Special Report

Need for genuinely inclusive debate

The HER Bill 2010, which proposes the creation of a single powerful National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) to supervise and regulate higher education across the spectrum,  needs inclusive and rigorous debate to iron out its flaws and catalyse the overdue reform of India’s rapidly obsolescing tertiary education system. Summiya Yasmeen reports

Now’s the worst of times for the UPA-II government at the Centre. The euphoria of the ten-party Congress-led UPA-II coalition which was returned to power in New Delhi following the general election of May 2009 has dissipated. Mired in corruption scandals including the Rs.176,000 crore 2G spectrum allocation scam; the Rs.70,000 crore Commonwealth Games 2010 over-billing rip-off, and the Adarsh Building Society contretemps in Mumbai even as the economy is recording sustained double digit inflation with food prices hitting the roof, the Union government is confronted with deadlock and stasis on all fronts including education, putting a brake to all government reform and development initiatives.

Most of the education reform legislation prepared by the Union human resource development (HRD) ministry over the past year has been stalled by the parliamentary standing committee on HRD and Kapil Sibal, the reformist HRD minister who has recently been given additional charge of the telecom ministry, is under heavy fire from the opposition and his own party colleagues (one of whom described him as a “classic file pusher”) for the slapdash speed with which his ministry is drafting education legislation. Among the education Bills of 2010 still hanging fire are the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) Bill, 2010, Prohibition of Unfair Trade Practices Bill 2010, the Medical Council of India Amendment Bill, 2010 and the Education Tribunals Bill, 2010.

Among this clutch of pending Bills focused on reform of the country’s crumbling higher education system, the NCHER Bill, 2010 — now retitled the Higher Education and Research Bill, 2010 — deserves urgent attention and top priority. The Bill — drafted by a task force headed by legendary legal educationist N.R. Madhava Menon, social scientist Mrinal Miri and educationists Goverdhan Mehta and M. Anandakrishnan — proposes replacement of the University Grants Commission (UGC), All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) and several other higher education regulatory bodies — with a single powerful NCHER which will take over all the duties and responsibilities of these higher education supervisory organisations including licensing, monitoring academic and governance standards, disbursing grants and appointing vice chancellors.

According to the statement and objects of the Bill, abolition of these numerous higher education supervisory organisations and replacing them with a single super regulatory board — NCHER — will “spearhead transform-ative change in higher education and promote autonomy of higher educa-tional institutions for the free pursuit of knowledge and innovation…”

Presented to the public for debate in February last year, this proposal of a supra authority for all higher education institutions provoked a volley of criticism, particularly from state governments, which allege abridgement of their right to also legislate, monitor and regulate higher education, and the academic community. Failure to build a national consensus on the draft NCHER Bill forced the task force to revise the legislation.

Therefore, in June a redrafted and retitled Higher Education and Research (HER) Bill, 2010 was presented to the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) for its approval. However even the new redrafted bill failed to win the approval of CABE (estb. 1920), an education advisory council comprising state education ministers and nominated members from the fields of industry, education, arts and culture. Members voiced fear of a super regulator, excessive centralisation, and advised the task force to solicit public opinion and consult state governments on the provisions of the new Bill. Consequently over the past six months the redrafted HER Bill 2010, is being circulated albeit selectively (the Union HRD ministry website still features the old NCHER Bill 2010), for opinion and feedback, with task force members busy touring the country to solicit public and expert support for the Bill. On December 15 they also met with prime minister Manmohan Singh to apprise him on the progress of the Bill.

The unusual determination being exhibited by some of the leading lights of Indian academia to reform Indian higher education indicates that at long last, they have acknowledged that the country’s rapidly obsolescing 509 universities and 31,000 colleges and a handful of world-class institutions of higher education (IISc, IITs, IIMs) are unable to meet the challenges and expectations of Indian industry and the economy growing at 8 percent plus per year. Decades of under-pricing, under-funding, capacity-building failures, neglect of faculty development and research have reduced the country’s higher education institutions to mere teaching shops presenting ill-prepared, low-calibre graduates and postgrads to industry and the economy.

