail’ in their 12th standard. The whole extended family is devastated. The kid is traumatised. A pall of gloom descends on the household. What is his future going to be? It is gone. over. He can forget his future since he has failed in the most crucial exam of his life. These are some of the grim comments one can hear. The next six months till the kids writes the repeat exam and clears it, he is convinced that he is a loser and a good-for-nothing. His performance in the repeat exam, even if he passes, is marginal, since even the graders of the repeat exams are convinced that everyone taking this exam is a loser anyway, and correct the papers that much stricter. There are very few families that support the child, give him confidence that it is not the end of the world, work with him so that in the repeat exam he does reasonably well, and then guide him to a suitable career path. Most families make life unbearable. So much so that even kids who pass the exam, commit suicide because they have not scored high enough. The paucity of social scientists which is caused by the skewed educational system, means that there is no systematic long-term studies of the correlation between high scores in examinations (like the 10th and 12th) and academic, industrial, commercial, artistic or political excellence in later years. How many State Toppers have gone on to have significant positive impact on their society? How many high achievers of today are top rank holders in their school years? How many successful individuals actually trace their success to working hard to score 90+ percentage in their school final examinations? No such studies have been undertaken as far as I know. Hence, there are no scientific studies to support or oppose the importance of high scores in school terminal examinations and so the rat race continues unchecked. The quantum of creative energies of a large nation like India that is being dumped down the drain in pursuit of such completely unvalidated performance goals is depressing and disheartening.


Post Admission

So finally the youngster has got a seat in a decent college in a decent branch. Now to really go there and find out what that college and branch really are! Given that a majority of the students (at least 90%) make a choice the same way, there is a whole lot of discovery 5

that is made on arrival at the college. Ignoring the many nasty surprises along the way (like the additional money that is usually asked by the management, the remoteness of the campus from everything else, etc.), the first year of college is usually when most students figure out that they didn’t want to be there, and that they are doing mostly what they were doing in their twelfth standard, mindlessly doing math physics and chemistry and in addition a couple of subjects on the basics of engineering. To their surprise most of them find that there are even more stricter rules of discipline in the college than in their schools: uniforms, strict rules on attendance, fines if they miss a class, message to parents if their score in the internal tests are not up to the mark and so on. And the teaching, if you can call what happens in most of these colleges as teaching is uninspiring at best and abysmal as a norm.


Teaching in Engineering Colleges

The teaching in engineering colleges or the lack of it is the second most insidious effect of the IT boom, the first one as we discussed being the mad craze among students for any branch of engineering solely based on placement success of the college. The teaching faculty (in less than 5% of the colleges is there even a notion of research by faculty) in an average engineering college has the following composition: the principal is a fairly well qualified individual, with some teaching and or industry experience. If the college management is reasonable, it would have attracted a few retired individuals from the industry or DRDO labs or engineering colleges to head the departments. In each department there could be one other person with a decent qualification (either a PhD or a Masters from a good research institution). The rest of the faculty entirely consists of people with BEs with no industry experience, but who have registered themselves for a Masters (usually in the same college) and in some cases for a PhD. Let us first look at the so called circuit branches, computer science and its variants, electronics and communication, electrical and electronics and instrumentation. These are the first branches of choice from which most software service companies hire students. The top students in these branches from the top rated colleges are en mass hired by these companies. It must be noted explicitly among all the negatives that the quality and energy of the students who complete their twelfth and enter engineering colleges is very good, no less and in most cases better informed and better prepared than their counterparts of 15 years ago. Hence in every engineering college, however bad, the top 10% of the students are very smart and capable and have picked up good engineering skills in spite of the college and the teachers. All of these students find a job in industry or go on to acquire a Masters from a better reputed college to improve the prospects of their getting hired. The next rung of students struggle and find placement, at wages below that of drivers and domestic help, in smaller companies with the hope that by gaining experience in industry their prospects will improve after a few years (which mostly happens). The good news is at least that these smaller


companies are in broadly the engineering domain and hence these students gain significant industry experience. This process leaves the bottom rung of students who have just managed to pass their engineering, but have no idea of engineering to be able to find any jobs. And what do they do? Promptly apply and get selected as teachers in engineering colleges! But one would think that with such non-existent academic skills they should not be hired anywhere, especially as teachers. One would be right if one did not have to factor in the AICTE norms for engineering colleges. There are very clear norms for setting up and getting approval for an engineering college: chief among the regulations is the teacher-student ratio guideline, to quote, ”The desirable student to teacher ratio for engineering degree program for the model curriculum will be 10:1. However, it should not be allowed to rise beyond 15:1.” From this the arithmetic needed to be done by college managements does not require qualification beyond high school (many of the college management just barely have such a qualification). For each student, the AICTE fee norm is in the range of 30,000 for ’government seats’ and about Rs 1 lakh for management seats. So even if yo average out, each student brings in at least Rs 50,000 per year in fees. So 15 students bring in Rs 7.5 lakhs. (of course, if you expect the management to go by the recommended 10:1 ratio, you probably are from a different country, if not a different planet altogether). Any of these left over BE graduates with no job prospects will be happy to jump at a job offer in thee colleges where the AICTE norm (yes, there certainly are norms for every little detail where you can put a number on) for salary is roughly about Rs 1.5 lakhs a year. Even if the managements actually pay this amount, they are still at least Rs 6 lakhs ahead! In the circuit branches all the reasonable students opt out of teaching even though the AICTE salary norms are quite decent, compared to the low salaries that they get paid elsewhere. But the hope of getting larger salaries in the not too distant future is strong enough for them to shut out the teaching path. The poor reputation of teaching jobs is a factor which works in a vicious cycle to keep the fact a reality. In non-circuit branches, the migration of talent happens earlier, even at the time of entry to engineering as we saw earlier. Branches like civil, production, manufacturing, metallurgy, and aerospace, in spite of the obvious (to industry watchers) boom in these sectors, have no takers because every parent and his ward are eyeing the Tier 1 software job paying Rs 6 lakhs per annum. Any takers are there because the college has high placement record, and predictably after finishing their civil (or manufacturing or whatever) degree get promptly picked up by some software company. So in these branches the left-over BE graduates have abysmal engineering knowledge. Fortunately for the next generation of students, most private engineering colleges do not even offer non-circuit branches except mechanical engineering until they have reached the AICTE limit of all seats in all circuit branches.



Teaching Condiitons

So finding good teachers for engineering colleges is a tough task. The input pool consists entirely of applicants who are there because they cannot be placed elsewhere. Two other factors conspire to prevent even the small number of qualified people becoming teachers in engineering colleges. First is the salary and second is the working conditions. For government colleges, a small minority in terms of numbers, the salaries are fixed by AICTE, and these are fairly low for someone who is really qualified to be a good teacher: understanding of the subject matter, practical experience and passion for the subject. Private engineering colleges have also declared that they will follow the AICTE norms for salaries, even though AICTE does not require these norms to be the upper limit. It is convenient for private managements to charge much higher fees but claim to adhere to AICTE salaries. With very few exceptions in very few colleges, the salaries are roughly as prescribed by AICTE. In these colleges there are very little opportunities to augment the teacher’s income by industrial consultancy, since the better teachers are saddled with large teaching load that leaves them hardly anytime for pronfession development or industry interaction. The working conditions of teachers is the second major factor that dissuades the interested people from taking up this profession. First is the very heavy teaching loads. Second lack of any quality academic peers or academically qualified management. Most of the private universities have the founder (usually the person who invested the capital for obtaining the land and buildings) by default declaring himself as the Chancellor of the University (if it had become an autonomous university) or the Chairman of the managing Board of the College. This Board usually consists of relatives of the founder and a nominal one or two persons with some academic credibility, but who mostly have no say in the running of the College. Thus a qualified and academically oriented person has no enabling environment to thrive as an academic. Compounding this is the fact that for most students securing a job, any job so long as the pay is high. as their primary goal and have no interest i learning anything that in their view does not aid in that goal. This can be very demotivating for a good teacher. Thus to cut a long story short, good teaching, or even good academic roll models are noticeable by their absence in most engineering colleges. And this is the environment that our typical aspiring youngster with dreams of securing a bright IT future lands up.



