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Updated: January 17, 2012 15:51 IST

Autonomy for pursuit of knowledge

G. KRISHNAKUMAR
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N.R. Madhava Menon says the proposed National Commission for Higher Education and Research will be more a friend and philosopher than powerful regulator.
N.R. Madhava Menon says the proposed National Commission for Higher Education and Research will be more a friend and philosopher than powerful regulator.

The much-debated Higher Education and Research Bill is now in Parliament. N.R. Madhava Menon, one of the architects of the Bill, tells G. Krishnakumar that it is for teachers and students to make use of the coming regime to change the rules of the game and advance scholarship.

The Union Ministry of Human Resource Development is actively pushing legislation on higher education reforms in Parliament, including the much-debated Higher Education and Research Bill, 2011. N.R. Madhava Menon, renowned legal educationist and member of the task force that drafted the Bill, says that it is a radical departure from the existing non-performing, multiple regulatory system to a decentralised, disclosure-based, self-regulating arrangement. In an interview to The Hindu-EducationPlus, Prof. Menon pointed out that the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) proposed under the Bill “is more of a friend and philosopher than a powerful regulator as some people seem to think.”

What are your views on the doubts expressed by academics that the setting up of the National Commission for Higher Education and Research will remain a distant dream going by the provisions of the Higher Education and Research Bill, 2011, giving it a daunting mandate?

Any reform measure, particularly if it changes regulatory controls and systems, is bound to create doubts in stakeholders. It is, therefore, natural that a section of academics who welcome the measure are apprehensive of the prospects of an omnibus National Commission for Higher Education and Research. A closer reading of the Bill will convince one that the mandate is not as daunting as it appears to be. It is indeed daunting to individual universities, State and Central, which are being liberated from all regulatory controls and are made accountable for their actions and omissions. The object of the Bill is to promote autonomy of higher educational institutions and universities for free pursuit of knowledge and innovation. The mandate of the commission (Section 16) is the promotion and coordination of higher education and research through ensuring autonomy of universities, proposing an interdisciplinary curriculum framework for the students to have increased choices in the pursuit of learning, encouraging good practices in universities, and promoting research and innovation in higher educational institutions. These are advisory and recommendatory functions. The promotion of accountability framework in regulatory systems mentioned in Section 16(2) (b) is the task assigned to the Accreditation Regulatory Authority under a different Bill. The mandate to the commission is only to set the standards of accreditation of courses and institutions for the accreditation agencies to follow. It is important to read Cl.(3) of Section 16 to understand that the role of the commission is more of a friend, philosopher and guide rather than an all powerful regulator as some people seem to think. Clause (3) says: “… Nothing in this section shall be construed to imply that the measures taken by the Commission shall be obligatory for universities and institutions to adopt, but such measures shall serve to act as reference for higher educational institutions and universities to advance quality, access and inclusion … and for the achievement of goals in sub-section (1).” The main task of the commission is to set standards of higher education and research and specify quality norms for accreditation and benchmarking of higher educational institutions and universities, specify norms and mechanisms for transparent, efficient and accountable governance and for allocation of grants to universities. These are standard setting functions the purpose of which is to let universities emerge as autonomous, self-regulatory bodies [Section 17(3)]. Hence, there is no reason to be alarmed at the “daunting mandate.”

Do you subscribe to the criticism that the provision included in the Bill stating that the measures taken by the commission shall not be obligatory for higher educational institutions and universities to adopt will eventually make it a toothless body?

When the key concepts are self-regulation and autonomy for universities, why should one expect an external body to have teeth to bite? It must be a body commanding respect and voluntary following by the sheer strength of its arguments, advice, and recommendations. Power with responsibility is now with universities; curbing “unfair practices” of foul players is by another law (pending in Parliament) and other statutory agencies; and extracting accountability through transparent professional accreditation and voluntary disclosure of information is by other laws. Policing of higher education bodies, if at all necessary, has to be by the internal governance structures, academic peers, alumni, and the consumers of education rather than bureaucratic regulatory structures which have killed initiatives and innovations in higher education and research in the past. The IITs, IIMs, and the national law schools are close examples of what the situation will be like when the inspection-license raj in higher education is ended with the adoption of the Bill.

Could you elaborate on the major strengths and drawbacks of the Bill?

An assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Bill will require a detailed analysis, which is beyond the scope of this interview. I can list the following as the key strengths of the Bill: It is a radical departure from the existing non-performing, multiple regulatory system to a decentralised, disclosure-based, self-regulating arrangement, where corruption and bureaucracy will have a less role to play and academics will be with academia as it is in most of the developed countries. Standard setting for competitive excellence is an important function now neglected and fragmented. To have the commission looking after it on a continuing basis in consultation with the general council and the collegium is a welcome thing in the context of globalisation and knowledge-based economy now in place. Norm-based and performance-based distribution of grants without distinction between Central and State universities is another welcome feature of the Bill. The Higher Education Financial Services Corporation will enable vice-chancellors to lead teaching and research within their institutions rather than spending their time in search of funds from different government sources. Giving importance to research promotion and innovation in higher education is another strong feature of the Bill. Together with the Act, adopted two years ago, on IPR ownership by universities even when the research for the invention was funded by government, one can expect higher education to be research-based and universities industries-linked. The involvement of the State governments in the important policy-setting functions in higher education and research will have to be celebrated by all those who love the federal character of our polity. So long it was done by Parliament and the Centre; hereafter, States will have an equal say through the general council contemplated under the HER Bill. If academic leadership continues to be dependent on political patronage and party interests, the autonomy now proposed can cause havoc in universities. It is for the teachers and students, who are the true “owners” of academic institutions, to rise to the occasion and use the opportunity to change the rules of the game for the advancement of scholarship and welfare of the student community. If they fail, government and society cannot be faulted anymore.

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