Currently, the higher education system accommodates a mere 12 percent of the 100 million youth in the age group of 18-24 years (cf. 80 percent in the US, 40-50 percent in Europe and 20 percent in China). With per capita spending on students in higher education in India estimated at a mere Rs.40,000 ($1,000) per annum, the quality of education dispensed by the rigidly government (Central and state)-controlled higher education system is dismaying India Inc, which incurs the highest personnel and employee training costs worldwide. According to a 2005 study conducted by NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Service Companies) and the New York-based transnational management consultancy firm McKinsey & Co, 75 percent of graduates of the country’s 3,000-plus engineering colleges are unemployable, and only 10-15 percent of graduates of India’s 18,000 arts, commerce and science colleges are employable in globally competitive corporations.

“There’s no argument that India’s higher education system needs urgent reform. For whatever reasons, the existing regulatory organisations haven’t been able to facilitate creation of a world-class higher education system. Regulation and monitoring has been fragmented with little coordination between the several regulatory and professional education councils. A new regulatory system is required to revive higher education in this country and the NCHER which proposes to integrate all disciplines of higher education and research is a logical solution. An autonomous body modelled on the Election Commission of India, the NCHER will be good for Indian higher education,” says Dr. R. Natarajan, former director of IIT-Madras and former chairman of AICTE.

Narendra Jadhav, the combative former vice chancellor of Pune University and member of the Planning Commission, also endorses a supra body for regulating higher education. “NCHER is history in the making and will completely transform higher education in India. It will create a new architecture for higher education that will remain relevant for the next 30-40 years. It is well thought out and based on the recommendations of the expert Yash Pal Committee and the National Knowledge Commi-ssion, both of which urged the scrapping of multiple regulators. Synergy or harmony between regulators is zero. Each one guards its own turf jealously. The draft Bill justifiably recommends UGC, AICTE, NCTE etc to be replaced by the NCHER,” said Jadhav speaking at a seminar in Delhi in early January.

Ironically, the proposal for a single apex-level regulatory authority was made way back in 1966 by the Kothari Commission. Likewise, in 1986 the National Policy on Education also envisaged the creation of a national apex body for ensuring greater coordination and integration in the planning and development of higher education, including research. Subseq-uently in 2005 the National Knowledge Commission (NKC), headed by telecom tycoon Sam Pitroda, while observing that India’s “higher education system is over-regulated but under-governed”, recommended the establishment of an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE) to set standards, regulate and licence new higher education institutions countrywide.

As though these recommendations of high-powered committees were not enough, in 2008 the Congress-led UPA-I government once again constituted a committee headed by distinguished scientist and educationist Prof. Yash Pal to make recommendations for “renov-ation and rejuvenation of higher education”. Expectedly, the Yash Pal committee in its report submitted to UPA-II government in June 2009, endorsed the NKC’s recommendation and proposed the creation of a supra “constitutional body” — NCHER — to subsume the UGC, AICTE, and NCTE etc. (see box)

When contacted by our Delhi correspondent Autar Nehru two years later, obviously dismayed by the slow progress on creation of NCHER, octogenarian Yash Pal refused to answer any questions on the newly drafted HER Bill, 2010. “I regret proposing the establishment of the NCHER through a constitutional amendment,” he says.

Unlike its predecessor NCHER Bill, the revised HER Bill 2010 is careful about respecting the right of state governments to administer universities within their jurisdiction. Under s.26 of the NCHER Bill, it was mandatory for all universities, including state universities, to appoint vice chancellors from a panel of five names forwarded by the commission. And under s. 32 a university constituted by an act of Parliament or state legislature was to commence its academic oper-ations only after being authorised by the commission. During the consultation process state education ministers argued that since education is a concurrent subject under the Constitution, these provisions centralised regulation of higher education.

