The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the country’s apex technical education regulator, is in the news these days for all the wrong reasons. Its chairman S.S. Mantha speaks in an interview about the reforms he brought to technical education in India, the implication of a free-market situation in higher education, and the impact of two recent court orders on the council—one, in April 2013, and another, in October 2013. He also spoke about the delay in bringing an ordinance to restore AICTE’s old powers, and whether the University Grants Commission (UGC) is trying to scuttle the powers of the council. Edited excerpts:

Earlier AICTE had a reputation of being corrupt. After you joined, people now talk about reforms in technical education. What are these reforms?

We introduced complete e-governance in the system for transparency and accountability. It allows an applicant to apply online (for opening a new college) and print his approval letter (from AICTE website) sitting at home (without having to come to Delhi). Also, an applicant wishing to open a new college can see the deficiencies which need to be corrected to get approval. We introduced unique ID for each of the technical institutes in the country.

The second-most important thing is putting all important information about these institutes in the public domain. It has streamlined the process. Earlier, the system was purely transactional. Today it is completely process-driven. It means a robust process is in place—a key for any regulator to function properly. All the fees are now charged through e-payment gateway. Besides, we pay almost 400 crore in grants (to some colleges) and complete scholarship via direct benefit of cash. Having done all these, we believe we have provided a transparent, accountable, robust process-driven system to the country in order to provide good technical education.

What was the challenge in implementing these measures? Many politicians own technical colleges and it is believed they posed a challenge.

Initially, we had no process to fall back on. Institutions were sceptical in the beginning, but over time they realized the value of the new system. Earlier there was a major problem of middlemen who represent several institutes... They were people who were well-connected and used to bring in pressure. We systematically stopped that.

I won’t say politicians per se. Our education system has expanded in the private sector and it’s good. But there were people who were putting difficulties in the e-governance process. They used to ask the need for so much information and data disclosure. There was general opposition in the beginning.

The biggest criticism of AICTE is that you approved too many institutes without bothering about the demand-supply situation.

The demand-supply equation is important and we had written to the state governments for perspective plans. It means each state has to find out the number of colleges, number of students passing out in each discipline in each district, and how much expansion is required. Then submit the plan to AICTE. We wrote to the states for two years, but except one or two states...nobody has submitted plan. Why do I need this: the minute I reject (a new application), they will go to the court and the court will ask me what’s the basis of my rejection. Here I will need data to place my point.

The second point is, as per section 19(G) of the Constitution, every citizen has the fundamental right to practise his or her choice of career or business. If an entrepreneur fulfils all requirements and promises to adhere to all regulations, then how does a regulator refuse him? So we allowed expansion.

The third point is, the national gross enrolment ratio in higher education is around 19%, of which 5% are in technical education. At least 25 million students every year are eligible for going to higher education (after schools) and another 25 million fail to qualify. Hypothetically, if I say that everybody (50 million) will qualify, then do we have capacity to accommodate them in higher education? This 25 million now will increase every year and where is (the) capacity to accommodate them. So you have to create access.

But in the name of access you are creating a pool of certificate holders who cannot be employed. Industry reports have emphasized enough on education-employability gap. How can you justify this?

The challenge between access and quality will always be there. We believe that all education should lead to meaningful employment. Let’s talk about the only 25% employable (argument) in several reports. What do these reports do: they talk about a certain sector and certain job roles! For those job roles they invite applications and out of those applications, 25% are fit for those specified job roles. That does not mean (only) 25% of engineers are employable.

The second point is, 1 million students pass out of technical colleges every year. If industry says that 25% are employable, then rest 75%, or 750,000 jobs are going abegging every year. That also means 7.5 lakh (750,000) students are roaming on the streets. Is industry producing one million jobs every year? That is hard to believe.

My assessment is that we need to reach that goal (job creation) and for that a lot of industrial expansion is required. Job creation is a problem; there is downturn and so on. Your primary sector like agriculture and mining, secondary sector like manufacturing and tertiary sector of services need to expand at a great pace.

I think almost all 1 million students are getting employed and probably (some are) underemployed. Underemployment is a problem, but it’s not unemployment. If 500,000 unemployed engineers are on the streets, then in last five years 2.5 million unemployed would have been a civil problem by now. So you have to look at these reports under certain context without generalizing it. Have we thought about what’s happening in other streams like arts, commerce, science, etc.? So we are trivializing a large problem though this (these reports).

What’s your assessment of the real employment of fresh graduates?

The year they are passing out, the employment rate is around 45%. In the next six months it rises to almost 75% and around 90% in two years. So in two years almost everybody is getting a job (or self-employed), but it may not be commensurate with their qualification always.

After a couple of court orders in the last six months, AICTE now seems just a name, a skeleton body with little power.

I believe that individuals will come and go, but organizations have to survive. The system is there and the energy goes up when there is a positive addition to that… AICTE has contributed for 30 years for the growth of technical education in India. Yes, there was a period when things did not go right (lack of transparency and corruption some years ago). That has been rectified now. Now we have built credibility in the system that stakeholders can vouch for. On the future of AICTE, I believe that an organization like AICTE needs to be preserved and strengthened. A recent parliamentary standing committee report also said it should be strengthened.

I know that more than regulation, we should be enabling (in nature), and we were moving in that direction via e-governance. Whatever is the court judgement, the system and the government need to take an appropriate view keeping in mind stakeholders’ larger interest. These kind of organizations need to be preserved to deliver accountability and transparency in education.

AICTE is almost defunct and 11,000 colleges have gone from your hands. What are you doing?

Concern is correct in its own context. If you look at the bare body that is will find it difficult to accept. There are two ways of going about this problem—one is through the courts and whatever procedure is available in a judicial system; second, the government has to take a call. We are part of the government and believe that government will look at it positively.

You are talking about the ordinance. But the human resource development (HRD) ministry and the government seem lukewarm to restore your powers. Why such a delay? With the general election approaching, it seems distant now.

The problem is, except saying that bodies like AICTE have a lot to deliver, if there are incongruencies it needs to be corrected. But bodies (like AICTE) cannot be shut down like that.

I would say the rest of the posers should be directed towards HRD ministry.

There is a sense among the education industry that UGC is trying to scuttle the powers of AICTE? How true is this?

I will say that both are Acts of Parliament. They have their roles cut out in their Act. Whether it is AICTE or UGC, they need to follow their Act.

So, you believe AICTE is best suited than UGC for the regulation of technical education?

Absolutely. We have done it and delivered in a transparent manner.

Following the court order, technical education is operating in a free market. What could the repercussions be?

That will be dangerous. It will lead to a lot of exploitation and commercialization of education.

Have you offered to quit in the current context?

I won’t comment on personal questions.

Do you still have hope for AICTE’s survival and resurrection?

I am an optimist.