State fails, but students suffer

Michael Spence got a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001 for his theories on job-market signaling. As an employer, I do not have sufficient knowledge about the applicant's skills. In order to signal her skills and quality, her educational degree becomes important. If the job applicant has gone to a good college, it will send a signal to the employer about her/his skills. In some sense, the signal of higher education institutions fulfils the role of making information symmetric.

The Supreme Court passed a landmark judgement on November 3 in which it suspended and nullified engineering degrees of all students who graduated, in distance education mode, from four deemed universities since 2001. It also mandated a CBI inquiry on regulatory authorities who gave retrospective approvals to these deemed universities for those programmes. Further, it held that deemed-to-be-universities cannot call themselves as universities, but only "deemed to be universities".

 Spence would be happy. The court applied his model directly, although it didn't quote him. But should it have cancelled degrees retrospectively? More importantly, is the larger context fertile for such a judgement?

 The judgment is mostly devoted to detailing out procedural lapses on the part of the said deemed universities and regulatory authorities, the UGC, AICTE, the erstwhile DEC, documenting the faults in approvals and inspections. The entire analysis is textual rather than contextual, and located squarely within a strict reading of the law. While this is desirable and the court has indeed taken an expansive view of the value of these procedures, it still remains brutally incomplete. The court, in a judgement blind-folded to reality, assumed that procedural lapses would also mean that the degrees were worthless and must be recalled or cancelled.

 This assumption is disastrously baseless in the Indian context. Time and again, scholars and practitioners have lamented the disrepair that Indian higher education has spiraled down into. So much that barring a handful of elite colleges, the degrees earned in India have lost their signaling value almost entirely. There are around 40,000 colleges in India, averaging 56 per district. How many can you name in your own city. Hardly any, right? An unmanageably rising demand for college degrees in the aspirational middle class has led to the mushrooming of thousands of private colleges with little or no reliable regulatory oversight. There are companies today that conduct standardised tests for graduates, and these are the scores that they use to assess the candidates' skills, not their graduate degrees.

Consider this: ISB (Indian School of Business), Hyderabad, is one of the top 20 B-Schools in the world. And it does not provide any degree or diploma, only a certificate. So is the case of Vedica Scholars Programme for Women in Delhi, housing brilliant students and faculty, but no formal UGC-recognised degree/diploma. These places signal very high quality, reflected in impressive placements from these institutions. Smart and resourceful students know this and come here. But for a large majority of uninformed students and parents, however, the UGC recognition and presence of old colleges are the only signs of reliability.

 In such a scenario, colleges that blatantly lie about their worth to attract students, and the regulators who fail to monitor the quality and practices of these institutions must be penalised. It makes no sense for students to go through the pain of being re-tested (as per court's award) or live without any claim to a degree despite having worked for it. The oldest of the deemed universities in question has existed since 1910, and the youngest of them since 1981 (the other two have been around since 1937 and 1950), with respectable ratings from NAAC. What are students to believe?

 Perhaps more importantly, most Indian degrees do not necessarily correspond to knowledge. Markets, over time, assess the skills and accordingly set the wages of any player. Even if the students who graduated from these institutions during the period in question had a 'worthless' degree, the market would have allocated appropriate wages to them by now. So, what is the point in suspending their degrees, if not to send the students to a life full of degree-less shame?

 The court has 'sympathetically' suggested that those who obtained the degrees between 2001 and 2005 can reclaim them if they pass a test to be conducted by AICTE. This is hardly sympathetic. More than 10 years after obtaining the degree, the students have to again cram the content of the test's question bank. This is not painless by any measure. I wonder how many of these students the court even heard!

 The State needs to assume accountability for its own failures to do its job, rather than extracting the cost of its failures from students who relied on it.

 (The writer is Deputy Director, Institute of Higher Education Research,  OP Jindal Global University)

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