Technical Education in India

Technical Education in India has had a huge quantitative expansion in the last two decades, particularly with the mushrooming of capitation fee colleges. The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) has allowed a number of such institutions to be opened without concern for either quality of infrastructure. In states such as Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, technical education, along with medical, has become an industry of the political elite that gives return in excess of 50%. And this is only the tip of the iceberg; as money under the table is also a part of the capitation fee syndrome, the actual returns are even higher.

The result of this system is that the quality of education has suffered seriously. Most of these colleges have poor quality staff and inadequate facilities. The temporary boom in software demand has resulted a large number of engineering graduates gravitating to information technology, either directly or through computer diplomas. As the software market could be entering a phase of more restricted growth, we need to take stock of the quality of education in these colleges.

The initial focus in technical education in the country was that the best of students should be encouraged to take up engineering and medicine. The state not only bore the major cost of such education, it also continuously invested in creating new institutions such as the IITs, Regional Engineering Colleges (RECs), etc., to provide quality education. Not only were these institutions created for undergraduate courses, they also were supposed to be places for undertaking research. The coupling of research and undergraduate programs, had as its underpinning, a particular view of education. The university was seen as the seat of research. The best of minds had to be attracted to the universities, as they would then impart their vision of the future to the next generation of students. It was also articulated that unless there are students, research by itself becomes sterile. Thus, research and teaching were not seen as separate activities but as complementing each other for sustaining a proper environment for enquiry and education.

However, the amount of resources – the money – that was available for higher education was limited. In this, even though technical and medical education did receive a fair amount of the resources available, compared to the actual needs, the resources devoted to it were low. Countries such as S. Korea, Malaysia or China, who were in similar phase of development, devoted much larger percentage of their GDP to the education system as a whole, as also on higher education.

Not only were the amounts devoted to higher education, and therefore technical education inadequate, the spending was also skewed. Apart from a few centres of excellence, most of the institutions had largely undergraduate programs with weak research programs. It was presumed that the few places – the IITs, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Roorkee, Jadavpur and Anna Universities – that were built up as centres of excellence, would in turn support the rest of the structure. Unfortunately, these linkages remained weak and the centres of excellence largely as islands. Thus the vision of combining research and education remained an incomplete one.

By end 60’s, as far as the state was concerned the expansion in technical education virtually came to a halt. Technical education entered a plateau, the numbers stabilising to about 22,000-23,000 graduates passing out per year. As resources became was scarce, the dual structure  — few centres of excellence amidst largely mediocre institutions – was reinforced even more.

The dual structure of the institutions was not the only problem of technical education. The Indian industry’s requirement of engineers was also peculiar. There was no premium on design skills and original thinking, the natural product of technical education. By and large, the Indian industry is distinguished by its inability to innovate. The human power produced by the Indian technical institutions – whether excellent or mediocre – were all caught up in an industrial environment, where copying existing designs via “technical collaborations” was the norm. The most creative work that the bulk of the engineers faced was the one of converting FPS units to the MKS ones, as under Indian law, all measurements had to be given in MKS Units!

Part of the reason for the Indian brain drain is the inability of the Indian industry to provide an innovative structure. The Indian technical institutions responded in looking toqwards foreign journals as the “destination” for their research outputs. The Indian industry imported technology from the west, while Indian research was “exported” there. If the loop was completed, it was via the west. The net result was that the centres of excellence produced graduates who practiced their engineering abroad, either through emmigration or through papers written for journals abroad. If they stayed in India, they took up management sales or the administrative services. It is estimated that the outflow through emigration and choosing non-technical work is more than 50% of the output of these institutions.

It is not the purpose here to write about the phenomenon of brain drain. Undoubtedly, it is cheaper for the US to train their engineers (or doctors) at the cost of developing countries. The risk of shortage is covered by this reserve human-power at a low cost, and if there is a surplus due to fall in demand, the burden of this unemployment also falls on the developing countries. However, this is not the entire story. It is important to understand that the structure of Indian industry, the mindset of the technocracy (or bureaucracy) was such that development of technology was actively discouraged. Except civil engineering where there was a considerable advance in indigenous design capabilities, most other disciplines had an extremely poor environment for developing technology. While the public sector was certainly technologically better initially, by the 70’s, they also had fallen prey to the general mindset that technology development is the prerogative of the west. This certainly did facilitate brain drain, as the only way engineers could do interesting work was then to leave the country.

The interesting part of the current boom in technical education is that it is the result of a completely unforeseen software boom. The major expansion of the private engineering institutions – the capitation fee colleges — took place in the 80’s, as scientific education – the B.Sc. degree – was seen as a dead-end in the employment market. The popularity of technical education lay that it offered the possibility of jobs. The number of colleges and their output has trebled in the last two decades. If the software boom had not taken place, most of these institutions would have produced only unemployed technical graduates, as the employment in Indian industry had not expanded in the 80’s and 90’s in any significant way.

