Cover Story

Cover Story

Booster prescription for technical education

While foreign observers of the Indian economy tend to be staggered by the sheer numbers of qualified personnel pouring out of the nation’s institutes and colleges of technical education, indigenous monitors of the economy tend to be less bedazzled. Dr. R. Natarajan, chairman of the All India Council for Technical Education has written an ambitious upgradation blueprint. Dilip Thakore reports  

The captains of Indian industry who grab media headlines and television sound bytes following periodic predictions of transnational business consultancy firms such as Morgan Stanley, Mckinsey & Co and Goldman Sachs that India is shaping up into one of the powerhouse economies of the 21st century are unlikely to be aware of it. But the future of Indian industry is being shaped to a greater extent in a nondescript, typically central public works department constructed two-floor building in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Sports Complex, off Connaught Place, than in the plush boardrooms of corporate India.

This is the headquarters (soon to be shifted to a new building on the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University) of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) which licences and monitors the education being dispensed in 1,265 engineering colleges, 958 B-schools, 1,034 MCA (Master of Computer Application) institutions, 320 pharmacy, 49 hotel management and 107 architecture colleges with an annual aggregate intake of 800,000 students across the country. Under the AICTE Act, 1987 which confers statutory powers of approval and superintendence upon the council, all the ‘technical’ education — diploma, degree and postgrad — study programmes (aggregating about 15,000) offered by these institutions require the seal of approval or accreditation of the council. And it is the estimated 450,000 million technical diploma holders and graduates streaming out annually from the 5,000 plus colleges and institutes supervised by AICTE (as also from the six Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institute of Science which have been promoted under separate special purpose parliamentary legislation) which have made transnational management consultancy think-tanks so bullish about the future of Indian industry.

But while foreign observers of the Indian economy tend to be staggered by the sheer numbers of qualified personnel pouring out of the nation’s institutes and colleges of technical education annually adding 450,000 professionally certified engineers and managers to the reportedly second largest pool of trained technical manpower in the world, indigenous monitors of the economy tend to be less bedazzled. For the simple reason that the output or performance of this huge pool of technicians and engineers is less than impressive.

Of course it’s incontrovertible that Indian scientists and engineers have fired satellites and rockets into outer space and have put an A-bomb together. But coterminously it is also painfully evident that the quality of the national infrastructure in terms of power plants, roads, irrigation canals, water, sewage and sanitation systems, urban planning etc, is not up to scratch — indeed quite pathetic. The conclusion is inescapable: the technical education being dispensed by the great majority of the 5,000 plus institutes and colleges of education under AICTE’s watch is below par. Indeed there is growing panic it may be obsolete.

Ravichandran: learnability criterion
Over the past decade in particular, industry expectations about the quality of the great majority of technical degree-sporting graduates have hit rock bottom. According to Hema Ravichandran senior vice president of human resource development at the globally-respected computer applications and software major Infosys Technologies Ltd, the company receives over 900,000 job applications annually of which it recruits about 1.5 percent of the best on the basis of "learnability" rather than great expectations of quick on-the-job productivity. The country’s top engin-eering talent recruited into this billion-dollar company is required to undergo 14 weeks of intensive professional training and orientation, requiring per capita expenditure of Rs.2 lakh — almost equivalent to the tuition fees paid by inducted graduates over their entire four-year study programmes.

"The application knowledge and industry orientation of engineering graduates tends to be below industry expectations which results in rising training costs for corporates. In particular their written and oral communication skills as also soft skills — corporate and social etiquette — are usually under-developed. The panacea is greater industry-academia interaction which will result in continuous syllabus upgradation to contemporise engineering education," says Ravichandran an alumna of IIM-Ahmedabad who has been with Infosys since 1992.

Though Ravichandran is too diplomatic to say so, some criticism of AICTE which supervises and monitors higher technical education in India is implicit in her observations. But Dr. R. Natarajan alumnus of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Waterloo University, Canada, former director of the blue-chip IIT-Madras and currently chairman of AICTE, vehemently objects to attribution of poor quality civic and engineering works to the quality of technical education in India.