Let us look at the kind of courses that get taught in these engineering colleges. Students don’t study any quality text books these days. In fact, most cannot name the authors of any of their text books. Especially in autonomous universities, where the courses and text books are set by the same college, the quality of the course content is very low. The exams are usually a farce. Students in engineering college sign up for tuition for courses, paying


as much as 7000 to 8000 for a single course. The driving force is the need to score 75% or above in order to ensure thatthey clear the cut off marks for the campus interviews. In colleges that come under universities. for example a large university like Anna university, students use two study materials: books that published solved question papers from the previous 10 years for all the subjects and course notes for each of the courses. These notes are usually written by some of the enterprising teachers of private colleges who also get these notes declared as the books to be used for their classes. The more entrenched of the ’authors’ get their books listed as the prescribed text books in the University syllabus, and thus ensure a steady ad large demand for their books. A famous example is one Dr. E. Balaguruswamy, who has written text books in practically every aspect of computer science, though he got his PhD in Systems engineering and spent most of his career as an adminsitrator, including as Vice Chancellor of Anna University. Hence it was quite easy to get his books listed as required texts in many courses. The unfortunate fact is most of the students get by four years of college without being introduced to either a great book or a great teacher. And as we discussed earlier, have not been introduced to a good problem that they solve themselves.


The MBA Aspiration

The pot at the end of the MBA rainbow is another persistent and alluring myth for the youngsters of today, especially those in the pre-final year of their BE. The smarter and brighter ones realise that by the end of the third year they still have no idea of what engineering is and that it is unlikely that they will learn any further in the remaining year, given the state of the teaching (that we discussed earlier) and the pressures of finding a campus job in the final year. So most of their study time is spent on working towards getting placed in the campus interviews. Preparations for this includes looking through numerous resources available both on- and off-line for jumping the campus recruitment hoops. For instance there are websites that provide sample aptitude tests that are supposed to be what the top software companies use. There are brick and mortar entities that claim to prepare the students for aptitude tests as well as train them in ’soft skills’. We will return latter to this all important phrase. Needless to say, none of this preparation includes working on real engineering skills. And preparing for the semester exams and internal tests to ensure that they cross the cut-off percentage for campus recruitment takes up significant time. But in case they do not get placed anywhere during campus placement, and the likelihood of this increases in proportion to the ranking of their college, the students need a plan B. And Plan B is to appear for CAT and attempt to score as high a rank as possible. CAT, the acronym for Common Admissions Test, was initially for admission to the Indian Institutes of Management. In recent times the results of this test are being used by numerous other management degree-granting colleges. In terms of numbers, the numbers appearing for CAT (2.4 lakhs in 2009) is next only to that of the other great entrance exam


in the Indian landscape, the JEE (4.72 lakhs this April). The rational for opting to pursue an MBA after a BE is that the CTC for those with a good MBA is always higher than for those with only a technical degree. And there is an urban myth that a BE-MBA combination is the ultimate qualification for an aspiring youngster. It is an irony that youngsters who joined engineering without knowing what engineering is and who have not been able to find out what it is even after three years decide to pursue an MBA, with equally no clue about what an MBA is. The only deciding factor is the lure of a higher salary, propagated by yearly news items about the highest CTC offered to that year’s graduates of the IIMs. The fact that the CAT scores are used for admission by close to 1500 colleges makes it attractive enough for even average students to prepare and take the test. The 7th semester of engineering is spent preparing for the CAT exam and for campus interviews in colleges with ranking enough to attract companies to come recruiting on their campus. The final semester is a time of high anxiety with very complex rules governing appearance in interviews. There is a premium placed on arriving on campus for recruitment as early as possible to catch the brightest students. This is because to ensure opportunity to a large number of students, the Placement Offices of the colleges (very powerful and influential office) have a rule that if a student is made an offer by any company then he or she cannot attend further interviews. So companies scramble to be the first on campus to the top ranked colleges so that they have access to the best students. This mad scramble during the boom years reached such a state that campus recruitment was pushed forward to the end of the 6th semester: so by the beginning of the seventh semester, successful students already has a job in hand (with a handsome CTC) with a whole year of engineering yet to be done! When the market fell in 2008, several hundreds of students who had offers from the top software services companies by the summer of 2007 were left hanging on to the offer letters for almost a year with no joining letters being issued till late in 2009. Many colleges have realised the negative fallout of too early campus placements and have pushed back companies to the beginning of the eight semester. However, the push back is possible only for highly ranked colleges and that too with Tier-2 companies. I am not aware of any engineering college in India which can dictate terms to Google or Yahoo, for example.


Summary of Four years in Engineering

The first year is spent getting used to being away from home, being a grown up in college, making new friends and trying to understand what engineering is all about. But sadly at the end of the first year, it is clear to the brighter students that they are no better informed about what engineering is than they were the previous year. They hopefully enter the second year assuming that when they start working on courses specific to their branches they will get wiser. Here they are hit by the abysmal teaching standards and the poor quality of teachers. Someone who has struggled to get out with a degree and 10

someone who is just earning a salary is in no position to convey the challenges and joy of engineering or the big picture. So students grind through another year wondering why engineering is held up to be such a great thing, and start concentrating on scoring marks in exams, because that is the only factor that can possibly allow them to get the right job during campus selection. By the end of the second year, they are looking forward to getting out of engineering college as soon as possible. Of course, life on campus is fun, with year round availability of inter-collegiate ’techincal-cum-cultural’ festivals that are organised by every college worth its salt. It is also during the second year that students in non-circuit branches start attending certificate courses in various IT buzzwords, paying good money, learning next to nothing, but receiving a certificate at the end of the process that contributes one line to their CVs. Circuit branch students also do these IT certificate courses hoping to redress the lack of quality in their academic work, but they also mostly end up acquiring certificates in ’advanced topics’ and not much more. The third year of college proceeds along similar lines, but many of the smarter students now have a Plan B, in case they do not get placed during campus interviews. And this Plan B is, to pursue an MBA! Here is the summary of the path traversed so far by our young engineering student: Corralled into an engineering college due to a parental aspirations and peer pressure, without any understanding of the branch in which he has finally landed, with very poor quality teachers resulting in no enlightnemnet about engineering till the end of the third year, the fourth year being spent chasing campus jobs and working to get a decent rank in CAT. So the final year of engineering is lost. The final year project, which is meant to be the capstone of four years of work, the integration and synthesis of all knowledge gained during the four years culminating in addressing a real world problem heralding the emergence of a real engineer, almost always is undermined. A very very small percentage of students who have risen beyond all the above limitations, and who, in spite of a prestigious job in hand, have the motivation undertake and complete ambitious final year projects. Thus every year close of half a million graduates from engineering colleges join the workforce with almost no real competencies. Given the fact that these half a million youngsters were among the top of their high school cohort is cause for grave concern. Leaving alone their technical competence, most of these graduates do not possess basic soft skills needed in the world of work. Hence there is a thriving enterprise in the ’finishing school’ business. For several thousand rupees per head, these finishing schools eat into the already depleted final year of college providing training in soft skills. These include basic communication skills in English, personal grooming and etiquette, ability to work in teams, presentation skills and so on. Here is where the one-dimensional nature of the BE curriculum becomes starkly apparent. During eight semesters of college, except for two courses in English during the first year, a single course on management or industrial relations and possibly another course on ethics and social responsibility, there are no attempts to study anything else. No humanities, no arts, no history, no languages, literature or culture studies. These are all considered by the middle-class Indians as ’waste’. (Many of these engineering col11

leges have obtained the status of Universities even with such a one-dimensional view of the world, clearly indicating the lack of appreciation of a what a University should mean). Given this curricular structure, and given that most of the students have very limited facility in English (predominantly coming from non-urban backgrounds immersed in a multitude of regional languages), attempts to bridge the gap with a few weeks of ’finishing school’ simply end up providing revenue streams to smart entrepreneurs but provides no real benefits to the majority of the students. The big question is what about the thousands of fresh engineers hired every year by the top software companies? If their engineering competencies are so limited why would they get hired? We come back to the question of the basis of success of the Indian software services industry. As is well known, the primary factor is the cost arbitrage. A fresh computer science graduate in the US will cost upwards of US$ 60000 as CTC, which is about Rs 30 lakhs in India. The average entry level CTC in a software services company is about Rs 5 lakhs. Even if we assume low productivity and hire three engineers for every one in the US, there is still a 50% cost saving. Indian services companies, factor in an additional one to two lakhs per engineer to provide a two to three month training. This training is adequate to get the smart engineering graduate with not much of real engineering skills to get productive on the job. This also a reflection on the nature and intellectual depth of the work done by most of these companies. But we are digressing. It is clear that the lack of depth and quality in engineering college education is really of no concern to the software services companies. All they need are people with the aptitude and attitude to be trained and the discipline to work hard following given directions. This they find in plenty, at least for now, at costs that keep the operations highly profitable. The downside is that most of these engineers after a few years of work that does not require any depth of any engineering, become incapable of doing any creative work and this is the wall that the Indian IT industry is facing today: the lack of talent that is needed for them to move up the value chain to compete globally were the earlier cost advantages are slowly but surely going down.


