Expert Comment

Expand NCHER Bill ambit

Even though it visited 12 cities countrywide to elicit expert and public opinion, the task force working on giving shape and form to the National Commission on Higher Education & Research (NCHER) Bill, interacted with a very limited number of people. This was mainly because the visits were organised at short notice without proper publicity. Therefore the interaction with stakeholders especially academics and intellectuals was restricted, with many venues attracting just few people.

On the other hand during the past few weeks when I discussed the Bill with several academicians, vice chancellors and school principals in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, I got the feel that too many stakeholders are not aware of the proposed reforms in higher education, and are capable of providing valuable suggestions if they are sounded. Therefore there’s a clear and present danger that the report of the task force, which I understand had to complete its interviews by March end, will not truly reflect the views of a cross-section of stakeholders in higher education. Hence it would be advisable for the Union HRD minister Kapil Sibal to extend the deadline for public discussion, and make a genuine attempt to elicit the views of a greater number of higher education experts and stakeholders.

For instance, the National Policy for Education (NPE), conceptualised by the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and approved by Parliament in 1986, stressed the need for creating an umbrella orga-nisation supervising and governing the entire spectrum of higher and professional education. NPE 1986 is the most comprehensive national education development blueprint put together by a wide cross-section of academics, corporate leaders and stakeholders in education. After prolonged discussions in the states and state assemblies, a programme of action was written and endorsed by Parliament in 1992. Therefore the process by which NPE 1986 was conceptualised, nationally debated and finally approved by Parliament, is an excellent template for the NCHER Bill.

In this connection it’s pertinent to note that the National Knowledge Commission and the Yashpal Committee recommended broad consultation prior to creation of a new governance authority for all higher, technical and professional education. Yet the draft NCHER Bill gives the council supervisory authority over only the University Grants Commission, All India Council for Technical Education, National Council for Teacher Education and the Distance Education Council — institutions governed by the Union ministry of human resource development. Education insti-tutions which provide medical, dental, legal, agriculture and a host of other professional study programmes, and are licensed by several other councils reporting to other ministries, are outside the ambit of the draft Bill. They too need to be brought under its purview.

Expansion of the governance ambit of the proposed NCHER Bill is important, because in the new 21st century economy we need graduates with multi-disciplinary education and training in a variety of skills. Such graduates can be produced only if we have academic institutions which offer modular, credit-based study programmes which encourage migration of students between different disciplines and faculties. We need enabling curriculums which not only allow students to pick and choose courses offered in different universities, but also get degrees and certification endorsed by two or more universities. The HRD ministry has reportedly commi-ssioned a very high-speed broadband information network which will connect all colleges and universities countrywide. This information network will enable students to access the best study programmes, and best teachers independent of geography. In a true sense this network will enable equity of access to all students in higher education.

Currently the hrd ministry is in the process of drafting legislation to address issues related to private participation in assessment, accreditation of institutions, controlling malpractices in professional education, curbing ragging on campuses, punishment for collection of capitation fee, and entry of foreign universities. Simultaneously legislation has been drafted to enable private education providers to offer vocational education and training to develop the workforce Indian industry urgently needs. All these initiatives are interlinked and it would be highly inadvisable to address them piecemeal. Therefore the need to expand the governance and supervisory ambit of the proposed NCHER to encourage and facilitate the inter-institutional linkages.

For its progress and development, the higher education system requires a flexible and open legal framework which facilitates the production and quality of the end product (value-added skilled graduates). Rather than a super-regulatory authority, the need is for a legal framework which encourages public and private participation in higher education. And rather than public-private partnerships, what we need are private-public partnerships including standalone private institutions operating in a liberal legal framework. Venture capital and foreign direct investment will follow.

(Dr. Arun Nigavekar is former chairman of the University Grants Commission)