The inauguration on July 23rd of the joint effort by IIT-Delhi and the MRC, to set up the “International Institute of Technology Research Academy (IITRA)” in Bel-Air gives us the opportunity for some sideline comments. It is first a testimony of enduring strategic relations between the two countries, since the MOU which has led to this concrete inaugural event was signed in November last between the previous Indian government and Mauritius.
Secondly, it is without doubt a neat feather in the cap of the recently-created Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, which has for long been unfortunately mired in the “fracas” surrounding the TEC and private higher education providers, obscuring some of the more laudable initiatives of the Ministry. Getting the IIT to set up a foot here is a feat in itself and offers a remarkable opening towards world-class technology-related tertiary education and research.
Provided lessons have been drawn and a new era of governance resolutely applied, there are reasons to believe that, despite our limitations in size and human capital, despite the huge competing demands for infrastructure resources, our tertiary education sector and the country at large can indeed aspire to greater horizons. Several simultaneous changes since the late nineties and early in this millennium, have dramatically altered the higher education scene worldwide. Most countries are still struggling to cope with this new environment.
In some, like India, intents of far-reaching and visionary leaders and legislators have often been thwarted into bureaucratic pettiness, the infamous “permit Raj”, turf wars and a dysfunctional quango between competing regional and political lobbyists. Even the wave of deregulation in the nineties failed to dent the long-entrenched systems and structures, and the outcome today is still known by the more kindly souls as the IHEM, the Indian Higher Education Mess!
But first, to give full credit to India’s visionary leadership, it was immediately after independence that the country’s highest political and scientific brains, understood the absolute necessity to provide India with a powerful tertiary structure to drive India’s intent to boldly assume its place in the world with indigenous human and technological capacities. Post-war, post-colonial, post-partition India, however strapped and impoverished, had the foresight in the 1950s to setup the first IITs, “India’s future in the making” as aptly summed by Oxfordian PM Nehru, and the legislative enactment of 1961 duly sanctified them as “Institutes of National Importance”.
Fully autonomous, free from central or state government interference, from ministerial bureaucrats, from regional lobbies and vested interests, with on site campuses, independent curricula, well-endowed libraries, with strict elite admission tests and even stricter academic tutoring and final examinations, with operating budgets ten times that of any comparable Indian university, they indeed had the immense task and formidable privilege to groom and churn out not rote-learners, but the best and the finest professionals.
True, as India struggled with multifold problems, many IIT graduands left or were grabbed and seduced by lucrative foreign posts, but equally numerous are those who have come back as PIOs brimming with business acumen, world flair and energized patriotism. It is no surprise that today, more than ever before, countries like Canada are openly inviting IIT graduates to settle there and develop their ideas and businesses.
In June 2014, Canadian Minister Kenney is reported as saying “IIT is probably the most elite education in the world. They are drawing on students who are getting 98, 99 to 100 per cent in secondary schools… IIT graduates in the United States, they are getting one or two years of experience in Silicon Valley but they can’t stay there. We want them to come here…”.
Today the IITs number 16, answering only to an overarching national IIT Council governed by the Indian President. They span the sub-continent in breadth and width and are undoubtedly India’s equivalent of the French Grandes Ecoles stream. One can safely bet that India’s forays into Antartic exploration, missile, ballistic, warplane and armament technologies, space exploration, nuclear energies, IT technologies would not have matured without that far-reaching vision of the fifties.
Five Centers of Advanced Study and Research have been set up by the IITs in Energy Studies (Delhi), Material Science (Kanpur), Cryogenic Engineering (Kharagpur), Ocean Engineering (Madras) and Resource Engineering (Bombay). The Mauritian IITRA looks like the sixth in the same vein and is a welcome gateway to world-class technology and academia, provided wisdom has been gained, lessons learned and its structural set-up steers body politic and occult forces well clear of its future staffing, management and academic operations.
But the ominous fear of Nehru and his key advisers that India’s vastness, complexity of federal and State legislatures, intricacy of regional, cultural, linguistic and other divides, creeping bureaucracy, turf wars and the “permit Raj”, would drag down the most visionary initiative, was to unfortunately come true for other Indian higher education sectors.
The UGC, inspired by the general model of the UK University Grants Commission, was set up in 1956, to channel public funds in those years when only the public sector (federal or state) could afford to operate Universities. It was naturally also entrusted with the mandate to coordinate, determine and maintain standards of university education in India.
The Indian approach prefers a “loi-cadre”, leaving its implementation to federal and state Ministerial decrees, orders and regulations. Holding the purse strings, the UGC imposed standards, regulations, application and review or evaluation processes easily. Answering to its parent Ministry, it could coddle up to various political demands and pressures. For instance, “territorial jurisdiction” to prevent a good University from one state to recruit or poach students from less endowed neighboring states. But whatever its faults and bureaucratic set-up, it was the only Apex body for Indian tertiary education, even if its structure and function was suited for a bygone era.
IGNOU, DEC and AICTE
Times did indeed change in the eighties with the advent of satellite technology that allowed India’s political and scientific leaders to envisage a formidable developmental tool, bringing literacy, health and sanitation, education and technology down to every remote village and region of the vast sub-continent. Two avant-garde institutions were created in the mid-eighties to spearhead and coordinate those foreseeable developments.
The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), established by Parliament in 1985, was granted mandate to use Distance and Open Education (DOE) to make tertiary education as widely accessible as possible. Simultaneously it was asked to promote and regulate standards of DOE, giving rise to a second Indian Apex body, the Distance Education Council (DEC).
Two years later, Parliament established an All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) with a mandate to plan, co-ordinate and push development of all technology-related education throughout the country. Again it was granted mandate to establish norms and standards in the tertiary technical education system, and duly became a third authorized Apex body. IHEM
Needless to say, the situation grew into a bureaucratic maze, some Universities having to apply separately to each Apex Body for approvals, evaluations and audits, should they be bold enough to offer both classroom and distance education in technology or other domains! A variety of allegations of impropriety were recorded against each Apex body. But the IHEM continued unflappably for some twenty years until the Ministry ordered a Joint DEC-AICTE-UGC mechanism. There were still many legal flaws and controversy and in May 2013, DEC was dissolved. Its functions were taken over by UGC, which tried to impose its older permit and regulations culture and notices in unfamiliar territory (Distance, Blended or Open Education). Territorial restrictions, for instance, are obviously untenable.
The IHEM had become much worse with the advent of Private Indian Universities which neither needed nor depended on public funds for their operation and had therefore quite understandably ignored the UGC bureaucrats, having obtained all necessary accreditation and authorizations through the now defunct DEC or AICTE for technology courses. Some run full-fledged impressive Universities overseas, others operate hundreds of affiliated colleges inside and outside India.
UGC attempts to impose its notices or regulations on those private Universities have been dismissed when challenged in the Indian Supreme Court. Many private Universities don’t even bother with the obsolete and legally untenable regulations of UGC for their overseas ventures. The matter is of some consequence for us because of UGC’s public notice of June 2013, which is legally shaky in India. The Modi campaign manifesto promised to revamp the UGC and address the IHEM effectively. Whether that materializes remains to be seen.
* Published in print edition on 1 August 2014