Monday, June 09, 2008

Regulating higher ed in India

Just a quick follow-up to this post from yesterday.

Increasing the supply of higher ed opportunities is the first idea that comes to mind; but it's not enough if the increase in supply means more of the same. In fact, there are signs that point to an oversupply of college seats in engineering and the sciences. All the clamor that we see (in terms of low strike rates in JEE, for example) is for "quality" education, which is available only in a small fraction of institutions. An important challenge is to improve the quality levels -- by coming up with the right incentives -- at existing institutions.

Another route -- which could be very effective in these days of oversupply -- is to give more power to the other stake-holders in an institution. One idea is to make it mandatory for all colleges and universities to disclose a whole lot of information on their website (as well as on the website of regulatory bodies): not just the bland stuff like degree programs and courses, but also the qualifications and achievements of their faculty, academic infrastructure, fee structure (with no hidden levies), graduation rates, pass percentage in individual courses, campus recruitment record, accreditation, (anything else?), etc. This will arm the potential students with data that they can use in making a truly informed choice.

It is a sad fact that our regulators continue to use age-old and dysfunctional methods of collecting useless information and filing it all away in their dusty corridors. And they haven't even woken up to the potential of the world wide web! In this day and age, it's amazing -- and frustrating -- to see so little useful information on so many of our universities' websites.

Another idea is for CII, FICCI or ASSOCHAM to advise their members to avoid visiting campuses of those colleges that lack a rating from a recognized, independent (and possibly private) accreditation agency.

While these ideas may help put some of the bad elements out of business (or make them mend their ways), the basic question still remains: why are good folks -- rich people who want to leave a legacy through philanthropy -- not able to start (or to help others in starting) high quality educational institutions? Which part of our regulatory structure poses an obstacle to such wonderful people?

* * *

In a curious response to my post, Ravikiran Rao points to an earlier post that draws an analogy between blogs and educational institutions. In particular, it should be easy for people to start educational institutions -- just as it is easy for people to start blogs. You have heard about the death of set-up costs, haven't you?

Students will be able to discover for themselves where the good institutions are, and they will flock to them -- just like readers discover good blogs now. Death of transaction costs, too!

Ravikiran Rao seems very confident that he has found a clever solution to our higher ed problems.

Just imagine the possibilities of this wonderfully costless world: our students will be able to sample a whole bunch of colleges / courses for two minutes each. Or, they'll just need to discover one or two good colleges, which will point them to many other similarly good colleges. After these initial steps, they can settle down on, say, several tens of colleges, and take courses in them. If they don't like a course after a month or so, they can just dump it and take another course at another college.

See, higher ed nirvana can be achieved as easily as blogutopia was ...


  1. chitta said...


    AICTE introduced a mandatory disclosure procedure a few years back.

    I have not checked what exactly they require, but an institution near my home town has the following in their webpage.

  2. Pratik . said...

    When I went for "counselling" in year 2000, if my memory serves me right, all representatives from private colleges (in Orissa) had information booklets detailing the number of part time staff, full time faculty, # of faculty with a PhD, campus placements over last N years etc.

    I dont remember though whether those booklets were being distributed before taking admission/after taking admission in the "counselling" session.

  3. as said...

    You correctly pointed out that we still do not know what is keeping philanthropic organizations away from this venture. I do not know the answer but a couple of things come to mind.

    First most of the great private educational universities in the US seem to have their origins in the dream of a rich man. This was true of Chicago, Stanford and Cornell. IISc is an example in India. I do not know much about private universities in Japan, other than they were started by politically influential people. Maybe what we are lacking are the individuals who can espouse the dream of a first rate private university and convince somebody with capital to devote money to this effort. A certain sense of ambition in this regards seems to be missing, I do not know where it comes from.

    Vedanta university comes to mind, but the whole project seems to be mired by the current practices of the company Vedanta. But I still like to keep an eye on the progress of the university.

    If these universities will emerge ,they will need to take the lead and develop original ideas concerning education and research, ideas which have never been tried anywhere in the world(isnt that the definition of a first rate university?). They will need to do this repeatedly and sometimes quickly.

    Private universities in the US went ahead and fashioned themselves in many different and completely original ways . Harvard introduced electives in 1880s, Chicago introduced the Great books program, MIT pioneered the concept of science based engineering and the idea of 1/5 rule of faculty consulting. They went ahead and did this freely without needing an approval from a central authority. Universities in India need approval from UGC if they need to change curricula. I do not have information about IISc , but the IITs have changed their curricula faster than other universities precisely because they do not need to take any permission from any body. I am not sure if these thoughts are in the minds of philanthropic organizations but I do see them as bottle necks which prevent the emergence of first rate universities.

    My suspicion is that we need a mix of confidence, ambition, capital and freedom. We may have the capital, but the rest seems missing.