Friday, July 17, 2009

Our education problems.

So, we finally have a HRD minister who is more interested in education than (de-)saffronisation, a government that understands the seriousness of our education problem, and a bunch of reports that tell the government what to do. Why then, am I putting my skeptic hat on as I write this post?

Because there is nothing to suggest that the government, the minister, or even the reports have moved beyond the command/control mode of operation. Take the Yashpal committee report for instance. It recognizes that the current system of regulators, consisting of the UGC, AICTE, and the MCI amongst others hasn't worked. There is endemic corruption, the latest being this case against the AICTE chiarman and a senior member, inefficiency, and a lackadaisical attitude. But look at what the committee has recommended: a uber-regulator that encompasses all these! How, in the lord's good world is this going to solve the problem? Not only that, the report suggests that this uber-regulator will also solve the problem of multi-disciplinary education! Sixty years after independence, and eighteen years after liberalization, we still haven't understood the fundamental difference between regulation, and control. Our administrators, and report-makers don't get the fact that the best regulation is the market and full disclosure. For instance, instead of having corrupt bureaucrats decide which institute should function and which one shouldn't, have full disclosure of every institute - the intake, the aggregate scores that the students got, the placements that they got, and the types of companies they got placed into, the numbers who went to higher studies, the number of working computers, the facilities in the lab, whether the hostels have enough clean toilets - disclose disclose and disclose. Then let parents and students decide which institutes should survive and which ones shouldn't. Let foreign universities in, set stiff criteria that these institutes should satisfy, but let them teach what they want to. Let every institute pay what it wants to, charge what it wants to, maybe subject to a range that the government can specify. Let there be merit-based salaries for teachers, and scholarships for those students who cannot afford high fees. Let go, but keep a watchful eye.

I can give three instances of why my prescription will work. Today, PESIT is probably the best engineering college in Bangalore. Management and NRI seats in this institute are auctioned off, with waiting lists spanning a few years. Few people know that just ten years ago, few people joined this institute. In fact, at that time, the institute offered to pay the fees of any student below rank 1000 who joined it! The dedication of the founders has led to this institute becoming the top institute in Bangalore. They poached professors from other institutes, got people from abroad to join it, and of course, made a lot of money in the process. But what the city got was a good institute.

My next example is DAIICT, an institute from where my team has recruited many interns. A large number of them have been fantastic and have gone on (or will be going on) to graduate programs in UCB, UWash, and other universities. Our experience has been that students from this institute were really well-rounded, however, I was told recently that the AICTE had refused to recognize the Info. and Comm program that these students had graduated from!

Then, ISB. The International School of Business in Hyderabad has the most expensive MBA programs in India. It wasn't recognized by the AICTE, whose diktats it couldn't live by. However, as this news article points out, it was the only Indian B-school to be in the FT top 20 B-schools in the world.

To conclude, I want to bring in Game theory, of course in a very unscientific way. When you have two competing players each one making a decision knowing fully well the other's strengths and weakness, you usually reach an equillibrium that may not be the best for either player individually, but is a good bet overall. This is what the parent/student v/s institute game would do. On the other hand, cartels break this equillibrium in favour of one party - which is what the nexus between institutes and our current regulators is.

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