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Thursday, July 24, 2014

What is the Role of UGC

After my previous blog on UGC coming up with new rules on dual-degrees which essentially declare IITs offering of BTech-MTech dual degree as illegal, I have been asked by many people whether UGC has jurisdiction over IITs. Can UGC dictate terms to IITs.

Before I answer that question, we need to understand the history and the Constitution of India a bit. In our constitution, the tasks between the state governments and the union (or central) government have been defined in terms of three lists, a union list of topics on which only parliament can make laws, a state list of topics on which only state legislatures can make laws, and a concurrent list of topics on which either can make laws, and in case of any conflict, union law will prevail. Of course, parliament can always influence activities in the state list by suggesting model laws, and by offering financial or other incentives to states to adopt those model laws.

When the constitution was promulgated, the higher education was included in the state list. It meant that parliament could not legislate anything related to higher education. However, as I said above, it was always possible to influence state governments by offering financial incentives.

Nehru was quite wary of having any legislation on higher education passed by parliament since he wanted to maintain the fine balance that the constituent assembly had crafted between the powers of the union and the states. And hence all the central government institutions in the first few years of the independence came to union territories, since parliament could exercise the rights of a state assembly for laws to be applicable in a union territory. The reason for delay of IIT Kharagpur Act (it was not passed in 1951 but in 1956) was precisely this. As per the Constitution, Parliament could not pass such an act, but everyone was advising Nehru that the new institution would lose its national character, if it is set up through a West Bengal act. And it was only after Nehru was convinced that no one is likely to drag the Union Government to court on this issue that the IIT Kharagpur Act was presented to the parliament.

So this was the context in which UGC Act was passed in 1956. Nehru was extremely careful in ensuring that the Act does not contradict any of the state acts which had set up all the universities in the country at that time. The UGC therefore would not have any power to dictate terms to universities. However, it could only push those universities to follow best practices by offering financial incentives.

Things changed in 1976. During the emergency period, a large scale butchering of the constitution happened. Some of the changes were restored later by Supreme Court in the landmark Kesavananda Bharti case through its doctrine of basic structure of the constitution being inviolable. However, the transfer of education from the state list to the concurrent list was considered as regular.

With this change, overnight, the union laws took supremacy over the state laws. The parliament could impose any kind of restriction on state universities, because in case of any conflict, now the union law will prevail. To strengthen the UGC and make it a more powerful body, some changes were done to the UGC Act in 1985.

But the questions remain. Can a body primarily constituted to disburse funds to universities over which it had no legal control, suddenly become all powerful and its directives become legally binding just because the education has now become a part of the concurrent list. Wouldn't this need an explicit and a new legislation by the parliament.

Nobody wanted to know the answer, and still does not want to know the answer. For a long time, UGC was happy because it could control pretty much the entire higher education landscape simply through the carrot of more funding or the stick of reduced funding. A few places where these carrots and sticks did not work were places like IITs, which had a direct funding through parliament, bypassing the UGC. IITs maintained that UGC had no legal jurisdiction over universities, it was only a funding agency, and hence it had no control over how IITs functioned. UGC kept claiming that it had jurisdiction over all universities (which included IITs). However, UGC did not try to force the implementation of its directives, taking the high moral ground of giving sufficient autonomy to universities. It was happy to see most universities follow most of its directives (because of funding). Universities were happy that they did not have to think of making their own rules and in those few situations where they wanted to do things on their own, UGC was not taking a hard stand. Nobody wanted to go to court in most cases, since everyone was unsure of what the courts might rule.

This cozy equilibrium state has now been threatened by the emergence of private universities. These are universities which are not funded by UGC, and hence the carrots and sticks should not necessarily work with them. However, when the first few private universities appeared on the scene, UGC included them in its funding through the so-called 12B route.But with an ever increasing number of private universities, it is no longer possible to provide substantial funds to most of the private universities. Of course, since UGC has a huge nuisance value (it could simply remove your name from its list of recognized university on its website and let you explain the situation to all your students and parents), the private universities have mostly fallen in line too. However, as time passes, and as more and more portion of higher education goes into private hands, questions about the role of UGC will be increasingly asked.