"Poor quality infrastructure and badly finished civic projects are evidence of management and systemic failure rather than a manpower development issue as evidenced by the success of Indian engineers and managers abroad. On the contrary during the past 59 years since AICTE was established as an advisory body to the Central government in 1945, it has played a major role in the quantitative growth of India’s technical education system. It’s important to bear in mind that in 1947 the number of engineering colleges and polytechnics — including pharmacy and architecture institutions — was a mere 44 and 43 respectively with an annual student intake capacity of 6,600.

Natarajan: quantity-quality trade off admission
"Since then the number has grown to 1,265 engineering colleges, 958 business management schools, 1,034 computer education institutes and several hundred polytechnics with an annual intake of over 800,000 students. This is a phenomenal achievement by any yardstick and has gifted the country with one of the largest technical education systems of the contemporary world, admired and respected globally. However there is some substance in the criticism that quantitative growth has been achieved at the cost of quality education. In the past 17 years since the council was given statutory powers of superintendence, we have initiated a large number of programmes to raise the standards and norms of technical education," says Natarajan who took charge as chairman of AICTE in November 2001.

According to Natarajan, since the millennium year when the council’s National Board of Accreditation (NBA) got into its stride, AICTE has launched a slew of initiatives to upgrade standards of technical education in the country. Among them: to correct the regional imbalance under which 66 percent of the nation’s engineering and infotech colleges are sited in southern India; steady growth in the number of colleges and institutions assessed and accredited by the council, and the comprehensive revision of infrastructure — labs, libraries etc — norms. "Recently our parent Union ministry for human resource development constituted a committee under the distinguished astro-physicist Dr. U.R. Rao to recommend systemic changes to further upgrade technical education. The committee has submitted a learned and comprehensive report which is likely to give a further thrust and impetus to the upgradation efforts of AICTE," says Natarajan.

Box 1

"Industry must make time for joint syllabus development"

Dr. R. Natarajan, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and University of Waterloo, Canada, is a former director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Since November 2001 he has been chairman of the Delhi-based All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), a statutory body of the government of India. Excerpts from a 60-minute interview:

The IITs and RECs (NIT) apart, the general consensus of opinion seems to be that the standard of technical education in the university system is not world class. What’s your comment?

There are other institutions of technical education in India offering study programmes which are as good as those of the IITs and NITs, as evidenced by the accreditation bestowed on them by the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) of AICTE under our stringent assessment and evaluation system. Under our accreditation system and norms, we have identified 1,500 programmes offered by 350 engineering education institutions as being compatible with international standards. The number of accredited study programmes and institutions offering them will increase sharply, as we are moving towards mandatory assessment and accreditation.

What is you reaction to the widespread lament that because of our poor engineering/technical standards, in-house costs of Indian industry are very high?

There is now a global consensus that the development of trained professionals is the joint responsibility of the academe and industry. While the foundation for professional education has to be laid in the academe, industrial organisations need to train graduates and postgraduates for their specific requirements, which are wide and varied. Of course, it is important that in-house training costs of corporates are reduced. But for this to happen, industry must make the time for interaction and joint development of syllabus and curricular experiences with academic institutions. There’s considerable scope for such interaction, and also for the continuing education of corporate professionals in the academe.

Engineering/technical education in government run institutions seems to be over-subsidised. How is this justifiable when the primary school system is chronically short of resources?

The World Bank has recently revised its definition of higher education as ‘merit good’, meaning thereby that higher education not only benefits the individual but also society and the country. It’s erroneous to believe that elementary education should be provided at the cost of higher education. The development of professional and higher education institutions is equally important for countries which wish to be competitive in the emerging global economy. It is not one or the other, but both.

Critics of AICTE allege that the Council is too liberal in granting recognition to professional institutions, particularly B-schools…

It is important to appreciate that AICTE is not the sole authority for approving new institutions of technical and management education. The approval is a joint decision of the AICTE and the state government, which provides the NOC taking into account the local needs and requirements. The AICTE ensures compliance with the prescribed norms and standards. In order to assess and monitor the institutions better, we have decentralised our decision-making process by setting up seven regional committees of the council. These carefully chosen 12-16 strong regional committees evaluate technical institutions and forward their recommendations to us in Delhi. Over the past two years in particular, we have streamlined our approval process by employing the visiting expert committees as fact-finding committees, determining any gaps in the ‘essential requirements’, both in absolute terms as well as percentages. The approval processes strictly follow a national calendar, and are transparent. In cases of severe deficiencies, the institutions are issued show-causes notices and put under reduced intake/ no admission, depending upon the severity of the deficiencies. These procedures apply equally to business schools and engineering institutions.

