Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Limited Universities to Universities Limited

Imagine this scenario in the future. The Union Budget was presented the day before. The university students are up in arms against against the imposition of Fringe Benefit Tax(FBT) on S-SOP( that's right its not ESOP, it is Students' Stock option). The Edusex (BSE index of the corporate universities) has plummeted by over 200 points. The worst hit are IIT Ltd. and IIM ltd. followed by umpty number of limited universities.
The students are fighting for their hard earned University shares to exempted from tax purview. Thats right, in the future University Ltd. wouldn't offer monetary scholarship alone, rather the scholarship is dispensed partly in stock options too.
Now we are not talking about some Hollywood gimmicks here. Corporate University is inevitable in the future to ensure an inclusive education for all. The National Knowledge Commission of India ( headed by Sam Pitroda) has remarked that over 1500 universities are needed In India by 2015 to achieve at least a 35% percent graduate literate population!!
If even for a meagre 35% level, a quantum leap of four folds is needed, imagine what would it to take to achieve a more respectable figure of 75 or 90%. Education is after all, universal. To implement this egalitarian vision, massive opportunities to pursue education must be created at rate matching the growth of population. The problem of limited universities can be tackled by universities limited.
But the fact is the government is cash starved to streamline the education. Even the school education is in dire need of re-structuring. A one percent levy,(announced in the last budget ) on taxes, is specifically meant for higher education.This is expected to yield only around 5000 crores. The majority of funds is disbursed as fees subsidies, staff salaries, infrastructure maintenance ,with little for research and development.
An undergraduate medical student in a Government college pays around a token sum Rs.2000/ as tuition fees or in a Government engineering colleges a student has to shell out
Rs. 5000 as semester fees ! Surely one cannot run a higher education system with such token fees. Subsidies are cash flows to drain with a bottomless depth. To make the government colleges efficient and truly global, the first thing that must be done, is to remove their dependency on the government coffers.
It is high time that the public is roped in to the industry of education. It may sound crass and unethical. but in reality it is the case. Profit motive is the driving force of any private institutions. The age of Guru- Shishia param para, is long gone. It is high time that the society perceives education as a profitable enterprise rather than a charitable endowment. Even hospitals are now corporate owned( e.g. Appollo , Fortis, Escorts etc.), so why not education?
The idea of universities going public, is mainly to generate the necessary capital to sustain the competitive edge and at the same time offer a more inclusive education for an ever increasing population. With the capital secured from equity issue, the company can embark on a modernisation drive.Being a listed entities, ensures that there is more transparency in University governance and regulations. (much better than the archaic and autocratic Trusts and societies that run them.) By going public, the society becomes a stake holder in the growth of the university. This in no way will dilute or debase the education service offered by the university. The only problem may be that the university must serve two regulators instead of one.( SEBI being one, and the other being AICTE/UGC/MCI)
The equity market in India has matured in recent times and more people are willing to invest in the stocks. The risk factors for a university are very low, as education service is an essential commodity in all times. But the questin that arises, is why would one want to invest in university stocks?
The answer to the question lies in the underlying premises that universities are centers of knowledge creation. Knowledge is power in tomorrow's scenario. In this case the consultancy, R and D inovations offered by the university is of great demand to the industry and the public. Professors and students alike can work towards this knowledge creation, and thereby earn more revenue for the university. Likewise the fees structure for students can also be reduced in the long run once the emphasis of university learning shifts from mere teaching to knowledge creation. The higher perks and salaries offered( on par with any competitive corporate entity) to the faculty might even induce the brighter brains to opt for a career in academia. On the part of the students a sense of collective responsibility and ownership might lead to superior performance, just like employee in a company.