As should be obvious from the description above, there are two schools of thought. One school believes that UGC can issue directives in order to maintain the quality and standard of higher education, and those directives are legally binding on all universities. The other school believes that UGC can issue directives but can enforce them only through the carrot and stick of funding, and has no legal force behind those directives. As an IITian, I tend to believe the latter.

The problem is that either interpretation has its share of problems.

If UGC has all the powers over all universities, then it has powers over IITs, AIIMS, and all such top institutions in the country, and all UGC directives must be compulsorily implemented by IITs. And mind you, it is not just UGC but any stake holder that can take an IIT to court for non implementation of those directives under this interpretation of UGC Act. So our PhD program was always illegal. Our dual degree programs are now becoming illegal. In fact, pretty much everything we do is arguably illegal, since we do not even have 180 days of classes in a year which is required by UGC. So we might as well close shop and go home. MHRD can declare as many IITs as it wants but all of them will either become university-like or will only do illegal things.

On the other hand, if UGC can only get its directives implemented through carrots and sticks of funding, then it has no control over private universities whom it does not fund, and while I think that is absolutely fine (as I have repeatedly argued, we should not have government control in education sector, only accreditation), but most people in academia in Government sector seem to be afraid of such a scenario. Most people in government sector believe that private sector is corrupt and worse, and must be controlled by UGC and perhaps by many other bodies. And unfortunately for this country, the say of the vast private sector is very limited in policy making, at least not in the direct transparent ways, forcing some elements in the private sector to find ways to have influence, thereby proving the critics of the private sector correct (letting them generalize a few to the entire private sector).

As the tension between private universities and UGC increase over a period of time, IITs will get dragged into the debate. After all, from the legal perspective, there is no difference between IITs and private universities - both do not get funded by UGC. And I think it will be good for the education in this country if this clarity of UGC role is provided by the courts sooner rather than later.

Till a bunch of private universities get the courage to take UGC to court, we in IITs can afford to keep throwing UGC letters to dustbin. But how long can that continue?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

UGC Rules Dual-degree offerings of IITs as Illegal

UGC has come up with new rules on Integrated/Dual-degree programs which are so popular not just in India but similar programs have been popular the world over. The new rules essentially ask the universities (including IITs) to stop their current offerings.

The rules notified in the Gazette of India in July, 2014 say the following:

"If the Integrated/Dual Degree Programmes intend to offer two separate degrees with an option for an interim exit or lateral entry, the duration of the Integrated/Dual Degree Programme must not be less than the duration equal to the sum total of the prescribed duration of the two degrees that are being combined in the Integrated/Dual Degree Programme. Provided further that both the degrees awarded under the Integrated /Dual Degree programme shall be individually and separately recognized as equivalent to corresponding degrees and not as one single integrated degree."

The attraction of dual-degree programs are two-fold: They are generally of lesser duration than the sum of individual durations of two programs. And one does not need to worry about admission process after the first degree.

The UGC notification specifically says:

"The academic philosophy/rationale behind offering such integrated programmes should not be for economising on course requirements or award of double degrees in a fast track."

That UGC does not understand education is pretty obvious, for they just don't seem to understand how universities are able to offer two degrees in a shorter timeframe. The shorter timeframe does not reduce the quality of offering, or requirements, if done properly. Because UGC has no competence to check if this is being done properly or not, it takes the easy way out, ban the offering, or make it so unattractive that universities will stop offering them. A very typical Indian way of regulation - if the regulator is incompetent, instead of fixing the regulation, will ban everything and avoid the need for regulation.

So, how are IITs able to offer BTech-MTech dual degree in 5 years, instead of 6 years. Well, first of all, one realizes that an under-graduate degree is expected to provide a broad-based education, preparing the candidate for a variety of careers after the under-graduate program, including but not limited to higher education, a technical job, a general job (what we call as a non-core career), and pretty much everything else. The curriculum is designed keeping in mind that we do not know the career path of the student. And in particular, there are lots of "elective" courses that are part of the graduation requirement which the student can choose keeping in view the specific career goals or the immediate career goals that s/he may have. Now, if the student has made up his/her mind on the next stage of the career, it is considered alright to reduce that breadth by just a small amount (say a couple of courses) and let those open elective slots be used to take the advanced courses. So essentially, there is a small amount of double counting of courses.