Gaud: research prerequisite
That technical education needs a massive quality booster injection is conceded by most AICTE top brass. Dr. R.S. Gaud former professor of pharmacy at Indore University who heads the undergraduate approvals bureau which vets (in close coordination with state governments) all proposals to introduce new study programmes in new or established institutions of technical education anywhere in India "to ensure that substandard institutions don’t start mushrooming around the country", admits that the "overall quality of technical education delivered in India is less than satisfactory". "This because there are very few engineering colleges and technical institutions with postgraduate research facilities, which is an important pre-requisite. It will take long-term commitment and cooperation between universities, state governments and local industry to transform engineering colleges and technical institutes into modern research institutions. Simultaneously the issue of faculty shortages in postgrad education needs to be addressed," says Gaud.

But even though it may, indeed will, take a long while before the nation’s chronically cash-starved universities and Indian industry which accords little importance to research and development (R & D) — hence the country’s pathetic inventions record — begin to get R & D activities going on a meaningful scale, to its credit AICTE’s top brass have introduced several schemes to spur research activity in technology institutions. For example, its advisory Board of Research and Institutional Development "comprising eminent scientists, engineers, academicians, industrialists and techno-logists" doles out grants to engineering colleges and technical institutes under the council’s MODROBS (Modernisation and Removal of Obsolescence) and RPS (Research Promotion Schemes) programmes.

Under MODROBS the council provides grants of upto Rs.15 lakh to improve infrastructure, typically to augment lab facilities. And under RPS it offers institutional grants of between Rs.5-40 lakh to "create research ambience, encourage innovations in established and emerging technologies (and) augment the supply of Masters and doctoral degree holders".

Subramaniam: equipment lacuna
Although he presides over an annual budget of Rs.39 crore for disbursement to technical education institutions and individuals intent upon R & D activities, Dr. K. Subramaniam former professor of physics at Anna University and currently advisor (postgraduate and engineering research) to AICTE, admits there is a huge gap in academic R & D outlays and output between developed countries such as the US, Germany, Japan and India. "The research output in those countries is far superior because they have greater funding and better facilities. On the other hand there is a serious shortage of sophisticated research equipment and instruments in India. Only a few institutions, such as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the IITs and the Indian Institute of Science have state-of-the-art R & D equipment and high-speed computers. Funding for serious R & D is the major problem of technical education. Although CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) and the Department of Science and Technology have taken a welcome initiative in setting up well-equipped regional research centres, the demand for advanced lab facilities grossly exceeds supply," says Subramaniam.

Though ex facie the annual grants and funding budget of Rs.100 crore of the council seems large, the fact that it has to be spread over an estimated 2,200 recognised technical and business management institutions, limits its effectiveness. Spread across all eligible institutions, funding available per institution is a mere Rs.45,000 per year — peanuts in a hi-tech age. According to AICTE sources (the council’s annual report is not available for public — including media — scrutiny) the council had a mere Rs.38.74 crore available for funding research in fiscal 2003-04; Rs.26.30 crore for enhancing postgrad programmes in engineering and technology; Rs.33.40 crore towards faculty development and Rs.1.59 crore to support industry-academia interaction. Quite obviously the top management of the council has to be careful not to spread available resources too thin, and has to be very picky about the projects and institutions it funds.

The fact that the empowerment of an activist AICTE — as opposed to its advisory predecessor — is a metamorphosis of relatively recent origin, hasn’t helped either. The enactment of the AICTE Act, 1987 coincided with an explosion of state-government sanctioned private sector engineering colleges and business management institutes across the country, especially in peninsular India. Quite evidently neither the Union government nor AICTE anticipated the rush for promoting engineering colleges and B-schools, which sprang up in their thousands before rational guidelines and regulations could be drawn up specifying the professional qualifications required of promoters.

