Sunday, April 18, 2010

Reforming higher education

There is no need for any government regulation. Let private institutions come up and students can make their choice based on the information on which institutes provide quality education.

This is what Lord Meghnad Desai, Professor Emeritus, London School of Economics said at the fifth Oxford India Business Forum 2010, at New Delhi, on 25 March 2010.

As a manifestation of the Central Government’s  resolve to reform and restructure the higher education sector, the draft Bill on formulation of the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) has been placed before the Indian Parliament. The Commission seeks to replace institutions such as the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Noted educationists all over the country have expressed concerns over the efficacy of the Bill bringing in the desired changes in the higher education system. As higher education is an area that concerns a large number of people, the Central Government should be more pro-active in seeking feedback from stakeholders and that should be the norm all the time. The major concerns expressed are as follows:

(a) NCHER Bill undermines the autonomy. It tends towards centralisation of powers and control over academic initiatives. The Preamble lays down two basic objectives, firstly, ‘to provide for the determination, co-ordination, maintenance of standards in and promotion of higher education and research' and secondly to ‘promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions, for the free pursuit of knowledge and innovation and for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all'. There is a mismatch between what is proposed in the preamble and incorporated in the body of the Bill. The terms of the proposed Bill are such that they may not improve the quality of education or make much needed autonomy a reality.

The statement in the preamble is in favour of autonomy. Both academic and administrative autonomy are necessary if the universities are to become real centres of learning. But autonomy without democratisation is likely to lead to an authoritarian system. The Bill is silent about democratisation. Even the colleges should become autonomous, as the affiliating system is under severe strain. But the character of the Bill, despite the claims to the contrary, undermines autonomy rather than advancing it. The commission's powers to make regulations are likely to impinge upon autonomy rather than promote it. It has assumed powers far greater than what was exercised by the UGC. Moreover, UGC was essentially an advisory body in academic matters.

(b) NCHER is not sufficiently rooted in academic imperatives. NCHER is mainly a management remedy. The problems that higher education is facing are not essentially because of inefficient management but because of the inability of the system to ensure quality. Whether a new apex body which would exercise ‘national' control is the ideal solution for the problem deserves very serious consideration.

(c) NCHER is not an umbrella organisation. The resolution on the National Policy on Education (NPE) passed by the parliament few years back envisages creation of a single regulating organisation replacing as many as 13 different regulating organisations approved by the Parliament. For example, the education in agriculture and medicine still lie outside the purview of NCHER. 

(d) NCHER may remain organizationally inadequate. The commission is a highly centralised body manned by a chairman and six members, supported by a collegium, consisting of core and co-opted fellows to ‘aid, advice and make recommendation to the commission'. The commission is a pretty isolated organisation without any window to the society. The collegium is at best a deliberating body and would not exercise any control over the commission. Eminent personalities like Nobel award winners, Jnanapeeth Award winners shall be appointed members of the collegium. Notwithstanding the eminence of these personalities, they may not be fully aware about the ground realities and problems faced by the higher education in the country. The management of higher education in the country would thus be left in the hands of a committee of seven who have no prescribed channels of feedback. Therefore, even if well intentioned, the commission would be starved of necessary democratic connection.

(e) Compulsory accreditation as envisaged in the Bill may not be effective. There are considerable reservations about the manner in which the accreditation system is working now. Whether a national system can function effectively is doubtful. After many years of the system being in operation, only a small percent of colleges have so far been graded. The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) has proposed the idea of licensing accrediting agencies, probably involving private agencies. It is not clear as to if the provision in the bill which refers to accrediting agencies registered under the commission would involve the implementation of NKC proposal. In principle, the authority to regulate and accredit should rest with public authorities. The process of accreditation should be participative and the purpose ameliorative rather than punitive. It is perhaps time to review the system. One possibility is an internal assessment with external participation at the State level. The accreditation today primarily looks into the ‘process’of imparting education. Rather it would be better to evaluate the ‘product’ of education. The product based evaluation shall call for total review of the methodology. That is what perhaps Meghnad Desai means (see quote at the top)

To sum, the NCHER should be a single umbrella organisation at the national level with necessary monitoring and regulatory functions. ‘Autonomy at all levels’ should be the watchword while drafting the Bill. The collegium, with advisory role, should consist of eminent personalities from the field of education with a feel of local conditions obtaining in different parts of the country. An effective system should be established to seek sustained feedback from the stakeholders as well as to maintain adequate checks and balances over the functioning of the Commission. The accreditation today is ‘process’ oriented. It may be worthwhile making it ‘product’ oriented.