The CB View - India

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Dateline: Bangalore, July 17 – July 23, 2015

Vyapam Scam

The Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, known popularly as Vyapam, is at the centre of an on-going investigation into a cash-for-admissions racket. As widely documented, the enrolments of 1,080 students in a pre-medical course in Madhya Pradesh between 2009 and 2013 have been cancelled. The scam, initially exposed in 2013, and two recent high-profile deaths linked to it have sent shock waves across the country, according to University World News. The Supreme Court is considering getting involved. What may we learn from the scam?

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Although Vyapam is in the news these days, it is no secret that a similar situation prevails in every examination board across the country, and has prevailed for several decades. Medical seats are scarce relative to demand; so many families are willing to bribe officials to improve their children’s chances for success. That deaths of related parties and investigators have occurred indicates that control of the corruption is not located just within the bureaucracy or politicians, but that organized gangsters are involved.

The problem actually resides higher up, with the Medical Council of India (MCI) and the Ministry of Health. MCI operates like the more glamorous Board of Cricket Control for India (BCCI), with its board members consisting of representatives of state medical councils who also elect the next board. As such, MCI is beholden to the state medical councils and does not interfere with their functioning. It prefers to turn a blind eye in return, perhaps, for pay-outs to MCI members, as some investigations show. The Ministry of Health exercises nominal oversight, but any effort to actually control MCI cannot succeed, as ex-Minister of Health, Doctor Harsh Vardhan, found out (and lost his Minister-ship in the process). The reason it cannot succeed is the same as why it is impossible to control BCCI: politicians of all stripes are involved because the ruling party of each state controls the state boards/councils that nominate candidates for the national body. The different political parties collaborate in sharing the spoils of corrupt practices, making it nearly impossible for any political party to seriously invest political capital in demanding a fair investigation.

This puts the Prime Minister in a difficult spot politically. Vyapam is an organization in a BJP-ruled state, Madhya Pradesh. Support for the MP government would be heavily criticized by the opposition and media (including social media) and damage the party’s prospects in the upcoming Bihar elections. Criticizing the MP government would lead to the same outcomes. So, Narendra Modi has once again chosen silence, the same strategy that his predecessor, Dr. Manmohan Singh, repeatedly chose, for which the Congress paid heavily in the national elections last year.

Can the Vyapam scam be used as a lever for reform? As noted, the Congress and other national parties have limited skin in the game. They would like to use the scam to embarrass the BJP, but do not want genuine reform because their own state governments have been so deeply involved in the past. Exposing Vyapam will inevitably take the trail via MCI to all other state governments. The only political party with no past record to worry about is the Aam Aadmi Party, and it remains to be seen if they are up to the challenge. Or, perhaps the Supreme Court will rise to the occasion. Let us see.

Choice Based Credit System Controversy

With all universities having agreed to roll out the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) in the coming academic year, it appears that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) will finally be able to get the norms developed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) into operation, after several years of effort. Is this a good outcome for learning?

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By itself, CBCS is a modest change. It tags every course as belonging to a type – core (compulsory), elective, or foundation (which may be compulsory or elective), where earlier this was not always done. Second, it requires that credits be attached to each course, with specified totals required from each of the four types to meet the requirements of a degree. Suppose that a degree programme requires 180 semester hour credits consisting of 45 core course credits, 45 compulsory foundation course credits, 45 elective foundation course credits and 45 elective courses. A student may take two 2-credit elective courses or one 4-credit elective course to meet four of the forty-five credits to meet the elective requirement. This is the ‘choice’ element in CBCS as it transfers to the student the choice of which course to take.

In practice, CBCS only affects elective courses, since compulsory courses (both core and foundation courses) have to be taken anyway. Even this can be restricted in practice, since colleges may not offer too many electives, thus forcing students to accept those offered.

UGC is keen to introduce CBCS in order to enable students to transfer from one programme to another or from one college to another. If CBCS is in place, and if a student transfers to a different college, he can take the credits with him. But this creates another problem: will those credits attained be of the same quality as the credits in his new college. To make this possible, UGC has designed standard (model) syllabi that it accepts every university system to adopt. Theoretically, then, shifting colleges within a university and even across universities becomes more straightforward.

But this still does not solve the problem of quality. The same course with the same syllabus may be taught differently using different textbooks, curriculum and teaching methods. This means that UGC must, to enable parity, try to get universities to teach similarly so that the learning is the same. This is, of course, impossibility since the starting ability of students differs, class sizes differ and teachers differ.

This is why there is such concern at UGC’s methods – there is no knowing where it will end, and it could lead to promoting mediocrity rather than excellence.

If UGC wanted to do the right thing, it should have stopped with CBCS and not introduced model syllabi. It would then be up to a college to decide equivalence or not when considering whether to admit a transfer student. This could be done through agreements with fellow colleges or entrance tests. Both will lead to fairer outcomes than proposed by UGC, and is what is commonly observed internationally wherever the grade point system is in operation.

But, this approach requires UGC to apply at least a modicum of thinking – something that is too much to ask, it seems.

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