Reforming Indian Higher Education, A Step in the Right Direction
By Kanika Tandon
The much-talked about Yashpal Committee report on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education released in June, 2009, comes as a boon to India’s ailing higher education sector. Its key recommendations – having one regulating body for all higher education, opening doors to foreign universities, encouraging interdisciplinary approaches, promoting research along with teaching and the need to promote vocational education – are being dubbed as significant attempts to uplift a wilting higher education structure. With the implementation of these recommendations, the face of Indian higher education, and the education sector more broadly, will hopefully be on the path to significant improvement.
In 2008, former University Grants Commission (UGC) chairman, Professor Yash Pal, was appointed by Mr Arjun Singh, the then Minister of Human Resource Development, to review the functioning of the UGC, the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and several other bodies serving as regulating structures for higher education in India. It was while reviewing these councils that Prof Yashpal felt the need to further investigate and suggest “ways of moving our higher education to a more creative form”.
In a letter to Mr Singh, Prof Yashpal had requested to be allowed to broaden his task and therefore be permitted to explore “some basic aberrations in our system that are generally ignored”. Following his request to Mr Singh, the committee was henceforth called “The Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education”.
After countless discussions, open interactions and meetings inviting suggestions from numerous vice chancellors, teachers as well as students, the result has been a report which is being touted as ‘ambitious’ and ‘unprecedented’.
One Regulator to Rule Them All
Of the many recommendations the report makes, the proposal which steals the limelight is the idea of having a single apex body to regulate matters related to higher education. This all-encompassing apex body would be called the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) and would replace existing regulatory bodies including the UGC, AICTE, NCTE (National Council for Teacher Education) and DEC (Distance Education Council).
Although not everybody is happy with the recommendation, it has for the most part and from most quarters, been well received. Prof Yash Pal says, “Since we have recommended that the UGC, AICTE and other regulating bodies be subsumed, it is understandable that they feel ignored, shunned and even insulted. However, I am particularly happy with the enthusiasm the government has shown toward the recommendations.” He added that he was “surprised that the press and universities have given a positive response as well.”
The creation of NCHER is being welcomed as it will help diffuse the chaos created by the multiplicity of watchdogs. The various regulatory bodies have become more of a hindrance than a facilitator of improvement. Even the report states that “the very little co-ordination among the statutory bodies” has led to “very embarrassing situations in which we find two regulatory agencies at loggerheads and fighting legal cases against each other”. With the setting up of NCHER, it is believed that the making of one apex body will now facilitate expansion and execution of plans at a much faster pace.
The new regulator’s key objectives will be to strategize and steer the expansion of higher education; be responsible for a comprehensive, holistic evolution of the higher education sector; ensure autonomy of the universities and shield them from interference by external agencies; and encourage joint/cross-disciplinary programs among institutions of higher education.
The NCHER will be an autonomous body to be created through amendments to the Indian Constitution, making it accountable only to the Indian parliament. It will draw its budgetary resources from the Ministry of Finance. However, not all agree that funding directly from the government is a wise decision.
“The idea of unifying the fragmented governance into one governing agency is excellent. I would however like to see this regulator being funded through the creation of a corpus. It should not depend on funding from the government in the form of allocations every year. The regulator may also be funded through a small charge on the revenues of the regulated institutions,” says Prof. Samir K. Barua, director, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India.
Foreign Providers and Scholars
The report has also welcomed the long-awaited opening of the Indian education sector’s doors to foreign scholars and universities to facilitate the exchange of ideas across borders. However, it suggests that India should invite only the best of the foreign universities to open campuses in India. It states that “if the best of foreign universities, say amongst the top 200 in the world, want to come here and work, they should be welcomed”. The report also expresses that such institutions “should give an Indian degree and be subjected to all rules and regulations that would apply to any Indian university”. This step in turn shall facilitate a strict regulatory network to keep the Indian universities on par with the foreign education providers.
Currently, foreign universities are not permitted to offer degree courses in India. However, they are allowed 100 percent foreign investment in the sector. It is also to be noted that there are nearly 150 foreign institutes offering courses in collaboration with various Indian universities under ‘twinning’ programs.
Studies show that around 160,000 students go abroad every year for higher education, spending more than US$6 billion. The opening up of India to foreign universities will not only help stop this massive brain drain, it will also save the country the billions of dollars that are spent on overseas educations.
Rules governing the operations of foreign universities would be outlined in The Foreign Education Providers Bill, which has been languishing on the sidelines of Parliament for almost five years now. While it is still unclear exactly when the Bill will go before lawmakers, recent media reports have suggested that the government plans to drastically revise the current draft bill to allow foreign universities to set tuition and not have to observe admissions quotas, as public universities are required to. It is also rumored that under the revised bill, foreign universities would not be governed by domestic regulators, rather they would be required to have been in operation a minimum of ten years in their home country and be accredited by the relevant domestic body before applying to open a campus in India. Reports suggest that until now at least 50 universities from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have approached the Ministry of Human Resource Development regarding the establishment of campuses in India.
