To tackle the menace of a large number of cobras roaming the city of Delhi, the then wise British Government announced monetary incentive to everyone who brought cobra skin to the State. This worked very well and the cobra population roaming the streets of Delhi came down to a greater extent but then this gave rise to a new profession of cobra farming. Indians started breeding cobras, and slaughtered and brought the skin to government offices to claim the prize. The frustrated government, on seeing such a practice, abruptly abandoned the scheme whereupon the disappointed cobra farmers let loose their home grown cobras on the streets of Delhi. This episode incidentally gave birth to a new epithet called ‘cobra effect’ where the solution becomes the problem. The cobra effect is in its fullest manifestation in Indian Higher Education system.
One fine morning, someone sitting in the high offices of Higher Education Desk in Delhi, thought that PhDs would increase the quality of Indian Higher Education system and it became a qualification. Consequently, all and sundry started doing PhDs and M.Phils. It became a lucrative business for many. Many universities and colleges started amassing huge sums of money. Many guides and examiners became rich not only in terms of money but also in terms of loading up their resumes. Based on such resumes, many became the administrators of Higher Educations system in India.
When seminars and conferences became the criteria, fetching marks during assessment practice, all colleges started conducting national and international seminars. A student of mine, not able to get into regular teaching in India, went to an African country and became a professor there in a University. Our colleges are able to make use of him to conduct ‘international seminars’ whenever he comes to India for his summer vacation. He either delivers presidential address during the inaugural function or valedictory address or sometimes both, whenever he is in India. His dates are kept busy by such schedules. His presence makes a seminar or conference an international one.
When ‘articles published’ became one of the norms, a number of article publishing industries sprang up serving the poor and needy teachers who otherwise can’t write and publish. Now, anyone can cut, copy and paste from internet and publish an article in an International Journal with Impact Factor. So simple!
When publishing an article in a UGC approved journal became the norm, almost all the journals managed to get the stamp of approval from UGC and the publishing industry thrived. Today, I can get my stuff, any stuff for that matter, published in 24 hours provided I transfer a sum of Rs.500 to Rs.1500 (through NEFT); that too, with good index and Impact Factor, after a careful consideration of many experts, called ‘blind review’. And I can add this to my resume and submit the same to college IQAC for onward submission to NAAC or NIRF.
When honours and awards became the norm and began to be recognised, people in Higher Education Industry made it so simple that one can get a D.Lit. degree for a paltry sum of five thousand rupees. I received many mail, like my colleagues, inviting me to sponsor myself to receive ‘best teacher award’ at the hands of President of India by paying a contribution of Rs.15,000 to a Not For Profit Charitable Organisation. Many of my colleagues in Higher Education have purchased such ‘best teacher’ awards. I envy them whenever I see their names suffixed with such degrees; after all, it is owner’s pride and neighbour’s envy.
When Higher Education in India started recognizing ‘member of editorial boards’ or Editors, many serving and retired Professors either started their own journals, especially online journals with a prefix of ‘international’ or became members of editorial board on quid pro quo basis. I have seen some CVs of Professors being a member of more than ten to fifteen journals. When I quarried them as to their role as members of editorial board, they were candid enough to admit that it was only meant to build up one’s CV. No work whatsoever as members of editorial board! Likewise, being a member of BOS (Board of Studies) is an honour for a professor which can be tacitly got by ‘understanding’ and ‘influence’.
When ‘books published’ started getting marks during selection process of Assistant Professors, many aspiring teachers became authors, overnight. One of my classmates gave me a copy of his books and I started praising him like anything because I know how difficult it is to author a book. But my plain-speaking friend admitted that his book was a ‘cooked up’ book just for the sake of getting marks at the time of interview. Indeed, he got selected and he is in government service. He spent Rs.15000 and he received 100 copies from the publisher which he distributed to libraries free of cost thereby increasing his visibility as the author of a book.
When minor and major research projects became to be recognized as merit, clamour started building around them, and people started getting them by hook or crook. Getting a project may not be that simple but completing the same is. So much so that when I went about collecting data for my funded research project, I had to face a single question many times – ‘why do you make such a fuss about it….it is just a matter of ‘desk work’. Until then, I never thought completing a project would be such a simple affair.
When I began my teaching career some twenty five years back, low pass percentage meant higher quality. Sometimes, in a class, only a few used to secure passing minimum. Marks scored by students truly reflected their quality and erudition in the subject. Students got (Marks) what they really deserved. But, after the advent of NAAC and recently NIRF, when pass percentage became one of the criteria, pass percentage of several colleges shot up like anything. Today, we start valuing the answer scripts with a clear objective in mind that is not to fail anybody. Honestly speaking, according to my rough estimate, fifty percent of those who pass don’t deserve to pass and of this, fifty percent would never be able to complete their degree if one were to be somewhat honest in valuing the answer scripts. We get clear tacit instruction at the valuation centre not to fail anybody. Giving a fail mark by a teacher is tolerated only in extreme situations. The present system is such that a student really needs to make effort to fail, otherwise the system will see him through! The Principal of one of the top ranking colleges in India quipped recently to me that from now on he would try to increase the pass percentage (like other colleges) as it is capable of pulling down their NAAC score and NIFR ranking.
When NIRF ranking was published this year, there were many colleges at the top that were not supposed to be even in a list of top hundred. Our system is so innocent that it blindly believes statistics and evidences furnished by those institutions without verifying their veracity. Quality and standards of those institutions are known only to those associated with them. Others, least the general public, may not know this fact. A perception is created among the general public as to the quality of these institutions which is not real. This is only a perceived quality not the real quality. The gullible public believes those ‘perceived quality’ as real and get cheated. Is it the intended outcome? The real intention of NIRF is something different.
In the name of increasing quality and standards, the administrators of Higher Education system in India tried creating competition among the institutions. What they have forgotten is that they are creating competition among the ‘unequals’. The intention may be good: the ‘unequals’ may one day catch up with ‘equals’ by raising their standards and quality. But there is ‘cobra effect’. The ‘unequals’ try to manipulate the records and circumvent the system to artificially manufacture quality. Sometimes they win the race which should not be the case in reality. When the ‘equals’ see ‘unequals’ marching ahead or matching with them, the ‘equals’ start falling in line by altering their system of functioning that in turn brings down their real quality and standards.
After the advent of NAAC and NIRF, all the colleges are obsessed with securing ‘A+’ grade by NAAC and a decent ranking in NIRF, by all means. The objective of UGC, NAAC and NIRF is to improve the quality of Higher Educational Institutions by measuring the institutions using a set of Performance Indicators. But it has not served the intended purpose. Here, the solution becomes the problem. No matter how well intended and brilliant a scheme is to improve the quality of Indian Higher Education, it will backfire because of ‘cobra effect’.
We Indians are clever in circumventing and bending the system. It is part of Indian psyche. Exploitation is part of Indian cultural tradition. It is in our socio-economic-political-religious system. All these could be attributed to a system that Indians devised thousands and thousands of years back that categorized people on the basis of birth, denying equal share of wealth, knowledge, and opportunity and then defining the term ‘merit’ and ‘quality’. This cultural tradition paves the way for exploitation known as ‘cobra effect’. The cobra effect says that the results are often quite different from what is envisaged or intended. Thanks to UGC, NAAC, NIRF and other accrediting agencies, we are reliving the ‘cobra effect’!
(The writer is Associate Professor in Commerce, St. Joseph’s College, Trichy.)(Published on 17th September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 38)