Governance of higher education
India’s future depends on its ability to create, absorb and leverage knowledge, and to develop the people who will do it. To this end, we need bold, imaginative, innovative and well-considered steps.
THE last few months have witnessed intense activity in the education sector, with a flurry of new legislation. Apart from the Right to Education Act, guaranteeing primary education to all children, there is a great deal happening at the tertiary or university level. After over half a century, radical changes are being brought about in the governance of higher education. The University Grants Commission — created in 1952, and given statutory form in 1956 — is to be abolished; so also the corruptiontainted All India Council for Technical Education, and a few other regulatory bodies. Few will bemoan their demise: the UGC had, over time, got increasingly ossified, bureaucratic and inefficient; the AICTE had not only achieved this in double quick time, but was also perceived as hugely corrupt. Sadly, in both cases, it is academicians and academic administrators who are as much to blame as structural and systemic factors. In addition, proposed and new laws will permit the entry — with certain conditions — of foreign educational institutions, and will create educational tribunals (at national and state levels) and an accreditation body. Clearly, higher education is in for radical change.
Almost as significant as the bill creating the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER, which will replace UGC and AICTE) is the process through which it has evolved. Building on the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission and the Yash Pal committee, a draft was prepared by a task force — comprising mainly of eminent academicians — constituted by the government. This was put in the public domain for wider consultations. The task force also visited various locations to interact with academicians, educational administrators and state governments. Based on their concerns and suggestions, a revised version was prepared. This was then discussed at a roundtable, presided over by HRD minister. This open and consultative process, involving the widest spectrum of stakeholders, is a model for other legislation.
NCHER seeks to operationalise a major recommendation of both, NKC and Yash Pal committee: the integration of various streams under a single overall umbrella. Many decades ago — as far back as 1966 — the Kothari Commission had recommended just this, noting that “all higher education should be regarded as an integrated whole”. The importance of crossfertilisation between disciplines and the increasing integration of different streams (bio-engineering, computational biology, behavioural economics, etc,) is widely recognised, as is the fact that innovation thrives on trans-disciplinary interaction.
While the academic argument is irrefutable, a combination of genuine concerns and vested interests had threatened to forestall such an integrated view of education. Fortunately, there is hope that medicine and health education, as also the legal area will agree to be part of NCHER, while retaining certain professional and accreditation functions with their own professional bodies. Issues of ‘ownership’ and vested interest may yet result in turf wars, but one hopes that if not good sense, then political leadership will prevail.
Agricultural education is yet an issue, primarily because it is legally a state subject. Constitutional amendments have been recommended and will, hopefully, go forward. To separate agriculture from its related sciences — as also from economics and sociology — would be an academic travesty and an inhibitor of research and good education. If agricultural education too is included, then NCHER will have brought together the presentlyfragmented pieces of higher education.
THE bill proposes the separation of policy-making and funds disbursement, by creating a not-for-profit company to handle the latter. In principle, such a separation is good; however, there are many elements that would need care during implementation, if excessive control, corruption and inefficiency are to be avided.
Some fear that NCHER will become a highly centralised and powerful super regulator, amplifying the negatives of UGC and AICTE, rather than eliminating them. However, there is little in the bill to justify such a negative view; in fact, there are strong checks and balances through a broad-based general council and a collegium of eminent academicians. Also, as a pleasant surprise, none of these bodies includes the now-customary ex-officio bureaucrats, or ministers! While there are other aspects that need tweaking and some areas of concern, overall the bill is definitely a big step forward.
One hopes that its central purpose of a more autonomous structure for higher education is realised and — as important — such autonomy is also made functional down the line, within universities and their constituent departments, centres and colleges.
The other radical move, of permitting foreign institutions, is far more controversial. Top-notch universities are unlikely to come in on their own, and the dream of a MIT, Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge setting up a campus in India will be just that: a dream. In any case, it would be far more productive to facilitate — and fund — Indian universities to attract the best global faculty, and even students, and to set up excellent research facilities and pedagogic tools. Systemic changes to reduce bureaucracy, provide greater autonomy and more generous funding, are necessary too.
Importantly, before foreign universities are allowed to compete with Indian ones — for both faculty and students — the latter must be given more freedom with regard faculty hiring, salaries, curriculum and courses, admission policies, fees and other operational matters. Such flexibility can at least be given to select, top-notch institutions. Without this, we may “gain” only a few second-rung foreign universities and lose on the quality of some of our star institutions. Competition is welcome, but the field must first be level. One hopes that the government follows the same transparent and open process in finalising this bill as it has for NCHER.
India’s future — and the economic and physical well-being of Indians — depends upon its ability to create, absorb and leverage knowledge, and to develop the people who will do so. The spread, quality and health of the universities will determine our success in this. We need bold, imaginative, innovative and wellconsidered steps to ensure this. NCHER is a good start; we need to sustain and carry forward this approach.