All India Council for Technical Education chairman S.S. Mantha tells G. MAHADEVAN that a conscious effort on the part of technical educational institutions is needed to ensure quality.

The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) these days is emphasising quality of engineering education like never before. Council chairman S.S. Mantha told The Hindu EducationPlus in Thiruvananthapuram recently that the quality enhancement of technical institutions should take place simultaneously with the expansion of the technical education sector. Excerpts from an interview.

On the ingredients of quality in technical education

Quality is a paradigm which will be successful only with a lot of inputs — good students, good faculty, and infrastructure. If you have students with a potential to excel, you can have value-added programmes to improve their quality.

The faculty in an engineering college is extremely important, both in terms of adequate numbers and academic quality. Each institution should put in place mechanisms to get good faculty members and promote their participation in events such as international conferences. Engineering colleges should also ensure that their teachers get to function in a cluster environment. In many places, there are a number of colleges in a given area. Why can’t these colleges come together to organise regional conferences, set up inter-institutional special programmes? It is happening in some places but it is not happening as a nationwide process. That is what the AICTE is looking forward to.

Unless there is a conscious effort within an organisation to ensure quality, it would not happen. Quality institutions are not built overnight. Stanford, Harvard, and Cornel in the U.S. or the Imperial College, London, are more than 150 years old. They have built their quality over a period of time and that too, a sustainable quality. Good chairs and furniture is not quality. Every single entity in an institution has to contribute to build quality.

On AICTE’s push to promote innovation among students

The AICTE has put in place several schemes for promoting innovation among students. One such venture is the regional-level innovation programme for students in collaboration with micro, medium, and small-scale industries. The AICTE has divided the nation into four regions. The aim is to bring into this programme 15,000 to 20,000 students in each region. From among them, ideas/projects for innovation would be sought. A total of 250 best entries from each region would be taken up for implementation and the AICTE would give each innovator Rs.2 lakh for transforming their ideas into some demonstrable product or process. The council is also talking to companies such as Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM to see whether they can help roll out this project.

On the council’s Research Park initiative

This is a scheme aimed at improving the academic standards of teachers. The AICTE would give a college Rs.1 crore. The institution then has to find some nearby industry or business house and get an additional Rs.1 crore from them. With this seed money, the college should facilitate the setting up of a ‘research park’ on its premises. All it has to do is to offer 2,500 sq ft of space. The company will set up the research facility.

In this facility, the teachers and students of that college will do research on ‘live’ projects relevant to that company or industry. An institution that has a park should encourage teachers and students from nearby engineering colleges also to come and use the facility. Till now, the academia used to go to the industry. This trend needs to be reversed. In the Imperial College, London, there are many industries that have incubation centres on campus, that too many different industries. So there is an inter-industry competition going on. In Kerala, the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, is a good candidate for setting up such a park, what with the Technopark being so close by.

The AICTE wants at least one research park in each State. So far, the council has received 10 applications for the same, none from Kerala.

On AICTE’s plans to constitute a second board of accreditation for technical institutions

Yes, the AICTE is planning to constitute the Indian Board of Accreditation in addition to the existing National Board of Accreditation. For a country as large and diverse as India, where there are 1.2 million students in about 12,000 engineering colleges, a lot of time and resources are needed for an accreditation process to happen meaningfully.

The second board is being set up as a capacity-building measure. Both boards will use the same processes. It would be up to the institution to choose who they want to go to. This choice may be influenced by the proximity of the board to that institution or by the smaller number of colleges waiting to be accredited by a board.

In the U.S., there are 63 different bodies doing accreditation. There would be a fair degree of competitiveness among the boards in setting and monitoring standards. The same holds true for engineering colleges. A large number of colleges means that many an institution is striving to offer quality education. Unhealthy competition may happen only if such boards become commercial ventures.

On the large number of engineering colleges in many States, including Kerala

Of course, a large number of engineering colleges would impact quality. The average pass percentage for Classes X, XI and XII in the country is about 50 per cent. Of the 20 million students who are estimated to go on to higher learning, eight lakh went to engineering courses in 2008-09. Today, this figure is 1.2 million. As a nation, we need to grow. Tomorrow if the pass percentage for Plus Two courses rises sharply, does the nation have adequate number of engineering colleges to give admission to that many students?

Now, we peg the supply side at 50 per cent and then say there are large vacancies in engineering colleges. The idea should be to get more students into the system and expand the technical education sector. Of course, there would be no uniform level of quality. There would the best quality at the top, a group that has the potential to improve and excel, and another set of institutions at the bottom of the pile. This is so with every sector. The point is, one cannot deny admission to people in order to raise quality. In an expanded technical education sector, there will be more top-quality institutions and many more institutions with a potential to excel.