Time for overhaul

Published : Jul 17, 2009 00:00 IST

Professor Yash Pal submits the report of the committee he headed to Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal in New Delhi on June 24.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Professor Yash Pal submits the report of the committee he headed to Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal in New Delhi on June 24.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

THE malaise that afflicts the scheme of creating deemed universities under the University Grants Commission (UGC) Act is only part of the larger crisis in the countrys higher education system. The final report of the 22-member Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education in India headed by the eminent physicist and former Chairman of the UGC, Professor Yash Pal, which was released on June 24, has called for its drastic overhaul.

The committee was constituted in February 2008 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) with a limited original mandate, which in the main was to review the functioning of the UGC and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the two main statutory bodies regulating higher education in the country.

In September 2008, its name was changed to reflect the new inclusive objective in which the original formal agenda items would be subsumed (see interview with Yash Pal). This followed the deliberations of the committee, in which it decided to take a much broader perspective of higher education as a whole and of university education in particular.

There is no doubt that the Indian higher education system, given the enormity of challenges it is facing, needs a drastic overhaul, says the report. Apart from various short-term issues there is a serious threat to the very idea of a university and its values of knowledge generation in our society today, it adds (emphasis added). The manner in which universities are being established, in particular institutions that are deemed-to-be universities, and the questionable role of the UGC and other agencies in enforcing norms and ensuring quality in these constitute a major element of this. Loss of primacy of the universities erosion of their autonomy, undermining of undergraduate education, the growing distance between knowledge areas and isolation of universities from the real world outside and crass commercialisation are some of the problems that characterise the growth of the Indian higher education system, observes the report.

In this context the committee has noted with concern the unregulated growth of the private sector in education, in particular private institutions that have acquired the status of deemed universities chiefly to gain degree-granting powers with a commercial and profit-making motive.

Noting that the declining investments in higher education by successive governments had created a space for private investors, the report says, However, there has been no policy or guidelines to measure the competence of private investors in starting and managing a technical institution. The lacuna has been exploited by many investors, who have no understanding or responsibilities associated with institutions of higher education.

Though the committee has endorsed the necessity of private participation in order to reach the goal of doubling the present higher education capacity, it has emphasised that the government cannot afford to abandon this responsibility and leave it entirely to the private sector. Expressing concern over the unscrupulous practices of many private investors family-centric management, unaccounted wealth from political and business enterprises, capitation fees, much greater student intake than the permitted capacity, high fees and low teachers salaries, manipulations in students grades, and so on the committee has called for a credible corrective mechanism to get rid of the ills.

As a corollary to the above, the committee has drawn attention to the indiscriminate recognition of newly established educational institutions, most of them private, as deemed universities. Majority of these institutes are established without any educational purpose, and they only end up deluding the students, it says. The regulatory agencies have been unable to come to grips with the problems mainly due to deficiencies in enforcement instruments, and partly due to high-level reluctance to sort out the problems.

The committee has recommended that the practice of according deemed university status be stopped forthwith. It would be mandatory for all existing deemed universities to submit to the new accreditation norms to be framed within a period of three years, failing which the status of university should be withdrawn, it has advised.

Questioning the purpose of inviting foreign universities to set up campuses in India, the report asks if opening our doors to foreign scholars and making our rules more flexible will not achieve the objective of sharing the best learning experiences elsewhere with our students. But giving an open licence to all and sundry carrying a foreign ownership tag to function like universities in India, most of them not even known in their own countries, would only help them earn profit for their parent institutions. Any decision in this regard has to be taken with utmost care keeping in mind the features essential for an institution to be called a university, the report has cautioned.

The report seeks to restore the primacy and recover the true objective and premise of a university as an institution for holistic education and knowledge, including vocational and professional disciplines, without losing its connection with the social and cultural realities of the country. Professional education cannot be detached from general education, notes the report. One of the committees recommendations is to encourage institutions of excellence, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), to diversify and become full-fledged universities, but each in its own way keeping intact its unique features.