The result of this expansion via the capitation fee route has been to create a three-tiered structure of education in place of the earlier two-tier one. At the top, we have the IITs, IISc., Roorkee, Jadavpur and  Anna Universities. This is followed by about 50 colleges – the RECs and well-established state or state aided institutions — where there is some infrastructure and quality. At the lowest rung are the capitation fee and other private institutions numbering about 500, offering only degree programs with little infrastructure and inadequate faculty. The annual output today of degree holders is about 65,000, the majority from institutions that are of poor quality.

If we look at the cost of education per student, we will get a clear picture of what these institutions are producing. In IITs, the expenditure per head is of the order of Rs.85,000 per annum per student. For the RECs, the figure is about Rs.21,000-35,000. For some of the capitation fee colleges, the number is as low as Rs.6,000 per student as against the AICTE norm of at least Rs.16,800 per student. Only 20% of the private colleges spent this minimum amount specified by AICTE. Not only is the spending per head low, even this spending is largely for operating expenses. Many institutions spend as little as 6% on teaching material and student facilities. It is not surprising that studies show that some of these private institutions have been making profits of over 50% from the fees that they are charging!

The net result is that at the post-graduate level, fully 60% of the seats – for post-graduate and doctoral programs — are not filled up, as the students cannot get through GATE, the qualifying examination. Obviously, this has serious implications for future faculty development for the engineering colleges. The share of higher education in the education budget has dwindled from 25% in the Fourth plan to only 8% in the Eighth Plan. And even here, most of the funds are spent on maintaining the existing system. While the elite central institutions still retain their funding, the rest of the structure is systematically being starved of resources, leading to an impending future crunch regarding good quality faculty.

There are three major drivers to the current plans for technical education. The first is the belief that the software boom is going to continue. Thus the Indian technical educations should feed into the “body shoppers – the Infosys, Wipros, etc. The second is that the state should to withdraw partially from higher education and let private capital take over. The third driver is that the three-tiered structure – the centres of excellence followed by a set of mediocre institutions and a lowest rung of teaching shops should continue. Even the first two will not be supported fully by the state, it has to be supplemented by higher fees from students. The third one – the private colleges — will follow the laws of the market. The AICTE will continue to monitor their standards but only in a very distant way. Thus no major changes in their standards are likely to take place in the near future.

The tragedy for the country is not there are these institutions that are poor in quality; they are also drawing away a large number of the brightest students from colleges that can provide good quality science and social sciences education. Even a cursory examination of the students in science courses today throws up the frightening picture that they are mostly marking time before trying again for engineering. This is the first time that higher education in sciences is drawing hardly any good students. The option here is not between poor quality science education versus poor quality engineering education. Even the best of science courses today are failing to draw students while even sub-standard engineering colleges draw better students. Unfortunately, none of this is causing any concern to the education planners.

The trend in all existing higher education centres is to raise fees drastically. The IITs and RECs are looking to raise their fees by at least three times as also other institutions. For a large number of middle class parents, sending their children to good institutions may no longer be feasible.

In all this, there is no discussion of what kind of a role are the future technical graduates expected to play. What happens if the software boom does not continue? How do we maintain quality of education in the technical institutions if we cut down their budget allocation? What kind of students can we have if quality technical education is accessible only to the rich and out of reach of even the middle class? These are questions that the country needs to ask if it has any hope of emerging as a global economic force.

No country in the world has developed without allowing its best students access to higher education. It is not a question that poor students being offered scholarships; the issue here is encouraging our best minds to engage in the frontiers of science and technology (also social sciences). Instead, we are entering an era where the majority of the middle class will be frozen out of higher education. If India is to catch up with the advanced countries, then this is certainly not the way. Unfortunately this is the way the Ambanis and the World Bank wants us to follow. And these are the new messiahs of the BJP led NDA government.

Both the World Bank (India: Scientific and technical Manpower Development in India, August, 2000) and the Mukesh Ambani Committee (A Policy Framework for Reforms in Education, April 2000) set up by the Prime Minister, has come to nearly identical conclusions. Their recommendations, shorn off the jargon, are that fees should be raised drastically and the private sector should be allowed to make money from education. Regarding problem of poor quality education and the exploitation of the students, these reports have little to offer. Presumably, the great god of the market will take care of this problem. And if bodies of students and their parents, who are paying exorbitant amounts, line the way to the market, these are sacrifices that have to be made to propitiate this great god.