Engineering Colleges as a business

How do engineering colleges make money? First, management seats are riced higher than government seats. This fees is the official fee. Most colleges have donations that precede admission and are a pre-requisite for admission. This is usually unaccounted for and no receipts are given. This money does not affect the not-for-profit status of the Trust or group that is running the college. - Student development fee. beyond the advertised fees most colleges collect an annual development fee from students. This could be anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 per year per student. - Most of the colleges require the students to stay in the hostel and eat in the hostel.


There is no regulation governing hostel fees and mess fees, and good margins are made by the management in running these facilities. - Many colleges tie up with companies like NIIT or Aptech to offer computer certification courses to their students. Rather than being optional, in which case it could be construed as additional service to students, these courses are compulsory for every student. And the management gets a cut from the company for every student. - Colleges run buses, insist on uniforms (?), supply text books and notebooks, all of which could be made compulsory at the discretion of the management. - A very clean and high margin activity is the entrance examination conducted by ’well reputed’ institutions. These are usually well marketed, in the case of private colleges. For instance, Vellore Institue of technology conducts an entrance exam across india which is taken by over 1.25 lakh aspirants. The application fee (non-refundable) is about Rs 1000. A whopping 11 crores is collected every year by the college through this channel. The number of people who actually join are around 10,000 every year. The rest of the students pay this money in their quest for joining an engineering college. - A very insidious practice came to my knowledge recently and that is placement fee. A very well known autonomous university run by a private family, demands that every final year student who has been extended an offer by a campus recruiter pay 8.33% of the CTC offered to the University! This has to be paid even if the student ends up not joining the company because he decides to go for higher studies! What is more, the college allows each student up to three recruitment offers, but collects the 8.33% on every offer. The rational is that if such money is not collected the brightest students will corner multiple offers taking away opportunities from other students. - All of these mechanisms are enforced with more authority if the college has autonomous status. Since the fate of the student is completely in the hands of the management. In fact, the XII standard certificate, and mark lists are collected by the college at the time of admission and held by the college as a surety for good behaviour. - Unlike for-profit entities, these colleges pay no TAX on any of the above activities, even when they are accounted for and billed, because of existing tax laws that exempt non-profits. So effectively, these moneys are multiplied by a factor of 1.33 in real terms. No wonder the number of colleges has reached 3000 and counting in India. And the number of engineering seats on offer just crossed 1 Million in 2010. At an average fee per year per student of RS 10,000, this works out to grand total of about 5000 crore per year market. Which is a billion dollar industry.


Non-Engineering Options

A typical 12th standard kid writes several entrance exams after completing his final examination. A typical list: JEE, AIEEE, COMED-K and CET (Karnataka), AIIMS, AFMC, AIPMT, CLAT, and numerous other exams conducted by private universities and colleges.


An indication of the chaos afflicting career choices in India is the fact the above list includes tests for admissions to engineering, medicine, dental, law, nursing and pharmacy! In short, the admissions to these disciplines is so fraught with uncertainity that it is prudent practice to keep many options open, even at the cost of preparing (individually as well as through paid coaching classes), and writing (often involving travel to different centers) a multitude of entrance exams. Thus a student who did not make it to the right engineering college may, when the results of a medical exam offers a possibility of a higher preference medical college may drop out of the engineering college and join the medical college. Since there are a multitude of entities managing these exams and the corresponding Institutions, it takes several months after the 12th standard exam’s results are announced for the classical ’stable marriage problem’ reaches steady state. When some reasonable stability is reached, all those who have not made it into engineering, medical, law, or pharmacy, finalise their backup options. The backup options, depending on who you talk to, may be in the order of preference, BCA, BBM, BCom, BSc and finally BA. There are close to two and half million who graduate every year with some of these degrees. From universities and colleges around the country. The quality of education in these degree granting institutions have eroded over the past couple of decades primarily because of the ripple effect from the success of the IT industry. The brightest students who have the independent means or the ability to obtain loans join engineering or medicine or law. The rest trickle down to various other colleges depending on their means and environment. The situation in these colleges is deprived along two dimensions. The first is again the paucity of good teachers and the second is the paucity of a energetic and passionate peer group. The paucity of good teachers is endemic to all educational institutions, starting from the primary school level, all the way up to post graduate schools. As mentioned earlier, the profession of teaching has become undervalued and the input pipeline for the teaching profession started drying out about two decades ago, unnoticed and unremarked, and we are today facing the impact of his now. The paucity of engineering college teachers is driven by the huge disparity in compensation and working environments between the teaching position and other alternatives in industry. The second factor is that the best from all branches of engineering have been sucked out to the IT industry with no inflow into the teaching profession in those fields. For non-engineering fields the shortage is compounded by the exit of potential candidates much earlier in the pipeline. The best moved to engineering, medicine and law, the next level moved to BCA, BSc and BCom, from where if they could, with certifications from numerous enterprises, worm their way into the IT industry. One item which gets headlines occasionally is the lament from top scientists in the country about the dearth of students doing science and research in science. And this gets positive hearing from the government and there are a large number of of new Institutes that have been set up in recent years: many Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research have been set up to foster interest in science. However, the dearth of education, research and scholarship in 14

the humanities is not being lamented or even seriously considered by any decision makers or opinion makers. Because of this paucity, there are hardly any good teachers in any of the numerous universities and colleges, where academic freedom is heavily curtailed due to heavy political influence in the administration of State universities, and the focus on commercialisation in the case of private Universities. So a student joining any of these last-chance colleges is hit by two factors: poor teaching and poor peer group. Even if a student is interested in humanities, that interest cannot be sustained or enhanced in the college because of these double barriers. Hence very few opt to go to these colleges. There are no colleges or Universities in India that offer what can be defined as liberal arts education, the hallmark of the best Universities in the US. Hence for an Indian student desirous of a rounded undergraduate education ends up with no choice but to go to the US, where the top hundred liberal arts colleges provide a quality of education unmatched by the best in India.


Liberal Arts Education in India

What really is a liberal arts education? What really is a University? These are, in my mind, related questions. Universities have become certification agencies in recent years, especially in India, instead of a place of learning, enquiry and discovery and a place where youngsters gain the worldview necessary to be responsible and contributing citizens of modern society. In India, the recent debate on Higher education has been triggered by the Higher education bill. The key thrust of this Bill is to create a very centralised entity manned by a small number of wise men, who are supposed to oversee the restructuring of Indian higher education for the 21st century. Most of the discussion and most of the actual content of the Bill is focussed on organisational structure, guidelines for appointment of the core members of the National Commission on Higher Education and Research as well as the Collegium of scholars, their tenure of appointments and how they will retire or be nominated etc. There are heated debates about the encroachment of autonomy of the States by the Central Government, the proposal of a pool of potential Vice Chancellors comprising of eminent academics and so on. Nowhere is to be found discussions about what is the true purpose and goal of higher education. In India we have a tendency to ape many aspects of the west, and in particular the US: reality shows, IPL, Malls, McDonalds and the consumer culture are some examples. The one outstanding aspect of the US is its enviable university education system and its dynamics. Far from being aped, there is very little understanding of why and how the US university system reached its current eminence, and in spite of recent financial difficulties, there is every sign that this system will continue its global leadership for decades to come, unless their leaders mess up in a major way. An example of how one can mess up a good system was ably provided by the great George Bush with his ’No Child Left Behind’ effort, where the creative and diverse aspects of US school education system have been


systematically inflicted with testing and evaluation with misguided goal of ’catching up’ with Asia. The irony of this is striking. Leaving this aside, and getting back to higher education, the recent action of MHRD in derecognizing forty odd deemed Universities stirred a hornet’s nest of debate about private education, profiteering, corruption in UGC and AICTE and a host of other view points. Chancellors of some deemed Universities who are Chancellors only because they bank rolled the setting up of the University and with no other academic credentials were given heavy media visibility for their views on the service they are providing to higher education.


