Better higher education?


By Dhurjati Mukherjee
There is much debate regarding improving higher education in the country. Academic scholars and educationists have expressed concern about standards and seek a change. There is no doubt that there is a definite need for transformation in our learning system — not just of the chosen few IITs and IIMs or universities but also institutions of higher learning situated in rural and backward districts.
There have also been discussions in changing the syllabus of various subjects to make it more practical and relevant to developments that have taken place in recent years. While various institutions have initiated the process, others have already brought in significant changes to improve the quality of learning. Autonomy of universities has been another major demand and some headway has already been made in the Central universities though State universities still retain full control.
Further, the quest for a better education system is necessary in view of India’s stature and position in world. Presently, the country’s position is quite dismal not just in the global arena but among Asian countries too. Thus, the debate is, no doubt, quite justified as we shouldn’t miss the bus and instead must perform like countries such as China or Singapore.
Keeping all this in mind, the Centre has proposed the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Act, which will repeal the University Grants Commission Act of 1956. Although several government committees advocated replacing the UGC with a new regulator, the sudden action by the government has prompted a section of teachers to express scepticism. Meanwhile, the Federation of Central University Teachers Association (FedCUTA) fears dilution of autonomy, which may not exactly happen.
It is understood that the HECI will get powers for quality control as well as monitoring and has the potential to ensure better standards of higher education. However, it will not have the responsibility of giving grants, which will be disbursed by the Human Resource Development Ministry, and thus shall serve only as the academic regulator. The HECI bill proposes to make all universities seek permission from the Commission to start new courses.
Under the proposed law, before offering any course, the universities would need to seek permission. The existing universities will have to do the same after three years of the HECI coming into force. Moreover, HECI will have the power to revoke authorisation of an institution, if adverse reports are received. The sharp focus on accreditation and yearly evaluation of higher educational institutions is expected to improve the education sector and ensure much-needed quality.
Notwithstanding criticism, which normally does happen when something new comes into force, there are expectations that in the realm of regulating courses, approving new courses and syllabus, closing down of non-performing higher education institutions, if necessary, etc. and even specifying eligibility conditions to administrative and leadership positions in institutions, improvements are likely to take shape in the coming years. These are truly desirable departures from the existing regulatory framework of higher education, bringing it closer to global best practices.
At the same time, what requires mention here is that the new HECI should be free from political control and the 14-member body and should act like a truly professional body. Remember the AICTE chief recently blamed, and quite rightly, the poor leadership and wrong selection of Vice Chancellors due to their political affiliation without weighing merit for the not-so-happy performance of old universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.
Gradually the HECI should also be given more responsibility for the accreditation aspect. As too many institutions in the domain of higher education may not be quite favourable, it should also be given the task of recommending grants to the HRD Ministry. The responsibility of vesting such work to another independent body may complicate matters and dilute the importance of HECI.
Another aspect which needs serious consideration is the government’s resolve to grant autonomy which must not be hindered. As is quite evident, professional and intellectual freedom of some of the leading scholars has been limited. The HECI should not come in the way of allowing scholars to use their specialised expertise to create new degree programmes that respond to changes in science and technology and lead developments in their disciplines. It shall also allow them to discern and shape inter-disciplinary studies in the country such as bio-informatics, marine engineering, marine population, nanotechnology and even environmental science or environmental management, which did not exist two or three decades ago.
Importantly, the recent decision to give academic autonomy to some select universities is undoubtedly a welcome development. However, there is possibly a need to extend such autonomy to a larger number of universities whose performance improves over a period of time to help them update their courses and standards in the coming years.
A vital aspect i.e. of research is unfortunately not quite explicit in the HECI Bill. Whether the proposed body will examine this or whether another national research foundation would be set up remains to be seen. However, several bodies may not be welcome as most experts believe that the whole spectrum of higher education should be bestowed on a single competent body, free from any type of political interference.
It goes without saying that there is need to give priority to research in science and technology as the country’s contribution was a mere 3.5 to 3.7 per cent of scientific publications in the world in the past few years, way behind China, which had an impressive 21 per cent. The quality of teaching as also poor research output at Indian institutions appears to have contributed to poor university rankings by international agencies
The new Bill is expected to help in upgrading institutions of higher learning in the top 150- 200 range in international rankings. The universities of Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Pune were much below– in the 800 range. And it comes as no surprise that dozens of universities in countries such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Africa fared far better than India.
Finally, it is necessary for the government to allocate more funds for the expansion of higher education so that the country can offer specialised technical knowledge and make a mark in the international arena. One may refer to the recommendations of the high level committee headed by Prof. Yash Pal way back in 2009. Among others, it called for increased funding for higher education and stricter regulation and monitoring of private entities. Time these are implemented at the earliest.—INFA