Ideas and Action for a Better India
Observer Research Foundation(ORF) Mumbai’s Comments and Recommendations on the Draft National Commission for Higher Education and Research Bill 2010 – A Much Needed Reform That Fails the Test
Media Event 21 May 2010: The National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation contemplated by the Union Government to change the system of higher education and research in India to ensure equity, excellence and employability for the aspiring youth population of India. In response to the HRD Ministry’s call for a public debate on this important subject, ORF Mumbai organized a Roundtable on the draft NCHER Bill in Mumbai on 27 March 2010. The Roundtable was inaugurated by Dr. Narendra Jadhav (Member, Planning Commission) who is also a member of the Task Force that is mandated to redraft the NCHER bill before the start of the cabinet and parliamentary approval process and moderated by Sudheendra Kulkarni, Chairman ORF Mumbai. The participants of the roundtable represented a broad spectrum of civil society including distinguished and senior members of the academia. The Comments and Recommendations on the NCHER bill by ORF Mumbai have been compiled into a report titled – ‘A Much Needed Reform That Fails the Test’ and is being released to the public on 21 May 2010, by Dr.Arun Nigavekar, Raja Ramanna Fellow and a former Chairman of UGC.
ORF Mumbai believes that given the enormous challenges and opportunities for India in the 21st century, NCHER must be an overarching body which can identify India’s strategic needs and opportunities in a dynamically changing world; harmonize them with the long-range and holistic planning of higher education; and also provide useful and coordinated guidance to the States and institutions for implementation of the strategic reforms. The report, marking a departure from the Yashpal Committee Report and National Knowledge Commission Report, makes a strong case for recasting NCHER as an apex-level body for strategic planning, coordination, guidance to promote higher education in all its diverse disciplines (including medical, legal and agricultural education, which have been excluded from the purview of the present Bill due to inter-ministerial turf battles), while retaining the existing regulatory bodies in a radically reformed form.
Further ORF recommends that NCHER with this new and focused mandate should report to the Prime Minister, just as the Planning Commission reports to the Prime Minister. In fact, the NCHER requires no less attention from the PM than the Skill Development Mission, which he chairs. With both bodies reporting to the Prime Minister, it will be possible to build bridges between the NCHER and the National Council on Skill Development.
The ORF Report devotes special attention to the much neglected State universities which manage 80% of enrolments in Higher Education and which are in dire need of autonomy both from the UGC and also from the political/bureaucratic “bosses” in the respective State Governments. ORF strongly recommends that the legislatures of various States should radically amend the State universities acts to ensure that these institutions enjoy effective autonomy to evolve better self-governance structures, move to a tenure system for staff, and design new and transparent performance metrics that reflect the social needs they fulfill. Many students in State universities hail from disadvantaged sections of society and are, therefore, first-generation would-be graduates and post-graduates; they need a lot of careful and sustained mentoring by college and university teachers. State universities and research institutes are best placed to collaborate with their respective State governments to provide indigenous solutions to local needs and issues and they must be empowered.
The ORF Report recommends diversity of governance regimes and rejects the NCHER’s ‘one size fits all’ approach towards regulation of higher educational institutions. It is neither possible nor desirable for any government to run over five hundred universities with equal generosity. Such an agenda is bound to cause either a fiscal breakdown or doom the university system to mediocrity. There are 15-20 top-class institutions in India that have made a distinctive mark globally, for various reasons ― cutting edge research, high quality undergraduate teaching, energetic leadership, well established sources of funds, established best practices. These have the potential to do much better. There is no rationale for bringing all these institutions under the jurisdiction of NCHER in its present form. Rather, India should aim at replicating such success stories. These institutions should be allowed to mentor other institutions in the same domain to achieve quality enhancement. These innovative practices can be encouraged only if there is diversity in the governance regimes in higher education.
A major failing of the NCHER bill is that there is nothing in it that recognizes the stark fact that the resources of the Central and State governments are woefully inadequate to meet the ambitious targets in higher education and that investment of massive non-governmental resources need to be enabled. We are witnessing a strange paradox in the higher education landscape today. The absence of a policy that has deterred good players from entering higher education or expanding their activities has in no way stopped unscrupulous players from setting up educational shops and collecting huge capitation fees and other nontransparent fees. Indeed, many of the bad players are politicians themselves, or those with strong political patronage. It is high time political parties placed the “fair profit” principle in higher education on a transparent and accountable legal footing, and give up the hypocrisy of rejecting it in pro-poor rhetoric and allowing it in practice.
ORF advocates academic autonomy, financial autonomy and administrative autonomy for institutions. Individual institutes should be able to take initiative and show leadership. They should have the flexibility in formulating academic programs, determining fees and designing their examination and credit systems. They should have the freedom to offer innovative courses through ICT-enabled open and distance education method schools, which is so necessary to help India break out of the scarcity mode. Within the university system, affiliated colleges (especially those that have shown a commitment to quality) should have freedom and flexibility in academic, financial and administrative matters.
ORF’s other important recommendations pertain to the need to launch, on a war footing, a national mission for multiplying the number of good teachers, with incentives for those who perform better; to massively increase the number of scholarships and low-interest rate educational loans to benefit needy students; to review the policy of reservations in faculty appointment and promotion in higher education, while retaining it in admission of students; to forge close links between higher education and development of employable skill sets; to use revolutionary power of ICT enabled innovations in education especially in open and distance learning; Indianize the entire orientation of higher education and research to make it value based and relevant to India’s needs.