Kerala: Engineering students’ strike is just a symptom of its higher education mess

Kerala, the land of strikes and hartals, is in the grip of yet another fast-spreading student agitation.

What began as protest against a private engineering college in Trichur district in northern Kerala a few days ago following the alleged suicide of a student has turned violent and reached the office of the association of managements of such colleges in Kochi. Going by Kerala’s history of violent student agitations, it’s only a matter of time before it spreads to the rest of the state. Fearing more damage and demanding protection, about 120 private engineering colleges in the state have been closed for a day on Thursday.

The apparent ire of the agitating students is against the alleged extra-legal disciplinary methods employed by the management in the Trichur college because that’s what reportedly forced the student to commit suicide. According to his friends and family, he had been ridiculed and abused by a staff member for allegedly copying in an exam hall. Immediately after this incident, the students went on the war path and told the media horror stories about the college that ranged from misrule and physical abuses to poor facilities.

Simultaneously, reports of similar stories of discipline-related abuses, poor infrastructure and facilities emerged from the rest of the state. The overall picture presented by the students is that of a ruthless statewide enterprise and in some cases, mafia-like operations.

And that is the talk of the state now.

 Kerala: Engineering students’ strike is just a symptom of its higher education mess

Representational image. AFP

Ironically, this is exactly what many educationalists had warned the state government when it began privatising higher education in the state two decades ago. What’s more ironical is that at the forefront of the agitation is Kerala Students Union (KSU), the student wing of the Congress, which had kickstarted and even intensified this privatisation. Today, the state has about 160 engineering colleges, of which 120 are in the private sector — on an average about 11-12 engineering college per district.

It’s a crazy statistic for a state which before the privatisation drive had less than 20 engineering colleges, that too run by the government. Today, most of the private engineering colleges that mushroomed, disproportionate to the need of the state, are unable to fill their seats and manage a pass rate of even 40 percent. Fifty percent of them don’t even reach 40 percent pass rates. In some colleges, its doesn’t cross single digits.

What the Congress-led UDF and the subsequent LDF governments have created in the state is a reckless mess where everybody is unhappy — the students, the managements, the faculty and the job industry. The managements that rushed to opening such colleges are unable to make the kind of money that they thought they would, while the students and even the poorly-paid faculty feel that they are being taken for a ride. Is it a problem created by profit-driven managements alone?

Not really. The students and the faculty are also part of the problem because most of them are of poor quality. The glut in availability of seats enabled a large number of incompetent students with very poor Class 12 marks study engineering that they were incapable of. Unsurprisingly, on an average, 60 percent of them failed, and even among those who obtained a degree, a substantial number were unemployable because of poor skills. The situation became vicious and has dragged the standards further down when the managements chose their faculty from the same catchment of engineering graduates. So, today, the management, the students and the faculty together have created a mutually worsening ecosystem. The threshold of student-admission has been kept abysmally low and the managements want them to be lowered further. This is the real race to the bottom.

There’s no escape unless the state government, which incidentally created this ugly monster, takes drastic steps. In response to the present student agitation, the CPM-led LDF government has announced the appointment of an ombudsman to redress their complaints. As usual, a high-level committee will study the functioning of the private colleges and the government will do an assessment.

All that the ombudsman and the expert committee can do will be cosmetic because the underlying root causes cannot be addressed without structural changes. An education system in which 60 percent of the students fail, a system in which entry-barriers are literally non-existent, a system that doesn’t produce a reasonable number of employable candidates and a system that doesn’t contribute to academic literature needs to be completely overhauled. The vicious cycle of profits, poor management and poor students has to be disrupted. One sixty colleges for 14 districts is an unsustainable overkill which is meant to fail. The size and scale have to come down and the quality has to rise. The flab has to go.

But the present LDF government wouldn’t be able to cut the flab. In fact, the issue had come before the state Assembly in 2012, during the previous UDF government’s time. But this is what Education Minister PK Abdu Rabb then said, “Closing down these colleges and rehabilitating the students in other colleges would lead to a lot of problems. So the government is of the view that the existing colleges should be allowed to function with stern measures to improve their standards.”

What prompted the discussion in the House then was an observation of the Kerala High Court the previous month that the AICTE should revoke the affiliations to colleges that didn't have a pass percentage of 40. The court made the point based on the report of an expert group which found the quality of education at most of the private engineering colleges — in terms of facilities, faculty, salaries and management arrangement, marks of students — very poor. It noted that in one college, the principal didn’t even have an engineering degree.

Evidently, even after the high court’s intervention and the Kerala government’s promise of setting things right four years ago, things haven’t changed. The present LDF government’s patch-work too will not work because the real problem is in its DNA. What has been wrongly done has to be undone. The tumour has to be excised.

Unfortunately, that won’t be possible either because the managements represent all kinds of influences — money, religious and caste groups, and even political organisations — and the system has been co-created by both the UDF and the LDF governments. The UDF started it and the LDF nurtured it quite generously. In fact, had the LDF applied the brakes, the damage could have been limited because between 2001, when the UDF started the mayhem, and 2006, the number was still under 50. But instead of stemming the rot, the LDF government under VS Achuthanandan, allowed about 30 more colleges and when the UDF came back under Oommen Chandy’s leadership, it added another 30-odd. Since the 2001, the increase in the number of engineering colleges in the government sector has been marginal. The government, whether UDF or LDF, obviously had more or less withdrawn from technical education.

Probably, the purveyors of the globally famous 'Kerala Model of Development' should disseminate this worst practise as well because public funded high quality education (a number of technical heroes of the country came from the old government engineering colleges in the state) and health were among the pillars of Kerala’s unique human development story. Both are in the dumps today and both the Congress, which has been reckless in its policies, and the CPM, which gets opportunistically preachy, are equally responsible.

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Updated Date: Jan 12, 2017 14:43:24 IST