Level of Debate

It is highly educative to look at the extreme contrast to this situation, namely a recent debate in the US about the real nature and purpose of higher education. In particular a healthy and open evaluation of what a liberal arts education really means, what its goals are, and what preparation is needed by youngsters in a modern democratic society. I refer to the AAUC, the Association of American Universities and Colleges. Just a cursory view of the membership and structure of the Association reveals the real democratisation and autonomy of higher education in the US: ”Founded in 1915, AAC&U’s membership is comprised of institutions of higher education dedicated to ensuring that the advantages of a liberal education are available to all students regardless of background, enrollment path, academic specialization, or intended career.” (quote from the webpage http://www.aacu.org/). A recent statement from the Board of Directors of the AACU is essential reading for anyone in India interested in higher education. The content is impressive for its vision, scholarship and vigor, but the manner in which such a statement was arrived at by seeking inputs from top decision makers in public universities, private universities, government and non government agencies with a stake in higher education, the democratic manner of arriving at a credible and authoritative statement on higher education that is backed by scholarship, research and scientific survey of stakeholders is worthy of emulation. The document itself can be accessed at http://www.aacu.org/about/statements/documents/Quality Imperative 2010.pdf. There is no single organisation in India related to higher education that has as distinguished a Board of Directors as the AACU, and this Board did not get appointed by a Bill passed by the US President. Instead such a Board has evolved based on excellent governance practices followed for nearly a century by this organisation. Let me close with a quote from a statement adopted by the Board in 1998. ”The ability to think, to learn, and to express oneself both rigorously and creatively, the capacity to understand ideas and issues in context, the commitment to live in society, and the yearning for truth are fundamental features of our humanity. In centering education upon these qualities, liberal learning is societys best investment in our shared future.”



Liberal Arts colleges in India?

Are there no colleges in India that impart a liberal arts education at all? To my knowledge, there are none, if we take the definition of liberal education to mean what is defined by AACU which views ”rounded liberal education as a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a strong sense of value, ethics, and civic engagement”. Let us approach this differently. What are the best colleges in India for obtaining a quality undergraduate degree that attempts to provide some aspects of the above. Clearly, the IITs and the top medical and professional colleges do not fit this by definition: they are one dimensional, focused exclusively on the professional subject matter, with no thoughts to citizenship, humanities, arts or culture. So one is left with colleges that are well known for their humanities programs. To pick the top names with no scientific basis, but simply on the word of mouth reputation from the four parts of the country, one can name Presidency College in Kolkotta, St. Stephens College in Delhi, St. Xavier’s college in Mumbai, Madras Christian College in Chennai, and Mysore University as a sample from a well reputed University. Let us look at these colleges and see if a student can hope to attain a rounded undergraduate education. We primarily look at evidence of scholarship, possibility of obtaining a well rounded undergraduate eduction, as defined by the possibility of a student opting to study in depth across disciplines breaking traditional barriers of science, humanities and professional subjects. A caveat: almost in all cases, I have no personal experience and what I write here is purely based on information from the websites and in some cases second-hand through people who are presently either students or a parents of a student in these colleges.


Presidency College, Kolkottta

Let us start with Presidency college Kolkotta, almost the first college to be set up in India, starting out as the Hindoo college in 1817. The first paragraph of the page titled Academic Programmes is not very encouraging: ”This course leading to the B.A. or B.Sc. Honours degree is meant for those who have passed the Higher Secondary Examination (10+2 course) conducted by the Council of Higher Secondary Education, West Bengal or an equivalent examination recognised as such by Calcutta University, in at least five recognised subjects including English language of full marks (not being less than 100) each with pass marks.” The mention of 100 marks and pass marks in the first para of a university’s description of the academic program is indicative of what is to follow. The second paragraph describes the requirements that every undergraduate student of the college should fulfill. ”Every student must enrol himself/herself for an Honours Course consisting of: 1. One Honours subject Eight papers (each paper is of 100 marks) 2. Environmental Studies 50 marks 3. Two subsidiary subjects Three papers each (each paper is of 100 marks)# 4. English Language 50 marks 5. Modern Indian Language (Alternative English or Bengali or Hindi) 50 marks”


We then come to a listing of all possible combinations of Honours (equivalent of a major) and subsidiary (equivalent of a minor) subjects that are allowed. A detailed study of the list reveals what is true of most undergraduate degree programs in India. The clear separation between the left and right brains. For instance, mathematics as a Honours subject can only be taken with (a) Physics and Chemistry or Statistics or (b) Economics and Statistics. And Mathematics figures as a subsidiary subject only for economics, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, geology, geography and statistics. You cannot for instance, do a English Honours with a mathematics (or for that matter any science) Subsidiary. There are similar restrictions on all non-science Honours and vice versa. Which means all the undergraduates who opt for science have no chance of doing any language or humanities minor. Ditto for humanities majors. Economics is the only subject to straddle this boundary. And of course the college has no offerings in either Studio Arts or Performing Arts. The next level detail from departments is also not very encouraging. The Philosophy department in the first paragraph of describing itself has this statement ”The students performance in University Examination is the most important target in our purview.” Thus any student at Presidency College cannot hope to have anything approaching a liberal education. There is no notion of a thesis or a capstone project work to integrate the learning in either in the major subjects or the minor. Fairly disappointing for a college with such a distinguished history in Indian higher education.


St. Stephen’s College Delhi

Let us visit the St. Stephen’s college, Delhi next. An 120-year old college, with a very high reputation and visibility in India and abroad. The website is lot more professional and the B.A. Programme section actually talks about liberal education! ”The structure and contents of the programme make it an integrated and inter-disciplinary programme with flexibility and choice. Thus the B.A. Programme is bound to provide the students a demanding but worthwhile and enjoyable experience in the form of a liberal education.” However, the flexibility is curtailed by the fact that St. Stephen’s college programs are governed by the University of Delhi syllabus and examinations, and hence the flexibility is restricted to what is offered by Delhi University. And the DElhi University follows primarily a British model of college education where the structure of the program is based on three years with terminal examinations at the end of each year. For the BA program: ”There is a total of twelve courses over a three-year period with four courses taught and examined every year. A full-year course has 3 credits and the whole programme has 36 credits for 12 courses” Let us compare this course structure with that for Presidency Collge (Kolkata University) The Kolkata University Structure (three year program): ”Every student must enrol himself/herself for an Honours Course consisting of: 1. One Honours subject Eight papers (each paper is of 100 marks) 2. Environmental Studies 50 marks 3. Two subsidiary 18

subjects Three papers each (each paper is of 100 marks)# 4. English Language 50 marks 5. Modern Indian Language (Alternative English or Bengali or Hindi) 50 marks ” In contrast the Stephainte has the following structure: Discipline Courses (Instead of a Honours and Subsidiary); Each student has to do three courses each from two Disciplines. The Disciplines offered are English, Economics, History, Philosophy and Political Science. Language Courses: Two English courses and two Indian language courses (out of Persian, Urdu, Sanskrit and Hindi) One Foundation Course out of 2: Contemporary India, and Language, Literature & Culture. One Application Course out of 2: Creative Writing, Globalization and Mass Communication. The difference is that two disciplines are considered of equal importance and three courses are done in each discipline. There is some amount of width in the form of Creative Writing, Language, Literature & Culture courses, for example. The compartmentalisation of Science and Humanities is as strong here as at Presidency. St. Stephen’s BSc programs are very rigorously science-only than at Presidency. But looks like the winds of change are beginning to blow. The newly revised BSc. Mathematics (Honours) program (effective July 2009) requires 12 courses in mathematics and five courses from a choice of diverse disciplines: Physics, Chemistry, Economics, English, Hindi, History, Political Science, Philosophy and Sanskrit. In contrast, the BSc Physics (Honours) programme is at the other extreme. In three years, a single course in English and optionally one in Economics (which could be replaced by Chemistry) are the only exceptions: Every other course is Physics or mathematics or electronics. Talk of one-dimensional! Just as in Presidency, St. Stephens has no room for either Studio Arts or Performing Arts. Nor or there languages beyond Hindi and Sanskrit.


Madras Christian College

We move on to Madras Christian College another college with a long history. It is 173 years old and is one of the top ten liberal Arts and Science Colleges in India (according to the webpage). It is also an autonomous college in the sense that it has the authority to create new academic programs, courses and degree program without need for approval from a UNiversity. (MCC was part of the MAdras University before it attained the autonomous status). The key differentiator when compared to the other two colleges appears to be the autonomy which has allowed MCC to offer a semester system for its three-year undergraduate programs. A choice based semester system (CBCS) has the markings of a system that can provide a rounded education to the students. The structure also appears to be based on a promising premise: ”The structure of undergraduate courses under the CBCS in the semester pattern provides for wide ranging choice for students to opt for courses based on their aptitude and their career goals. The undergraduate curriculum will include the following categories of courses in order to accomplish a holistic approach to undergraduate education.” Very much in line with the objectives of a liberal education as per our defini19

tion. That there are 32 academic departments in the college also is very promising, from the perspective of a possible set of choices available to students. However, the details of the courses are not immediately accessible from the website and requires further investigation.