"As a result a large number of promoters who came forward to start private colleges in the 1980s and 90s were not qualified or competent to do so, nor were they aware of the dynamics of engineering education. A plethora of powerful former politicians and promoters with political connections and money power began running business enterprises in the guise of engineering colleges. Therefore it became very difficult for AICTE to impose regulatory mechanisms to control growth and quality and even professionals heading AICTE found it impossible to manage the political pressure which assumed monstrous proportions," explains Dr. M. Anandakrishnan, an alumnus of Minnesota University, currently chairman of the Madras Institute of Development Studies and former senior professor at IIT-Kanpur and vice chancellor of Anna University.

Natarajan’s chosen strategy for forcing politically well-connected promoters and managements of the rash of engineering colleges and B-schools which sprang up during the last two decades of the old millennium to upgrade academic standards, is to empower the council’s National Board of Accreditation (NBA). Inevitably the NBA which assesses and evaluates the quality of each study programme offered by a ‘recognised’ college or B-school received a less than enthusiastic welcome when it was promoted in 1994. By 1996-97 only eight technology colleges stepped forward and 73 study programmes were accredited. Shortly after Natarajan took charge as chairman of AICTE following a highly successful six-year stint as director of IIT-Madras, the council launched a "massive campaign and publicity on the needs of accreditation". Since then the number of accredited programmes has risen to 1,500 from 350 institutions.

"Contrary to popular belief, NBA accredits and evaluates technical and management education programmes, not institutions. In essence our job is to assess and assure the quality of study programmes offered in each college or institution approved by AICTE. Every year we publish a directory of accredited programmes which not only incentivises institutional managements to strive for continuous improvement, but is also a useful guide for students and parents when it comes to choosing professional education in the country," says Dr. P.N. Razdan a chemistry alumnus of Kashmir and Roorkee universities who served a long stint (1983-2001) in the Geological Survey of India prior to being inducted into AICTE as member secretary of NBA (a statutory board of AICTE) in 2001.

With the reactivation of NBA since Natarajan took charge of AICTE three years ago, the screws are being tightened on the 5,000 plus institutes of technical and management institutes across the country which were somewhat cavalierly granted approval and recognition by previous administrations in AICTE. Under the accreditation process (which is now mandatory for all institutions promoted before 1985) all approved programmes — and by implication institutions — are assessed on eight parameters: organisation and governance; budgetary capacity; quality of physical and academic infrastructure; quality of faculty; teaching innovations; student success in terms of academic achievement and placements; new technologies literacy, and academic-industry interaction. Moreover following charges of subjectivity, the council has sharply increased documentation of its approval and institutional gradation systems.

Razdan (right): tightening accreditation screws
Since January 2003 the council’s accreditation system has been tightened further. Instead of the previous system which used to award a range of A, B and C grades, under the stringent new system an institution is either accredited (if it scores 650 marks plus on an evaluation matrix of 1,000) or not accredited at all (less than 650). And to distinguish these institutions inter se the critical factor is the duration for which a programme is accredited. Thus programmes which are evaluated as having scored 650-750 are accredited for a period of three years while study programmes which are evaluated higher than 750 are accredited for five years.

Bearing in mind Razdan’s caveat that NBA rates study programmes rather than institutions, it’s perfectly possible for programmes offered by an institute to be awarded differing gradings. For example the civil engineering programme of the Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal (Karnataka) has been accredited for five years (under the pre-2003 evaluation system) while most of its other programmes (last evaluated in November 2001) have been accredited for three years. "Standards of evaluation are becoming progressively stricter. For example in our new Directory of Accredited Programmes 2004, only 51 MBA programmes offered by 958 B-schools across the country have been accredited," says Razdan who predicts that within the next five years the floor level of technical education delivered in India will rise so dramatically that the outflow of students going abroad to study engineering and technology will fall sharply. Simultaneously AICTE has clamped down hard on foreign institutions with dubious credentials offering education in India (see box).

