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BW Businessworld

Race To The Bottom

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 What is in common between Jagadguru Sri Shivarathreeshwara University, Vel Tech Rangarajan Dr Sakunthala Research and Development Institute of Science and Technology, and The Energy Research Institute? They are all deemed universities recognised by the University Grants Commission. If the minister of education is to be believed, they are all to “go”. He assured their students in the next breath that their interests would not suffer. That statement must mean that the students will be taught in those universities and will be given degrees if they pass examinations.
 
The only way Kapil Sibal can keep his promises is if the deemed universities survive in all but name. The expectation he has thus created is that they will be affiliated to undeemed universities — older universities that were nationalised long ago and are under the thumb of education departments of state governments. He cannot mean quite that, though, since the Indian Institutes of Technology and of Management are owned by his government: he cannot hand them over to state governments. So he means only to change deemed universities’ status. Some will become central universities, some centres of excellence, and others will come to bear whatever names the government invents for them.
 
But Sibal promised the Supreme Court that 44 of the universities will be closed. Closed is a big word; it is difficult to imagine that the minister will send bailiffs, lock the gates of these institutions and seal them. 
 
There are thousands of training institutes in everything from fish culture to face painting. They survive because they teach something people are prepared to pay for. They ask for no government’s approval. If the minister derecognises a deemed university as one and it renames itself as The Entertainment Research Institute, he can hardly prevent it. So he seems to have an exaggerated view of his might.
 
Neither the idea of making deemed universities vanish nor of making 44 of them go is Sibal's own; they come from wiser men who should know.
 
The abolition of deemed universities was proposed by the Yashpal Committee. It wanted a clean sweep of university regulation: the many regulatory bodies must be combined into one which would assess all higher education institutions and select 1,500 to bear the venerable title of university. Qualifications for accreditation would be laid down; if the deemed universities fulfilled them in three years, they would become pure universities. Otherwise, let them go to the devil, which the Yashpal Committee preferred to call the private sector. The number 44 came from the P.N. Tandon Committee appointed by the UGC which visited and graded deemed universities. They are the ones with such poor teaching that they make a travesty of university education.
 
Out of these two committees emerges the vision of higher education towards which Kapil Sibal is driving. It involves a common entrance examination for all universities. He has a problem: since education is a state subject, he cannot force universities controlled by states to adopt this CAT. No matter; he wants to have one. He hopes that it will be so good that everyone will want to take it and all universities will want to adopt it. But Sibal’s cat will eat a mouse which does not exist. There are widely accepted school-leaving examinations such as Senior Cambridge. A government examination cannot be so tough as to fail the majority; so its standard will be low enough to pass most, and Sibal’s examination will join the swollen ranks of second-rate examinations.
 
And as to universities, deemed and undeemed, they are not even going to have a common final examination. All that will happen is that the power of deemed universities to hold examinations will be taken away, and that they will be subjected to other universities’ examinations.
 
Since the latter do not have particularly high standards, the change will be cosmetic. Why then does the minister bother? It is because he is a bothersome minister. He is an enthusiastic novice, he has followed a terrible education minister, and he wants to make a difference.
 
A difference can be made — by the productive sector. India’s top 50 employers should get together and work out what skills they need in their new recruits, design examinations to test those skills, and offer them to all who come. In the government’s ineptitude lies an opportunity for business. Yashpal detests the private sector; and some of the private universities justified his contempt. Let the private sector show that it can build excellent universities and train employable graduates. Then the government may subsidise their poor students if it wishes.
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 01-02-2010)