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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Quality in Indian Higher Education

A lot of us keep bemoaning that the quality in Indian Higher Education scenario is largely absent but for a few institutes in each discipline. Consider engineering, for example, with a demand of more than 10 lakh seats per year, but the most liberal interpretation of quality would still not let you classify more than 50 thousand seats as having good quality of education.

Has the higher education policy of the government failed?

Of course, not. The policy has been fantastically successful. It was designed to create a situation that we see today, and it has succeeded. A higher education policy has to balance between access/equity, cost and quality. Government has always considered access/equity and cost to be more important parameters than quality. Please note that while technology and improvement in eco-system, governance, understanding of pedagogy, etc., will hopefully keep reducing the cost, we are far from a situation where cost is irrelevant and the quality education can be provided at a low cost.

If that be the case, it follows that quality education will require greater financial inputs. (By the way, it does not follow that greater financial inputs will always result in higher quality education. So one needs to be aware of all issues, and not just blindly throw money at the problem.) Where will this money come from. It can come from the government (tax payers), or from students, or in the form of philanthropy (including CSR of companies). When we talk about students, it can be their parents or through loans that they pay back later (there are more than one model for this payback, including a slightly higher income tax, for example).

But the government policies have consistently ignored this issue of funds for higher quality. It does not want to spend a much larger part of the budget on quality. So it can support only a few of its favourites for higher quality. There is a severe fee regulation and control in most states that does not allow even a better performing college to charge a significantly higher tuition. The fee that is allowed is such that it is not theoretically possible to even pay the minimum UGC salaries to all faculty members at the student-teacher ratio required by the regulator. The students and parents keep complaining that it is not easy to get student loans in a hassle free fashion.

Fee control is justified on the basis that in the absence of easy student loans and the lack of government subsidy, the higher education will become inaccessible to poor. This is a fine argument, but then this is precisely what I have pointed out in the beginning of this article that the policy is to give higher priority to access/equity and cost, and that the policy has succeeded.

A few deemed universities started claiming that as universities their tuition cannot be controlled and started charging higher tuition and started providing higher quality of education. Of course, there were some who started charging higher tuition and still provided lower quality of education. Instead of creating a distinction between the two, the government is threatening to bring tuition control to all deemed universities. Again, cost is more important than quality in our higher education policy.

One would have thought that the policy may permit a few institutions who have got a track record of doing better than average to go up the ladder in quality, either by providing direct subsidies or allowing them to charge higher tuition. But no. Government does not have funds for quality education outside its favourite institutes, and there must not be any institute in the country which is expensive.

And it is not just the government. Even the mango men (I love this phrase instead of "Aam Admi") want the same. Low cost, low quality in all institutions is better than low cost, low quality in most, and higher cost, higher quality in some. After all, this can create a class divide. Those who can afford quality education will become superior to those who can not afford quality education. So, ban higher cost institutions. The result, unfortunately, is huge competition for the few quality seats (like IITs), and a huge exodus of students for quality institutions abroad, when we could have been the education provider to the world, if we had paid some attention to the quality in our education policy.

Please note that I am not arguing for higher tuition here. I am only pointing out that low quality of higher education reflects success of higher education policy, and not its failure. Whether policy needs to change is something that more erudite people can comment on.


Melbin said...

High quality of the government's favorite institutions is debatable (depending on the parameters to rate quality). keeping that aside, the argument that it is successful can be contested. Is the higher education delivering wants of the people ( maybe yes, because they want low cost education that will help them get better employment) and does it help fulfill the needs of the society (I have serious doubts on this)? The policy of higher education must strike a balance between answering both the above questions positively. Only then can it be called successful.

L said...

Embracing low quality as the ideal is definitely the current policy. The NAAC peer team member told us clearly that we must publish more papers "whatever be the quality". It is seen in the nature of the syllabus, in the manner in which exam answer papers are evaluated-- as a policy, syllabii are dumbed down in order to make it easier for more and more students to pass the exam, and marking for answer scripts is also done by awarding 'grace marks' in order to pass most students.Even for primary education, the policies are also about greater 'coverage' rather than seeing that good teachers are employed, that schools have infrastructure. The emphasis is on getting a degree. Learning is not one of the intended or stated objectives.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Melbin, the current policy is not based on societal needs or based on making students employable. The current policy focus is only on access (anyone should be able to join an engineering college, if s/he wants, and that too in a nearby place), equity (the under-privileged sections of the society should also have access), and cost (student should not pay a lot of money for this education). The usefulness in the society, employability, socially upward movement, are all quality issues, which the current policy does not consider as important as other parameters. I am not debating here what the policy should be. If the policy does not deliver what you want, that is not a reason to declare policy successful or failed. Policy has to be evaluated based on whether it delivered what it intended to deliver. And on that parameter, the policy has been very successful.