Most monitors of the higher education scene are impressed by the initiatives taken by Natarajan and his team at AICTE to compel institutes of technical education and B-schools to upgrade the quality of education they dispense to their students (the University Grants Commission which monitors mainstream — arts, science and commerce — higher education has done likewise through the promotion and activation of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) see EducationWorld cover feature May 2004). However Dr. Manesh Shrikant honorary dean of the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR), Mumbai which has emerged from the stable of the conservative and staid Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan to become one of the country’s most highly-rated B-schools and gives the pampered IIMs a run for their money, believes that AICTE’s upgradation initiatives are too late, if not too few.

Shrikant: too little too late
"Today there are over 900 institutes dispensing business education in India. Most of them have been approved, if not accredited by AICTE. Some of them don’t have buildings, permanent faculty or any structured programmes to speak of. Yet they are recognised by AICTE. This whole process of approval and accreditation is a farce and a process which — despite the SPJIMR postgraduate diploma in management having received the highest five year accreditation — we like to keep our distance from. Academic upgradation initiatives should be undertaken by institutions of their own volition without waiting for AICTE or any external organisation telling them what to do. In SPJIMR we are intent upon preserving our academic independence and retaining the freedom to develop our own curriculums which are responsive to marketplace signals. In my opinion, for the best B-schools AICTE’S role is marginal, if not irrelevant," says Shrikant an alumnus of the Harvard Business School, Cornell, Michigan and Illinois universities who was also chief executive of Mukand Ltd prior to taking charge of SPJIMR in 1986 and nurturing it into one of the top ten B-schools in the country.


Box 2

Foreign varsities clampdown

The mandatory assessment and accreditation diktat of the Delhi-based All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) which has sent a tremor of fear through India’s 1,265 engineering colleges, 958 business management schools, 1,034 MCA (Master of Computer Applications), 2,700 pharmacy, architecture and miscellaneous technical education dispensing institutions, is also set to end the free run which a large number of foreign universities, colleges and institutes of shadowy origin and antecedents enjoy within India’s education market. In exercise of the powers conferred upon the council under ss. 10 and 23 of the AICTE Act, 1987, to "... check and avoid illegal entry of unscrupulous persons using/ misusing the name of foreign university/ institution for unlawful gains", the council issued a gazette notification dated May 6, 2003 prescribing rules and regulations for foreign universities intending to establish their own campuses in India or through collaborative arrangements with Indian universities, deemed universities or educational institutions to offer diploma, undergraduate or postgrad programmes.

All applications must be made on the council’s prescribed form which can be downloaded from its website ( and submitted to AICTE’s Delhi office with copies to the council’s regional office and the state government where the campus is proposed to be sited. Supporting documentation should include:

• Detailed project report

• No objection certificate (NOC) from the foreign university’s embassy/ ministry in India

• Accreditation certificate of the foreign university/ institution from the authorised agency or competent authority of the parent country

• Accreditation certificate of the collaborating Indian technical institution/ university/ deemed to be university from the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) of AICTE, for the relevant discipline for which collaborative arrangement is proposed

• Undertaking from the foreign university/ institution stating that the degrees/ diplomas awarded to the students in India will be recognised unconditionally and will be treated equivalent to the corresponding degrees/ diplomas awarded by the university/ institution in the parent country

• An Indian technical institution, affiliated to a university in India and interested in collaborating with a foreign university/ institution shall have to submit NOC from the affiliating university for the proposed collaboration

• Documentary evidence indicating that the applicant has already obtained or in the process of obtaining the equivalence of the proposed technical programme in accordance with the Clause ‘7’ enumerated under conditions for a registration laid down in the Foreign University Regulations, 2003

But while it’s true that the best B-schools or colleges of engineering in the country have top-grade human resources to chart their own growth and development paths and don’t need AICTE’s stamp of approval, it is arguable that the great majority of privately-promoted institutions of technology and management spread across the landscape, often in the deep interiors of the subcontinent, do. Cut off from developments in the metropolitan cities and global education and research breakthroughs, they need the external assessment and evaluation inputs provided by the council’s task forces comprising eminent academics and industry representatives, to modernise their curriculums and academic standards.

