Santhosh Mathew has the unenviable task of fixing India’s teacher-training system.

The 1985 Bihar Cadre officer of the Indian Administrative Service took charge as chairman of the National Council for Teacher Education, the apex regulator of teacher training institutions, in January 2017.

In mid-May, the human resource development ministry announced the council’s rather radical decision to put on hold recognition of new training institutions for 2017-18.

Instead, the “zero year” will be spent taking stock of the existing institutions and improving quality. Mathew estimates that there are about eight to nine lakh seats in teacher training institutions across the country, but there is no record of where the teachers who come out trained are being absorbed.

Educationists blame the poor quality of teacher training, widespread privatisation of the sector and lax monitoring for the failure of progressive measures such as the Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation for students, which was meant to replace the year-end examination. They also allege corruption in the council.

Their stand has been partly vindicated. The performance of training college graduates and diploma-holders in the central and state teacher eligibility tests has been abysmal. Further, the human resource development minister Prakash Javadekar has admitted to the existence of “fly by night” institutions while the secretary for school education, Anil Swarup, has reportedly warned that a large chunk of education colleges may lose affiliation.

Mathew spoke with about the reforms planned in the governance of over 13,000 teacher training institutions in the country, the challenges involved and the changes the council itself must undergo.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Stopping recognition of new teacher education institutions for a whole year is quite a step. Things must have been quite bad to make that necessary.
It is not that. Nationally, there is no shortage of teacher education institutions. [Now] we have the headroom to think. The question is: what are the criteria based on which you will sanction and maintain these? The approval to start a college cannot be for life and must be constantly reviewed. We have an accreditation process but the rule required us to accredit a college only once in its lifetime. Now, it will be every five years.

The National Assessment and Accreditation Council [an autonomous body under the higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission], has accredited around 1,300 colleges in the last 15-20 years. We have over 13,000 colleges. We should be doing 6,000-8,000 in a year. We needed time and energy to think over our plans.

You have sought affidavits from recognised institutions. What details have you asked for?
We are not particularly data-rich. That is one of the reasons why the council asked for affidavits last October. We also asked colleges that did not file the affidavits to show cause why we should not cancel their recognition. So far, 7,163 institutions have filed.

Our records are maintained course-wise. There are over 18,000 instances of approval for courses. These will be matched with a unique institution number.

We asked for basic information in the affidavits – recognition documents, land available, number of buildings, faculty number and qualifications, performance of students in the teacher eligibility tests. We also mandated annual submission of returns.

We found that many colleges do not have enough teachers. We are trying to use Aadhaar [the twelve-digit biometric-based unique identification number] to find out how many teachers have been shown against multiple colleges. We are not stopping contract teachers from teaching but they cannot be shown against the required strength.

Were these not covered in the inspection process before recognition was granted?
Recognition may have been granted 15-20 years ago. They might have had land and faculty then that they do not now. They may have been given permission for a hundred students, but teach 200 now. We needed to know their present status. Some may have closed without filing closure reports. We were flying blind.

Was there no monitoring?
We do not have an effective monitoring process. Neither do we have the wherewithal. Annual submission of returns was required but has fallen into disuse. We are also not equipped to deal with the flow of paper. There is a huge number of vacancies in the institution.

What about the institutions that lied in their declarations?
We are setting up the national teacher portal and in that, by requirement, every teacher educator and teacher will log everything they do – the material they use, tests, readings. We will use that to find out what is happening. We are also setting up our quick response teams of auditors.

Are the concerns about quality mainly for private institutions?
It is not about public or private. We are not producing teachers who have the attitude, skill and knowledge required for 21st-century India. They do not know how to teach. That is the worry.

There is a threshold you have to cross before you can be considered qualified – the teacher eligibility test. The pass percentage for the central one is less than 20%.

And how will that problem be addressed?
Through accreditation and national ranking of institutions once every two years. We want the market to operate. If we do the ranking rigorously, prospective students will reward good colleges and punish the bad ones.

With the help of Quality Council of India, we are developing a framework based on five pillars. There are the physical assets – land and buildings – and a new category of academic assets that covers the number of teachers, qualification of teachers, the kind of material they use, the readings they prescribe, the tests they set.

There is teaching-learning quality. We are commissioning over a hundred video vans to record classes taken by faculty members. Earlier we sent the experts to colleges. Now we will bring the material to them to review and score.

We will also test a randomly-chosen sample of students and compare the results with tests the college itself is administering. Randomly chosen students will be asked to take sample classes too and those will be recorded, reviewed and scored. We are going to show a mirror to the colleges.

Institutions will be classified into categories. The best will become resource institutions. The good ones, we will let be. Those not good enough will get a year to recalibrate. If they do not improve, we will shut them down. We are looking at reforming the eligibility test too.

So monitoring and accreditation will be outsourced to the Quality Council of India?
It is not going to be outsourced. It is going to be done on our behalf under our very tight control and intellectual leadership.

The regulations changed in 2014. Did quality not improve after that?
I doubt it. We have always looked at buildings, land, number and qualification of staff. What typically happens, especially in the private sector, [is that] one institution obtains approvals for different courses from different councils. When our inspection team visits, all other boards disappear, a set of contract teachers and some students are produced and they pass. Turn-key operations are destroying the entire climate of education but these are approved if the institutions have land, building and teachers.

But can this happen without the collusion of NCTE’s officials?
Even if I went myself I would not be able to find out [irregularity at the college]. It is extremely well choreographed. And we announce the visit as we need to go when classes are on.

Also, this should not be about cops and robbers. You have to set up a framework where there is every incentive for doing right. I believe the market has a far more powerful role to play. Over the next 18-20 months we will have a huge amount of information.