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Updated: January 25, 2010 02:14 IST

Education options: scope for media role

S. Viswanathan
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The Central government revealed, in an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court on January 18, that 44 educational institutions in the country had failed to meet the standards and norms set by the University Grants Commission (UGC) to qualify for winning the status of “Deemed-to-be Universities” (DUs). This gave enough indication that these institutions would lose their DU status soon. The government’s statement was based on the findings of a Committee he aded by Professor P.N. Tandon.

Tamil Nadu accounts for about 15 of the affected institutions, including the one founded by a Union Minister. Understandably, the revelation led to agitations by students likely to be affected, in Chennai, Salem, and Thanjavur. There were also some incidents of violence. Not surprisingly, the first State government to come out with a clear stand on what needs to be done is the DMK government of Tamil Nadu. Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudy has gone well beyond welcoming the Central government’s move to propose abolition of the DU system itself. Revealing that Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi wrote to Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal in June 2009 asking that the powers of the State government and the existing universities be protected, Mr. Ponmudy has highlighted several aspects of the abuse of the DU system. Most important, he has reiterated the State government’s assurance that the students of the affected institutions would not suffer “in any manner.”

Need for more in-depth study and coverage

These significant developments have been adequately covered in the print and broadcast media, with some newspapers providing useful editorial analyses and comments as well. But it is clear that this challenging subject, and the key issues of educational standards and quality, and social opportunity, that have come to the fore, need more in-depth study and coverage than they have so far got in the public sphere.

Although the concept of the UGC honouring well-run colleges by extending to them the status of DUs in appreciation of their exemplary achievements in academic and research activities is nearly as old as the Indian Republic, the mushrooming of DUs in some States, particularly Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, is of relatively recent origin. While under the original policy the UGC conferred the status on an educational institution after rigorous assessment, in the latter case the DU status was won by some, if not several, institutions exercising enormous political pressure and resorting to corruption.

About 30 deemed universities function in Tamil Nadu and applications from more are pending with the UGC. Ever since the Central and State governments began, in the 1980s, abandoning their responsibilities in the vital sphere of higher education, Tamil Nadu has become a hunting ground of hyper-profit-seeking private players in higher, and especially professional, education. This has resulted in a serious imbalance, with private institutions far outweighing State-run and State-aided institutions. Of the professional colleges, the imbalance, purely in terms of the number of colleges, is more in the engineering than in the medical field, where there is an acute shortage of seats at the undergraduate and especially post-graduate levels.

There are some excellent-to-good private colleges and deemed universities that specialise in various professional fields and offer new kinds of opportunity to young men and women. Scholarly studies show that aside from the welcome expansion of educational opportunity in the relevant fields, this transformation, which took place over two decades, has contributed to, and indeed enabled, the spectacular development of the software and IT-enabled-services (ITES) sectors in southern India. But these worthy private colleges and universities are swamped by institutions that approach education purely as a business and care little for quality and even minimum standards, especially in terms of the quality of teaching, faculty, and educational infrastructure.

Limitless scope for exploitation

Today Tamil Nadu has 354 engineering colleges, of which 333 are self-financing institutions. Although the highest court of the land has banned the practice of collecting capitation fees, the overwhelming majority of self-financing colleges collect substantial sums from students at the time of their joining the institution (claiming privately that this is an inescapable part of the economics of running professional colleges in the private sector). Thus, in the main, the scope for exploiting young people and their families has become limitless, with the phenomenal rise in the demand for engineers and other professionally qualified people in the IT and ITES sectors.

In a highly competitive market, those with more resources and resourcefulness have succeeded in a big way. In the case of some, a small minority, a sustained commitment to educational values and excellence and a focus on improving performance and benchmarking has made all the difference, winning them an enviable reputation nationally and even abroad. But it is clear that the majority of players have used their clout with the right people to elevate the status of their institutions improperly.

Then came a frenetic rush for winning the status of DU. Apart from being a brand-building exercise, this status would enable these institutions to wriggle out of government controls and supervision by monitoring agencies. Many who managed to win the unmerited status of DU for their institutions became defiant towards overseeing institutions, the UGC and the All-India Council of Technical Education (AICTE). The new status was rarely used to improve the quality of education by enhancing faculty strength and quality, and provide better facilities, academic and otherwise, to the students.

In its affidavit to the apex court, the Central government stated that the 44 institutions, identified for being awarded the DU status, had violated the guidelines prescribed for achieving excellence in teaching and research or innovations, and introduced unrelated degree programmes, thus going beyond the grant of the status. Barring the notable exception of some public-funded institutions, none of the 44 could produce any evidence of quality research, according to the Tandon Committee. It found that many institutions increased their intake disproportionately, and in some cases exponentially in relation to the qualified faculty strength and academic infrastructure. There were also instances where the fees were considerably higher than the ones recommended by the official committees.

The Tandon Committee said that 38 institutions justified their continuance as DUs; 44 were found deficient and had several shortcomings that needed to be corrected over a period of three years; and 44 others simply did not have the attributes to continue as DUs. Another notable finding of the committee was that families rather than professional academics controlled many of these institutions. A newspaper report quoted a member of the committee as saying that some of these institutions had been “atrociously scandalous” in admitting more than 1,500 candidates for Ph.D. studies, with a faculty strength of less than 200! One institution was reported to have opened ‘study centres’ in about 500 places.

The Hindu’s consistent role

While appreciating the editorial of The Hindu (“A step in the right direction” January 21, 2010) and welcoming the government’s move to withdraw the status given to 44 institutions, many readers have referred to the consistent role played by the newspaper against exploitation in the field of education.

“The editorial was timely and served a much-needed cause,” writes Seshadri Ramkumar from Lubbock, Texas. “A good number of institutes that have mushroomed in the recent past have made minimum to nil contribution to research and outreach.” S. Vivekanandan, writing from Madurai, takes exception to the recommendation of the Tandon Committee that 44 deemed universities, found to be deficient, should be given three years to rectify the shortcomings. He feels the move “will seriously jeopardise the ‘Right to Quality Education’ of the stakeholders of higher education.” He wants the government to withdraw the deemed university status conferred on all private institutions. “It is a good sign that the government has not spared even the institutions founded by a Union Minister,” writes K. Raju from Chennai.

As a reader points out, this newspaper has been consistently informing the public through its news coverage of higher education and educating it through competent articles and interviews with experts in the field of education, such as former UGC chairman Yashpal. In fact, several newspapers and magazines, besides some TV channels, have been reporting the hyper-commercialisation of engineering and medical education and the greedy exploitation of the aspirations and dreams of youth. But the message, it is clear, is yet to reach a large section of the people — going by the fact that tens of thousands of parents, in their eagerness to educate their children, are not prepared to resist opting for the third-rate, and even the worst, of the colleges.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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