An Interdisciplinary Approach
The Yashpal Committee Report also emphasises repeatedly the need for interdisciplinary experiences, and it advocates against the “cubicalization” of education. Here, “cubicalization” refers to a lack of exchange of ideas within various disciplines, so much so that within a single campus, disciplines often develop in complete ignorance of each other. Students will be exposed to multiple subjects under the aegis of one university/college. The aim is to cultivate an approach which considers knowledge in a holistic manner and generates prospects for different kinds of interfaces between various disciplines. “Connection with the outside world should be maintained at every cost. What we have currently is a steel box of a system within which there are smaller boxes with no interaction with the outside or with each other,” emphasised Prof Yash Pal. Summer jobs or internships too will become a compulsory part of exposure for all students, irrespective of the discipline.
Even the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) need to shed their isolation and expand their scope to other subjects like humanities, according to the report. This would prevent the isolation of IITs and IIMs as just engineering or management hubs and introduce an inter-disciplinary approach.
Surendra Prasad, director, IIT-Delhi, welcomes the recommendation and says, “like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), we need to go beyond science and technology and nurture other disciplines as well. This is not to encompass each and every subject but to have a healthy exchange and inflow of ideas from every direction and field.” Following this, as the report states, the IITs and IIMs may well be “producing scholars in literature, linguistics and politics along with engineering and management wizards”.
The report also attacks the social stigmatization of vocational courses and holds it as one of the main reasons why vocational study has lagged behind in India. In fact, vocational studies are considered for those in society who are poor at studies, have failed to get admission in a regular university course or are largely poor and need to start contributing to their family income soon. This has led to an unfavourable image of the sector, leaving it underdeveloped and unpopular. The report demands the setting up of a skill-development council at the Central level. The report specifically speaks about overcoming the alienation of this sector by bringing it under the purview of universities and by providing necessary accreditation to the courses available at technical and professional training institutes.
Engaging the Private Sector
Private sector participation is considered by many as essential in today’s world if demand for higher education is to be met in large edcuation systems such as India’s. However, the report lashes its whip at those private universities that make monetary profitability their singular focus. In recent years, there have been many examples of unacceptable behavior and practices at privtae universities, from leadership positions being filled by completely unqualified candidates, often family members of owners, to the exploitation of teaching faculty through meagre wages and underpayment for servics rendered.
The report recommends massive modification in the legal framework so as to have tight regulations on auditing the accounts of such universities, on transparency, on paying a minimum salary to the teachers, among other measeures.
Redefine ‘Deemed’ Status, Expand the Sector
The report also recommends that the granting of “deemed” university status should be put on hold until unambiguous guidelines are created. Speaking about these private universities, Prof Pal says, “interest groups have been shocked. The shops that had opened up like family businesses will be rooted out now. They teach only business or management courses because of the high fee involved. Setting up a private college or university is a business proposition for them and nothing else.”
The neglect of state universities has also been addressed in the reoprt, which recomends that they receive significantly increased funding. It also recommends that the nearly 1,500 colleges providing good standards of education should be upgraded to university status, while also advocating that universities be given full autonomy and be subjected to much less interference. This has been well-accepted by the educational institutes too. Samir Barua, from IIM Ahmedabad, states that “autonomy is essential if we are to compete with the foreign institutions which are likely to be permitted to set up campuses in India. Else, the foreign institutions should also be subjected to the same controls and regulations as the public institutions. I also think it would be good idea to specify what the foreign institutions desiring to set up campuses should bring in capital.”
Keeping Talent Talented
To keep up to date in one’s field is as necessary for doctors as for teachers. It is recommended that teacher education should be the responsibility of the institutions of higher education and all teachers should undergo professional training regularly. The report has also suggested that since teaching and research go hand in hand, there should be an increased emphasis on research as well. “It should be necessary for all research bodies to connect with universities in their vicinity and create teaching opportunities for their researchers and for all universities to be teaching and research universities,” states the report.
Implementing the Recommendations
Kapil Sibal, the recently appointed Minister of Human Resource Development was highly enthusiastic about the report, promising that it would be implemented within his first 100 days in office. Prof Yashpal is hopeful and believes that while it was unrealistic to expect any major changes within 100 days, it is nevertheless a commendable thing that the government is doing its best to try and implement the recommendations.
The attempt has been to give Indian higher education a facelift to match global standards, but the weakest link in this well-received report is that it leaves a lot of the implementation questions unanswered. The report states that “what exactly needs to be done in detail is beyond the scope of this Report and we are separately suggesting that a Task Force is given the responsibility for it.”
Problems with implementation are not just limited to devising ways to execute the recommendations, but also arranging for funds to execute this ambitious plan. For example, the report suggests that education should be made affordable to all and an assured loan should be available to every student (apart from scholarships). India’s education expenditure in the fiscal year 2009-2010 has been allocated to Rs154 billion (US$3.2 billion) which is not even half the required amount, if desirable results wish to be achieved. The teacher shortage needs to be tackled by making teaching a well compensated profession.
Achieving results with less funds in your pocket may be a difficult task, but the promise of change has given hope to academicians and students. Deepak Pental, Vice Chancellor, Delhi University, says, “It is a quite practical and promising report. I don’t know how and where the funds will come from, but at least we are going in the right direction.” The funds may not be immediately available, but it is reason enough for optimism that we have begun the long-needed journey toward change for better.