St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai

Let us look at St. Xavier’s college, Mumbai. A 140-year old institution, here also the divide between arts (as humanities are called in India, for some reason) and sciences is solid. B.A and BSc are divisions that have no connections except possibly a lone English course. And as in the other colleges explored, there are no topics in the performing or studio arts. And they follow the British type year long program with a final exam at the end of each year, in about 7 subjects each year. So there is not much scope for any inter-disciplinary work beyond rigid specifications in the program.


Mysore University

Let us look at one of the older and respected universities, the Mysore University, well supported by the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore. I now understand what must be obvious to many: the indian Unviersity system, prior to the recent mushrooming of private universities followed the UK system, with a University and a many colleges affiliated to the University. usually, the colleges primarily conducted undergraduate teaching while PG courses and doctoral programs were offered only at the University. This system is clearly evident when one looks at the structure of Mysore University, or more properly, the university of Mysore. There are few affiliated colleges and then there is the University. The University offers PG courses only. And by definition, these re quite focused on the discipline. The Maharaja college, one of the affiliated colleges is more than a hundred years old and boasts of very many scholars, writers, linguists and other eminent academicians. However, all these achievements are pre-1970’s. For instance, the History section of the History department waxes eloquent about the achievements of the department from 1912 onwards, but the most recent date and people mentioned in the history is somewhere in 1959. The current faculty page, does not even have active links to the faculty, but a shadowy outlines instead of photographs, and no links or homepages, other than names and titles!


Newer Initiatives

My quest for finding a liberal arts education at the undergraduate level led me to FLAME university in Pune. The name: Foundation for Liberal art and management education itself was interesting. A look at the introduction to their four-year liberal arts undergraduate program was encouraging. The course content was quite heartening trimester system, with the first six trimesters (two years) dedicated to interdisciplinary studies across all areas: ”The Core Courses: Logic, Writing and Rhetoric and Visual Communication The Universe of Physical and Natural Sciences: Physics, Mathematics, Earth Sciences, Biology, etc. 20

The Universe of Humanities: Literature, History, Philosophy, Comparative Religion, Art History, etc. The Universe of Global Studies: Justice, Languages, Gender Studies, etc. The Universe of Social Sciences: Economics, Psychology, Political Science, Sociology, etc. The Universe of Fine and Performing Arts: Theatre, Visual Art, Dance, Film-making, etc. In all, there are 30 Foundation subjects carrying 3 credits each to be studied, adding up to a total of 90 credits in the first two years. In the first two years students must take a minimum of 3 courses from each universe. They must take at least two intermediate level (201) courses, 2 Foreign Language courses and a course on values and ethics.” 90 credits in the first two years for the above, 60 credits in the Major field and another 30 credits for a Minor. With a few additional courses in research methodology, internship and a seminar course linked ot the Major. Very impressive. Then I proceeded to understand their faculty. (http://www.flame.edu.in/index.php/faculty.html) An Alphabetical listing gives 42 short profiles of which 18 have PhDs. The only related faculty are in the Management stream. That is there is more than one PhD in the management area. All other PhDs are in distinct areas. For example there is one person with PhD in architecture, one in clinical psychology, one in archeology, one in microbiology, one in ethanomusicology and so on. There is short list of Visiting and International faculty. There is a strong bias towards Management with several IIM graduates and former faculty of IIMA being on the faculty. Given that there are 30 courses to be offered in 6x5 diverse areas (as listed in the ’Universe of Physical and Natural Sciences’ etc., listing above), the question arises as to the level of expertise in the courses being taught. I could not find detailed syllabi for the courses online. Nor was there any listing of schedule of courses being taught in the current year. Without the detailed listing of courses and their content it is difficult to comment on any of the Majors. However, given the dearth of critical mass in any area, it is fair to say that there is no critical mass of research expertise in ANY area for a quality major to be offered, with the exception of Management and some fine arts. However, given that there is a school of Business, a school of Communication, a school of FIne arts, in addition to the School of Liberal Education and given that the listed faculty are from all the above schools, it is clear that the School of Liberal Education has very little in terms of faculty expertise. FLAME itself is founded by two philanthropists, with no academic standing. This is not a problem if like in other illustrious examples of philanthropist-founded liberal universities elsewhere (Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, etc.) the founders simply gave the money, created an endowment and a strong and independent academic structure to nurture and grow the institution, and let real academics run the show. In complete synchrony with existing practice in India, the founders have created the key posts of Director and Chairman of the Foundation and promise ’complete academic freedom to the President and Deans’. The link describing Research/industry experience of the Faculty is woefully short on the research experience and nothing to boast about in terms of Industry experience. And 21

there is this annoying insistence on proclaiming oneself as Professor, with just a masters degree and no research experience. The fee structure is very clearly strongly modeled after US university fee structures! Annual fees and charges roughly about 12,000 US dollars! The President of FLAME is a past faculty of IIMA. No research experience or publications are cited, except her long stint as faculty at IIMA and some visiting assignments at some minor university in Texas. So summary: very disappointing. A US liberal arts undergraduate program is built around academic scholarship of the faculty. As a random example, I picked a liberal arts college, Bloomfield College, ranked as Tier-4 by the USA Today ranking of US colleges. The Division of Natural Science and Mathematics itself has 13 PhDs, all in coherent areas with some critical mass. The College thus offers limited number of science majors, in line with the faculty strength. Very unlike FLAME, where, the creation of a School of Liberal Education specifically for offering an undergraduate program in liberal arts as if liberal arts is a major like Physics or Sociology) demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of what a liberal arts education means.


Integrated Bachelors Degrees

There was a recent announcement by Bangalore University about allowing students in the university a range of choices that encompass two or more of the above four. A quote from a news item in the Hindu (http://www.thehindu.com/2010/05/09/stories/2010050954431200.htm): ”a four-year Bachelor of Science (BS) degree course. This first of its kind course is modelled around the credit-based, multi-disciplinary American system of university education”. It also stated the ”Academics hope that this multi-disciplinary approach, where students will be free to study pure sciences while opting for electives or minors in Economics, Political Science or even Arts, will attract more students to the pure science stream.” This is almost the first announcement of its kind in the country. From the announcement to actual implementation, and from the vision to the realisation, there are many slips between the cup and the lip. One has to wait and see how this initiative takes off.


Science Stream

Let us get back to the non-engineering stream of students. That is, essentially those who could not get admissions to or those who could not afford to pay for an engineering college. (Like in any generalisation, there are always exceptions: as much as 5% or even 10%, if you are an optimist, of the students may be voluntarily opting for non-engineering options, but our focus here is on the 90%). Given the state of teaching and academics in engineering colleges in spite of the huge amounts of money and investments made into them, it is hardly to be expected that Arts and science colleges will fare any better. In fact, except for a


handful of established colleges in every metro that have decent standards in their Arts and Science programs, the rest of the colleges are uniformly pathetic. Let us look at the Science stream of undergraduate education. There has been serious laments from senior scientists, the department of science and technology, the CSIR labs scientists, and science luminaries like Prof. C. N. R. Rao, that science education in the country is seriously in trouble. Well trained manpower in the sciences is rapidly diminishing due to the combination of three factors: the ’best and the brightest’ youngsters being drawn into engineering, the pool of good teachers and researchers in science is rapidly drying up (due to retirements) and not being replenished by fresh blood and third, the academic ecosystem for science has become dilapidated. We looked at the first factor in detail, and it is fairly clear that over the past 15 years (the growth period of Indian IT), all talent at any level of science has been drawn to the IT and BT industry. We have not talked about the Biotech industry and its impact so far. Just like IT, though to a much lesser extent, there has been hype surrounding it for the past ten years. It is indeed true that global expenditure on healthcare has been on the rise for the past several years. It is also true that India has a huge pool of people trained in the lifesciences: biology, zoology, botany, and allied areas. However, many governments and some segments of industry attempted in early 2000s to build a bubble similar to that of IT, buy making tall claims about the potential of biotechnology. The irony is that very few know what exactly constitutes biotechnology, except that it sounds high-tech and impressive. For example, following the success of bangaloreIT.com, a tradeshow showcasing information technology, the Karnataka government floated bangalorebio.com, set up biotechnology parks, created a secretary for IT&BT. In response to this hype several engineering colleges set up undergraduate programs in Biotechnology, with scarcely anyone with expertise in the overall field, these departments or programs were handled by a hotch potch collection of some biologists, some chemical/process engineers, some wetlab experts and a some people with familiarity in courses and software under the catchall term bioinformatics. So many biologists who could have potentially been be excellent teachers and researchers in Science colleges, took the much better paths in this new wave. In response to the lack of teachers in the sciences, the government of India set up indian Institutes of Science Education and Research at several places in india. These have attracted good faculty from outside the country as well as fresh PhDs from within the country. The goal of these Institutes is to create the next generation of teachers and researchers in the Sciences. A project with similar mandate is the KVPY (Kishore Vignanik Protsahan Yojana) started sometime in 2000, to encourage youngsters to take up science as a career. Very attractive scholarships were offered to youngsters in their 10th, 11th and 12th standard to pursue science (as opposed to Engineering). However, these bright youngsters at the point where a decision has to be made, invariably opt for engineering. I am not aware of a systematic study of the career paths of the cohorts of KVPY scholarship holders since 2000, as to how many of them actually took up science careers and how many did not. Such scientific study will at least allow for money to be spent where the returns match the expectations. It is not clear 23