Second, in a typical MTech program, we admit students from diverse background, and hence we have a couple of courses to refresh the under-graduate curriculum to cover topics which we consider as important but generally have not been taught or at least not taught well by other universities. For our dual-degree students, we assume that these couple of refresher courses need not be taught to them since they have not only done those courses as we desire, but also they typically are good students (not everyone can enroll for a dual-degree in IIT Kanpur).

Then we look for areas of overlap. We notice that the goals of the project work overlap with the goals of the thesis work. And hence we could remove the project requirement from the graduation requirements of the dual-degree.

Further, since these are good students, we can allow them to take a bit of an overload (a course extra in a couple of semesters) and earn credits at a slightly faster pace then what is expected from students of either program.

And lastly, we allow these students to stay back in the summer term and do a couple of courses, again thereby earning credits a little faster.

UGC has been promoting the virtues of a credit based system of learning over the last decade. And a credit based system should allow someone to graduate early, if one can complete the credits at a faster pace. Indeed, at IIT Kanpur, we used to talk about a BTech program with a minimum duration of 8 semesters. We have now changed our rules and we talk about a BTech program with a normal duration of 8 semesters. This change is important and forms the core of a credit based system. It is possible for an exceptionally bright student at IIT Kanpur to receive a BTech degree in 7 semesters. And there are many examples of students who have done this, typically students who have fallen ill and hence can not earn any credits in a particular semester, work doubly hard in the remaining semesters, and get a degree in 7 semesters. Students do not go for 7-semester BTech for practical reasons - the placement activity is allowed only after the 7th semester, the joining dates are typically after 8th semester, taking overloads may spoil a few grades, etc. But theoretically one can do a 7-semester BTech. And all this was music to the ears of UGC which wanted to promote credit based system in Indian universities.

If we look at MTech programs, typically a student is expected to do 4 courses a semester (or equivalent work on a project/thesis) for 4 semesters. Why only 4 courses as opposed to 5-6 courses that a BTech student is expected to do in a semester. It is because it is expected that MTech students will have some financial assistantship and that would require the student to work for the department about 8 hours per week (roughly equal to one course). But now, if someone comes to us and says that s/he does not want to take financial assistantship, should be exempted from working for the department, and instead be allowed to do one extra course, and similarly, do an extra course in the summer term so that the requirement of 16 courses (or equivalent project/thesis work) can be completed in 3 semesters, UGC should be happy that their mantra of credit based system is being pursued by Indian universities. But, no, credit based system is not important, since there is no competence to check the quality of those credits. The mantras are only to chant, not to understand and follow. The number of years can be computed very easily by a 5-year old, but to check the quality of credits, one will need the intelligence of a 20-year old, or even higher. Our regulators are happy to assume that they have only the intelligence of a 5-year old, and they can only do counting and accounting, number of years, number of courses, number of days in a year, number of faculty for every 100 students, number of computers, number of books, and so on. Anything that a 5-year old can not do, UGC can not do.

What is strange in these regulations is the distinction it makes between the Integrated degree and a dual-degree. As we noted above, if a university is giving two degrees with an option to exit after the first degree, then the program has to be of duration which is sum of the two durations. But if the university is giving only one degree (higher) then the university can reduce the duration by up to 20 percent. This is really strange. So UGC is accepting that there can be overlaps between the credits of the two degrees, that there can be overloads, or in whatever way it is done, it is possible to complete the requirements of the two degrees in 20% less time, but only if you give one degree, and this can not be done if you are giving two degrees. So if IITK has a BTech-MTech dual degree program, it has to be of 6 years duration, but if IITK has an Integrated MTech program, it can be of 5 years. What really is the difference between the credits requirement of the two programs?

