The task force that drafted the Bill will weigh criticisms made against the proposed collegium and the registry for appointment of vice-chancellors. The reworked Bill is expected to be ready within two weeks.

After many rounds of discussions held nation-wide, the task force which drafted the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) Bill, 2010 has decided to rewrite the Bill drastically.

The task force was set up in September 2009 after the Committee to Advise on the Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education in India, popularly known as the Yash Pal committee, recommended the setting up of such an omnibus organisation which will subsume bodies such as the University Grants Commission and the All India Council of Technical Education.

Though the intention of setting up a national commission was welcomed by a large number of academics in various States who interacted with the task force members, certain provisions of the Bill came in for sharp criticism. The message that the academics conveyed to the task force is that the proposed commission appears to be too prescriptive a body, centralised in nature and one which would trample on the federal rights of the State governments in the field of higher education.

Much criticism

A major provision in the draft Bill which came in for the most criticism at the meetings was the collegium, a council of elders, which will precede the constitution of the NCHER and whose permanent members will enjoy tenure for life (The Hindu-EducationPlus, dated February 16). The idea of having core fellows and co-opted fellows (academics from States and Union Territories who, however, will have a fixed tenure) was termed discriminatory by academics, many of whom found the idea of tenure for life unpalatable.

“In these nation-wide discussions, it emerged that the premium we put on the collegium was misplaced. Many people asked us whether ours was an NCHER Bill or a collegium Bill. Many found the collegium an overbearing concept. So, in all probability the provision for life tenure will be replaced with a tenure of 10 years,” an academic associated with the task force told The Hindu-EducationPlus. Moreover, instead of the core and co-opted fellows, the collegium may have a general council with representation from all States and Union Territories.

It is not immediately clear if the collegium will, in the revised draft, retain its power to submit a list of names from which a committee comprising the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Minister in-charge of higher education in the Union government will appoint the chairman and the members of the proposed NCHER. The way the collegium itself is constituted may have to be revised. In a discussion with the task force members in Thiruvananthapuram in February, Prabhat Patnaik, Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board, had termed the collegium a self-electing club accountable to none.

The draft Bill had proposed the creation of a national database, a registry, of persons eligible to be appointed vice-chancellors in the universities in the country. Then, only persons included on that list can be appointed. Though the State governments can still set up search committees — as it is done in Kerala — to identify vice-chancellors, all names proposed by the search committees should be of those who find a place in the national registry. This provision came in for sharp criticism in almost all interactions the task force organised. Each university in the country may have differing requirements from its vice-chancellor. So, how can a one-size-fits-all central list be prepared and how can the commission, without violating the federal spirit of the Concurrent List of the Constitution to which education belongs, insist that appointments be made only from that list? The task force reportedly could not give an answer which satisfied academics across the country.

So now, it appears that this provision would be done away with. Instead there will be a national “reference database” of vice-chancellors who the NCHER feels will be suitable for appointment. Individual search committees or chancellors can then choose to appoint persons from that list.

In the Thiruvananthapuram sitting of the task force, Education Minister M.A. Baby had raised objections against the clause in the draft Bill which stated that once the commission was constituted, any university set up anywhere in the country would have to seek its authorisation before commencing academic operations. In other words, even if the Assembly were to institute a university in the State tomorrow, that varsity cannot begin to function without permission from the NCHER. Will States be forced to go to the commission with folded hands if they wished to run universities? Mr. Baby had wanted to know.

It is not clear now whether the revised draft of the Bill will retain this provision or whether this clause will be altered. The explanation given by the task force members at the Thiruvananthapuram sitting was that this clause was there to protect the cause of quality in higher learning.

One task force member pointed out that in a couple of States, the universities constituted by the legislatures did not even have the basic facilities required of such institutions. Once admissions are done and academic operations begin, then recognition is often sought on humanitarian considerations, he had pointed out.

One of the functions of the NCHER, as per the draft Bill, is to prepare a status report on education and research in each State and Union Territory every five years and forward it to the Governor or the head of the administration. The Governor, in turn, shall ensure that the report along with an ‘action-taken' note be laid on the table of the respective Assembly. This provision too was seen by many academics as one which intrudes into the democratic space of the States. Many academics felt that there could be a provision which asks States to prepare a status report and submit it to the commission. In interactions with The Hindu- EducationPlus, many academics pointed out that it was ironic that the commission should probe the status of education in each State when its own functioning would be probed by a panel of experts appointed by the President on the advise of the collegium.

The task force is expected to prepare the revised draft Bill within two weeks. Indications are that the NCHER would look more like a facilitating body than like a traditional headmaster in the revised draft.

Lack of clarity

The way the draft NCHER Bill was subject to democratic and academic discussions country-wide is in stark contrast to the manner in which the Union government handled other similar pieces of legislation including the Bill to regulate the entry and operations of foreign educational service providers and the Bill for accreditation of educational institutions.

The Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill 2010 is waiting to get tabled in Parliament. Very few people have had access to the contents of this Bill which is now a “confidential” document. Once it gets tabled in Parliament, this Bill is unlikely to do the rounds of the country as its NCHER counterpart did.

These Bills are surely no less important to the future of higher education than the one which speaks of the institution of a national commission.