Thursday, 13 October 2011

State of higher education: Mani Shanker Aiyar and Narayana Murthy statements

Two seemingly unrelated developments motivated this article. One, Mr Mani Shanker Aiyar's rather irresponsible statements on the English capabilities of Mr Maken. Second, Mr Narayana Murthy's statements about the declining standards of IITgraduates as a consequence of the 'teaching shops' in the country. Apart from the implied humour in Mr Aiyar's statements, there was an inference about the relative merits of two colleges of Delhi University.

In the same vein, Mr Murthy's statement reflected more a failure of the higher education sector in India rather than that of the private 'teaching shops'. While one can cavil about the political correctness of either Mr Aiyar or Mr Murthy's statements, it is difficult to disagree that something ails our higher education sector.

Consider the comparison that Mr Aiyar (implicitly) made. Despite the politically-motivated outcry, issues of various magazines devoted to surveys of the higher education sector have periodically brought out that all higher education institutes (universities and professional colleges) do not bring out the same quality of students.

Yet, while Delhi University as a whole is still the premier institution in the country, it's also true that in many subjects (Economics for one!), St Stephen's College is no longer the premier institution even in the Capital.

What is, however, more disconcerting is that the relative ranking of various institutions have more or less remained the same and there seems no 'levelling out'. Even more important, standards in most state universities are declining drastically and there seems no end in sight. Why this situation?

Let us get back to St Stephen's, admittedly the premier institution in India (and not only because Mr Aiyar studied there!). The question is whether the students excel because of the institution or the other way round. With all due apologies to St Stephen's College, the second explanation is closer to the truth. If the best enter St Stephen's, it is not surprising that they outperform others at the university level.

This is what Mr Murthy was saying. The IITs attract the best students but add little value so that graduates remain unemployable. However, here, Mr Murthy must realise that the 'teaching shops" are probably adding some value in enabling weaker students to compete in exams. The 'teaching shops' also exist only because of so much competition for just a few institutions of excellence.

One radical solution is to 'randomise' the entry of students to higher institutions: let admission be related to non-merit parameters like location of students, income of parents, etc. This would lead to a political outcry from the reservation lobbies (caste and religion) in particular: how can state education be non-discriminatory?

The problem is the vicious circle: good students attract good faculty who then attract the best students, and so on. How to break this circle? Another solution is to start with the faculty. Today, NAAC - the UGC's rating system for higher education institutes - is a reality. So, suppose faculty in institutions lower down the ladder are offered a higher salary. To one extent, this is being done today.

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