Higher Education Bill: Unshackling education from power games

Published: March 22, 2019 1:54:08 AM

The Indian higher education system is not yet prepared to develop leading professionals, innovators and entrepreneurs for this world. It needs a major upheaval. Ultimately, the market and the principles of economics must be allowed to reform and restructure the higher education sector, not a Bill.

From 1857, when the first three universities were set up in India, till today, post-UGC implementation in 1956, it has been observed that universities worked reasonably well without any outside regulator. (Illustration: Rohnit Phore)

By Indradeep Ghosh

In June last year, a draft of the Higher Education Bill, 2018, which seeks to repeal the UGC Act, 1956, and replace the University Grants Commission (UGC) with the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) as the main regulatory authority was brought in public domain. Aimed to provide ‘greater autonomy’ and ‘holistic growth’, the Bill has been widely criticised as a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease, as it fails to address the fundamental problems in the Indian higher education sector—those of institutional autonomy and reducing political interference in higher education.

From 1857, when the first three universities were set up in India, till today, post-UGC implementation in 1956, it has been observed that universities worked reasonably well without any outside regulator. From the mid 1980s to the LPG (liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation) era of the 1990s, the education sector became a free-for-all as various professional bodies started to assert themselves while many private universities came into being. An effective standardisation process was needed, but what followed was a muddled approach that defeated the purpose. Concentration of complete authority to the UGC, even in areas such as standards, curricula, faculty salaries, student fees and the like, resulted in regression towards the mean. This was also to serve political ends. With a large number of students serving as a vote bank, a dilution of academic rigour was essential to keep all constituencies suitably contented. It was also during this era, from the mid-1970s onwards, that campus politics came to the fore.

This centralisation of power has resulted in Indian colleges and universities becoming woefully inadequate centres of learning by world standards. The yawning gap between curriculum and industry requirements continues to grow—according to an Assocham 2017 report, only 20% of the 5 million students who graduate every year in India get employed. It is a failure from many aspects—while graduates lack basic skills such as quantitative, analytical and critical thinking, there is no motivation from faculty members to introduce curriculum innovations due to a lack of incentive. It is not even required for faculty members to continue research in their fields of expertise, in effect allowing them to teach content that is well past expiry date.

It, therefore, makes little sense to replace an organisation such as the UGC, which mainly attracted criticism due to its tendency to micromanage universities, with a body that will further control state universities and other higher education institutes, with the purse strings being handled by the ministry of human resource development (MHRD). This is undoubtedly counterproductive and will further entrench the higher education system in a licence raj-like bureaucracy and political interference riddled framework it desperately needs to recover from.

The way ahead
Reform of the higher education sector is undoubtedly long overdue. The main problems that need to be fixed are political interference, micromanagement of academic institutions and interference in fee structures. The needs of the market (i.e. the job market) rather than the re-election prospects of politicians should drive the structure and functioning of India’s institutions of higher education. These institutions should enjoy substantial autonomy to differentiate themselves from each other, which will naturally lead to a culture of innovation and a rationalisation of fee structures, because curricula will become more dynamic and faculty research will begin to inform teaching as well as periodic revaluations of existing curricula and modes of assessment.

Major structural mistakes, such as downgrading universities and clubbing them with colleges under the aegis of ‘Higher Educational Institutions’, as proposed in the Bill, need to be avoided. Universities, ideally, have a separate legislation and do not need to seek permission from the ministry to introduce new courses. But the current Bill mandates existing universities, however long-established or eminent, to get authorisation from the HECI for all their current courses within three years, failing which they cannot continue to offer them. This will serve as a big blow to non-market-oriented courses such as liberal arts and severely undermine the integrity of universities.

Decentralisation of decision-making essentially is the keyword for higher education. India has examples to follow in this regard—in countries such as the US, Australia and China, regulation and funding of higher education are primarily the responsibility of the states, with the federal government also playing a funding role. In India, the situation is opposite right now. China, specifically, has achieved great progress and its top universities are now offering stiff competition, in terms of the quality of published faculty research, to American universities such as Stanford and MIT.

India has 864 universities, 40,026 colleges and 11,669 stand-alone institutions (All India Survey on Higher Education, 2016-17), and is about to become the country with the youngest workforce in the world (by 2020). Additionally, the professional world is changing at the speed of thought, with new technologies, business processes and completely new perspectives influencing the ecosphere every day. The Indian higher education system is not prepared to develop leading professionals, innovators and entrepreneurs for this world. It needs a major upheaval. Ultimately, the market and the principles of economics must be allowed to reform and restructure the higher education sector. The centralisation of authority to serve political ends is not only bad economics but also, in the final instance, bad politics. A strong vision that replaces bad politics with good economics is desperately needed if India is to educate her young population and empower them for the jobs of the 21st century.

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