A new national commission for higher education could change the way this important sector is governed.
The field of higher education, which rarely witnessed policy interventions at the national level in the last 20 years, is sought to be given a fresh impetus by the Union government, particularly after the high-profile Kapil Sibal assumed charge as Union Human Resources Development Minister in May last.
It is against this backdrop that the formulation of the draft National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) Bill should be seen. The Bill is only a manifestation of the Centre's resolve to reform and restructure the higher education sector.
The proposed Commission, comprising chairperson and six other members, will take measures to promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions for free pursuit of knowledge and innovation, facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all and providing comprehensive and holistic growth of higher education and research in a competitive global environment. A collegium of core and co-opted Fellows has been proposed to aid, advise and make recommendations to the Commission for determination, coordination, maintenance of standards in, and promotion of, higher education and research. More importantly, the Commission seeks to replace institutions such as the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).
M. Anandakrishnan, veteran educationist and a member of the task force that has drafted the Bill, explains that under the existing scheme of things, there is no scope for holistic treatment of the subject of higher education, which is handled by 15 different Ministries at the level of the Union government. There is no role for States or State universities in the framework of the bodies such as UGC and AICTE. Besides, no review of the working of these institutions has been done all these years. The system of the functioning of the proposed Commission has been designed, taking into account all these factors.
Though the Bill has received appreciation from many quarters, it has also attracted flak, particularly from the governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Ministers in charge of higher education in the two States, M.A. Baby and K. Ponmudy, went on record that State's powers were sought to be taken away. One can debate their points but it is important for the Central authorities to address properly and adequately the concerns of States before going ahead with the legislation.
Some educationists have suggested that agriculture and medicine be brought under the purview of the proposed Commission. Constitutionally speaking, agriculture including agricultural education and research falls within the domain of States. So, it is not possible for the Centre to frame any law. As for medical education, the authorities are toying with the idea of bringing it under the ambit of the NCHER.
Another suggestion is to make State Councils for Higher Education nodal agencies of the proposed Commission. Before devising this arrangement, the State Councils too should be adequately equipped to handle tasks and functions that will arise in future.
As higher education is an area that concerns a large number of people, the Central government should be more pro-active in seeking feedback from stakeholders. And that should be the norm all the time.
Keywords: Higher education, Kapil Sibal, Human Resources Development Minister, National Commission for Higher Education and Research, NCHER Bill, education reforms, University Grants Commission, UGC, All India Council for Technical Education, AICTE