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HIGH ON GOOD INTENTIONS
- Indian higher education is over-regulated but under-governed

The National Knowledge Commission has now released its summary report, primarily on higher education. The report is easy to read, brimming with good intentions, and very comprehensive, covering issues like libraries, networking, e-governance, and so on. The approach is that higher education must expand its reach and improve in quality and that problems must be dealt with, not agonized over (as Indians tend to do).

The report covers five key areas: access, concepts, creation, application and services. In these areas, it deals with a wide range of subjects — comprehensive reform of higher education, overhaul of public libraries, creation of knowledge portals, transforming vocational education, re-engineering of government processes and regulation, and making e-governance citizen-friendly.

The report’s approach to governance is correct but unusual for a government committee. It does not trust the bureaucracy to govern higher education, and in a manner to meet the report’s ambitious objectives. However, it ignores governance at the political level. Education is a concurrent subject in the Constitution. In many states, the political compulsion of providing ministerial portfolios has led to a proliferation of ministries. Education is split between ministers — for primary, secondary, higher and professional education. This is obviously not conducive to coordinated development of education. The report also needs to consider how there could be involvement of local communities and parents in appointing teachers, introducing some flexibility in remuneration, evaluating performance, and so on.

At the level of the institution, the report rightly emphasizes the need for transparency and information dissemination but does not elaborate. Elaboration must include the requirement that all educational institutions must make available the list of faculty with their qualifications, their research and publications, student results in past years, the progress of the alumni, utilization of funds on scholarships and freeships, library and computer facilities, expenditures on faculty salaries and travel.

The report is right in saying that higher education today is over-regulated but under-governed. It proposes a complete overhaul of the regulatory structure for higher education, with the creation of the Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education. The change in the regulatory framework is perhaps the most important of this commission’s recommendations and, unfortunately, is dealt with cursorily. For example, in regulating so many institutions over our vast geography, will there be state or district-level benches' How to avoid this new regulatory body also creating a vast bureaucracy' How is it to be funded, by the government or by fees from educational institutions'

It proposes that the IRAHE is to leave only disbursement of public funds with the present University Grants Commission, and place the other four functions it performs, with separate specialist bodies. Given the patchy record of existing regulatory bodies in education, this is a good thing. The four other functions to be regulated are:

a) Entry: the licence to grant degrees; this, it says, will be on criteria of academic credibility and financial viability, with the same criteria for public and private institutions.

b) Accreditation should not be the monopoly of a government body as it is now, and should concentrate on quality benchmarking; IRAHE will license agencies for the job, presumably with adequate funds for monitoring and inspection to ensure that they follow accepted methodologies and standards;

c) Access: fees or affirmative action will be embodied in legislation and be a legislative function;

d) Licence to pursue one’s profession: will be with professional bodies where relevant; e.g., Medical Council of India for medical education, or Bar Council of India for legal education. They will conduct nationwide examinations, set standards, etc. It proposes abolishing ineffective bodies like the All India Council for Technical Education.

Who mans these regulatory bodies is critical to their effectiveness, as are the powers vested in them; adequate funds to employ honest inspectors and the penalties for non-compliance. Selection, tenure, termination and whom the bodies report to must be specified to ensure their complete independence from interfering politicians and bureaucrats. IRAHE is to have six members including the chairman appointed by the prime minister. This is unsatisfactory. Appointments must be made by a body including the prime minister, the leader of the Opposition and a respected academic. In the report, IRAHE appears to be a stray thought.

Another missing element in the report is the distancing of research from teaching in higher education and measures to correct this. The results of this distancing are the continuing decline in the quality of teaching and research, backwardness of curricula, and declining number and quality of PhDs. Undoing the decline in the quality of higher education requires drastic action. Every independent research institution should be attached to some teaching institution so that ‘pure’ researchers also teach and at least some teachers engage in research.

The report rightly emphasizes the need for accountability among faculty and those who run institutions and recommends salary differentials related to performance. It does not elaborate on the actions required to make this effective. These includes setting work norms for faculty, performance evaluation (by students too), incentives for performance such as office space, research facilities, grants, travel to attend conferences, and so on. Given the poor salaries of our teachers and their difficulties after retirement, we must consider giving them pensions and help with post-retirement housing. The report does not sufficiently recognize the low financial status of teachers in India’s remuneration structure. It needs to elaborate on rewarding merit and punishing poor performers.

Some of the statistics in the report are revealing. Only seven per cent of 18-24-year-olds enter higher education. The Sachar committee and others have shown that the numbers are even lower among Muslims and scheduled tribes. The target proposed is 15 per cent in higher education by 2015. This will need 1,500 universities, autonomous and community colleges. This will not only require large funds but also urgent actions to increase the availability of teachers and improve their quality. The report does not pay much attention to this major lacuna of shortage and declining quality of teachers.

There is mention of inclusiveness to bring the poor and rural people into higher education. But it is not highlighted that this requires the quality of schooling to improve. If it does not, we must at least identify talented youngsters in schools and design outreach programmes to help them enter higher education.

The commission also accepts that improving the quality of higher education demands a revision of the curricula every three years and change in the pedagogy to replace rote learning with self-learning and creativity. The teachers must be reoriented and periodically retrained. Walls between subject disciplines must be broken and the limited opportunity for interaction between disciplines must be replaced by free choice of subjects by students.

The report has not attempted to estimate the cost of implementing its recommendations but proposes increasing expenditure on higher education from the present 0.7 per cent of the GDP for higher education to 1.5 per cent. This is a substantial increase. I doubt whether such money can be available from government budgets and if governments have the capability to spend these vast sums wisely and honestly. It also suggests other sources for raising money for higher education.

This report is well-meaning and concerned about improving the quality of the “demographic dividend” that India is said to get in the coming years because of the rising population of youth. It is weak on specifics about the legislative, administrative, regulatory and financial measures needed to implement its good intentions.

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