Editorial✍ Hindu Edi Prelims cum Mains

Reforming higher education

Increasing complexity of the higher education sector:

  • The complexity of the higher education sector has been ever increasing, both in terms of
    • Institutions: Rapidly expanding number of institutions to meet the demands of surging student enrolment
      • The post-reform period marked a galloping growth of the sector with the setting up of many private universities.
    • Standards: Uneven and perhaps deteriorating standards in the quality of student output against the requirements of the job market
  • Mushrooming of institutions and a steady decline of standards in most of them have not done much good to the architecture of regulation.

Multiple regulators:

  • The regime of multiple regulators started in the mid-1980s and various professional bodies also started asserting themselves as regulators from around the early 1990s when the country embraced the LPG reforms.

Need for a single regulatory body:

  • The heavy hands of multiple regulators (like the UGC and All India Council for Technical Education), together with the empowerment of professional bodies (like the Bar Council of India and Council of Architecture) have not yielded the desired dividends.
  • That is why the need for a single regulatory body arose.

 

Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act) Bill 2018:

  • The Bill seeks to repeal UGC Act and provides for setting up of Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) to replace the UGC.
  • The new commission will cover all fields of education (except medical) and institutions set up under the Central and State Acts (excluding those of national importance).
  • It is another step in the process of reform of the regulatory agencies in the higher education sector and provide for more autonomy and facilitate holistic growth of the education system.
  • The other reforms taken recently include:
    • Reform of NAAC
    • Regulation for grant of Graded Autonomy to Universities
    • Granting of Autonomous status to colleges
    • Regulation for Open Distance Learning
    • Regulation for Online degrees

 

Following principles guided the Bill:

  • Less Government and more Governance: Downsizing the scope of the Regulator. No more interference in the management issues of the educational institutions.
  • Separation of grant functions: The grant functions would be carried out by the HRD Ministry (earlier done by UGC), and the HECI would focus only on academic matters.
  • End of Inspection Raj: Regulation is done through transparent public disclosures, merit-based decision making on matters regarding standards and quality in higher education.
  • Powers to enforce: The Regulator will have powers to enforce compliance to the academic quality standards.

 

Separation of academic functions and grants:

  • The main point of departure from the current system in the proposed Bill is a clear separation between academic functions and grant-giving ones.
  • Academic functions will be discharged by the HECI while grants will be given by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) directly.
  • HECI to focus on academic quality: It is tasked with the mandate of:
    • Improving academic standards with specific focus on learning outcomes
    • Evaluation of academic performance by institutions
    • Developing standards for opening and closure of institutions
    • Provide for greater flexibility and autonomy to institutions
    • Lay standards for appointments to critical leadership positions in Central and State universities
    • Training of teachers, promote use of educational technology etc.

 

Concerns with the Bill:

  1. Role of Professional Bodies:
  • While the proposed Bill seeks to empower the HECI with all academic functions, its role vis-à-vis professional bodies is unclear.
  1. Question of funds:
  • As of today, the MHRD has been directly funding more than a hundred institutions of national importance, including the IITs and the NITs.  Funding 47 Central universities should not pose a problem for the ministry.
  • The funding scheme of State universities, which account for more than 50% of the student enrolment, requires to be clearly worked out.
  • If it is sought to be done through the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan, or RUSA, a clear and transparent mechanism should be spelt out.
  1. Efficacy:
  • There are also concerns that, depriving the HECI completely of funding functions will affect its efficacy and stature in discharging its onerous responsibility. For example, will HECI be effective in regulating state institutions with less than inadequate Central funding?

 

  1. The issue of autonomy

Some issues with recent initiatives:

  • Recently, initiatives have been taken to:
    • Encourage public institutions to raise user charges so that they become self-sustaining
    • To allow such institutions to take loan from the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) to meet developmental costs
  • These are bold initiatives with major consequences.
  • But this might lead to institutions abandoning courses that have hardly any job prospects and starting ones that are market-friendly.
    • This militates against the idea of higher education and the concept of the university.
  • Besides, the high fees to be paid by students for such courses might compel them to take concessional student loans.
    • This may result in the student loan crisis reaching alarming proportions on account of delay in payment and default.

In this regard, HECI’s powers to grant autonomy will be significant:

  • Of the many functions of the HECI, specifying norms and standards for grant of autonomy and of graded autonomy is an important one.
  • It remains to be seen how the HECI would advise the government to surmount problems mentioned above related to courses and high fees that may come with autonomy.

 

  1. Concerns with the structure of HECI:
  • As regards the structure of the HECI, there will be a chairperson, vice-chairperson and 12 members.
  • Role of Secretary of Higher Education:
    • The secretary of higher education is envisaged to play many roles:
      • As a member of the search-cum-selection committee of the chairperson and vice-chairperson
      • Processing their appointment as a key functionary of the government,
      • Also, acting as a member of the HECI
    • Such multiplicity of roles may create difficulties and conflict of interest.
  • Government’s powers of removal: The power of the government to remove the chairperson and members is rather overwhelming and should be constrained.

 

Conclusion:

  • The public expenditure in the sector continues to hover around the present level of over 1% of GDP, and would need to rise to the minimum requirement of 2%.
  • Tightening the screws of regulation in the absence of rapidly expanding public expenditure has obvious limitations.
  • Despite some apparent infirmities, the proposed Bill shows the resolve of the government to move forward in reforming the sector.
  • Addressing issues relaated to the sector, including transforming them into research hubs, improving quality of instruction, addressing the concerns of faculty shortage, etc. require a quantum jump in allocation of public resources to this sector.

 

Importance:

GS Paper II: Social Issues

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