“The Centre is infringing on states’ rights in education. If the NCHER is formed, whatever minimum power the states have will also go to the Centre. It will also interfere with admission and reservation policies of state govern-ments. Tamil Nadu has been demanding that education be brought under the State list for a long time,” Tamil Nadu’s higher education minister K. Ponmudy told mediapersons after a consultative meeting with the task force held in Chennai last year.

Although such objections from state governments are motivated by fear of losing powers of patronage rather than improvement of academic standards, the HER Bill 2010 restricts the NCHER’s power to appoint vice chancellors of state government universities. Nevertheless, the Bill mandates that the appointment of all vice chancellors (including those appointed by state governments) is subject to their fulfilling the minimum eligibility norms specified by the HER Bill. Moreover s.33 (3) of the Bill states that the commission “shall not refuse commencement of academic operations in a university or institution empowered by or under law…” i.e. NCHER has to recognise universities promoted by state legislatures. But the Bill also invests the council with the power to revoke recognition of any university defaulting on its duties and responsibilities. State governments are yet to react and submit to these new provisions and the Bill in toto.

Another important change in the new HER Bill 2010 is that it expands the supervisory jurisdiction of NCHER to include medical education, although agriculture colleges are excluded. Earlier, the Union health ministry had strid-ently opposed inclusion of medical colleges in the predecessor NCHER Bill. But with the scandal-ridden Medical Council of India all set to be abolished, the new HER Bill has included medical education under its jurisdiction.

Drawing inspiration from the Election Commission of India, the new HER Bill proposes an elaborate governance structure for the proposed NCHER. It will comprise seven members, three of whom will be full-time. The seven members are to be appointed by a high-power selection committee comprising the prime minister, Lok Sabha speaker, leader of the opposition and Union ministers of higher and medical education.

The Bill also proposes the establishment of a general council with representation from state higher education councils to represent each state and Union territory, and head of the country’s 14 professional education bodies (Dental Council of India, Medical Council of India, Bar Council of India etc) and 13 research councils (Council for Industrial and Scientific Research, Indian Academy of Science, Defence Research and Development Organisation, etc). The general council will be an advisory body vested with the power to reject or amend (by a two-thirds majority) measures proposed by the commission. Moreover there’s to be a collegium of eminent scholars comp-rising 30 Fellows (National Research Professors or recipients of the Nobel Prize or Field Medals or to be nominated by a selection committee headed by the prime minister). The collegium is entrusted with the all-important task of preparing a directory of academics for leadership positions (i.e. vice chancellors) in Central universities countrywide.

In a seemingly determined bid to exclude politicians and bureaucrats, the HER Bill 2010 repeatedly stresses that the seven apex-level core members of NCHER have to be “persons of eminence with high academic creden-tials” selected and appointed through a democratic process accountable to Parliament. The bane of existing higher regulatory organisations such as the UGC, AICTE, NCTE, and MCI among others has been corruption, with employees all the way to the chairman’s office recklessly licensing sub-standard institutions and perpetuating the licence-permit-quota regime. A case in point is Ketan Desai, president of the Medical Council of India, who was arrested in April last year on charges of accepting a bribe of Rs.2 crore for granting recognition to a medical college in Punjab. Earlier in 2009, Kapil Sibal fired R.A. Yadav, then chairman of AICTE, and two of his colleagues, on corruption charges.

Knowledgeable monitors with experience of post-independence India’s floundering and over-politicised higher education system are unanimous that the effectiveness of the proposed NCHER is dependent upon genuine academics constituting the seven member core committee of the council. “The composition of the members of NCHER is crucial to overcome the infirmities of existing regulatory bodies. The core committee members have to be persons of high integrity selected through a fair and transparent process. The commission should enjoy full autonomy, with in-built mechanisms of transparency and accountability, to enable it to radically reform and upgrade India’s higher education system,” says B.K. Anitha, associate professor, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

Although critics regard the proposed NCHER, which will make UGC Act 1956, AICTE Act 1987 and the NCTE Act 1993 history, a mighty goliath dominating higher education, it won’t subsume several professional education regul-atory bodies such as the Dental Council of India, Council of Architecture, Indian Nursing Council and Pharmacy Council of India among others. While their licensing powers have been rescinded, the country’s 14 professional councils will continue to prescribe standards of professional practice and conduct exam-inations to determine the competence of students wishing to practice these professions.

