Kapil Sibal needs to be commended for upholding the importance of Class 12 marks for admissions to institutes of higher education

After visiting New Delhi in the mid-1970s, the editor of an important American newspaper, the story goes, wrote that only in two places are Indians not permitted to have a drink at a five-star hotel — South Africa, and India!

Sadly, some 40 years later, that story could well be about Indian degrees and diplomas. India’s Class 12 certificates issued by the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE), Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and various State Boards are accepted as a qualifying score for an admission to undergraduate classes in more than half of the top 200 universities in the world. The only country where these certificates are not accepted (or scores not recognised) is India itself. Why else would we run a plethora of entrance tests for admission into universities or institutes, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) included? It is well recognised that there is great discrepancy between boards. The Odisha Board of Secondary Education may not be comparable to say, Delhi. But going by the number of students from Odisha crawling around Delhi University, this may not be entirely correct.

Coaching industry at Kota

Union Minister of Human Resource Development (HRD) Kapil Sibal has now got it right by recognising that the Class 12 score must be considered, at least in part, for admission into higher education including the IITs. This, I hope, is the first step towards abolishing all entrance tests and recognising the certificates that are in any case issued by the government. By not recognising the Class 12 score we have created what we would call “Kota style education,” which at the last count was a Rs.50,000 crore industry.

To elaborate: some 1,00,000 students on completion of Class 10 carry their bag and baggage, and at times, alongwith one of their parents, and travel to Kota, Rajasthan. The back-breaking two years involve admitting themselves to one of the several hundred coaching classes for the IITs, National Institutes of Technology (NIT) or medical colleges, where they work for about 18 hours a day. Neither the soaring temperatures in Kota nor the appalling living conditions bother them. As passing Class 12 is mandatory to get into the IITs, these students get admitted to one or another board as distance learners. They need only a pass certificate — the scores are unimportant.

“Kota style” education now thrives in the backstreets of Bethia, Berhampur and Tirunelveli. It is a $10-billion industry, and is now run by many public limited companies, some hugely funded by overseas private equity funds — $10 billion is more than the government’s annual funding to the University Grants Commission (UGC).

Mr. Sibal needs to be complimented for bringing sanity into higher education by recognising that our own degrees and diplomas must be counted in admissions to our own colleges and universities.

As for the hue and cry created by IIT alumni associations about the Minister’s proposal to democratise IIT admission, you don’t have to be a genius to appreciate and understand the sentiments of the IIT alumni. Let us not forget that they are all born and brought up in the same country as us and have grown up in the same feudal culture. They are the neo-Brahmins. After all, how can they permit children of lesser castes to get into their temples? This is the overriding sentiment. The purported line is that we must protect quality of education of the IITs. But the real need is to protect the IITs from “Kota style” coaching classes.

Five-point agenda

Here is a five-point agenda to improve higher education, particularly technical education, in India.

Create capacity: Permit private institutions to significantly increase capacity. It is well known that the school to college dropout ratio is 70 per cent. The moment we say this, the bogey raised is that quality will fall. Therefore, what is required is a strong autonomous regulator that will certify the quality of education, like in all developed parts of the world. Encouraging quality, removing bottlenecks, and enhancing capacities should be the cornerstone architecture of the regulators rather than “control.”

Government managed (read controlled) technical education is now about 10 per cent of the total number of seats. Increase the capacity of the IITs and NITs by 5x. People ask, where are the teachers (of “quality”)? The answer is to increase the compensation package of teachers by 5x. Many corporate organisations are willing to sponsor chairs in much the same way as it happens in the western world, to pay deserving teachers.

Introduce for-profit higher education: The best kept secret is that the currently structured trust managed educational institutions are truly not “not-for-profit.” We must acknowledge that and ask the regulator to grant, say, a 12 per cent equated return to investors in these institutes and universities.

Create a band of adjunct faculty: Top educational institutions all over the world operate with a strong partnership with industry and business. The starting point is to get a large list of volunteers from industry who are willing to devote time as adjunct faculty. Clearly there are issues of consistency in education delivery but industry bodies like the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) can very well be motivated to provide this thrust. We need to work on a model of how academics can work hand in hand with practising managers.

Privatise some IITs and NITs: privatising a non-profit organisation is bound to stir up a hornet’s nest. But some IITs and NITs can be privatised on an experimental basis.

Create competition: Before the private universities bill has even been passed, the HRD Ministry is already talking about controls. The anti-competition lobby is already working to eliminate future competition. If our objective is to create capacity, let us welcome any registered university from any respectable part of the world. Competition will decide whether the students want to go to Delhi University or Hawaii University’s campus in Delhi!

Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate, said when asked about the large number of rural schools in India that have only one room and one teacher, “I will have a school with only one room and one teacher rather than no school at all.” We can’t change overnight our higher education to match MIT, Harvard or Oxford. Let’s start with capacity creation as the top most agenda. In the meanwhile, congratulations Mr. Minister for the first, forward-looking step.

(Pradipta K. Mohapatra is a Chennai-based executive coach for corporates.)

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