MHRD must set up an autonomous group with distinguished Indians, preferably outside the govt, chairing HECI.
Two models were advocated for education and skill reform. Both began with recognition of low enrolments, reversing post-Independence trends. The Knowledge Commission advocated both privatisation and globalisation of a larger education base.
The immediate past is not encouraging. New programmes of vocational training are major advances. Entrepreneurship training for school dropouts for self-employment is a step in the right direction, and new programmes are of a very large size. Certification by local chambers of commerce goes a long way in employability, and is a welcome trend. In one area where I have some experience with a certificate, earnings of around Rs 3,000 per month are available to the modal trainee, and if the certification is by the London Guild, these earnings are doubled.
The major challenge is in improving the system. Accountability and autonomy are the real issues and we don’t seem to be prepared for them in our mai-baap culture. Instances of contrary trends in recent days include a defeated politician appointed as a chancellor of a university as the last act of an outgoing government, a distinguished vice-chancellor of a presidency university harassed by a chancellor, and a distinguished professor suspended without due process for insisting that an examination should be completed.
It is of some importance that we build firewalls for autonomy and that can be legitimised only by accountability. For too long, accountability in universities has meant that of teachers and karamcharis and not university administrators, bureaucrats and ministers. A private university has to give its financial projections for years but a publicly-funded one does not know its budget sometimes into the year. The emphasis on backward areas has to be accompanied with bootstrapping strategies. The best talent must be encouraged to go there, for love if possible, and for money and with the necessary incentives, if not.
Education is for growth and professional excellence in a technologically exciting future of tremendous possibilities and interdisciplinary in applications. But education as a culture fest still continues. Skills are terribly important and yet in the profoundest sense of the term education is a matter of culture, nation-building and freedom. Sitaram Yechury, Prakash Karat, Nirmala Sitharaman, Prakash Javadekar and Arun Shourie were all rebels in university. Philistines who think education is only implanting ideas developed elsewhere are inefficient, for we must collaborate with others to understand how they developed good education in their own culture. The best management and technology schools are leaders in humane education.
New systems will have to be of a networking nature and this has to be a part of the institutional reform. Only competent universities will network both at home and abroad. Networks have to be with knowledge centres outside the universities, and with businesses and users. Global institutions are willing to help. This is how institutions of eminence will be built, rather than official fiats. The Indian debate is unfortunately in a sloganeering mould. But in the field there are exciting developments. Goldman Sachs and their brand ambassador Roopa Purushothaman, and then the CIA, told the world that not only was India growing but its population was an asset. We got billions of dollars of free publicity, which is nice.
They were right, but not necessarily for the right reasons. When populations are hungry, feel cheated or unfairly treated, don’t have a job, or are sick, they are not an asset. So when Azim Premji counts the 55,000 engineers we produce annually, compares them with a fifth that a great power produces, and builds his global plans around the divide, he can thank the strategies of Rajiv Gandhi and his predecessors.
Fortune never came to the timid. The demographic bonus will not be ours simply because those, who a few years ago were saying that the world was not growing, are now saying we will. They were wrong then and could be again.
The University Grants Commission (UGC) is to be replaced by a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). This idea was originated by Kapil Sibal, but now MHRD has circulated a draft Bill and given brief time for public reactions to it, which by now is over. The HECI will consist of scholars being persons of eminence and standing in the field of academics and research. The chairman will be selected by a committee with the cabinet secretary as the chairperson, secretary higher education, and some eminent academics as members. These are all civil servants, while the UGC did not have this degree of bureaucratic control. Otherwise, the HECI would do largely what the UGC does now.
Simultaneously, press announcements had stated that MHRD will set up a committee for funding of institutions of higher learning. The Sibal reform proposal had an autonomous commission for this also. This is a role that is, at present, done by the UGC and would now become part of day-to-day functioning of the government in MHRD.
This is parallel to the abolition of the Planning Commission, which abolished rule-based allocation of resources to states by the Union finance ministry since the NITI Aayog was not given the Planning Commission’s allocation of fund rule. The Gadgil-Mukherjee formula is now taken over by the Plan Finance Division of the finance ministry.
The Union minister for HRD has stated that a committee will be set up in his ministry for the fund allocation rule. It is not quiet clear what the structure will be. MHRD is well advised to set up an autonomous group with distinguished Indians, preferably outside the government, chairing it, and some eminent persons as members, including those with experience in finance, to play this role.
The author is a former Union minister.