Rizvi: peer regulation preference
"Regulatory bodies to monitor standards and quality of education are necessary to protect students’ interests and prevent unscrupulous elements from entering the education sector. But as the mushrooming number of B-schools indicates, AICTE is not able to enforce its regulations. In the circumstances a system of peer regulation under which associations of B-schools — such as AACSB in the US and EFMD in Europe — regulate the standards and norms of member institutions is preferable," says Dr. Irfan Rizvi, director of the Institute for Integrated Learning & Management, Delhi (est. 1993) which offers business management diploma programmes in collaboration with Bradford University, UK.

With such peer regulatory organisations unlikely to materialise in the near future, informed opinion is to the effect that not only is AICTE’s supervision and superintendence of the more than 5,000 institutions of technical and business management education necessary, the council needs to supplement its bark with considerably more bite. According to Dr. U.R. Rao, a post-doctorate fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chairman of the Ahmedabad-based Physical Research Laboratory — "the cradle of India’s outer space research programme" — who has recently submitted two reportedly researched and learned reports Revitalising Technical Education (September 2003) and Promoting Excellence in Education (March 2004) to the Union HRD ministry and AICTE respectively, the number of self-financing engineering and business management institutes have multiplied so rapidly that the intake of students into professional education has tripled during the past eight years.

"Seventy five percent of these new institutions have no infrastructure and/ or faculty to speak of with the result that the education they dispense is abysmal. The consequence is that over 25 percent of their graduates are unemployed and an even greater percentage under-employed. There is an urgent necessity for AICTE’s accreditation norms and rules to be made more stringent. For a start, accreditation must be made compulsory within a maximum time frame of three years after the first batch graduates, and details of placements and average remuneration packages must be mandatorily disclosed. Moreover reaccreditation of programmes must also be made compulsory for all technical and management institutions. In addition the council must exercise powers to de-accredit — close down — non-performing institutions rather than merely deny accreditation as at present. It’s shocking but true that only 8-10 percent of the country’s technical and management institutes are accredited. At the base of the pyramid, academic standards are deplorable," says Rao who is unimpressed by NASSCOM and McKinsey forecasts of huge demand for engineers and technical personnel during the next decade.

Rao: distance education opportunity
Tightening the screws of its accreditation process and procedures apart, Rao believes that the only quick-fix and viable option available to the AICTE top brass to raise academic standards across the spectrum is to adapt hi-tech satellite communication and distance education technologies to beam the lectures of the most learned educationists and subject professionals to all approved institutions. "With contemporary communication and broadcast techno-logies it is perfectly feasible for 250 supplementary lectures to be recorded by the best professors and subject specialists according to the model syllabus of AICTE for each programme. These supplementary lectures can be broadcast via V-Sat systems to every college and institute to raise faculty and student standards. As I have detailed in my recent report to AICTE, the expense of setting up distance education infrastructure is only Rs.25 crore per year which can be recovered from students who will have to pay a mere Rs.1,000 per year extra. This is a workable model being used at the Strassbourg International Space University and MIT. Provision of high-quality supplementary education nation-wide offers the only hope of quickly upgrading the quality of technical and B-school education in India," says Rao.

AICTE chairman Dr. R. Natarajan says that the Rao Committee’s report on promoting excellence in technical education which contains "very valuable" recommen-dations is being studied carefully within the council and is likely to be substantially implemented. Meanwhile the council too has launched four National Initiatives for promoting quality, design and innovation, engineering experimentation and institutional competitiveness. Another initiative for promoting professional ethics and human values is on the drawing board. "With the threat of imminent competition from foreign institutions which may soon enter India under GATS (General agreement on Trade in Services), it’s imperative that academic standards in India’s education institutions are raised quickly. Recognising the importance of institutional leadership and strategic planning we are conducting intensive workshops for institutional leaders. We are also compiling and disseminating information on best practices in our technical institutions. A massive upgradation of standards in India’s colleges of engineering and business management institutions is around the corner," promises Natarajan.

If the newly sworn-in Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance is to deliver anywhere near the 7-8 percent annual economic growth it has promised in its common minimum programme, it had better pull out all the stops to ensure that Natarajan can orchestrate an across-the-board revamp of technical and management education. The UPA’s future as well as that of millions of tomorrow’s builders of modern India depends on it.

With Meenakshi Venkat (Delhi); Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai) & Mona Barbhaya (Mumbai)