Dr. SS Mantha was a professor of Robotics and an alumnus of VJTI, Mumbai where he taught for over two decades. After taking over the AICTE, he brought in e-governance in a big way within it.
In a freewheeling conversation with Maheshwer Peri of Careers360, he discusses policy, distance education, B.Tech, and punitive powers of AICTE.
Q. You are an academician and now you are working as an administrator. If given a choice, what role would you prefer?
A. For more than 20 years, I have taught industrial automation and control theory. I have also been a part of a lot of industrial projects, including the ones with Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). It was fun teaching and also learning while teaching students. As a nation we are large and diverse, so the aspirations and expectations are very different. To meet these expectations as an administrator and a teacher, is a challenge in itself. But if you are committed and logical, you can succeed.
Q. The state of academic research in our country is dismal. Do you agree?
A. Well, I believe that in the top 500 institutions of our country, teaching is at par with other countries. But I believe a lot needs to be done in the research arena. What we need to do here is to identify the top 100 institutions besides the IITs and NITs and synergise variuos departments with respective industrial sectors. It works as a win-win situation for both the institutes and industries. We are working on setting up incubation centres in at least top 100 institutions, approved by the AICTE. This would let teachers and students carry out research work within the institutes’ premises, without moving out. So, we are trying to bring in innovations to encourage research.
Q. What do you think about privatisation of institutions? Do you think profit-motive educational system would work in India?
A. As a matter of policy, education has never been meant for profit and we don’t subscribe to that at all. But if there is surplus money involved, we believe it should go back into development of the institute so that the stakeholders (students, parents, society, industries, etc) get back their proper returns. Having said that, profit motive can never be a yardstick for running an institution.
Q. Recently the University of North Virginia visa fraud case took place, followed by the Tri-Valley University episode. Numerous ‘Tri- Valleys’ are there in India. What can we do to prevent similar situations?
A. There has to be a much more practical regulatory mechanism, wherever such incidences happen. By regulations, I must clarify that it would not mean that best institutions will get throttled and there will not be any roadblocks in their efficient working. An effective profiling of institutions and their activities would have checked the frauds of University of North Virginia and Tri-Valley. We already do carry out profiling of institutions in India, but that needs to be done even more meticulously.
Q. What steps are taken if the institution does not come under the ambit of AICTE?
A. If the institutions are not under AICTE, then their license to function in a particular area is guided by respective local governments. The Regulator can only perform certain duties in such cases and as it is, education is a part of the Concurrent List of the Constitution. The AICTE and other regulators set the standards and the rules but the efficient control process requires the participation of the State governments. AICTE can’t just raid an institution and file an FIR. The institutions are running under certain mandates of the State governments. The State governments need to take up responsibility of dealing with institutions flouting norms.
Q. AICTE permitted 1-year, 15-month modules in the past. But now you have clamped down. Why?
A. I need to clarify that wherever such modules were running, we have allowed them to run. However, the new mandate will be a 2-year programme for maintaining certain quality and standard. There are autonomous institutions coming in for permission to carry out 1-year or even 9-month programmes. In a system, where one is responsible to a large number of students, a certain amount of standardisation and rationalisation is essential. But yes, if certain institutions are exceptionally good and are matured to handle such programmes, we can consider them. Though, these would only be special cases and never ever become the norm.
Q. Around 60,000 B-School seats and 100,000 engineering seats are going vacant. What is AICTE doing about that?
A. Vacant seats are not really present across board or across all disciplines. Our statistics say about 10-12% of our seats are lying vacant. Most of the seats go vacant in institutions situated in rural areas and in fields such as production, instrumentation, etc. With a growing perception that IT sector may not be as job-intensive as it was few years back, a few seats are found vacant in this discipline as well.
Civil, Mechanical and Electrical engineering are usually filled to the brim across institutions. So if I give you a situation where all vacant seats are converted to these three branches of engineering, there would be no seat left vacant. But then this would lead to skewed growth of technology education. This would not help our case. Thus, the vacant seats are subject to demand of particular engineering discipline at a certain time and since the demand changes, so do the vacant seats.