Rangachari Anand said...

Overall I agree with your point. However, the situation with respect to quality in US college education is interesting. As you may be aware, there is no control over tuition fees at US universities. They tend to charge as much as the market will bear. And yet, I still see a significant difference in the quality of education that students receive.

Prashant said...

To throw some facts and figures into this debate to support the *very serious problem* which has been discussed in this blog post :

a) There are about 15000 students from India doing their undergrad in the US. And this is for undergrads alone, that too only those headed to the United States.

b) Having *very few* seats in good institutions, leads to a situation where an entirely objective criteria has to be used to admit students- for instance, the JEE or AIEEE rank. So, we cannot have US style admissions with an admissions commitee. Stochastic achievements like performing at , or even winning a medal at an International Olympiad or an Open Source Contribution or some robotics competition etc cannot be factored in. Here's an answer from someone who won a gold medal at the International Mathematics Olympiad.

Akanshil Dutta's answer to why India can't perform well at the Olympiads

"A key feature of the Indian education system is that college admission is extremely competitive and entrance examination based. Because of the ranked placement system, which is highly uncertain, most good students focus on intensive preparation for entrance tests, having no spare time for olympiad preparation. There are few career opportunities from olympiad participation in India."

This means, that good students will start figuring out, that even being a genius doesn't really guarantee a seat in a good college, and even if they do make it to the IIT merit list, the competition to get a branch of their choice is intense.

Basically there is an overall shortage of seats and drastic capacity expansion is needed.

c) A low interest loan should work just fine. Even if a poor student does qualify the exam, he might be poor but he is "credit worthy" and will almost certainly be in a position to pay back the loan of 5-8L.

d) The quality of life in hostels, infrastructure, campus etc really takes a hit due to lack of funds even in the best colleges.

e) If financial autonomy is allowed, overall capacity will increase. So more students will be accomodated. A good fraction of the millions(or billions) of dollars which are being spent on undergrad education abroad, will remain within the country. The finances brought in by good students from well to do homes, might actually end up partially financing resources which might be used by very good students who came from disadvantaged backgrounds (via scholarships etc).

The main takeaway here is, that the paying capability of students needs to be measured, not in terms of the economic background he comes from, but by keeping in mind that by and large, these well educated students are going to have a reasonably prosperous future.

Don't reduce the number of subsidized seats, but allow more costly seats as well.

As an example, some very well to do families, might then think of sending their kids to high-cost institutions, where it is easier to get it; and this might marginally reduce the intense competition for IIT, and make entry to IIT marginally easier for students from economically weaker backgrounds, who could not afford coaching. Capacity expansion is good for all.

This current shortage of seats, makes entry exams so competitive, that they often distort what they intend to calibrate, by buring out the students who do get into those few seats. Most IIT graduates I know do not intend to send their kids to IIT, they aspire to send them abroad.

Vikram said...

Prashant, thanks for bringing up the numbers from IIE website. I have been monitoring them for years now, and they provide us with some good data. There are two points I would like to make regarding the data.

1) The number of Indian students leaving to study undergrad in the US seems to be decreasing. The numbers were 15210, 14026, 13035, in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively. The proportion of undergrad students was around 13 %. Based on what I can recollect, this has been the proportion since around 2002. Till recently, the absolute number was increasing as the total number of Indian students coming to America was increasing. Note the significant increase in the number of Indian students on OPT, increasing from 18.7 % in 2010 to 27.7 % in 2012, indicating dimming job prospects there.

2) 5 or 6 years ago the proportion of Chinese undergrads was a little more than Indian ones, maybe 20 %. But the increase in the number of Chinese undergrads is just spectacular, the numbers for 2010, 2011 and 2012 are 39948, 57036, 74507 respectively. This is almost a doubling in 3 years !

The trend in Indian students seems to imply the opposite of what Dr. Sanghi has implied in his blog and what I also used to believe. There is a flight of Indian undergrads but it seems to be slowing down. I would attribute this to the weakening of the rupee and the establishment of some quality private institutions in India.

The trend in the Chinese students is fascinating. What makes it remarkable is that this is happening despite the massive investment the Chinese state claims to have made in their higher ed system. It is probably driven by the one-child policy, competitive pressures from a massive upsurge in youth seeking higher education and perhaps a lack of faith in the Chinese state by the elite there.


Vikram said...

Dr. Sanghi, I would like to hear your thoughts and other commentators on the financial setup employed by the IIST in Trivandrum. There are two interesting 'innovations' there as far as I can tell.

1) All students sign a bond worth 10 lakh rupees on gaining admission. The bond requires a service of atleast 5 years in ISRO, the parent organization.

2) All graduates are guaranteed placement in ISRO.