Nevertheless some monitors of the higher education scene entertain a fear that the proposed NCHER could morph into a super regulator perpetuating the licence-permit-quota regime in higher education. In a paper titled NCHER Bill 2010: A Much Needed Reform that Fails the Test, published by the Mumbai-based Observer Research Foundation last year (April 2010), researchers Radha Vishwanathan and Dr. Leena Wadia write: “At a time when higher education in India is crying for deregulation, the Bill proposes tighter and more expansive regulation through a highly centralised control-seeking body. It seeks to perpetuate licence-permit-quota raj in higher education, which has both stifled the expansion and curtailed excellence in this important area of nation-building. If the humon-gous challenges that beset higher education are to be effectively met, India needs liberative reforms... Of course, there must be provisions in law and policy to control, and slap deterrent penalty on unscrupulous elements who have introduced crass commercialisation into higher education with no commitment to quality or professional norms. However, the test of any good policy or law is also whether it protects, promotes and facilitates the far more numerous committed and competent providers of educational services. The NCHER Bill clearly fails this test.”

Such apprehensions about a super regulatory NCHER are not unwarranted. It’s pertinent to note that whereas the HER Bill 2010 mandates several provisions to guarantee the  autonomy of NCHER vis-à-vis the Central government, it doesn’t provide for autonomy of universities and higher education institutions from the commission itself. Both the National Knowledge Commission and Yash Pal committee, while recommending an all-encompassing regulatory body, took pains to stress that the institutional autonomy of universities and other higher education institutions is a necessary prerequisite of reform and revival of India’s higher education system.

According to Rahul Choudaha, a New York-based higher education specialist who has studied the draft Bill, its focus should be to empower students rather than disempowering institutions. “In its current form, the Bill recommends centralisation and standardisation as the solution instead of mandating institutional transparency to protect the interests of students. For example, instead of proposing maintenance of a national registry of vice chancellors, the Bill should have proposed a national database of all approved institutions with details of their financial and academic performance. This is a well established practice mandated by the US government under which the National Center for Education Statistics collects, collates, analyses, and reports on American education through a free website. Such information sharing and transparency of institutional information through an online database would enable students to make informed study choices, and policymakers to measure the quality and performance of institutions,” says Choudaha.

While the HER Bill does not require higher education institutions to submit details about their financial and academic performance, in a first in tertiary education regulation in India, the Bill mandates every institution applying to the NCHER for recognition to compulsorily submit a report from a registered accreditation agency (s. 33 (2)). Ditto any college or institution seeking affiliation with an existing university has to submit the assessment report of a registered accreditation agency. All accreditation agencies must be registered under the yet to be enacted National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions Bill, 2010.

Currently assessment and accredi-tation by the UGC-promoted National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC, estb. 1994) is voluntary and thus far a mere 417 higher education institutions — less than 2 percent of the 31,000 colleges and 509 universities operational countrywide — have volunteered for accreditation.

Comments S. Vaidhyasubramaniam, dean, planning and development of SASTRA University, Thanjavur, which has been awarded ‘A’ rating by NAAC: “Compulsory accreditation of all higher education institutions is an excellent idea as it will help students judge the quality of an institution. However I’m apprehensive about the setting up of a new National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions by an Act of Parliament. In such an event, what will be the role of NAAC and AICTE’s National Board of Accreditation (NBA) and the conseq-uential impact on the Washington Accord — an international agreement between accreditation agencies responsible for assessing and grading undergraduate engineering degree programmes in signatory countries? Since NAAC is promoted by the UGC and NBA by AICTE, does it mean that they will also be abolished together with their parent bodies? The HER Bill must clear the air about the role of NAAC and NBA under the new NCHER.”

