Monday, September 21, 2015

Alternate Undergraduate Education - A proposal

In Tamil Nadu today, we have oversupply of Engineering colleges and seats. Too many seats are lying vacant. But the Arts, Science and Commerce colleges are fewer in number with limited seats for many courses. It is not possible to create Arts/Science/Commerce colleges overnight. The requirements of a University may not make it viable today to open self-financing Arts/Science/Commerce colleges. The land requirement, cost of building, hiring faculty under UGC pay scales etc. mean it is a failed venture even before you start. Plus, education is anyway seen as a not-for-profit venture and hence only fraudulent fellows willing to ride roughshod over the existing laws will enter the field of education. That is what see around us today.

So, on the one hand you have a huge demand for at least select courses in the Arts/Commerce/Science fields, and not enough supply.

Take Vivekandanda College for Men in Chennai. It is an aided institution. The Government of Tamil Nadu pays for the salaries of the faculty members. The Ramakrishna mission undertakes the responsibilities of administration, maintenance of the buildings etc. from its own funds. This is called the "Day College". The same facility is used in the evenings to offer "self-financed" courses. In the Day stream, the annual fees are highly subsidised. For B.Com, the annual fee is Rs 265/- That is all! In the evening course, for B.Com it is between Rs 22,000 to 27,000! That is around 100 times more.

This is understandable. The Day faculty will be different from the Evening faculty and they have to be paid from the fees. I am assuming Vivekananda College may not ask for donations, capitation fee or whatever. Maybe I am naive. I do not know. But around the city, colleges which offer self-financed Evening college charge under the counter as well as over the counter. It could cost a student well over Rs 1.5 lakh for a three-year B.Com course under the self-financed model. To my knowledge, The Government under huge budget pressure has simply stopped aiding Arts & Science Colleges. So any new college built today is left to fend for itself.

For those who cannot pay much and cannot get into one of the Government colleges or the Aided Colleges, there is an alternative. The distance education programs of various Tamil Nadu Universities. Madras University will charge approximately Rs 2,000/- per year for B.Com. Along with various exam fees, mark sheet fees and other such funny things, the total for a three year course would come to around Rs 8,000/- and not more. But the downside? You are left on your own. The contact classes are pitiably hopeless. For a young undergraduate, there is no one to guide him or her. No one to teach the intricacies of the subject.

If you look at the Information Technology revolution in India, it was fronted only by NIIT, Aptech and such training institutions. Organized colleges and university curricula had no clue about the programming languages or the requirements of the market. It was only later that Engineering Colleges stepped into the game. But to this day the Engineering Colleges are failing to teach the necessary IT skills to the students. Students waste most of their time trying to write theory exams and many fail miserably. Unfortunately, with no support from the student/parent community, NIIT, Aptech etc. withered away.

Something similar can be planned for the Science/Commerce streams now. Training academies (not colleges, not universities) can be set up by entrepreneurs. Students join them, get themselves enrolled with the distance education programs of Madras University or similar such, but learn in classrooms daily all the subjects taught by skilled faculty.

You may ask: how can such an institution impart good quality education by charging a lower fees? How can they attract quality faculty by paying them 'fair' salaries when colleges are struggling to do.

I am of the opinion that in the current system, the colleges are highly inefficient. They have large buildings, incur massive expenses, use outdated modes of teaching and are controlled by the affiliating University's archaic rules and UGC's overbearing circulars. They are also localised monopolies with hardly any incentive to innovate. There is no drive to minimise wasteful expenditure and maximise fair profits because at least in paper, they are not supposed to act as profit making centres.

I propose to change all that with my model. Firstly, the institutions I propose will be profit driven. Law cannot stop this (at least for now). They will openly claim to be profit making (like Brilliant Tutorials was, like NIIT was) and will pay taxes on their profits. They will operate from small, short offices and learning spaces. When they hit reasonable numbers, they can create viable campuses. They have to be based within the city, and not in the suburban, unconnected areas. They cannot run buses like the Engineering colleges. Ideal size would be holding 100-150 students at most.

The focus will have to be great teaching. This would mean, identifying great teachers and rewarding them well. Best IIT coaching institutions and IAS coaching academies pay their best teachers good money. Here, the quality can be evaluated. The good ones will demand and will get their pay. Next, they do not have to have the UGC mandated PhDs or NET/SLET nonsense. We just need good teachers. They could just as well be a mere B.Coms to teach B.Com. Heck, they could even be Engineering dropouts to teach B.Com students.

Right from Day 1, this kind of institution will focus on the Internet enabled resources, course videos, information system for better management of the entire course etc. There will be no attendance requirement. You come and learn if you truly want to learn. Or else, you can go to the nearest movie theatre. Of course, you have to pay the monthly fee. You can drop out any time. You can join another similar institution if you do not like this one, any time. Your enrollment with Madras University will remain intact anyway and you can write your exams anyway, if you can prepare on your own.

Because this kind of institution will focus only on teacher costs, keeping other expenses to a bare minimum, it can charge a relatively a lower fee and still make a profit. For example, I guess a decent quality education can be provided for around Rs 25,000/- per year (inclusive of Madras University annual costs) for the B.Com course. Since there is no limit in terms of seats, you can educate thousands of students.

Vivekananda College evening course offers around 540 seats for B.Com, and 50, 70 and such for BBA, BCA etc. and nothing at all in the BA, BSc streams. That is why I am focusing on B.Com. It appears that there is a huge demand for that course. But there could be significant demand for some select BSc courses, BBA/BCA/MBA/MCA etc. in the coming days. As i explained earlier, there is no way regular colleges can be built to offer these courses in the coming years.

Now, who will join these programs? It is the middle class that finds no seats in the best colleges in the city. In a recent interaction with the humanities students of IIT-Madras, I asked them where the Chennai students would have joined if they couldn't get into IIT, they could come up with Stella Maris, MOP Vaishnava, Loyola, MCC and WCC. Only two of them for men (or selective co-ed), the rest women only.

What will the teachers teach here? Take the basic syllabus of Madras University's distance education, clean up the nonsense there, add the best from various other syllabies, make the whole thing contemporaneous, and then teach this. The teachers can focus on all kinds of interesting educational experiments not possible in the traditional colleges. Such students should easily excel in the exams of Madras University and score well.

If the 'academies' do a good job, their students will be preferred over the students from regular colleges in the job market. Once the word spreads around, these academies will be chosen over the traditional colleges.