Higher education management needs reorganization

University Grants Commission (UGC) is the organization responsible for improving the quality of education in India. Education institutions in India need huge quality improvement. However, the structure of the UGC seems to be an inhibiting factor for achieving its mission.

The Times of India feature, “Varsities fail to utilize UGC plan fund” (May 18, 2016) [2, 3, 4, 5, 6] highlights that the management and operation of the universities in Kerala are in a mess. However, the universities are not the only ones to share the blame.

Your report says, “With less than a year left for the plan period (2012-2017) to expire, there is apprehension that most of the institutions may lose 40% to 50% of the money allocated to them. The objective of this UGC scheme is to improve the infrastructure and basic facilities at universities so as to help them ‘achieve at least the threshold level and promote enhancement of quality.'” The use of funds “includes construction and renovation of buildings, campus development, appointing staff, funding for books and journals, innovative research activities, ICT requirements, health center, creating student amenities, university-industry linkages and publication grant.”

These UGC programs fail miserably as the universities do not even attempt to make an effort. “The major reason for the failure to utilize allocated funds is their inability to take decisions, lack of initiative, leadership and planning.” However, the UGC may share part of the blame. The report adds, “a university registrar who didn’t wish to be quoted said, ‘sometimes universities do prepare projects and spend the money, but it gets stuck as UGC raises objections and reject it.'” In addition, “conflicts between university officials syndicate members as well as the financial and audit teams can lead to confusion and delay and delay in submitting necessary documents. I will inquire into why we have failed to utilize the released grant money,” said MG university vice chancellor Babu Sabastian (“Lack of planning land them in a mess”).

Your feature also points out a critical data: India “spend only 0.6% of GDP on higher education, while in the US it is 2.7%.” This shows there is huge funding gap for higher education in India.

Your feature identifies another important factor for improving education quality: “Trying to solve academic problems through academic reforms alone won’t help, unless one addresses the administrative and financial issues.”

Based on the reports, higher education in India needs drastic reforms.

The current command-and-control model of the UGC needs to be converted into a model based on collaboration. At present, the universities requests grants from the UGC, and UGC approves the grant proposals. But UGC can second-guess the universities and deny the funds. This puts the universities in a bind, since they lack independent funding sources. This is probably the reason for under utilization of UGC grants.

So the fund approval process in the UGC need to separated out from the auditing function. Maybe the audit function can performed by an autonomous agency responsible for auditing all central government funding for all sectors, making it possible to have uniformity in performance, and develop data on funding needs and utilization for all sectors.

Currently, universities are left to their on devices for project planning, management and execution. Since the needs are common, UGC could take the initiative to develop organization and project prototypes for common development needs universities have. And provide know-how and knowledge transfer for effective project planning and execution.

Another problem apparent from the reports is the centralized nature of UGC funding system. Rather than allocating funds at the university level, decentralize funding to smallest-operating-unit level. For example, a chemistry department in a university could request and get funding for improving their lab facilities without involving the whole university bureaucracy. Or, a university facilities department could request and obtain UGC funds for an auditorium without involving all of the university.

Also, why should the funding be based on 5-year plan periods. Each projects has its own natural lifecyle. Many will require less than 5 years, but others may take more than 5 years. Government of India has abolished the socialistic centralized planning. It is high time UGC also abandoned centralized planning vestiges. Instead of plan funds expiring at the end of plan terms, continue to make funds available to deserving projects without having to duplicate proposal activities.

To sum up,

  1. Change current command-control UGC model to a decentralized model based on collaboration.
  2. UGC should provide project/ organization know-how and knowledge transfer for effective project planning and execution to universities.
  3. Eliminate fund expiration at plan periods, but make funds available throughout the lifecycle of deserving projects.
  4. Decentralize, and distribute funds to smallest operating units within universities. For example, students, staff, departments.
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It’s education, stupid!

Even the political parties in Kerala have accepted the need for education reform. The Times of India reports, “For the first time, political parties have accepted that education sector in the state is facing quality erosion” (The steep learning curve, May 8, 2016). It is a welcome sign, as admission of a problem is the first step for finding a solution.

Former vice chancellor of M G University A Sukumaran Nair correctly says, “the practice of blindly aping one system or other should be discouraged.” However, the problems facing education in Kerala are deeper than a matter of curriculum development and eliminating political interference. The whole education system in Kerala needs an overhaul.

