VIEWPOINT - The New Indian Express (Kerala), 15 July 2002

Noodles and Nonsense in Engineering Colleges

New colleges must not be affiliated to existing Universities.

By ASHOK R CHANDRAN

More intellectualish rhetoric against privatisation? No. Kerala is correct in privatising engineering education. But, we need intelligent reform, not half-baked privatisation.

What is wrong with Kerala's efforts? How can we protect and improve the value of degrees earned in Kerala?

Ministers, bureaucrats, and journalists give the impression that "reforms" are taking place. Activists, educationists and comrades promptly inaugurate anti-reform dharnas. As if allowing private self-financing colleges is what reform is all about.

MISPLACED FOCUS

Threaten an economist and he will confess that the prime objective of reform is to ensure good quality services. None of that fiscal deficit, revenue deficit jargon, mind you. Reform focuses on increasing the accountability of those who provide services - in this case, teachers and managements of engineering colleges.

But what is Kerala focusing on? Sanctioning of colleges!

This obsession is because the Government announces the number of new seats and colleges. The nonsensical focus on numerical aspects only helps anti-privatisation activists highlight unfilled seats in Kerala and the threat of increased unemployment.

So, what's wrong with the Government announcing it? One, the Government is not equipped to forecast the demand for engineering professionals.

Two, once you privatise, it is up to the entrepreneurs who start colleges to fix the number of seats, decide the fees, and reap profits or suffer losses. Having chosen to study, it is up to the student to gain or suffer from the employment scenario four years hence.

Does the government decide how many packets of noodles must be produced? Or at what price they should be offered? If your neighbour buys noodles with his money but does not use them, why are you complaining? Engineering education today is a commodity. Like a pack of noodles .

THE GOVERNMENT'S ROLE

The Government's role as a reformer lies in helping the education 'market' work well.

The Government's role is not to bridge the demand-supply gap directly. We need efforts that increase accountability in the education sector. We need incentives to provide good services and disincentives for bad performance. The Government's role as a reformer lies in helping the education 'market' work well.

For example, students would need information to choose one college from the dozens available. Useful information on quality of colleges can be compiled by public-spirited groups of educationists. Grading and ranking of colleges are catching on in India. Such initiatives can function when transparency laws exist. We need laws that make it obligatory for colleges to part with relevant information. As the law-maker, the Government has a role here.

Another role for the Government is in protecting the value of degrees from Kerala. Especially when there are doubts regarding quality of education in the new colleges. We also hear of unethical practices during exams in similar institutions. One bad apple can spoil a University's brand name and the value of its degree.

To discourage misconduct, new colleges must be kept distinct from existing colleges. Students of self-financing colleges could be awarded degrees from an autonomous body managed by the new colleges themselves. The Government's task is to give such a private university adequate powers.

You would have noticed that the examples have in-built mechanisms to improve quality too. Ranking colleges induces competition to provide better services. Affiliation to their own autonomous body puts peer pressure on new colleges to raise standards, and curb unethical practices. It also induces competition among degree-awarding Universities within Kerala to promote their brand names by raising the bar.

The key question for assessing a Government measure is: Is it an incentive for teachers and college managements to deliver better services to students? Because, accountability is at the heart of reform.


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