Will the proposed National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER), which is set to subsume apex regulatory bodies such as UGC, AICTE and NCTE, emerge as an authoritarian body to control all academic initiatives in the country and undermine the autonomy of higher education institutions?

Several academicians including present and former Vice-Chancellors, who attended a round table discussion on the NCHER Bill 2010 organised by the Karnataka State Higher Education Council in Bangalore last week, apprehended that the Commission, with such a high degree of concentration of power, would impinge upon the limited administrative and academic autonomy universities currently enjoy.

After the discussion, the State Government dispatched a letter to the Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal voicing its concern over the NCHER Bill 2010 in its present form.

The Bill proposes to set up a seven-member NCHER, which will be vested with powers to determine, coordinate and maintain standards in higher education and research, specifying norms and processes for establishing and winding up higher education institutes. It will also monitor the academic quality of a university.

The legislation proposes that a university shall commence academic operations only after the green signal from the NCHER, which would be substantially based on the assessment report on the availability of infrastructure, appropriate faculty as well as rules and regulations in place for its commencement. The NCHER shall also have power to revoke the declaration of status in case a university is unable to discharge its objective of providing quality education.

Imbalance

“Too much of power is concentrated in the hands of the seven-member NCHER. Can seven people take all decisions pertaining to higher education and research in such a vast country,” said Member-Secretary of Karnataka State Higher Education Council B.R. Ananthan.

Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Agricultural Sciences Bisalaiah said it would be difficult for one body to cover all facets of higher education in the country. “Hence, decisions are likely to be slower. If a new university is to be opened in the State, it has to pass through eight stages.”

Director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) V.S. Ramamurthy, who has also served as Secretary in Department of Science, New Delhi, said the high degree of concentration of power in the hands of a few people would breed arrogance in them. “The response for any proposal will start with a ‘no' from them,” he said.

The NCHER Bill 2010, which is to be placed in Parliament shortly, also proposes to establish a General Council with representation from State Higher Education Councils or a senior academician from each State and Union Territory, besides heads of all professional bodies and research councils. The General Council, which is to act as an advisory body to the NCHER, can also suggest amendments by two-thirds majority to measures or regulations proposed by the Commission.

The piece of legislation also proposes to constitute a 30-member collegium of scholars that shall principally act as “conscience keeper” and make recommendations on various developments in higher education and research. The collegium shall prepare a directory of academics for leadership positions including posts of vice-chancellors.

Former Vice-Chancellor of Kuvempu University P. Venkataramaiah wondered how a small State or a Union Territory could have the same number of representatives in the General Council as a large State with many educational institutions. “The General Council should be more broad-based,” opined Dr Ananthan while Dr. Bisalaiah said there is no need for a collegium of scholars.

Former Vice-Chancellor of Gulbarga University M. Muniyamma wondered why the Commission should be headquartered in New Delhi when there have been instances in which circulars have not reached higher education institutes in South India. “Besides, what about reservation for Dalits, women, and minorities in the General Council and collegium,” she asked.

Former Vice-Chancellor of Karnataka State Open University (KSOU), Mysore, N.S. Rame Gowda, said 30 per cent of students enrolling for higher education opted for the distance education mode. “Should not representatives from distance education institutes be accommodated in the General Council?”, he sought to know.

Further, Dr. Ananthan said that NCHER Bill makes no provision for State Governments to regulate entry of foreign universities.

The views of the academicians have been sent to the Centre in the form of a letter written by Karnataka's Higher Education Minister Arvind Limbavali to Mr. Sibal.

Mr. Limbavali said the Bill in its present form seeks to dilute the powers of the State Government. “Over-centralisation of powers in the hands of a single body at the Centre will infringe on the authority of the State Government to govern institutions of higher education,” he said.