The current education model is as follows. Teachers with the correct credentials teach approved syllabus conforming to the authorized curriculum. Students are expected to become knowledgeable at least to a minimum level of the prescribed syllabus, verified through gating examinations. Those passing the examinations are declared qualified and are granted certificates making them eligible to apply for different job categories and other education opportunities. This model worked and was sufficient when the British were ruling India, and wanted the graduates to function only in supporting roles.

Current system is obsolete and we need people who excel and have leadership capabilities in all fields. For this the education system needs both structural and content changes.

Internet makes easy access to information, knowledge and experts globally. Individual skills required now are different from what what was needed when economy was operating in geographically bound silo-ed economies. People now need a broad understanding of all areas of human activities, and specialized skill in areas of their choosing to have successful careers. Education systems need change to help people achieve these goals.

In Kerala, rather than the current monolithic structure there should be two tracks. First track for those with an aptitude for knowledge for its own sake, or for self fulfillment. This track can be developed to fill the research and academic roles in the economy. The second track is for those interested in learning skills and acquiring knowledge to have a successful career in business/ industry. This track fulfills the need of both business and technical jobs in the economy. Students should have the freedom to pick and choose courses from either of these tracks.

Instead of the current gating examinations, the education institutions need to implement continuous evaluations, to have assurance that the graduates have a minimum knowledge and skills in the relevant field/ area. These evaluations have to be more granular than the current degree programs such as science, arts, engineering, etc. For example, basic programming, network administration, social media marketing, graphical design for advertising, bookkeeping, etc. These training/ education also need to be available a la carte so that students do not have to complete two/ three year degree/ diploma to obtain skills/ knowledge they are interested in.

The Kerala education overhaul will be successful, if it is implemented as part of an industrial development initiative. No education reform can be successful if the students do not have job opportunities in the state and have to migrate for jobs. With a viable industrial development plan, apprenticeships, internships and teacher enrichment programs can be implemented to provide feedback for necessary changes and defining/ refining education requirements.


A plan for economic development

A confluence of forces — increasing chronic budget deficits, declining agriculture, slowing tourism, reduced foreign remittance, among others — make it necessary to think about new ideas for developing Kerala economy.

It seems Kerala government gimmicks and shortcuts are catching up with the tourism industry, reports The Times of India (“God’s own destination, but heading nowhere,” Apr. 27, 2016).

“The problem is that what you see on the screen is very different from what a tourist experiences when they touch down,” says the report. Seems like the Kerala tourism department has been using the skills from the movie industry in the state to win awards, but lacks understanding of essentials for building a brand. Brand is about trust and promise. Marketing makes promises about future experience that must be fulfilled. Otherwise the trust is broken, and the brand withers. Apparently, Kerala tourism marketing was about “luring tourists,” and the methods are no longer working.

“The basic requirements are infrastructure development and capacity building. Government needs to ensure good quality roads, make tourist spots garbage-free, provide hassle-free inland navigation by mid-size boats from Kollam [2. 3] to Kottpuram, develop eco-tourism clusters to protect Kerala as a green destination, besides ensuring continuous quality audit of tourist facilities,” said E M Najeeb, president Confederation of Kerala Tourism Industry. Tourism cannot function in a bubble, but is enmeshed in the local economy. It is not viable or practical to develop good quality roads, make tourist spots garbage free, or provide hassle-free inland navigation for the sake of tourism. However, it would be feasible to achieve those goals as part of overhauling the Kerala economy for making it sustainable.

First step is to develop a plan for an optimum transportation network for whole of Kerala. Once different modes of transport suitable for different regions are identified and transportation networks are designed, they can be constructed as funds become available. It will not solve the problems immediately. But, over time, will provide adequate transportation — which will never be achieved with the current piecemeal, ad-hoc, fragmented approach. Here is an outline of the priority areas for transforming Kerala economy to be sustainable:

  1. Enhance quality of education
  2. Agriculture producing premium organic agro-products [2]
  3. Plan Kerala-wide optimum transportation networks for phased implementation
  4. Implement integrated wellness and heathcare solutions
  5. Implement integrated water distribution and management
  6. Implement integrated waste management and pollution control
  7. Develop electronics and ICT (information and communication technologies) industrial capabilities, beyond the current services focus

Building malls and apartments will not result in a sustainable economy. Neither will “exporting partially educated people.” As experience has shown, IT Parks, as currently implemented, will also not produce required results. So it is time for serious investment in core industrial capabilities. Electronics and ICT sectors can form core “market activities” for a comprehensive economic development plan, for example, using “Metropolitan business planning” methodology.

To sum up, trying to build the infrastructure needs of tourism in isolation is not viable. But it can be achieved by an integrated approach for transforming the Kerala economy to be sustainable.