Yet the most vehement criticism of the HER Bill and the proposed NCHER has emanated from the teachers’ community with their representative organisations criticising  “centralisation of higher education” and “undermining of the autonomy of higher educational institutions” under the excuse of reforming Indian academia for the “competitive global environment”. In particular, chapter VIII of the HER Bill which proposes creation of a Higher Education Financial Services Corpo-ration under s.25(1) of the Companies Act, 1956 to disburse grants and loans to higher education institutions, has come under severe criticism from the teaching fraternity for promoting commercialisation of education.

“By proposing creation of a Higher Education Financial Services Corporation, the UPA-II govern-ment wants to introduce corporate culture in funding of institutions of higher education and encourage commercialisation of education. If this all-powerful corporation directs universities to look to the market to raise funding, what will happen to our higher education system? Such a corporate system will not help in the renovation and rejuvenation of higher education. The need is to make the UGC, AICTE, MCI, etc, which are proposed to be subsumed in the NCHER, function democratically and efficiently, eradicate corruption within them, make them accountable to the people and serve the cause of education. Establishment of NCHER will prove to be retrograde for higher education and research in India,” warns Dr. Vijender Sharma, associate professor of physics at Atma Ram Sanathan Dharam College, Delhi and former president of the Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA).

On the other hand, the country’s private sector higher education institutions which host  over 80 percent of the 12 million students currently in tertiary education — and who have suffered most under the greedy hands of educrats of the Central and state governments — tend to support the reformist objectives of the HER Bill 2010 and establishment of the umbrella NCHER. Indisputedly, over the past 63 years since independence, despite a hostile regulatory environment, private sector edupreneurs have greatly contributed to capacity expansion in higher, especially professional educa-tion. Nevertheless the task force which redrafted the HER Bill in its consultative meetings with stakeholders, did not deem it necessary to consult with any private university or higher education institute. Curiously s.3 of the HER Bill doesn’t define private universities at all. Despite unaided private universities and institutions receiving no financial grant from the government, in the Bill they’ve been clubbed together with Central and state government funded higher education institutions.

“The current alphabet soup of regulators has completely failed to address the needs of the country’s higher education system. The proposed NCHER is welcome as a change for the better. But the devil is in the details of the Bill and its implementation. The strange failure of the government and task force to consult private university representatives on the provisions of the HER Bill 2010 is very disappointing. The private sector has greatly contributed to creating and expanding capacity in higher education and its cooperation is crucial to the success of any reform initiatives in the sector. NCHER must clearly specify the regulations which will apply to private universities and devise a transparent system which allows minimal room for government discr-etion. A regulatory system with strong accreditation rules will not only help liberalise higher education and encourage the promotion of greenfield institutions, but will also enable the market to reject sub-standard higher education providers,” says Anand Sudarshan, managing director and chief executive of the Manipal Education Group — India’s premier and largest private sector provider of professional education which manages 55 instit-utions of higher learning in India and abroad.

Unquestionably, 21st century India’s higher education is rapidly obsolescing and urgently needs reforms. The HER Bill and NCHER is a brave reformist initiative. But this historic initiative which proposes a new architecture for the country’s higher education system should be the outcome of a genuinely consultative process involving all stakeholders — state governments, private universities, academics and students — to ensure its smooth passage through Parliament and effective subsequent implement-ation.

Hastily drafted and half-baked Bills enacted into legislation do more harm than good. That’s the lesson to be learnt from the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 which has provoked a spate of writ petitions in the Supreme Court for violating the constitutional rights of private independent schools, and doesn’t have the support of state governments. The HER Bill 2010 needs to be rigorously debated countrywide, its flaws ironed out to empower the proposed NCHER to catalyse the overdue reform of India’s higher education system, which is dangerously failing to meet the needs of the Indian state and economy.

With Autar Nehru (Delhi) & Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)