By Vikram Sahay
(Author is a civil servant. Views are personal)
In my last article in FE, ‘The GST lesson for education’, August 4, 2017, (goo.gl/1eLno6), I had argued why a plethora of regulatory bodies in higher education was leading to the segmentation of the sector, much to the detriment of the teaching-learning process. The need to establish an overarching body at the apex level, along with ushering in a reform agenda, very much like what we are witnessing in indirect tax through the GST route, is of paramount importance. Inarguably, these are not easy decisions and it is nobody’s case that it can happen in quick time. However, pending the fruition of such an idea, there is a case for the present regulatory bodies to introspect, evolve, and thereby create, an enabling environment for the larger agenda to fructify.
At a time when the Centre has unleashed a series of reformist steps to unburden and unshackle the higher education sector—promising greater autonomy to universities/colleges, creating a regulatory environment for upgrading existing institutions into the world-class category, enabling universities to access large amount of funds from the newly-created Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA)—it is time for regulatory bodies, such as the University Grants Commission (UGC), to re-engineer themselves and to pivot the reform agenda.
Created by the UGC Act of 1956, the UGC was a culmination of the ideas enshrined in the Report of the Commission headed by no less a scholar than Dr S Radhakrishnan. The fact that the UGC Act has been amended only thrice (1972, 1984 and 1985) in the last 62 years bears testimony to the vision that Dr Radhakrishnan had for higher education. While the UGC has developed and codified a series of regulations for coordination and determination of standards in universities, the essence remains unchanged—universities are autonomous institutions of higher learning and need to be respected as such. It is, therefore, no surprise that the UGC Act, per se, does not require any institution or university to seek permission from the UGC for starting any academic programme.
Against this background, how can the UGC approach and address the change? First, there is a need to bring all important regulatory bodies—UGC, AICTE, MCI, BCI, NCTE and those under state governments—onto a common platform and develop a common understanding and strategy for managing the change. The UGC should take the lead here. Second, a national campaign should be launched by the UGC underlining the need for ushering in quality in all institutions of higher education. It should include co-opting renowned personalities from the field of education and social life who could be called upon to address students, teachers, and the public at large in the urban hinterland and rural areas, impressing upon them the criticality of quality education as a sine qua non for India’s growth.
Simultaneously, and this could be the third strategy, understand and address the real causes of problems that plague the higher education sector—sub-par teaching learning process, inadequate infrastructure, poor quality of research, among others. This, of course, will require extensive consultations with state governments, and will involve taking some very hard decisions, including developing a more transparent system of teacher recruitment, a more robust educational administration for improving classroom practices, incentivising teacher performance, and building infrastructure and instructional facilities.
A course correction agenda for the UGC will be to re-look at the entire gamut of regulations that impact higher education—teacher qualifications, recruitment system, teacher progression (API), quality control of private institutions, procedures for financing central/state universities, schemes for grant of autonomy, and analyse: (1) to what extent these regulations have achieved the objective for which they were conceived; (2) whether, in today’s situation and the vision which holds for the future, these regulations are necessary in the present form or are they acting as hurdles in the path to reform; and (3) if so, what should be the new regulatory framework that can be consistent and compatible with the expectations and energy that has been unleashed for reforming higher education. This may require a complete change in the way regulation of higher education is approached by the UGC.
With time, ideally, there needed to be a shift in thinking from a ‘regulator’ to a ‘facilitator’. However, instead, there appears to have been an increasing trend towards playing the role of a ‘licensor’, wherein on several matters, permission of the UGC is required by the universities—for starting a programme in distance education, entering into collaboration with foreign institutions, opening a new department/school (for central universities), to mention a few. With the current emphasis on providing greater autonomy to universities, a paradigm shift in approach is the need of the hour.
There’s widespread criticism that no higher education institution of India figures in the global top 200. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings give 30% weightage to teaching (learning environment), another 30% to research (volume, income and reputation), citations (research influence) have a weightage of 30%, while international outlook is given 7.5%, and 2.5% is given to industry outcome. Hence, for Indian institutions to figure in the top 100, the emphasis has to be on improved teaching-learning process, and the quality and impact/influence of research it undertakes. The UGC, along with other bodies which fund research, will have to develop a fresh approach—both in terms of the quantum of funds made available for research as well as developing credible strategies for incentivising research in areas that can have far-reaching influence in a specific field of learning/knowledge.
At the same time, academic staff colleges, which conduct various programmes/courses for teachers, need to be rejuvenated to enable teachers to improve the learning environment. This, along with restructuring the present API scheme with the aim of re-emphasising the relevance of teaching-learning as the single most important criterion of teacher performance, may go a long way in improving an institution on the ‘teaching’ parameter.
Any reform process must necessarily engage at re-examining the role of the private sector in higher education. Private institutions today are dominant in technical and professional courses—over 90% in engineering, pharmacy, hotel management, physiotherapy, teacher education, and more than 60% in medicine, management, architecture. There are 723 universities, including institutions of national importance, of which 23% are private, and that percentage would be more if we also included the 90% of private deemed-to-be universities, totalling 130. Further, of the 37,204 colleges, around 60% are private.
Historically, the private sector has invested substantively in higher education, even as a not-for-profit. While doing so, it has generated reasonable surplus to strengthen, expand and excel. But for greater participation of the private sector, we need to improve the regulatory environment, with the objective of benchmarking and maintaining quality, encouraging innovation and excellence, respecting academic autonomy of institutions, and providing sufficient deterrence for the unworthy and unscrupulous.
Where does the private sector go from here? First, even in a not-for-profit environment, the private sector has increasingly participated in higher education. Second, CSR obligations under the Companies Act, 2013, would lead to very high amounts of investment in the education sector. Third, industry-institution linkage can reasonably be expected to get stronger and this may encourage more private players to invest in this sector. Fourth, research and innovation, which are the pillars of higher learning, are areas where strong impetus can be given by the private sector, even though they may be devoid of short-term gains.
Fifth, vocational education, linking local skills with formal knowledge building, and skill improvement can be another important area where private players should invest. This will make education more employable and meaningful. Sixth, private universities with high accreditation can enter into academic partnerships with foreign institutes and offer degrees.
Finally, the debate should no longer be ‘private versus public’. Given that education itself is a public good with strong externalities, there is a need for a new vision that looks at collaboration and co-learning between the two, and that only would be beneficial for the learner and for the country as a whole, as we endeavour to build a knowledge society.