December 29, 2011

Indian Ratings: Common Entrance Test travails

As I write this around Christmas, a Common Entrance Examination for Indian Ratings for the batch scheduled to start just a week later- on January 2, 2012- has just been held. Or should I say has been held yet again, for this is the third CET that the Board of Examination For Seafarers Trust (BES) has conducted since September for the same batch. (One could quote Goldfinger from Ian Fleming and say, "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time its enemy action," but that may be somewhat uncharitable). Whatever, the confusion, fear and suspicion the first ever series of CETs have created in the maritime training establishment in the country have, so far, nullified any advantages that the new system was supposed to usher in.

The reason for all these CETs is simple: shortage of applicants and a misreading of the effort required to promote the course. (I also wonder, given the sample question papers put up on the BES website, how many applicants were actually successful. I can tell you from experience that many typical entrants would not have been able to answer many of the science- and even English language- questions asked.) And, although the post examination system- especially the allotment of entrants to different institutes- has not been transparent, my rough calculations assume that there was a countrywide shortfall of anything between 5-700 candidates after the second CET was held in November, if all the seats in the country's Directorate General of Shipping approved institutes were to be filled. That is something like a 20% to 30% shortfall; not a small number.

Predictably, many institutes are very worried. Some- where the shortfall is 50% of their capacity or even more, based on the November CET- are obviously more worried than others are. They claim that demand surely exists, as they have been filling up seats in previous batches before the CET. Then there have been whispered stories about some of the candidates who have passed the CET being unable to even fill up a form when they land up at the institutes- their English is insufficient. Allegations, also, of 'union approved' candidates passing the CET. Confusion since some cleared candidates failed their medical tests at the institutes subsequently, or held dubious academic record documents. Confusion with candidates who had opted for certain institutes being allotted others instead. Quiet questions as to how certain institutes have had all their seats filled up while others have had just a few candidates show up. Declarations by the odd institute that they would fill up their seats under a 'management quota' system, since they stand to lose a fortune if they run the course with just a few CET approved candidates. Rumours that the DGS is using the CET to reduce overall intake of Ratings, given the terrible record of post-training sea berth 'placements' in the industry. Protests that the institutes alone can do little to address this problem on their own- it is shipowners that can provide sea berths, not MET institutes, they point out.

All the confusion and suspicion has vitiated the atmosphere somewhat, in my opinion- something that can hardly be good for training. To be fair, while there have been problems with the conduct of the CET- admit card delays and other teething issues, for a start- these issues can be easily improved in time with a little experience. In addition, making the process transparent in future will go a long way towards addressing most of the other concerns to do with the conduct of the CET and the allocation of successful candidates to institutes.

Many grievances of the MET establishments are not without merit. However, they conveniently ignore some of their own shortcomings and malpractices. For example, question on the ethics of using middlemen to fill up seats in previous batches remain unmentioned when they talk of the 'demand' having been hitherto sufficient to fill up all their seats. So, too, with the widespread practice of false-selling courses by painting a rosy picture of the industry and employment opportunities post training when the truth is quite the opposite. Some training institutes misdeclare the fees they actually charge to the DGS, indirectly misleading students who are disseminated this information at the CET; others cut corners and nickel-and-dime trainees at every opportunity post admission. And, while I agree that the placement of GP Rating graduates should not be the responsibility of MET institutes, they should not be allowed to claim, to the Ratings, fictitious records of past placements either, or use meaningless phrases like '100 percent placement assistance' in their advertising. Or indeed, allowed to be conduits for placements made conditional to a Rating paying a hefty bribe to a third party.

In the end, however, this leaf storm of shortcomings- whether of the CET or the institutes- will settle sooner rather than later, if only because maritime institutes are in no position to antagonise the DGS beyond a point. And, while I agree that the targeting of institutes for the shortcomings of the industry seems unfair, all this is finally a sideshow.

For there is an elephant in the room nobody has yet deemed fit to ask this two-part question: Given the fact that hardly any rating can get a sea berth without bribery or connections today, and given that there is an extremely low demand for Indian ratings anyway, is the Directorate General of Shipping obliged to guarantee to any maritime training institute that even a single seat of their DG approved Pre-Sea Ratings course will be filled in future? Is the first responsibility of the DG to the MET institutes or to the hapless Ratings who are trained- and cannot be 'placed'?

The answer to that question will tell us a lot about the future of MET in this country, our plans to increase seafarer market share- and, indeed, the viability of training in India. Because I cannot see people investing money in institutes in future- in an era of market or regulator driven uncertainty- if some of the present ones shut down for lack of demand, or for any other reason. And I cannot see demand for Indian seamen rising- not for the next few years, at least.


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