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India education: Engineering going off the rails?

India's bid for full Washington Accord membership, an elite honor, has been postponed again.

Delhi Metro Rail Corporation employee walks inside a tunnel on the stretch between Jangpura and Lajpat Nagar stations in New Delhi, Oct. 12, 2009. India's membership in the Washington Accord — an elite body to standardize engineering education — has been postponed again, raising concerns over India's ability to compete with other member countries in terms of engineering. (Parth Sanyal/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — India's bid for full membership in the Washington Accord — an elite international association to standardize engineering education — was declined last month over concerns about faculty members and students in Indian engineering programs.

The group agreed to extend India's provisional membership as it works toward alleviating the concerns. The accord was signed in 1989 by accrediting agencies from the United States and 12 other countries, including Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and the U.K.

Members were concerned about the effects of India's extensive quota system, said Raman Unnikrishnan, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at California State University at Fullerton and one of two mentors assigned by the group to India during the review process.

In that system, many slots for faculty and students are set aside for those from economically and socially disadvantaged castes or classes. Unnikrishnan said members felt the set-asides would dilute the quality of faculty and the student body.

Unnikrishnan said the problem "is much more convoluted than just the quota system," in a telephone interview in November.

"After graduation, students get accepted in graduate programs, at which time again the quota system is applied, accommodating lower levels of quality students for admission," he said. "And in application for faculty positions, the quota system is again applied.

"Instead of continuous improvement, it is continuous slippage."

S.S. Mantha, who was the acting chairman of the All India Council for Technical Education, which accredits engineering programs and coordinates with the Washington Accord on membership issues, said he didn't see the rejection as problematic.

"The very fact that we were given an extension is, I believe, a positive thing," Mantha said, adding that mentors made valid observations and offered good suggestions. India received a two-year provisional membership in 2007.

But there appear to be some differences in perception between Indian officials and the accord's members. Nearly 50 percent of seats in India's public colleges are reserved for the economically and socially disadvantaged classes and castes. But Mantha said he doesn't believe that class equity in higher education harms quality.

"We have to look at all sections of society and make sure higher education is provided to everyone, but this doesn't mean standards will get lower," Mantha said. "We told them this is not a concern."

All students take a single, national, college-admissions test to apply to colleges accredited by the regulator, he said: "The quotas apply only after a student passes the test."

Unnikrishnan disagreed.

"That's incorrect," he said. "The quota system begins at the entrance-exam level. There is no passing of the exam. Students are ranked, and many students are admitted to engineering colleges based on reasons other than merit."

Mantha agreed with mentors that engineering colleges be given more autonomy. Excepting India's elite Institutes of Technology, public engineering colleges must be affiliated with a university, which has final say over the curriculum and examination system.