The Crossroads for Professional Education

20 Mar

Both management and engineering colleges are in trouble, with those at the margin struggling for survival. Large numbers are quoted, both for the number of seats available and for the unemployability numbers. And it is here in these statistics that some of the problems can be identified. For years, employers have been bemoaning the fact that the graduates they recruit are not employable as they have not been trained for the workplace. For many, the skills they are taught are out of date, for most, they have no real life skills – or what they call ‘soft’ skills these days.

It cannot just be about content and curriculum. Faulty, out of date curriculum can easily be changed in most of these institutions, especially those in the private sector. Many of them have introduced innovations, seek industry involvement, invite a visiting faculty (its cheaper that way too) and provide access to the wider world using technology.

And yet, they have been noticing a fall in numbers for the past two years. So much so, that state governments have noticed the ‘oversupply’ and some of them have requested the regulatory body – the AICTE – to stop approving new institutions. A clear instance of under analysis leading to knee jerk regulatory solutions while ignoring the genuine issues in the sector.

While it cannot be denied that many of these schools of engineering and management were opportunistic profit making enterprises with little sense of purpose or process, they are not all like that. It would be ridiculous to ban the entry of genuinely well prepared and well intentioned schools, just because the previous supply has been mismanaged. There is a wide range of management and engineering schools in the country – some no better than shops (even registered under the Shops and Establishments Act!) and others genuinely endeavoring to provide good grounding for employment.

These professional schools sit at the end of the supply chains that converts students to employees. They often have almost impossible targets to achieve given the quality of input that they take in – which is why the hierarchy of institutions is often determined more by the challenge of the entry test than the quality of the output. The cream of the lot get the best students to work with, the ones that are at the margins have to work with barely literate students. The current regulatory requirements are designed to place an unreasonable emphasis on infrastructure, less on quality education. It is quite sad that for the most part, neither the quality of output nor standards for process are defined, thus leaving most small institutions with few relevant guidelines and support in providing quality education.

The emphasis in recent years has been in setting up a large education infrastructure with little attention paid to content. Thus, new institutions were offered land at subsidised rates in far away places. This was a great way to foster development in the boondocks, but also creates additional hurdles for small, well meaning educational institutions. Many provide daily buses to and from main transport nodes, thus again replicating part of the school experience. Recruiting students for such places is a challenge especially since few good faculty want to work for unknown institutes in remote locations. Many such institutions were set up by successful business people such as jewellers, sweet shop owners and builders – CSR redefined for the new century. The success or failure of the institution depends upon the attitude of promoters – those who seek to run it as a shop have different results from those who honour academics. Those who put students first have a completely different set of results. Integrity, ego and goal orientation often form the triumvirate that rules in co-optition, delivering inconsistent results and standards across the sector.
A professional school must be a transformative experience, totally different objectives from traditional schooling – in this, many have failed to deliver. These schools are often run as an extension to schooling, including uniforms, buses and in a few cases and textbooks. Each of these bounds the learning experience, reducing connect with the real world in a bid to manage operational realities. The products of such establishments that did not encourage growth are rarely ready to face real world issues and challenges. The demand for these naturally suffers, as students wise up to relative value addition across management and engineering schools.

The current problems are a natural phase of most industries when they are just past their initial high growth stage. Cannot deny that education is an industry, a business too – even if its profits are regulated. The customers are the students, and they may choose to purchase or not – depending upon the value that they see in the product delivered. What is interesting here is that the product is not necessarily the quality or quantity of education – which is important in itself. Students may not necessarily be looking for a well rounded high quality educational experience. The end product is a diverse range for different segments. Among other things, placements, career track, research, networks are all important deliverables for these schools. Younger, smaller institutions are expected to prove their worth by immediate outcomes such as number of students placed in jobs and the average salaries achieved per batch. Older schools are expected to deliver that and more, including network benefits.

Shake up, consolidation and repositioning in the industry is the natural next phase, as it is with most industries just after a rapid investment and growth phase. For many this will be via collaborations on projects, via shared services or outright mergers and acquisitions. Foreign investment in infrastructure, access and standards is on the cards for many such schools and merely awaits the anticipated legislation. These collaborations seek to boost their brand value, thus giving them a more secure foothold in the professional education market. Stronger brands will continue to to extend their reach in an attempt to scale and be more inclusive.

This process does not preclude the entry of new schools of management and engineering. In fact, they are as likely to be useful in bringing better ways of teaching and managing since they enter an industry that is now under pressure and they will need to create their own unique position in the hearts, minds and pockets of their target audience. Unless they deliver specific value, their investors will suffer. The ban sought is meaningless as free market forces will have the same result. Investor funds will dry up, unless clear value addition is demonstrated. This industry must now focus on engineering solutions to demonstrate such value to serve their key stakeholders – the students, the employers and their investors. It is time they practice what they teach.

This was published in the Times of India’s blogs – EduCable on March 14, 2012

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