Revolution for higher

The higher education sector could see a major change, if all the initiatives planned by the HRD ministry are carried through. Currently, there are three types of institutions that may grant degrees: central and state universities and private universities. While central and state universities are established by Parliament and state legislatures, private universities may either be established by law or be granted a “deemed university” status by the Universities Grants Commission (UGC). The UGC is the main regulator of the sector but specialised disciplines have their own regulators such as AICTE for technical and management colleges, the Indian Medical Council for doctors and the Bar Council for lawyers. The new system will replace the regulatory structure with a single regulator, except for agricultural and medical colleges.

The most important bill is perhaps the one that establishes a regulator for all higher education institutions, whether under central or state governments or private management. The bill has been posted on the ministry’s website for public feedback; it envisages a national commission for higher education and research that shall take measures to promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions, facilitate access to all, and provide for holistic growth of education and research in a competitive global environment. Ironically, the same clause of the bill that tasks the commission with promoting autonomy also requires it to develop a national curriculum framework, specify requirements of academic degree and diploma in all fields, develop a framework code of good practices, and maintain a national registry of persons who are eligible to be appointed as vice-chancellors of universities.

Interestingly, even private universities may appoint only persons from this registry to head the university. The bill also envisages a collegium that will advise the commission. The collegium will consist of core fellows (Nobel prize, Fields medal, Jnanpith awardees, national research professors and members of international academies) and co-opted fellows (one from each state chosen from a panel of five persons recommended by the state government). The functions of the collegium include recommending names for the registry of vice-chancellors as well as recommend names for the selection of the chairperson and members of the collegium.

There are several issues relating to this bill that need to be resolved. First, whether the Constitution permits Parliament to enact this law, given that “universities” are under the state list with the exception of central universities and institutes of national importance. Second, whether it is a good idea to centralise a list of eligible persons as vice-chancellors (for an analogy, imagine that Sebi maintained a list of persons who may be appointed as CEOs of all listed companies). This list is determined by a collegium of persons, who in turn are selected from among nominees of state governments; a sure recipe for political maneuvering ahead of selection of vice-chancellors. Third, whether steps such as a curriculum framework and eligibility for degrees impede autonomous functioning.

The foreign universities bill has seen some discussion in the media, though the bill has not been made public. The main objectives are to permit the entry of foreign universities and regulate their functioning. It would be interesting to see whether the regulatory requirements are lighter than those envisaged for domestic universities. Also, whether they need to provide for reservations for SC/ST/OBC students, whether there would be any cap on faculty salaries to deter poaching from Indian institutions, and whether they can make any surplus and repatriate that amount.

Nine more bills related to higher education are listed for introduction this session. These include (a) setting up accreditation agencies, which will rate institutions on educational parameters (similar to credit rating agencies in financial markets); (b) a bill that establishes educational tribunals; (c) a bill to regulate fees and admissions to colleges and ban capitation fees; (d) setting up 14 innovation universities; (e) amending the recent Act that provided for reservation for OBCs in central universities, IIsT, IIMs etc.; (f) setting up eight new IITs; (g) amending the National Institutes of Technology Act; (h) a new Act to regulate the profession of engineering; and (i) a new Act to provide statutory powers to the Distance Education Council. None of these is in the public domain.

Education, whether elementary, secondary or university, is too important to be left to educationists and bureaucrats within the HRD ministry. The ministry should place all the bills in the public domain for widespread discussion. Parliament’s standing committee should also examine each individual bill as well as the way these bills together regulate the sector. The need is to create a regulatory environment that promotes education and research, and enables the next generation of Indians to compete globally in a knowledge economy.