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What’s technical about it?

There are legitimate expectations that the human resource development ministry will now deliver....

Written by Bibek Debroy |
June 23, 2009 3:18:34 am

There are legitimate expectations that the human resource development ministry will now deliver,though large chunks of education being on the Concurrent List causes problems. Entry 25 on the concurrent list reads,“Education,including technical education,medical education and universities,subject to the provisions of entries 63,64,65 and 66 of List I; vocational and technical training of labour.” Entry 63 on the Union List has BHU,AMU and Delhi University,Entry 64 has institutions of national importance,Entry 65 mentions professional,vocational or technical training and Entry 66 mentions coordination and determination of standards. This is bound to lead to conflicts and inconsistencies. For instance,there were historical reasons why BHU,AMU and Delhi University were treated differently. Why should they be treated differently now? Six decades later,in retrospect,the Concurrent List was a mistake (not just for education) and we should not continue with it. The Seventh Schedule needs revamping with three separate lists — Union,State and Local Body. There should be concurrence on this,but we won’t get that amendment in a hurry. So any educational reforms will have to factor in the constitutional status quo.

Reform principles have been clear since 1991 and are no different for education. Efficiency is best ensured through competition and choice. Remove supply-side constraints and free up entry,including from private (and foreign) players. What is so sacred about education that it cannot be profit-making? If there are market failures,state provisioning may be necessary. But if there aren’t market failures,state institutions should compete on level-playing-field terms with private enterprises. Replace licensing and controls with regulation. Since there can be asymmetry in information access,regulation should focus on disclosure and independent ratings of educational institutions are conditional on this information being available. Regulation needs to move away from controlling input costs (salaries,fees) and even physical infrastructure. Decentralise and grant decision-making autonomy to enterprises. There may be inability to pay by poor students,though even private enterprises have cross-subsidisation inadequately appreciated. To that extent,public subsidisation of poor students is required. However,let us identify the poor and let subsidies go directly to poor students,instead of subsidising inefficient public educational institutes. Subsidies can be spliced with competition and choice.

The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) may not have adhered to these principles as clearly as one would have liked. However,the NKC recommendations captured distilled wisdom of several experts,encapsulated in “Report to the Nation,2006-2009”. One doesn’t need a fresh round of commissions,committees,task forces and working groups for the HRD ministry to figure out what is to be done. In any event,“What Is to Be Done?” is the title of a tract written by Lenin in 1901/02. With the Left out of the way,Nike’s “Just Do It” is more appropriate.

If there is one segment of education where there is absolutely no market failure,it’s in management education. Here is a quote from NKC’s report on management education: “Management education has seen phenomenal growth in the past six years with the number of institutions providing undergraduate and post-graduate level courses rising to over 1700. Of these,more than 1000 were added after the year 2000. This has been possible largely due to the entrepreneurial initiative of promoters,taking advantage of the ever increasing demand for management graduates,hence management education. Unfortunately,this has also led to an exploitative and commercial environment with quality being compromised. Regulatory focus only on physical infrastructure rather than research,qualified faculty and relevance of courses has created a mismatch between supply and demand.” To restate the obvious,this entrepreneurial talent has often been displayed by politicians. Is that one reason why the system is so resistant to change?

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What of the regulator? We have introduced an artificial distinction between MBA programmes that are degrees and those that are diplomas. The former are those under university umbrellas and latter are outside university systems. Since private universities are relatively new,most degrees are public and most diplomas are private. Several rankings of business schools float around and differ from each other. In one such ranking,of 20 top schools,19 provide diplomas and one provides a degree (FMS,Delhi). However,this is a finding that cuts across all such rankings. The quality of diplomas (at least at the top end) is better than the quality of degrees. And if the public sector still holds up at the top end,that’s because of IIMs and FMS (with a couple of IIT programmes also inching into the top league).

For degrees,the UGC is the regulator. While for diplomas,the AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education) is the regulator,at least partly. Neither has delivered quality. To quote from the NKC again: “NKC advocates good governance rather than the prevalent system of a priori control being exercised by AICTE in this sphere. The current regulatory regime focuses on punitive actions rather than on nurturing institutions. NKC proposes that an autonomous Standing Committee for Management Education be set up under the Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE).” Though not very strongly worded,the recommendation is that the AICTE needs to be scrapped.

It is doubtful that management was ever meant to be classified as “technical” education. Technical education started with sugar,textiles,leather and stuff like that. That’s what the governor general’s policy statement of 1913 on technical education said. The AICTE Act’s (1987) definition of technical education also shows this,with management education not quite belonging with the others. “Technical education means programmes of education,research and training in engineering technology,architecture,town planning,management,pharmacy and applied arts and crafts.” AICTE accreditation is not mandatory. What’s particularly telling is that several good institutes do not want it. Nor for that matter do companies who come for recruitment. AICTE accreditation is neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure a programme’s quality. Reason enough to scrap the AICTE,without waiting for the IRAHE.

The writer is a Delhi-based economist express@expressindia.com

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