A transformation opportunity

Realization that the education system in Kerala needs change is sinking in. The newly formed Kochi Metro (Kochi Metro Rail Limited, KMRL) has an opportunity to lead this transformation.

The Times of India reports, “Metro agency turns down Malayalis for crucial posts” (May 1, 2016), highlights the inadequate education system in Kerala. KMRL MD Elias George said that candidates from Kerala had poor communication skills. “They have very limited knowledge on urban transportation, railways, metros and trams. Compared to their counterparts in other states, they lack exposure as well as opportunities taking place globally,” he added.

Since Kochi Metro is first metro in Kerala (which is yet to be operational), it is not surprising that students from the state do not have knowledge about metro transportation. And KMRL needs to rethink its expectations. The whole education system in Kerala is controlled by the government, and lacks objective standards. Unless Kochi Metro takes proactive steps, the recruitment problems are going to persist. The program started at the APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University is a good start, but not enough.

KMRL needs to change its recruitment strategies. According to the report, KMRL “entrusted the recruitment of freshers through the banking recruitment board in Mumbai.” [2, 3, 4, 5] The recruitment process used for banking is not suitable for the needs of the metro. It is likely that those scoring high in the written tests have poor communication/ speaking skills, and those who have good communication/ speaking skills may be have poor writing skills. The net result is KMRL’s banking-style recruitment may be filtering out the very same potential candidates KMRL is interested in finding.

The problems with current recruitment efforts suggest that KMRL needs to take the initiative and work with universities and colleges in the state to meet its workforce needs. For example, provide internship opportunities. In addition, identify and offer projects that students can complete as part of their education. Using this approach, KMRL can build a pipeline of potential employees with the right aptitude and attitude. And KMRL can offer supplementary training to enable them to perform effectively in the roles that Kochi Metro require.

Kerala government could also start much needed education reforms, using KMRL as a reference model for making necessary changes in the education system.

Instead complaining about lack of qualified job applicants, KMRL should consider it as an opportunity to transform the education system in Kerala.


University needs to learn before it can teach

Often, in Kerala, “show programs” are started to give an illusion of solving problems, without factoring the issues, causes, impact, or real solutions. The Times of India report, “Now, engg students to learn life skills and biz economics” (Apr. 26, 2016) offers an example.

“Waking up to the reality that most of the engineering students in Kerala are not employable as they lack basic communication and managerial skills, from next academic year, life skills, business economics and principles of management are being introduced as compulsory subjects in all engineering colleges in the state,” says the report.

It is a good sign that the university is realizing the need for communication, team skills and business knowledge for engineering students. However, the planned curriculum is likely to be insufficient to achieve the stated goals. “The idea behind introducing these courses in the BTech curriculum is to develop communication competence, managerial skills and understanding of business environment in the students and enable them to convey their thoughts and ideas with clarity and focus,” said KTU pro vice chancellor M Abdul Rahman [2].

It seems the university needs to do some learning first. Communication and team skills consist of the ability to behave in effective ways, avoiding ineffective behaviors. And the only way to achieve these skills is repeated practice, after learning the essential techniques. The curriculum does not reflect this understanding, and the emphasis is on “book knowledge.” Before the university can teach its students, there is a need to understand, set the right goals, and find effective learning methods for achieving those goals on the part of the university.

“Managerial economics” is an oxymoron. Instead of teaching nonsensical economic theories [2] that have no practical value for engineers, it would be far more useful to tech them accounting principles, bookkeeping, basics of finance and banking.

In addition, it is high time for the universities in the state to wake up to the fact that all students need communication, team skills and business knowledge to be employable.


Changing Kerala education system

In response to a feature in The Times of India, “Math, science or Eng, it’s girls all the way,” Mar. 21, 2016.

The feature highlights an absurdity with education in Kerala and in India.

“The national mean in English for boys was 248 and 252 for girls. In Kerala the figures were 245 and 254 respectively. While the national mean in maths, science and social sciences was 250, Kerala boys 252, 272 and 264, which was less compared to 258, 279 and 269 scored by the girls here. In modern Indian language, the national mean was 246 for boys and 254 for girls. In Kerala, boys scored 267 and girls 283.”

The problem is the current scoring system. Except for maths, large part of the score is based on recalling facts. There is no validity in saying the student who scored 252 is more knowledgeable than the one who scored 248, since the margin for error is larger than the difference. This is one reason why letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) is a better choice. By placing the measurements in bands, it is less error prone. For example, a particular C student may be better than a particular B student. But when taken in aggregate, a student who consistently scores B is very likely to be better than one who scores C consistently.

