Expert Comment

Expert Comment

Higher education reform agenda

trident unfulfilled demand for trained,
industry-ready professionals from India Inc is the most disturbing feature of higher education in contemporary India.

Acknowledging this as a "quiet crisis" running deep in higher education, the Delhi-based National Knowledge Commission (NKC) has made several important recommendations covering four major areas: (i) regulation, for which it has suggested an independent regulatory authority for higher education (IRAHE); (ii) structure, suggesting lower entry barriers to all providers of education, and expansion and reform of existing universities; (iii) a new governance system; (iv) and financing of higher education through diverse funding sources.

In this abridged version of a paper written by me for a national seminar held at the Visveshwaraiah Technological University, Belgaum, I offer my comments on the NKC recommendations.

Regulation. First, it’s important to acknowledge that the current system of regulation/control of higher education institutions has failed.

The prime reason is the very approach to regulation with regulators having assumed direct respons-ibility for operations and enforcing rules in every activity, starting from student admissions, appointment of faculty and administrators, and specifying the curriculum, to conducting examinations and awarding degrees. Regulatory bodies such as the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) are poorly equipped to micro-manage higher education, which is a diverse, long-cycle and complex sector.

Another design flaw in regulation is with regard to the legal status of institutions permitted to provide higher education. Current law allows only charitable trusts and societies to promote education institutions, a stipulation practiced more in the breach than observance. Even the judiciary has recently accepted that education institutions should be allowed to earn reasonable surpluses so that they can grow and invest in quality improvement.

The NKC has, therefore, recommended a new regulatory system. It has proposed that the IRAHE be made independent of all stakeholders, including the Central and state governments, and is empowered by an Act of Parliament. An independent regulatory authority in higher education can create an environment in which education providers can focus on delivering good value and become accountable to all stakeholders.

Structure. In addition to lowering entry barriers for foreign and private education providers, there’s need to promote competition from a new wave of institutions which can introduce new concepts and higher standards in tertiary education management and delivery.

The best hope of making reforms imperative in the system is to encourage competition to existing universities from a new genre of institutions with differential governance systems and management practices. Sound policies, balanced regulation, a competitive market, and incentives can considerably mitigate the missed opportunities and serious imbalances that have crept into higher education.

Governance. The current college affiliation system urgently needs reform. Inter-institutional competition would be intensified if colleges are given the freedom to affiliate with any recognised and accredited university anywhere in India or abroad. Such a liberal affiliation system would compel universities to compete for the affiliation fees of colleges through provision of value-added services rather than simply adding to the bureaucratic work and corruption both at the university and collegiate levels. Universities would be compelled to focus on content upgradation and innovation, devising new courses and curriculums, improving pedagogy and providing other development assistance to affiliated colleges. Similarly foreign universities could be permitted to affiliate Indian colleges to award Indian students foreign degrees in competition with Indian universities. Moroever the NKC’s recommendation to de-politicise the appointment of university vice-chancellors urgently needs to be heeded.

Finance. The NKC has recommended increased government funding and diversification of sources of finance of universities. It has envisaged a rapid expansion from 350 universities currently to 1,500 by 2015, to double the proportion of our population in the age group 18-24 that enters higher education, from 7 percent at present to at least 15 percent by 2015.

If expansion takes place on such a scale without the implementation of NKC’s other recommendations — lowering of barriers to entry, setting up an independent regulator, and enforcing transparency in governance and management of educational institutions — it will enhance private profit opportunities for existing promoter-managements, both in government and non-government institutions. Non-implementation of the governance and structural changes recommended by the NKC while financing growth will only perpetuate entrenched interests. Issues of quality, abuse of power, inefficiency and corruption will remain unaddressed.

(Dr. K.R.S Murthy is former director of IIM-Bangalore and currently director of Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore)