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."
"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.
Educators in India worry that the country risks losing in the global race for talent. Membership in the Washington Accord assures a country that its engineering programs are recognized by, and are considered on par with, those in other member countries.
The All India Council for Technical Education has been accused of corruption, citing that approval to colleges with poor facilities was made by officials in exchange for money.
In July, under the direction of a new, reformist education minister, India's Central Bureau of Investigation filed corruption charges against R.A. Yadav, the council's chairman at the time, and three other top officials. They are accused of demanding bribes to allow an enrollment increase at an engineering college.
In September, the Central Bureau of Investigation raided several engineering colleges in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu following allegations of flagrant violations of the accreditor's norms, according to a report in The Times of India newspaper recently.
Following the raids, the investigative agency filed charges against the trusts and trustees that run the institutions, as well as the regulatory officials who allegedly helped them bend rules.
The council has begun changing its accreditation process, focusing more on teaching and curriculum quality, and less on the an institution's infrastructure quality. Those changes were among the recommendations Unnikrishnan put forth in his report.
"We expect that all this by next year will satisfy the requirements for full membership of the accord," said Mantha. "We want our people competing at the world level as international engineers, and we are serious about engineers' mobility. Besides, we have some very good institutions, and we want that to be recognized."