Another defect with the current scoring system is the focus on tutoring to gain high test scores, at the expense of critical thinking abilities. By collecting questions from past tests and memorizing possible answers, it is possible to get high test scores in the current system without subject matter comprehension or understanding. This impacts their job performance after graduation [2, 3].

Along with changing the scoring in schools, entrance examinations also need to be changed to de-emphasize test scoring and prioritize comprehension, understanding and critical thinking. Maybe one way is to integrate internship and job training in the education system. This will eliminate the current dependence on test scores for job placement, at the same time ameliorate the current job skills deficit. Adopting the best practices from the German job training system, while eliminating its deficiencies, would be good starting point.

In addition to changing the grading system, teaching methods also need change. Currently there is too much emphasis on facts and data. With availability of internet, facts and data are easily available. What is needed are skills for analyzing data to reach conclusions and make decisions. In sciences, applying knowledge gained in experiments to further understanding of the real world dynamics is important. But lab facilitates are grossly inadequate in schools, and must be upgraded.

To sum up, essential changes required for education in Kerala and India are:

  1. Replace scoring methodology
  2. Change entrance examination culture
  3. Changes in teaching methods
  4. Better lab and learning facilities
  5. Integrate job training and internship into the education system.

Without these changes, over analyzing scores with the current system provides no insights for improving the skills needed in a modern economy. more>


An early bird misses the worm

In response to a feature on startups in The Times of India, Mar. 15, 2016: “An early bird misses the worm,” “Future is in the ‘internet of things,’” “No dearth of funds for a bright saleable idea,” “A startup strategy for traditional industries.”

“Kerala has a history of missing buses. We have this legacy of innovating things first and then losing that advantage. Perhaps the first decentralized manufacturing plant in the world was Keltron. We missed that bus, followed by the IT and biotechology buses. And now, its Startups,” said Shilen Sagunan [2], CEO of SS Consulting.

Kerala legacy is not “innovating,” but chasing novelties — a natural outcome since a significant portion of the people of Kerala are employed all over India and around the world. Constant travel to Kerala and from Kerala facilitates awareness, but not expert knowledge, of current trends. And Kerala government starts programs without sufficient understanding of the key “success factors” and “misses the buses.”

For example, the Kerala IT Mission activities are mainly construction projects with impressive labels “Technopark,” “Infopark,” “SmartCity,” etc. In reality, they are merely centralized business parks with centralized facilities, network connectivity and transportation. They provided some employment when IT adoption was in full swing. But there was hardly any attention or investment in the underlying technologies, such as semiconductor, software, networking, fabrication, assembling, packaging, or testing, to develop an ICT (information and communication technologies) industrial base. In addition, there were no changes in the education system, beyond cosmetic, leaving the state deficit in cutting-edge IT expertise.

The current craze is startups, trying to mimic the Silicon Valley, without understanding the critical success factors. Silicon Valley has world class education and research institutions conducting cutting edge research. In addition, Silicon Valley is immersed in “free enterprise” culture of the USA and “frontier mind-set” of the “wild west,” and imbued with pioneering spirit from historical developments.

Foolishness of the Kerala government technology policies may be inferred from the actions of KSIDC (Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation). KSIDC is offering seed funding of Rs 25 lakhs ($37k) to 30-odd startups (“No dearth of funds for a bright saleable idea“) and expecting technology revolution. What else can you expect from a KSIDC managed by bureaucrats who have had government jobs all their careers, and do not have any direct knowledge how free market economy operates.

Prime Minister Modi has made “Startup” an all-purpose catch-phrase (“A startup strategy for traditional industries.”) The startup paradigm developed in the Silicon Valley due to deficiencies in the banking system to provide financing for productive economic activities, especially high risk technology ventures. Kerala government wants to popularize ‘startup’ idea for traditional industries. The potential for fast-growth, followed by exit (acquisition or becoming a public listed company) is what is driving the startup model. Traditional industries do not have such potential. What is needed for traditional industries is a functioning banking system that supports productive economic activities, instead of concentrating on real estate bubbles.

“Kerala should focus more on high-end technologies like IoT. This will give a first mover advantage and that will attract more people into new technologies. Fortunately, Kerala has a good polity and have lot of other things that could support entrepreneurship. What is lacking is only focus. Perhaps the government could setup a center for excellence for IoT, and that will attract more serious outlook from the government of India,” said Purushothaman K, Senior Director at NASSCOM (” Future is in the ‘internet of things.'”)

