Given India’s large population of 1.2 billion, typically demand far outstrips supply in almost everything. When it comes to infrastructure in particular — be it transportation, housing, health care, education, etc. — the constant refrain is that the country needs more.
For instance, with over half of India’s population less than 25 years of age, there is usually a scramble for seats in educational institutions of all types. But in an anomaly of sorts, even as there are thousands of students aspiring to become engineers, thousands of seats in engineering colleges in the country have not found any takers this year.
Meanwhile, state governments have asked the AII India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the country’s regulatory body for professional education, to reject any fresh proposals for starting new engineering colleges. Talking recently to daily newspaper The Times of India, S. S. Mantha, chairman of AICTE, said: “We have received letters from [the] Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Haryana and Chhattisgarh governments telling us not to clear proposals for engineering institutes.”
AICTE records show that the capacity in engineering colleges has increased three fold in the past five years. India currently has close to 3,400 engineering colleges (both government and private) that offer around 1,500,000 seats. Of these, nearly 200,000 went empty this year. Mantha points out that while there are “no takers for specific engineering programs, the core engineering courses — civil, mechanical and electrical — still have takers.”
According to T.V. Mohandas Pai, chairman of education services provider Manipal Global Education, the vacant seats in the engineering colleges are not just a reflection of increased capacity or lack of student interest in certain streams. Instead, they are an indication that students are rejecting bad quality education. Pai, who until recently was a board member and head of human resources at information technology firm Infosys, points out that there is “a mushrooming of inefficient institutions. Seats are going vacant only in bad colleges because students now have a choice. This is a good thing for the country and will clean up the [education] sector.”
In India, education is restricted to nonprofits, but unscrupulous players enter the sector because of the high demand, manipulate the system to get through the entry criteria, and then bend the rules to rake in profits. Many legitimate players tend to stay away because offering high quality education requires deep pockets to attract good faculty and for setting up the infrastructure. In the nonprofit model, investments are typically limited, and it takes a long time to build a critical mass.
One possible solution to India’s woes in the education sector is to allow new players to enter the system based on transparent norms and let established institutions freely expand to whatever capacity they want. “Providing education is a noble activity, but it must be seen as a providing a service like in any other sector,” says Pai. “While regulations are needed to ensure the highest standards of quality, what the government needs to do is create a transparent system where private institutions are encouraged to invest in and deliver high quality education, and let the inclination of the players [to be for-profit or nonprofit] and the market dynamics decide their profitability.”
In addition, it is important to incentivize educational institutions to become more than just good disseminators of knowledge. They must also become good creators of knowledge, experts say. This, in turn, will lead to a natural upgrading of the education that they impart. In the meantime, the empty seats could be a warning to those wanting to make a fast buck.