what careers the students who are pursuing the four year science degree programs in these IISER’s are opting for. My guess is that all of these students are attractive hires for our IT services companies, since the quality of education, and hence the input pool of students, in these Institutes are far higher than most engineering colleges! So the IT companies come back to bite quality higher education again!


The Marks and Ranks Obsession

A general note to on the examinations and huge importance given to marks scored. This is primarily the reason for so much stress being piled on our youngsters. The day 10th or 12th class marks are announced, everyone wants to find out marks of every student known to him. The uncle of your second cousin’s aunt calls to find out how much your son has scored in the 12th standard. The last time you had anything to do with this gentleman is when he gave a cover with a torn 50 rupee note at your wedding. People appear out of nowhere wanting to know the exact reason why your son’s physics score is three marks short of the school average. Remember that this scenario is watched by the younger sibling who till then was happily enjoying the peace of 7th standard. She gets up realises that, in spite of what her parents may think or say about the importance or otherwise of marks, there is no escape. She slowly drops the dolls and the color pencils and trudges to find her school books. This obsession is astoundingly real. Mr. R’s daughter just got her PUC results (in Karnataka). (all names have been suppressed to protect the privacy of the individuals). She got a respectable 92%. However, she insisted that she could have got 5 marks more than the 92 she got in Math, 4 marks more in chemistry etc. So Mr. R applied for recounting (being easier than revaluation). In Karnataka, they give you a copy of your answer sheet. It was terrible to look at the sheet: there were three valuations and so many scribbles and struck and overwritten grades that there were three possible totals: 82, 83, 84. And three numbers written out as total in words, two of them struck out with crude signatures. Now he has taken it to the commissioner or some such authority to get the correct total! Mr. R has also called several others whom he knows have children in 12th. Finding out their marks, if they are applying for revaluation or not, etc. etc. Another friend tutored a child (10th std) of some working class parents from the neighborhood. That child managed 78% and also had secured admission for 11th in a prestigious school in Bangalore. However, the mother calls this friend and is very sad about the poor performance of the child! I can understand parents who have not gone through college placing such emphasis on a single number, because they do not know enough to understand anything more. But how about educated parents with degrees and long experience in technology and other high-end fields. Don’t they realise that their 12th standard marks have had zilch impact on their successful career? Many of these parents, probably did very poorly in their twelfth, but in spite of


it did very well. But in their ambition (greed) think that if only they had scored better, they would have done even better. And hence egg their child to cross mountains which in their youth they didn’t even dare to look at. The month of May is months of marks and results. Heralded by the JEE results that show up in late April, followed in Karnataka by the state board 10th and 12th results, then by ISC, ICSE and CBSE results. In between, we have the CET results. Every result is announced with great fanfare. The results are available on the Internet, and people continuously check the sites so that the minute the results are uploaded, they are able to see their scores. Every exam has it toppers: national in the case of JEE, CBSE, AIEEE and so on, and a corresponding list of State toppers. Photographs of the toppers are published in al the newspapers, along with snippets of interviews. ” Hard work and the guidance and help of my elders and teachers paid off handsome results”, ”I expected to do very well but did not expect to top the list”, ”I want to do a BE in Computer science and join a global company like Google”, ”I want to do BE in ECE then do IAS and help the citizens of India”, are some of the usual quotes. Proud parents are interviewed and quoted’ ’he has always been a bright child. So it is not a surprise” is one typical parental quote. For JEE, the many coaching centers immediately go on a recruitment drive by publishing large advertisements in newspapers with photographs of their rank holding students. The MHRD minister Sibal has done at least one thing right: by changing CBSE to report only grades and not percentages. This has upset many schools that pride themselves on top class performance based on the scores in such examinations. K.S. Gopalakrishanan, the Chairman of NPS group has this to say on the change over to grading system: ” It will take away the competitive spirit among students and pave the way for deterioration of our educational system” (from the Hindu, dated 29th May). Principal Manjula Raman of Army Public School has a counter view and praises the new grading system as a boon to students. But the newspapers are undeterred. They report now the topper based on the CGPA. But fortunately, these are reported only to the precision of one digit after the decimal point for now. Looks like CBSE 10th standard subjects are graded as follows: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 and D, which are all pass grades. Anything below D is a failing grade. This is certainly an improvement over the existing percentage based system where every mark lost pushes the ranking of the student by several tens or even hundreds in the case of an exam like the CET. Why is this obsession with marks and percentages? There have been no systematic studies of the career progression of these ’toppers’. Has topping in such exams a certain predictor of glorious career performance? Why has there not been a single study on tracking the progress of these school toppers and exam toppers at various levels. Such a study should include interviews with these students and their views in hindsight about the impact that topping the exam ha had on their lives. A second revealing question is if given a chance to go back in time and be in the same position again, will they put in the same effort and energy into topping that exam? One reason parents are obsessed is very clear. Middle class parents have great aspira25

tions for their children, They sincerely believe that the current generation of students have lot more opportunities along with lot more competition than when they were growing up. And if guided and pushed properly, their children can get on to the fast track career path and move to the next level of living standards. A direct financial impact is the fact hat if the student doe not score a high enough rank in CET and does not have a high percentage in the 12th standard, then all the good engineering seats in the good colleges under the ’government quota’ or ’merit seats’ will be exhausted and they will have to pay a much higher fees for their education. Indian middle class parents sacrifice a whole lot, both in terms of foregoing their personal comforts and luxuries, but also in terms of physical exertions in ensuring that their child gets that edge in this race. There are mothers and fathers who take their child pillion to the tuition class and back early in the morning, usually to a tuition center several kilometres away from their house because that center is highly reputed. bring them back from the tuition, then drop them off to school and go to work themselves. The routine is repeated post-school to a different coaching class. This killing routine is maintained for about two to three years! After all this effort, if the ranking falls below the threshold, the parents are willing to stretch themselves to the extreme to support the education in a reputed engineering college. These parents often have no idea of the lack of quality in most engineering colleges. They have the fond hope that if they do their duty of sending their child to a good engineering college, four years later, the child will get placed in a multinational and the money will start flowing in.


The Great Divide

A survey of some well known Arts and Science colleges, albeit very shallow and based on the webpage contents, reveals to us that the primary divide between the humanities (called for some obscure reason as Arts in india) and the Sciences is really solid and in most cases impenetrable. Arts students go through three years of college with absolutely no contact with any science courses or even content. This divide is deeper than just three years of college. If we consider the fact that these students made up their mind in their 10th standard, to choose the non-science stream means that as adult graduates they would have precious little notions of science. There is some permeability from the science stream back into the Arts. Those students who discover later that science is not their cup of tea have the option of taking up humanities courses, since the admission norms for such courses are not stiff, and the competition non-exsistant. Economics straddles this boundary between Arts and Sciences in India. Students majoring in Economics have the option of studying mathematics (but no other sciences) and pursue mathematics in the post graduate studies in economics. Admissions to the MA (Economics) of delhi university for example, is very competitive and the entrance exam sets a high bar in mathematical accomplishments. So a casual Arts student (other than a major in Economics) cannot hope to pass this hurdle.


however, a science student can hope to break through. In fact there is a different option in the exam meant for science students. In fact, a good engineering graduate, if so inclined, can crack the entrance exam with some serious preparation. And anyone desirous of pursuing a MA in sociology or philosophy can breeze in with ease into most colleges offering an MA, because usually the admission requirement is just ’an undergraduate degree from a recognised university in India’, which just about covers all undergraduate degrees. The content of the courses themselves are well within the reach of anyone with interest in the area and with adequate competence in English. In contrast, a masters in any science discipline will require several years of science courses and a very competitive admission process, including a written test, that cannot be overcome by a non-science major. So the doors of science, engineering and medicine in India are firmly shut for those who did not opt for a science stream during their 11th grade! Of course the National Open Universoty (IGNOU) is addressing this massive barrier by offering a sequence of programs, graduate, postgraduate and also diplomas and certification programs that allow anyone with any background can move into a desired stream. This is a welcome development and one hopes more and more of the general population will pursue this option rather than blindly jumping into streams that are perceived to be ’hot’.