IoT is being promoted in the USA as the “next big thing,” since the social media bubble has reached its full potential. The critical reason why IoT cannot achieve its potential at this stage is deficiencies in the current network infrastructure (cyber security and access are the main ones.)

Maybe the Kerala government will be tempted to chase after “first mover advantage” with IoT, or maybe not. Kerala government may have learned the lessons from chasing after so many trends for “first mover advantage” without sufficient preparation or understanding.


Training the teachers

In response to a feature in The Times of India, Feb. 24, 2016: “Training the teachers,” “Emphasis on teacher quality need of the hour.”

You have identified many critical problems with education in Kerala in your feature. Clearly, “lack of quality of teachers is the main problem affecting higher education in Kerala.”

While it is a valid issue, there is a bigger problem with education in Kerala. Kerala education is ‘teaching-focused.’ Instead, education need to become ‘learning-oriented.’

With today’s exploding information and knowledge, no teacher can possibly keep up with all relevant information in a field, no matter how talented she or he may be. So the only solution is to change the system to be learning oriented.

In addition, teaching focused system in Kerala destroys independent thinking and promotes conformity, limiting the quality of workforce available in the state.

Since we are way past the Gurukula [2, 3] system of education, better teacher remuneration is critical for improving teacher quality. Structural changes in the current education system are necessary for achieving this goal. Both state and central governments must give up control of education beyond minimum necessary administrative support.

There are two primary purposes for education:

  1. Acquiring necessary skills and knowledge required to be active in a modern economy, and
  2. Attain intellectual pleasure by gaining knowledge and by creating knowledge through research and inventions.

The education system need to be structured clearly to match these two goals, but without limiting student’s ability to choose from either streams. There should be no restrictions on students from learning subjects of their choice. Another important change required is facilities for “lifelong learning” [2, 3, 4, 5] It is foolish to expect knowledge gained in schools and colleges will be sufficient for a job or career when there is so much new information, technologies and changes created everyday.

Regional and national skilled workforce needs should set the priorities for the education system. Implementing such a system will avoid the current situation in which graduates do not have skills or knowledge needed for jobs.

In addition, partnerships between industry and education institutions need to be established to implement continuous feedback systems for defining education goals. Such partnerships can be tremendously helpful for creating course-ware, training, skill development materials and methodologies. Teachers should be encouraged to take initiative in these partnerships, and provision must be made for teacher compensation — partially addressing the teacher remuneration issue.

Fortunately, availability of technology makes “learning oriented” education feasible on a large scale, thanks to the internet.

I developed a learning methodology, “Learning by Blogging (LBB),” used in the blogs at: blogs.strategygroup.net. Reading information has a retention rate of less than 20%. With increasing use of internet and other digital technologies, average attention span is now eight seconds. By blogging, you are messing with the content and analyzing it from different perspectives, enhancing retention and comprehension by making it an active learning process, increasing comprehension over 75%.

The LBB system can be modified and adapted for classroom, training, community, business and other learning needs.


‘Slow mover’ Kochi faults survey

In response to a report in The Times of India, “‘Slow mover’ Kochi faults survey,” Feb. 18, 2016. [2]

A senior Kochi Corporation official was reported as saying, “.. we received just 210 out of 400 marks for waste collection and 60 out of 200 for processing and disposal of waste. It is to be noted that Thiruvanthapuram [2, 3, 4], where there’s no waste processing and disposal taking place currently, received 302 and 182 marks respectively. What’s the logic behind this?”

The report exemplifies the loss-of-clarity-of-mission common in Kerala government and its various agencies. There are several reasons. Foremost among them is the culture present and promoted by education institutions in the state.

The purpose of education in Kerala, as practiced, is not gaining knowledge and developing skills. But passing examinations with high scores and getting top rank in various state and national tests. And there is a whole ancillary “tutoring industry” [2, 3, 4] operating to help students achieve high scores in many entrance and other examinations.

The official seems to be reminiscing about the education system.

The purpose of a government agency is to achieve its mission goals and generate outcomes that are relevant to the residents of the city. The points in surveys may be helpful as a performance measure, but definitely not the yardstick for evaluating how an agency is fulfilling its mission.

Ask a tourist or an affected resident, they will tell you that the garbage disposal, waste pile-up, sanitation facilities and cleanliness of public places in Kochi are deplorable.

Now, don’t start finding excuses like, “We’re at position 55! … There are other worse places. And last year we were 4th …”