Would a similar setup be viable at the IIT/NITs, in a limited way atleast ? Individual IIT/NITs can tie up with public sector companies that can offer graduates guaranteed jobs. Two plans can be offered to incoming students, take up the bond for 10 lakhs, pay nothing and join the PSU after graduating. Else, pay an amount less than 10 lakhs through your time at IIT/NIT, and be free to join whoever you want to join after graduating.

Mrityunjay Kumar said...

Agree with the article, that access rather than quality has been the focus of the policy.
I have been interacting with professional (MBA) colleges lately and I find the quality of institutes so frustratingly low (much lower than my lowest expectations) - it is clear that government is doing a huge injustice to the students by letting them enroll in these colleges (I saw MBA colleges which take a MAT percentile score of even 15 as admission criteria!), and wasting their 2 lacs and 2 years. This money and time could have been much better utilized by the country if such students would have been denied admission to an MBA degree and forced to find a more suitable alternative. It is like offering a candy to a diabetes patient who has been turned down by responsible sweet vendors.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

Mango people don't want a class divide. But notice that these mango people never complain about other inequalities that already exist in our society : e.g., those who can afford it, go for coaching classes. This makes me believe that what mango people want is that anything that is provided by the govt, must be equally accessible to all.

This is the root cause of the problem. People cannot accept a govt sponsored institution which only the elite can afford, which is why there is resistance to raising the fees of IITs. Therefore excellence and exclusivity cannot be achieved by govt patronage. Excellence has to come from the private sector. The govt can manage the equity part of the picture.

So to improve the quality, there has to be a way to introduce private participation in our institutions. Private sector must be invited/induced to establish labs, centres of excellence, sponsor chairs for excellence, etc.

gyan2bodh said...

@ US college education
Documentary by PBS-FRONTLINE titled
"College, Inc." (abt 3yrs ago)

quote " In College, Inc., correspondent Martin Smith investigates the promise and explosive growth of the for-profit higher education industry. Through interviews with school executives, government officials, admissions counselors, former students and industry observers, this film explores the tension between the industry --which says it's helping an under-served student population obtain a quality education and marketable job skills -- and critics who charge the for-profits with churning out worthless degrees that leave students with a mountain of debt." unquote
How is this any different from the situation in India ?

On a lighter note about govt & Edu
"If Government is the Answer,it was a stupid question"
The challenge is - Improve the marketable job skills of students inspite of the Government obstacle

Prashant said...

Would a similar setup be viable at the IIT/NITs, in a limited way atleast ?

I can't image anyone signing the bond. This might be somewhat unfortunate, but whatever be the reason, joining a public sector company is heavily stigmatized among IIT BTechs. People who managed to get only PSU offers during placements, desperately go around shopping for anything else which they can find.

Actually, for the increase in people on OPT, that stems from a legislation in 2009 where the permitted OPT period increased from 6 months to 3 years, for those from EECS or pehaps STEM. Otherwise, had it been 2007, those students would simply be asked to leave the country. And many employees at reputed companies seem to be working for 2-3 years on the OPT.
I think, this increase in duration is reflected in that sudden surge.

3) If any flight of Indian students has slowed down, it might be because of the opening up of some new IITs, IISER etc. Private universities other than say IIIT-Hyd don't attract good students in general; at least not those who could afford to go abroad.

Also, if there's a visible reduction in the number of Indian students heading for their undergrad to the US - over the last couple of years, the number of students heading to UK, Canada, Singapore etc seems to be very high, so they might have picked up the difference - those countries have made it easier for students of Indian boards to get admitted; but I haven't found any numbers which could indicate what the trends are.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Vikram, I think the numbers going abroad was not the primary point, since whether that number goes up by 10% or comes down by 10%, it remains a very small proportion of the demand anyway. It is only to indicate that if there were higher cost but good quality institutes, there will be internal demand for such seats.

Second, to the extent that the numbers to US have come down, my perception (and I don't have numbers for this) is that the numbers to Dubai, Singapore, Hongkong, Australia and Newzealand have gone up.

Third, there has indeed been a significant expansion of decent quality seats in the last 5 years, including almost a doubling of seats in the IIT system. Also, there has been a significant expansion from several deemed universities - BITS, and Manipal, and some of the smaller ones like LNMIIT. These deemed universities are either getting philanthropic money (like BITS), or able to charge higher amounts under some head or the other (compared to the tuition-controlled colleges). The government is constantly trying to rein in these deemed universities and if government succeeds in bringing fee control for such deemed universities, then that growth path will dry up. And government has already said that in the new five-year plan they will open new institutes/universities only in exceptional situations. So growth of quality seats from government intervention also is unlikely in the next five years.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Vikram, as far as IIST model is concerned, I think it is a good working model. The problem is the following. If I have better options than the company with which I signed the bond, then I will feel frustrated. But I don't have enough cash flow to get out of the bond. If I don't have other options, then I will feel good about having a promised job, but very soon I will realize that the increments in a PSU job are lower than what I can get in private sector, and I will start claiming exploitation. The organization that hired me will keep thinking whether it was a good idea to bet on me, since I seem so disinterested all the time. So no one really feels good about such a bond.

