Let The Market Decide

We must not bring back the licence raj to engineering education

Written by Michael Pinto | Updated: January 12, 2018 12:07:37 am
engineering degree, engineering aspirants, middlemen, engineering college admission, engineering admission through middlemen Every engineering college cannot be an IIT but the institute can certainly ensure that its graduates are not unemployable. (Express photo: Praveen Khanna)

From bemoaning the lack of technical institutes and colleges of engineering to training young people, we have moved to a situation — as The Indian Express series in December, 2017 shows — where we have too many of them. So workshops that once trained budding engineers are now being used for many other purposes, including wrestling akhadas. The question is if this is a serious problem.

It is important to separate the question of excess capacity from the need for high quality education. Today, many of the engineers turned out by our colleges are unemployable and unless this changes, “Make in India” can never succeed. Every engineering college cannot be an IIT but the institute can certainly ensure that its graduates are not unemployable. So while there can be no compromise on quality we can still debate how much private investment we need in engineering colleges.

It’s inevitable that some private colleges will maintain standards and turn out worthy candidates while others will fall short. In our haste to snuff out the latter, are we saying that government should conduct all technical training or, if private entities are to be allowed in, barriers to entry should be so high as to discourage all but the most intrepid? This could bring back inspector raj in education.

Some years ago, we faced this problem in the field of maritime education. The government had the monopoly of running maritime training institutes; so trained manpower was scarce because training slots were limited and a huge potential source of employment for skilled youth was being ignored. One way was to allow private investment in maritime education but, as always, this threw up many imponderables. How was quality to be maintained? How would we ban fly-by-night operators ? And what if a number of poorly-run training institutes fell by the wayside?

There were no easy answers to any of these questions but ultimately it was decided to take the risk and open the sector to private investment. Quick checks could ensure that, by and large, standards could be maintained, model syllabi could be put in place and minimum infrastructure made compulsory. No one had any doubt that there would be a vast difference in standards between different institutions. Some would be very good, some middling and some way below expectations. But ultimately it would be for the students to decide which institution they would join. You can open an institute in a smart building in a tony part of a town but if standards are not maintained no company would hire your graduates. So candidates would vote with their feet by joining only those institutions that ensured subsequent employment by giving the best training. The rest would fall by the wayside.

Private engineering colleges today face the same situation. In the immediate aftermath of the IT explosion when it seemed that we would never have enough engineers we have reached the stage where several poorly trained engineers are unemployed and seats go a-begging. Out of the nearly 17 lakh B.Tech and M.Tech seats now on offer, a good number will remain vacant and colleges set up when it seemed that the good times would never end will have to shut shop.

Is this a bad thing and should we ask the AICTE to let loose their inspectors? Institutions providing quality education will still find good demand for their seats. Only those colleges with inferior academic standards and inadequate infrastructure will see students deserting them. If, as a result, they have to close down isn’t this part of the discipline the market imposes?

In education it is always better to let a hundred flowers bloom. Some of them will wither and die, some of them will struggle before they can achieve anything at all and some will become bright attractive flowers that will win laurels. As long as we have enough of the last two categories there is no need to worry about the first. Our only concern should be to turn out high quality, employable engineers and healthy competition will ensure this. It is a much better option than licence raj.

The writer is former secretary, shipping, Government of India

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