In tune with this perspective, the committee has made definitive recommendations with regard to the overall structure of the higher education system, the most important among them being the creation of an overarching regulatory framework that would treat the whole range of educational institutions in a holistic manner. All higher education, including engineering, medicine, agriculture and law, be brought within the purview of an all-encompassing higher education authority, says the report.

Fragmentation of knowledge into narrow specialised disciplines is one of the main reasons for the confusion that ails our higher education system, observes the report. The lack of interface and interaction between them has led to the creation of a multiplicity of statutory regulatory bodies, which now exist purely for the task of regulation. There are, in all, 13 regulatory bodies, such as the UGC, the AICTE and the Medical Council of India (MCI), created under various Acts of Parliament, which have fragmented the higher education sector from a policy perspective.

For instance, the regulatory provisions of the various Acts are substantially different from each other since they were created at different periods by different Ministries. The overall responsibilities for the entire higher education system assigned to the UGC are not validated in the provisions of other Acts. There is very little coordination among them in respect of degree durations, nomenclatures, approval mechanisms, accreditation process, and so on. This, according to the report, has, on many occasions, created situations where different agencies took different views on issues of regulation and promotion of higher education.

Being largely influenced by regulatory bodies, universities also do not have sufficient say in designing flexible academic programmes, the report points out. This division of responsibilities lies at the heart of erosion of universitys concept of knowledge and perpetuation of a divisive view of knowledge and skill.

The report observes: A highly over-regulated system results in interference by multiple agencies which tend to stifle innovation and creativity, increase inefficiency and breed corruption and malpractices. An under-regulated system encourages exploitation, contributions to disorder and erosion of social justice. Therefore, it is important to design a balanced and all-encompassing regulatory mechanism that is overarching, transparent and ensures accountability.

An important facet of higher education is research. Underscoring the growing chasm between teaching and research, the report says: Over the years this has led to a situation in which, on the one hand, most of the universities have been reduced to status of centres that teach and examine masses and, on the other, more and more elite research bodies are being created where researchers have absolutely no occasion to engage with young minds.... It should be necessary for all research bodies to connect with universities in their vicinity and create teaching opportunities and for all universities to be teaching and research universities.

Given the above perspectives, the committee has recommended the setting up of an apex statutory body called the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER). The academic functions of all the professional regulatory agencies, including the UGC and the AICTE, will be subsumed under it with their responsibilities redefined to define floor-level qualifications of students exiting from institutions. It would be no good if we go for incremental changes in the present regulatory structures. A new structure created to respond to the emerging realities has always a better chance to last, emphasises the report.

The proposed commission is intended to perform its regulatory function, not by an inspection-based approval method but by a verification and authentication system. The report says it will not interfere with the institutional autonomy and academic freedom of universities, with the academic functions of these bodies transferred to the universities. Universities are to be seen as self-regulatory bodies and the commission is to be seen as a catalytic agency which is more interested in creating more and more space for the individuality of each university, the report says.

The structure and composition of the proposed commission is meant to insulate it from political and other external interferences from the government. It would be an autonomous constitutional body created through a suitable amendment to the Constitution, accountable only to Parliament and drawing its budgetary resources from the Finance Ministry. It would have a seven-member board with a full-time chairperson.

Of the seven members, one would be an eminent professional from the industry and one would have the background of a long and consistent social engagement. The rest would be academics of eminence representing broad disciplines.

The status of the chairperson would be analogous to that of the Chief Election Commissioner and that of the others would be comparable to Election Commissioners.

The report has recommended that the process of identifying the chairperson and members should be vested with a search committee comprising the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of India in consultation with eminent Indian academics and prestigious Indian institutions. The committee has desired that one of the first tasks of the commission should be to identify the best 1,500 colleges across India to upgrade them as universities and create clusters of potentially good colleges to evolve as universities.

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