The Fine Arts

The most intriguing part of the academic scene is the clear separation between FIne Arts and everything else. Most universities and colleges have a BA and BSc. The BA almost never includes the performing arts. These are taken care of by colleges and institutions which exclusively cater to the Fine arts. Thus in the Indian academic landscape, there are really four distinct territories separated by strong boundaries: professional (engineering, medicine and law), science, arts (humanities) and Fine Arts (the Indian term for Studio and performing arts). The perception among the middle class is that the only ’useful’ degree to pursue is a professional degree. If you cannot somehow make it, then a science degree is ok. If you fail to get even that, then may be a BA in Economics is ok. Anything other than these are ’useless’ or ’timepass’ degrees. The bottom of the pile is anyone who is doing a Fine Arts degree. Of course perceptions are changing in recent times, and with the moneyed elite, these boundaries or perceptions are irrelevant since their children have passed the need to earn a degree for a earning a living. There is not a single university in India which allows a youngster to get a sense of all of the above four streams of learning in one place, and from teachers who are dedicated and highly scholarly academics in their field. This is indeed a tragedy, for a country with a billion people, and a country with such hoary academic traditions as evidenced by Nalanda in the north and the Tamil Sangams of yore in the south.



FineArts Colleges

Let us take a quick look at one of the Fine Arts and Performing Arts places. The general trend in Universities, the established ones, is to offer these courses in separate colleges affiliated to them. The Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad is a very respected institution for fine arts. It offers an undergraduate program called the Bachelor of Visual Arts. It is a five year program, in contrast to engineering undergraduate programs which are ony four years. Languages and history are integral part of the course. However, as is to be expected, there is no math, or science, or other humanities component whatsoever. Even in well funded and thriving private University, like Amity University, where there are separate colleges for each of these: college of Fine Arts and a college of Performing arts. Each college has a separate admission process, a course structure and faculty and there is no connection or interaction between the colleges. The walls separating these four clusters are really solid.


Liberal Arts Education in the US

We come back to the plight of the youngster who wants to acquire a liberal education. To explore and to learn about all four of the major streams from experts in the respective fields, to analyse and to understand her own aptitudes and talents and inclinations, before deciding to specialise in a specific area. Such an option is impossible in India today. Unequivocally so. Compare what is possible in a liberal arts college in the US. Let us look at a small college like Ohio Wesleyn, where there are no more than 300 students that join as freshman every year. There are no graduate programs in the college. Every student is expected to complete a general distribution requirement the purpose of which is stated thus: ”the requirements for all degrees are designed to enhance students abilities in critical thinking, writing, and quantitative analysis and to assure exposure to diverse cultures. The Universitys distribution requirements are designed to impart knowledge and insight in the areas of the humanities, arts, and social and natural science” The university offers three degree programs: the Bachelor of Arts, the Bachelor of Music and the Bachelors of Fine Arts. Let us look at the Bachelor of Arts program in some detail. In India, the degree B.A has pretty much lost any value it once had. A BA simply allows the person holding it to claim he or she is a ’graduate’. But nothing more. It has no value whatsoever other than function as a filter in job specifications. There are so many people seeking jobs across all categories that to limit the number of people who can apply to a position, the BA (or BSc or BCom) is specified as a minimum requirement. If an youngster when queried by an elderly acquaintance about his current studies were to reply, ”I am doing a BA”, then he will be looked down upon as someone who hasn’t managed to do any better. An expression that is a mix of pity, condescension, and concern about his future prospects will be the result. In contrast the BA in OWU has the following requirements: Competency in English, competency in writing across the curriculum, cultural diversity requirement, and quantitative reasoning requirement. Each of these is satisfied by taking at least a 28

semester-long course from among a set of specified courses. In addition there is a general distribution requirement for all students pursuing a BA, irrespective of their Majors. This is specified with a lot of flexibility and there are about a total of eight courses to be taken from four groups: social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics and computer science, humanities/literature and the Arts. For example, in the social sciences group a student has to take a total of three courses, two of which should be from the same discipline and the third from a different discipline. The disciplines listed are: Black World Studies, Economics, Geography, History, Journalism, Politics and Government, Psychology, Sociology/Anthropology, and Womens and Gender Studies. Similarly the student has to take three in the natural sciences, mathematics and computer science group and three in the humanities/literature group and one course in the Arts group. Thus even a Physics major would have to do humanities, social sciences and the arts, in addition to English and foreign language requirements. What makes these requirements more than just some ticks to be marked of in a list of courses is the quality of the faculty teaching these courses.


Teaching in US Liberal Arts Colleges

The typical freshman year in a good liberal arts college is one of deep competition. From the faculty of diverse disciplines to attract the new batch of students to their speciality. Typically a large percentage of incoming students declare themselves as ’undecided’ regards their major. And even those who declare a major are looking out to validate their choice of major during the first year. The general requirements of the undergraduate program provides a framework for these incoming freshman to explore new disciplines. The key factor here is that freshman courses are taught by faculty who are passionate about their fields and do their best to convey the intellectual challenges in their field, while at the same time ensuring that they do not scare away by making it too complex. In OWU, most teachers of the introductory courses are PhDs and active researchers in their fields. The students have four semesters to declare their majors and till then they are encouraged to keep an open mind. There is a grading option called Pass or no credit which is to enable experimentations in new courses without the pressure of the GPA and grading coming in the way. If you enjoy the new course and do well you get a Pass, otherwise it does not show up in your transcripts at all and you have explored a new topic and have discovered that you don’t enjoy it! Valuable learning. Many students come in with pre-conceived notions of disciplines and many change their declared majors after finding out that they actually enjoy and are better at subjects other than their originally declared majors. The option of doing a dual major (and in some cases, even a triple major) allow for the student with multifaceted interests to acquire expertise in more than one discipline. Dual majors range from conventional physics and mathematics or economics and political science to as diverse as astro phyiscs and music, or computer science and creative writing.


When a student declares a major and enters the junior year, there is a faculty adviser from the major department guiding him or her through the rest of the program. If a student comes in with a declared major and has struck to it, then he would have had a faculty advisor from his major department right from day one to the date of his graduation. For others, a faculty adviser is assigned from the department which reasonably matches whatever background the student comes from and when the student declares a major a suitable adviser from the major depratment is assigned. This faculty advise on a one-on-one and whenever needed basis is a powerful component of a liberal arts college.



The flip side of this flexible scheme is evident if the student is not motivated to pursue a quality degree. In such a case, it is possible to select courses and majors and work one’s way through college with the barest minimum qualification. However, here is where a critical difference between the Indian system and the US system weighs in heavily, the cost of an undergraduate degree from the OWU is roughly about US$ 200,000! This made affordable by a combination of scholarships, work-study plans and loans which are computed based on the students’ (and their parents’) ability to pay. There is a very clear and transparent formula that is used to arrive at the expected family contribution (EFC) for a student’s education. Most universities in the US, including private and state universities use the same formula and make their best effort to provide the student with the resources needed beyond the EFC. This makes the percentage of frivolous students in colleges very small. If the student comes from very well to do families and need not earn a living by getting an undergraduate degree, then they pay the whole cost of their education which is used to partly underwrite the costs of less wealthy students. These students are not given admission without a certain level of accomplishments in high school, especially in the most sought after colleges. Such students, if they take an easy option of doing the minimum work for getting a degree, it causes no harm or loss to anyone. On the other hand, if the student is on a scholarship, there are strict academic performance norms for maintaining that scholarship and hence they cannot afford to take the academic work lightly. Most students work their way through college, ranging from work in the college cafeteria, to stacking books in the library, to being assistants in the administrative office. Thus students value the education that is provided by a college like OWU since they are paying for it by working very hard for it, both in academics and in earning to pay for the education. In contrast, the misguided policy of free higher education in India has made education cheap. When you pay next to nothing for a degree, you value it as much. And hanker after degrees and certificates which cost a bomb. The mushrooming of private educational institutions is a result of this mixed-up policy on higher education in India. As pointed out earlier, no private institution in India offers quality undergraduate education, as per the parameters described by me. However, the cost of obtaining a degree from many of these places is comparable to the costs of a degree in the US. We have enough 30

parents wanting to give their children ’the best’ who pay huge amounts of money to these private institutions with the fond hope that they have given a big leg up to their children. Managements of private institutions have clearly understood this trend among well-to-do middle class parents and are tapping this gold vein across the country. They build five-star infrastructure for their campuses, use well-oiled marketing machinery to drum up visibility to their institution, and match the hype with high fees. Gullible parents, the same ones that equate free education with low quality, promptly equate high-cost with high quality and pay through their nose. They do not know enough to understand what quality higher education means since they have not had the opportunity to experience it. And their wards also go through the same non-experience, but they are worse of, since they now are convinced that what they have got is high quality education!