Q. It has often been pointed out that AICTE-regulated institutions work with inexperienced faculty. What is your take on this issue?
A. The quality of faculty in institutes is a matter of huge concern across the world. I believe that the quality benchmark operates across three levels; people who are absolutely good and they constitute the first level, then we have mid-level which has the potential to reach the higher level and lastly, the poor quality. This kind of grading is found across sectors in the academic universe and is not specific to technical education. Now we can aspire towards having the best of faculty, which is 80 percent directly related to hard work and any incremental increase after that would require immense efforts, money and commitment.
So we need our State and central government to implement policies to attract good faculty by better pay scales. Even though the Sixth Pay Commission has led to improvement in salaries, they remain lower than what is offered by the corporate world. An IT engineer or Mechanical engineer in an industrial sphere would be paid almost twice a lecturer. This disparity has to be worked out. It would automatically draw in best of potentates in faculty of engineering colleges and would help improve their quality.
Q. Why is the mandatory disclosure that AICTE needs to impose on people not coming across at all?
A. This probably was the fact a few years back. But with e-governance almost all the information is available under public domain. For example, on the AICTE website under Bureaux section, we have a link saying institutions under public domain. Everybody can access information of about some 10,000 institutions by selecting a proper query based on a State or a particular programme. We can get an idea about the alumni, faculty members along with qualification and even get to see their registration documents, affidavits and land documents.
As far as existing institutions are concerned, they upload the documents on the site and sign an affidavit that if any document is found forged, a criminal action can be initiated. We emphasise on self-disclosure. As far as new institutions are concerned we need to visit them and verify documents. Inspection takes place under the surveillance of a local vigilance committee headed by a retired High Court judges. In fact, we also have a database of outsiders like professors of IITs, NITs and government institutions who carry out these inspections. Even the accreditation process is carried out through a two-tier process. As all these mechanisms reveal, we are definitely implementing mandatory disclosure in a big way.
Q. What is your take on celebrity endorsements of educational institutions?
A. I do not have any problem with celebrities who are connected to education sector in one way or the other. They can act as role models and inspire students. But if they have no connection with education sector, I don’t see any point in their endorsements.
Q. What is your opinion about the Joint committee of UGC-AICTE-DEC that looks into distance education programmes?
A. As a matter of policy, AICTE does not allow technical education to be provided through distance education. We do not have the systems or the content required by learning centres to carry out distance education. Secondly there are 1.5 million engineering seats and actually 10-12% of them are lying vacant. In such a situation, a student has ample choices for pursuing regular engineering.
A student may not take up engineering, if he does not get a stream of choice in a certain college. But this must not mean he takes up a distance learning option instead. Probably he might choose a different college or course in such cases. So in such a situation, who would actually subscribe to engineering through distance learning? If we talk of the working population, they can always enrol in the second shift which is operative across institutions. We have allowed for such options even at undergraduate levels in engineering institutes and even in B-schools. This is any day better than distance education.
Q. Institutes do at times cheat students. What are the punitive measures under AICTE?
A. There are numerous safety measures. The Chapter 5 of Approval Handbook talks of punitive measures and deals with violation of AICTE norms. We carried out 700 surprise inspections throughout the last year and around 576 institutions were given show-cause notices. We have put a tab on intake in certain institutions, shut down several institutions and have withdrawn approval in some cases.
Q. Considering that you and your team is one of the best put together by HRD Ministry in the last couple of years, do you get frustrated by roadblocks that come your way?
A. Dealing with a nation of such magnitude and diversity, the system does throw up difficulties. We are politically-sensitive as a nation and this often leads to certain roadblocks in processes. However, if one remains committed and caters to the larger interest, he or she can manage to overcome these issues. We are also looking towards working in greater tandem with the industries and stakeholders to address larger sections of population.