What is most interesting in this whole process is the following. UGC is suggesting that if a university (or IIT) wants to run an integrated MSc (or MA or any master's degree program) program, which does not have an exit option for BSc (or BA, etc.) then the duration of the program can be 4 years. So it turns out that its primary objection to FYUP is that students should be given a Master's degree after four years and not a bachelor's degree. I am sure we will soon see a huge rush for Integrated MSc/MA/MCom programs offered as 4-year programs by lots of universities, particularly in the private sector. And very soon, everyone in India will be doing a 4-year program after 12th class, but it will not be called under-graduate program but a master's program. So far we had only heard of marks inflation and grade inflation, now we will hear of degree inflation.

The situation is even stranger for horizontal dual degrees, that is, two bachelors degrees. If IITK wants to start (and we have considered it in the past) a BTech-BTech dual degree program (for example, someone getting a BTech in Electrical Engineering and a BTech in Chemical Engineering), we will have to create an 8-year program. Does it make any sense whatsoever. Do we ask our students to repeat Physics 101, and Maths 101. What do they do for 8 years. It is fairly common in US universities (and even in India, BITS Pilani runs a hugely popular dual-degree program in which two under-graduate degrees are given). And in all cases, the idea is that any course can satisfy the requirements for both the degrees. So Physics 101 can be used to satisfy the requirement for both BTech in Electrical and BTech in Chemical, and essentially only those courses need to be done for the second degree which have not been done while pursuing the first degree. Through this mechanism, one is able to complete the credit requirements for the second under-graduate degree in just one extra year. But UGC would like to ban all this, and require that the student repeats all common courses. Isn't that a waste of national resources. But UGC does not care. Remember they can only do what a 5-year old can do. And a 5-year old can not understand national waste.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Should we open new IITs

This is the question that I get asked most often (second only to, "which college should I join"). And I know I disappoint my readers on this.

Most of the time, the question is asked in a way that they are really asking me, "are you with us or are you with them." And the answer is that I am with neither.

On one extreme, we have this group of people mostly those who have benefited from IIT education and brand and who hope to continue to benefit from the brand. Their viewpoint is that IIT brand is a result of their hardwork, and therefore, only they have a right over the brand, and the Government has no business diluting the brand. Often this group would grudgingly admit that there may be a slow expansion of the IIT system, perhaps a new IIT every decade. Another argument given is that if at all expansion is needed, existing IITs can grow (even that at a very slow pace) instead of establishing new IITs.

On the other extreme, we have two strong lobbies. One is a set of people who want the benefit of IIT brand, and think that the current capacity may not get them that benefit (read, admission to a program in an IIT). They, of course, have as much right to take advantage of IIT brand as anyone else, and hence IIT system should be expanded quickly. The other lobby is that of politicians who would want to have an IIT in their backyard to reap electoral benefits from this, or they genuinely believe that having an IIT in their state/region would help in development of that state/region, even though there is very little evidence of that happening with the older IITs. Both these groups want 10 more IITs in the next one year. The slogan of one IIT in every state is just the beginning. Once we have 25+ IITs, they will point out that UP has two IITs (unless UP is bifurcated by then), and hence all large states should have two IITs.

The anti-expansion group points out that the new IITs started in the last 6 years have not been able to attract quality faculty, and no new IITs should be opened till all existing IITs have a reasonable fraction of faculty on their respective rolls. This group also talks about supporting other engineering colleges and bringing them up to the level of IITs. If at all, new high quality engineering colleges have to be opened, they can be given different names.

These are inconsistent arguments, and the only thing they are saying is that the brand value of IITs is important to them, and that should be preserved at all costs. Otherwise, if new IITs have not been able to hire faculty, how would new high-quality institutes with a different name would attract faculty. How would additional support to NITs would help them attract faculty. I can understand an argument which the planning commission has given - the sudden large expansion of the entire higher education system has spread ourselves too thin and hence we should consolidate before going for further expansion. But to argue against expansion of just the IIT system and support expansion of higher education in general is inconsistent, or elitist. It is essentially saying that they don't care about the quality of education in general. Let everyone in the country get poor quality higher education - they are not bothered - but let the quality education remain restricted to people like them. Sorry, can't agree with that.