The Tenure System

A major factor in the high quality , commitment and passion of faculty in the us universities is the tenure system. Fresh PhDs start as tenure track faculty in most universities (after a couple of years of post- doctoral training being mandatory in several disciplines). Typically, about 4-5 years of research, teaching, publications and research fund raising is needed before coming up for evaluation for tenure and promotion. This is a period of intense effort in all aspects of academics. The evaluation is also done by well defined peer- review processes. At the end of the review, either tenure is granted and the faculty promoted to an Associate professor, or tenure is denied. Tenure is serious business. A tenured faculty in major universities hold the faculty position for life. It is almost impossible to fire a tenured professor. Key university decisions are debated and voted on by tenure-track faculty. In return for this academic security, the university professor is expected to live true to the title: profess his academic discipline freely and fearlessly, encourage youngsters to pursue that discipline qnd be a thought leader in that area. University professors are the upholders of academic freedom. Though there are many difficulties and drawbacks with this system, the high benchmarks set by the US university systems is principally due to the quality of the faculty nurtured by the tenure system. It is as ad fact that in India there is no such system in any university. A similar extensive and elaborate and stringent peer review process is followed at the IISc for faculty promotions. Two such reviews are done in the case of a faculty. Once roughly 5-7 years after being recruited as an assistant professor and again 5-7 years later to determine promotion from Associate to full Professor. However the review is only for promotion. Not tenure, which is almost guaranteed as soon as the initial one Year probation period is over. One year is too small a period for a fair evaluation in many fields and so very rarely is a faculty asked to leave after the probation period , which means entry is the biggest barrier,not tenure. After the first year an I I Sc faculty is equivalent to a government employee in


terms of tenure: cannot be kicked out till the retirement age or death. The situation in the IIT’s Is similar. All other universities once hired, the tenure is similar, but the promotion reviews are far less stringent. In private universities, the hiring, promotion and tenure are completely at the will and pleasure of the owner- management. Given this state, there is no wonder that research and scholarship is woefully inadequate, both in quality and quantity. The downstream result is that there are no quality teachers in the next level universities. This clearly impacts the possibility of providing a liberal Education in any of the Indian universities or colleges. As discussed earlier, even when there is an attempt to introduce a course from a different discipline , the teacher of that course is not a scholar in that field. Just someone holding a job. A good example is the Management course that is mandatory in an engineering curriculum. Usually there will be one teacher permanently assigned to teaching that single course for every batch of students in the degree program. He is not expected to teach anything else, or do research on his own. As for peer interaction there are no peers for him to interact with. He is usually a one man department. Similar is the fate of humanities courses taught to science students. So students are not exposed to quality scholars at any time during their undergraduate years and go out not even knowing that they are missing something!



It is not the intention here to paint a rosy picture of US higher education. There are many problems hounding the higher education system in the US as well. Chief among them are the reliance on tests like SAT, AP exams, and the excessive emphasis on college rankings like those published by US News & World report. And the quality of accomplishments of students in the second tier Universities, the cost of access to good quality higher education, are all topics hotly debated in the US. The take away for us in India is that there are debates about these topics involving a cross section of stake holders. The reason for spending time on the details of US liberal arts college is to highlight what good quality undergraduate education can be. Such an education is beyond the reach of any in India simply because there are no UNiversities offering such a program. hence many youngsters in India go to the US for accessing such education, paying huge fees, which given the quality of the education on offer, is certainly worth the expenditure. Given the bleak scenario of higher education in India, where can one begin to change it for the better? is it possible? if so where do we start? What do we do? It really is a daunting task with many barriers with circular dependencies in the path.


Philanthropy in Higher Education

Given the impossibility of acquiring a decent liberal undergraduate education in India, the rational behind Ratan Tata’s large gift to Cornell University makes sense to me now. In 32

October 2008, Tata Education Trust announced a US $50 Million endowment for Cornell University (http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Oct08/tataGift.html). Half of the fund was earmarked for research in food and nutrition in developing countries and the other half was for bringing Indian students to Cornell undergraduate program. At that time my thought was, why is Tata so generous to a US university and not provide similar generous grants to Indian Universities. But in view of my new learning about liberal education in India and the state of the Indian higher education system, it is clear that getting about half a dozen Indian students immersed in a liberal education program every year as offered by Cornell is a significant contribution. Given that the next decades are the ’India decades’, it is likely that a large percentage of these students will return to India. The numbers are miniscule, compared to the population of India. There are hundreds of Indian students who pursue undergraduate education in the US, many among the top Universities. And many of them are from the wealthiest families in India. A small fraction do get financial support (full scholarships in many cases) from many Universities. And a large percentage (much larger than the percentage of students who first go to the US for graduate degrees) return to India, to take care of family businesses. (A point to note is that many of the statements made in these articles lack credible data to back them up. And as pointed out earlier the lack of social scientists and systematic social science research in India means that such data is hard to come by.) The Tata’s have the most impressive record among any industrial house in India in setting up very high quality research and educational Institutions in India: The Indian Institute of Science, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Tata institute of Social Sciences are outstanding examples. But in the past 50 years, no significant investment in higher education in India has been made by the Tata group. The reasons for this are worth pondering. The gift to Cornell is among the largest to a US university by an international donor, and I am reasonably sure that no single individual or a corporate house has made such a large donation to any Institute of higher learning in India in the past 50 years. A possible reason for this change is that in the beginning to mid parts of the 20th century governments did not stand in the way of philanthropists investing in education. In recent times governments operate on the assumption that any investment in education by the private sector is purely for commercial motives. There is an irony here: by the present Indian laws, education is clearly in the not-for-profit sector. In other words, no for-profit entity can start a college and get recognition for their degree programs. However, many in the past several decades, especially in the past 10-15 years, have started colleges purely for commercial reasons: though no profits can be distributed to share holders, like in a commercial enterprise, there are indirect ways in which these entities extract benefits. First is the power and influence one wields as the Chairman of a Board of a College. Second, huge amounts of moneys are collected for admission to professional courses, which are completely out of the accounting systems and hence syphoned off to the promoters of the Institutions. The regulatory bodies in the central and state governments, as well as the Ministry of 33

Human Resources Development (MHRD), the central government ministry responsible for all higher education, and related entities like the AICTE and UGC have failed miserably in ensuring that a semblance of focus on academic and research excellence in the institutions of higher education in India. Nepotism, corruption and political influence have wreaked havoc across the board. The recent attempts at reforming higher education in India by MHRD should be viewed in this perspective. That reform is the crying need is denied by none. Whether the proposed higher education bill is the panacea for this ill, no one is certain. As earlier discussed, I do not hold any high hopes from this initiative. Given this miasma, it is no wonder that serious philanthropists have stayed away from funding higher education. May be Ratan Tata was voting with his money the lack of confidence in any near-term reform in the higher education sector in India?


Next Steps?

We have looked at all that ails our education system, particularly, higher education system. Most of these problems stem from equally hard problems plaguing our school education. The question is what can we do? Where do we even start? Or is it one of those ” everything is messed up. You can do nothing about it, I know what is wrong but I will do nothing either” kind of situations. I believe we need to start from the core of the reason for higher education, and go from there. Let us start from the well researched and drafted document of the AACU on the goals of a liberal education in the 21st century. Use this as the basis and see how we can attain these goals in the context of the Indian scenario.


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