Why did India fail to get full membership in the Washington Accord? Will autonomy for NBA help to strengthen the quality of engineering education?

Educationists are making a serious introspection into why India's attempt for full-fledged membership of the Washington Accord, an international agreement for standardising engineering education, turned futile for the second time late last year.

The first bid for becoming a part of the International Engineering Alliance was made in 2007 by the National Board of Accreditation (NBA), a body of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). The provisional membership status of NBA in the Washington Accord has been extended again. The reason being cited is that the accreditation system of the NBA is not in conformity with global standards. Signed in 1989, the Accord recognises four-year undergraduate degrees earned in a signatory country. India's expectation in signing the agreement is the mobility it will enhance for engineering graduates to go to any of the signatory countries: Australia, Canada, Taipei, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, United Kingdom and United States, for jobs or further studies.

Quality initiatives are apparently being accorded a thrust in India.

As per AICTE's revised criteria for accreditation, the overall placement success, enrolment status, and facilities for career guidance are all vital quality determiners. There is an appreciable level of awareness about NBA in Tamil Nadu. With 55 engineering colleges getting their programmes accredited by the NBA, Tamil Nadu accounts for the highest number of accredited colleges and programmes.

Nevertheless, according to educationists, precious little has been done to address the apparent reason for rejection of NBA by the International Engineering Alliance. Unlike in other signatory countries where accreditation of engineering programmes is being done by professional bodies, the NBA in India functions under the AICTE, a regulatory body. The natural shift of NBA to accredit programmes approved by the AICTE is all too apparent.

It is not that India lacks professional bodies. Institution of Engineers, Indian Society for Technical Education, Indian National Academy of Engineering et al are capable of evolving standards suiting global quality parameters, educationists believe. “The functions of NBA, a statutory authority, have to be independent. But it is still in the shadow of AICTE. The influence of AICTE is increasingly being felt in NBA. The earlier rigour is missing,” said S. Vaidyasubramanian, Dean, Planning and Development, SASTRA University, Thanjavur, which was the only private university amongst the five institutions that obtained NBA accreditation soon after its formation.

The rest of the institutions were National Institutes of Technology. “There is a perceptible dilution in the rigour of accreditation,” he said, adding that NBA can be purposeful in the country and command respect globally if it has a clear focus on engineering education and desist from being subservient to AICTE.

“The Act of AICTE by which NBA was formed speaks only about formation of the body. It does not say the chairman of the AICTE will control the accreditation body. If it is to be controlled by the AICTE, NBA will lack autonomy and the value of its accreditation will become questionable, according to the former Member Secretary of NBA and former Anna University vice-chancellor, A. Kalanidhi.

“The NBA in the present form is unacceptable. The AICTE chairman is not the custodian of the Act by which NBA was formed,” according to Dr. Kalanidhi. However, he is surprised by the heavy weather India has been making of late on seeking membership of the Washington Accord.

“Unless the specific benefits of getting into the Washington Accord are substantiated, merely obtaining membership becomes meaningless. It is not as though students of India are not going abroad for further studies or jobs for want of a membership in the Accord. What purpose will a membership in the Washington Accord that entails heavy expenditure serve when the very foundation for technical education in the country is weak,” he reasoned out, advocating complete autonomy in the real sense of the term to NBA with the primary objective of strengthening the quality of engineering education in India.