I firmly believe going corporate is the best thing for our country educational needs. The government must explore the feasibility of bring this idea into practice. One may laugh at these proposals as being absurd or non-practical( like people did when Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was published in 1757. Today we consider as Father of Modern Economics ). Perhaps in the future, ideas like these might usher in the radical change that could propel India into a superpower. After all any system that offers more number of seats at an affordable cost and improved quality is worth considering.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Re-Engineering the Engineering Euducation

It is a pathetic fact to note that India, in spite of churning out the largest pool of engineers in the world, is yet to channelise their expertise into nation building excercise. ( a look into our roads, bridges, sewer system, telecom sector,urban planning etc. is enough to certify this paradox.)
It seems we are churning out worthless engineers , who are even incompetent for call center jobs. The situation is worst in Tamil Nadu which has the largest number of engineering colleges in the country. (around 300 of them with the inclusion of one IIT, Government colleges, deemed universities and 'n' number of self financing colleges.) There is joke which says on any given highway in Tamil Nadu there is more probability of coming across an engineering college rather than a fuel station. That is the pathetic state of engineering education in this country.
Nowadays getting an engineering seat has become so easy, that any Tom Dick or Harry could get one, provided he passes the SSLC . (last year around 11000 seats were vacant in TN alone, with a few colleges registering single digit admissions for courses)
The scenario needs some serious intropsection as tremedous breed of talent is off on the drains. This can be utilised for vital. The only solace for this so called engineering boom is the the appetite of IT companies of fresh engineers. But for IT comapnies hardly there would no need for Placement wing in colleges. What is lacking is the diversity in palcement offers. ( In one deemed uinversity at Vellore, around 525 students were placed at TCS!! Just liking sheparding sheeps on to a IT bandwagon.)
To refine and fine tune the system changes must be made from the admission stage itself. A question that lingers in most of engineering students mind (like myself) is that if majority of palcements and job offers are only for IT and ITES sectors, what is relevance of pursuing traditional non-IT branches like Mechanical, Civil, Electrical etc. Institutions must streamline their admission numbers and focus more on diversifying their career oppurtunities. The emphasis must be more on quality and diversity, rather than quantity and universality.
Engineering syllabus must be made to suit the needs of the present day demands and not based on text books written decades ago. Some of the changes I suggest are summed up below.
  • Case study based approach, periodic practical exposure( like the five year sandwitch courses offered by PSG Coimbature), compulsory industrial internship etc. must be incorporated into the mainstream syllabus.
  • The choice of subjects can also be based on individual discretion. ( in the present scenario electives are offered in the final year). With the excercise of self discretion the students volunteer to learn more, rather than confining to the syallbus alone.
  • Mini projects and teaching assiatanships must also be made a part the curriculum.
  • Emphasis on attendance must be done away with. (imgine college students waiting outside Director's office with leave letters or worst with parents for leave sanctions.)
  • College students are responsible adults and it is up to them either to study or not to study. Spoon feeding and coercive tactics is not going to churn out qualified engineers. ( there are colleges in TN where it is a heinious crime for the opposite gender to interact!! They even have seperate staircases for men and women. Reason: It spoils the pristine learning atmosphere in the campus.)
  • Since enginners have all time in the world to kill (out of my personal experience) the education can focus on dual majors. ( with fundamendal science or humanities) This is very musch in practice in US universities, where you can two concentrations say for e.g. John Nash ( dramatised in the movie A Beautiful Mind ) actually majored in Chemical Engineering and Economics. He later went on to win the Nobel prize in Economics!
  • In this way the analytical skills of engineers can be coupled to the fundmendals reasoning of science, or humanist approach of arts. Carrer prospects and diversification is also possible through this.( only BITS offered this dual makor programme in India)
  • The objective of learning must shift from securing grades or percentages to that of understanding the engineering problems. Segmented approach to problems would not help. eg. A lot engineering mechanics problems can be solved by vector claculus approach which is thougt in two different subjects, but never applied together. ( even in the final year I find students traumatised by engineering mathematics, with the idea that maths is no way connected to engineering at all!! They can hardly distinguish between a partial derivative equation and an ordinary differential equations!)
( To be countinued....)