I think we need to put our heads together and figure out how to expand high quality education, how do we attract faculty, how do we encourage more of youth to go for PhD and academic careers, and how do we take advantage of technology to offer quality education to larger numbers. May be encourage more philanthropy, may be higher budgetary support, tuition decontrol along with options of loans or subsidy which has to be paid back as higher income tax or whatever.

The pro-expansion groups are too much in a hurry. They would just want that an institute be declared open and the admissions should take place without even the first faculty member being on roll. The labs and classrooms can wait. Note that the government won't allow any private sector player to start a college like this. In fact, this is patently illegal, not just wrong. But then who can read the law to the law makers.

I can not possibly side with such a group either.

My own view is that we should consider expansion of IIT system. This expansion can partly come from expansion of existing IITs and partly from creating new IITs. However, any expansion should be well planned at least in terms of financial inputs and infrastructure. Before a new IIT is announced, it should be ensured that the land has already been allotted for it, just to give one example of planning. Most new IITs had to delay their construction work for years because the land was not available. Temporary structures can be built very quickly in one part of that land. A full time Director should be recruited at least a year before the first admissions take place. The first few faculty members and staff should focus on building infrastructure and creating processes in the new institute, along with very few students, perhaps only PhD students. The larger admissions (particularly, under-graduate students) should happen only after the Institute has finished construction of temporary buildings.

The idea that most expansion should come from existing IITs and not from new IITs is based in the logic that creating incremental infrastructure is easier than building something from scratch. However, the data does not support this. In April, 2008, all IITs were told to go for 54% expansion forced by an act of Parliament. Six years later, how many IITs have built infrastructure to handle that 54% expansion. Perhaps none. Certainly IIT Kanpur is nowhere close to completing that expansion and may take another 3 years at the very least. I am sure most if not all new IITs would have sufficient infrastructure for their first 1000 students by then, even when it took them years to get full possession of land.

And finally, the issue of branding. First of all, Government of India has an important stake in that brand, and not just alumni and faculty. So a claim like it has been built exclusively by the hard work of faculty and alumni is denying credit to the Government, which has generously supported the Institutes for over six decades. I believe that each institute should try to create its own brand, and compete with other IITs. If one promotes a pan-IIT brand, then of course an entry of lesser quality IIT would dilute that brand. But if there was no pan-IIT brand, but an IIT Kanpur brand and an IIT Bombay brand, then these brands would not be so easily affected by the existence of a poorer cousin.

Above all, the issue is not about opening new IITs but how to expand high quality segment of higher education in India. I am all for planned expansion of IIT system as the branding will make it easiest to attract quality faculty and other resources. (And planned should not be confused with "slow" - I suggest a minimum growth rate of 3 percent per year in size, higher than the growth rate of the population in the country.) But this should be done in parallel with significant increase in financial support and granting autonomy to other engineering colleges and looking at bottlenecks that they face in improving the quality to IIT level and even beyond.

And finally, is there nothing that I find wrong with expansion of IIT system. Note that I was one of the few faculty members within the IIT system in 2008 voicing support for IIT expansion and I do feel that while there were a lot of problems that new IITs have faced and continue to face, and that a slower expansion of one IIT per year (and not one per decade as some would demand) would have been better, the quality that they offer today justify their existence.

But what I have noticed as a negative fallout of the same is the following: The IIT Council has expanded and now has 16 Directors and 16 Chairpersons of the boards, besides other members. Such a large group can not have any meaningful discussions. Considering that Minister chairs these meetings, the time for the meeting is quite limited. In a large group, there will always be people who would want to please the Minister and the Ministry officials, and would tend to speak in favor of Ministry's agenda. Given that the meeting times are short, alternate views don't get expressed as strongly as they used to be earlier. Sometimes the minister may be benevolent and allow things which individual IITs want, but it is much simpler to have common policies across the Institutes. And it has become easier for ministers to have their say in the IIT Council. We need to really think about how to safeguard our autonomy in a large system, and without autonomy, the quality will necessarily go down.