DRDO has such a scheme where they start taking care of all costs from 3rd year, if a student signs the bond to work in DRDO for a minimum number of years. No one really takes it up.

So any optional bond based scheme is not likely to be taken up by students, while a forced bond will be opposed on other counts.

Saurabh Joshi said...

I think some people are of the view that students go outside because of lack of quality seats in India. Well, that is probably one assumption. However, I feel that (this is a personal opinion, hence may be biased and I do not have any data to back it up ) most of the students go outside because they want to eventually settle down over there due to high standard of living in those countries. Only few bright students go out for the sake of quality education. I have seem many, including some of my friends who will go to US and join some random university, work like a dog to pay tution fees and manage somehow. They are leading a sort of stable life once they graduate. Hence I believe that the whole premise that students go outside India just because of quality seems flawed.

On the other hand I do agree that government control hinders the excellence due to a tight budget many institutes have to operate in.

Another point is that we are only talking about quality of technology/engineering institutes. What about the quality of students who enroll in them? Not everyone has an aptitude to become a good engineer. They can become a good teacher, designer, sports person, musician etc etc. It is not the government but the societal pressure which hinders the diversity in careers.

I think the debate is endless but not only the government but the society also plays equal role in the quality.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

Prof Sanghi,
I guess the problem boils down to a desperation for keeping education cheap. If people care only about the price and not about the quality, why doesn't the govt decontrol the student-teacher ratio, while controlling the fees? In coaching classes it is quite normal to have a gradation where some classes charge higher and have smaller class-strengths and others have large class strengths but charge lesser.

Also, I am not as pessimistic as you are about the growth of quality seats. Fees have to be controlled because education loans have higher interest. A mechanism for lowering interest rates will allow the govt to liberalise the fees. Also, increasingly I find that there is an acknowledgement that the real challenge in Indian education is not keeping fees low, but of finding ways of financing them.

Vikram said...

Dr. Sanghi, agree with the point about students going abroad being a small proportion. But here are the numbers for undergraduate student numbers at the University of Toronto from China and India, from 2005 - 2011, just thought I would post them here for future reference.

Year CN IN
2005 1164 235
2006 1261 254
2007 1446 293
2008 1849 296
2009 2387 293
2010 3033 290
2011 3742 297

The numbers for the University of British Columbia are very similar. Here are the statistics for the University of Auckland (, they show an initial rapid growth, but then slow down.

Vikram said...

I think the appeal of world class higher education for the average tax-payer of any state is quite low. The perceived benefits, both short and medium term are quite small, especially if the university is not even located in your city.

So its going to be hard for governments to keep funding these institutions in times of slow economic expansion, and in face of the more immediate demands of the other sections of society. A good chunk of the expenses have to come from the students, otherwise I cant see the system remaining solvent.

Vikram said...

@ Prashant, you are spot on about the OPT data. Thank you for the correction.

saurabh said...

Sir, Having experienced both low (or moderate ??) quality and high quality higher education in India, I agree completely with the two points raised by my classmate Saurabh Joshi. Quality of students and teachers and therefore, of education, is driven by socio-economic conditions, peer pressures, family and self expectations, values and the quality of education they receive. In my view, its not the case that students receiving lower quality education are less interested in obtaining high quality eduction. Many of them yearn for it, but life presents other struggles - which takes them away from research or satisfying their aptitude for learning. Its not enough to say that policy - right or wrong - has worked. There is a huge demand, (albeit somewhat latent), for low cost, high quality education and as a nation we are not satisfying it. Prof. C.N.R. Rao (in whose name we have lecture series in IIT, Kanpur) argues for the expansion of higher education space in India : Another, phenomenon that we witnessed in the last 2 years, the massively open online courses (MOOCs), started by some professors of top universities - it went viral. Why are many Indian students and IT professionals are participating in these courses ? Ten years back, access to elite IITs was very difficult, and now you can get access from Prof. Ng to Prof. Hinton; subjects ranging from Computer Science to History through the Internet! I am sorry to say, but NPTEL is lagging far behind. So, the demand for high quality education is certainly there. From, the mango-people point of view, education of low cost, high quality and high quantity is low absolute must and I believe, in a decade or two, the elitist banana people (if I may use the term :) ), who control the policies, will be put under severe pressure to get things done!

Vikram said...

Data on where Indian students go abroad for studying,

rsd77 said...

Hi Dheeraj,
Are the changes confirmed for gate 2015??