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Updated: March 1, 2010 16:11 IST

"NCHER Bill undermines autonomy"

G. Krishnakumar
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The vice-chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council, K. N. Panikkar. Photo: S. Gopakumar
The vice-chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council, K. N. Panikkar. Photo: S. Gopakumar

As the Centre's proposal for the constitution of a National Commission for Higher Education and Research is being discussed nationally, Kerala State Higher Education Council Vice-Chairman K.N. Panikkar outlines his perspective on the move in an interview.

K.N. Panikkar, renowned academic and historian, says that the main features of the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) Bill ‘ tend towards centralisation of powers and control over academic initiatives'. He shared his thoughts on various aspects of the Bill recently with The Hindu-EducationPlus.

Is the constitution of the National Commission for Higher Education and Research a sufficiently effective step to solve the problems in higher education?

The NCHER is a long overdue response from the Central government to meet the demand for effecting changes in higher education. Both the Knowledge Commission and Yash Pal Committee have placed their trust in an all powerful commission to ‘rejuvenate' a system which had been stagnant for long.

The result is the proposed NCHER. The Bill for materialising it is currently being discussed nationally by the Task Force entrusted with the responsibility to draft it. The preamble of the Bill lays down two objectives.

First, ‘to provide for the determination, co-ordination, maintenance of standards in and promotion of higher education and research', and secondly to ‘promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions for the free pursuit of knowledge and innovation and for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all'.

The terms of the proposed Bill are such that they may not improve the quality of education or make much needed autonomy a reality. For, the main features of the Bill tend towards centralisation of powers and control over academic initiatives. This is because of a mismatch between what is proposed in the preamble and incorporated in the body of the Bill. In fact, the main provisions of the Bill tend to contradict the objectives it has set out to achieve.

Logically, the ideas expressed in the preamble should lead to a decentralised structure, which would permit ample space for innovative academic practices. The draft, on the other hand, tends more towards centralisation and concentration of powers. Solving this contradiction would necessitate a much closer and self-critical review of the draft. Perhaps discarding the present draft and reworking it to realise autonomy and decentralisation could be an option worth considering.

NCHER is mainly a management remedy, and not sufficiently rooted in academic imperatives. The problems that higher education is facing are not essentially because of inefficient management, but because of the inability of the system to ensure quality. Whether a new apex body which would exercise ‘ national' control is the ideal solution for it deserves very serious consideration, in a politically federal and culturally diverse country like India. The Bill assumes, though not clearly stated, the failure of the existing controlling agencies like University Grants Commission and All India Council for Technical Education.

Their inability to cope with the increasing demands of higher education should have been an object lesson while creating an institution to replace them.

The UGC was set up with great enthusiasm and expectation. It performed two main functions—allocation of funds and academic direction.

Over the years, it became very unwieldy and unable to do anything but the distribution of funds. The allocation of grant for purposes of higher education is not merely a financial transaction of apportioning the grant, but has to be based on careful academic planning. Perhaps the weakness of the UGC was its inability to establish this connection and therefore it failed to be academically innovative and creative.

Could you elaborate on the organisational inadequacy of NCHER?

The commission is a highly centralised body manned by a chairman and six members, supported by a collegium, consisting of core and co-opted fellows who ‘aid, advice and make recommendation to the commission'. The commission is a pretty isolated organisation without any window to the society.

The only opening is the collegium which is required to meet only annually. The collegium is at best a deliberative body and would not exercise any control over the commission. Surprisingly core members of the collegium are to be appointed for life. They, however, have the authority to appoint co-opted fellows of the collegium from the State and Central lists.

Would the collegium turn out to be another CABE, at best lending legitimacy to the decisions of the commission? It would not fulfill the role of a democratic body, capable of providing a check to the possible exercise of authoritarian powers.

The management of higher education in the country would thus be left in the hands of a committee of seven who have no prescribed channels of feedback. Therefore, even if well intentioned, the commission would be starved of necessary democratic connection.

The collegium is vested with the authority to prepare a national registry of people eligible for appointment to the position of vice chancellors. Isn't it a welcome method?

There is nothing wrong in preparing a registry of eminent academics eligible for appointment to the position of vice chancellors, although the criteria for deciding eminence may be a matter of dispute.

But the draft Bill goes one step further. It insists that all vice chancellors should be appointed from this list. The Commission will also have the prerogative to suggest a list of five to the State governments from which the States would be required to make the appointment. There is no doubt about the need to pick the best available person for the job. But the new procedure need not necessarily ensure that as the shortlisted candidates may not meet the local requirements. Imposing a vice-chancellor in this fashion is in itself highly objectionable, as it amounts to serious assault on the autonomy of the universities and infringement of the federal rights of the States.

Instead a procedure could be adopted which would ensure greater autonomy of the universities. The academic community of the universities could be given the freedom to prepare a list which could in turn be vetted by a committee of experts, from whom the chancellor could make the appointment.

The Bill speaks of compulsory accreditation…

I understand that for accreditation there is going to be another bill. There are considerable reservations about the manner in which the accreditation system is working now.

Whether a national system can function effectively is doubtful. After many years of the system being in operation, only a small percent of colleges have so far been graded. The National Knowledge Commission has proposed the idea of licensing accrediting agencies, probably involving private agencies. It is not clear as to if the provision in the bill which refers to accrediting agencies registered under the commission would involve the implementation of NKC proposal. In principle, the authority to regulate and accredit should rest with public authorities. The process of accreditation should be participative and the purpose ameliorative rather than punitive. It is perhaps time to review the system. One possibility is an internal assessment with external participation at the State level.

Will the provision in the Bill help in empowering universities to achieve autonomy?

The statement in the preamble in favour of autonomy is welcome. Both academic and administrative autonomy are necessary if the universities are to become real centres of learning. But autonomy without democratisation is likely to lead to an authoritarian system. The Bill is silent about democratisation. Even the colleges should become autonomous, as the affiliating system is under severe strain. But the character of the Bill, despite the claims to the contrary, undermines autonomy rather than advancing it. The commission's powers to make regulations are likely to impinge upon autonomy rather than promote it. It has assumed powers far greater than what was exercised by the UGC. Moreover, UGC was essentially an advisory body in academic matters.

Does the Bill tantamount to an assault on the federal structure of the country?

One discernible tendency in the Bill is to centralise the powers to shape the nature of education. Education was a State subject; it was changed into the concurrent list. The present Bill raises the apprehension whether it would finally become a Central subject.

The powers of the State governments to administer education are being severely curbed. The BJP had tried to control and shape the education system. It was part of their authoritarian agenda.

The federal system is the bulwark against communal fascism in India. It would be disastrous to impair it.

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