The inherent characteristic of the Bill that seeks to create a National Commission on Higher Education and Research is restrictive at every step.

The National Commission on Higher Education and Research Bill, 2010, is a testimony to much sincerity of purpose and major investments in time, and the quality of the intellectual approach it represents is notable. Yet, a reading of the Bill gives the prima facie impression that it has been prepared for a country that so far has had no system of higher education in place.

The conclusion drawn by many that the National Commission would subsume the University Grants Commission, the All India Council for Technical Education and the National Council for Teacher Education is not correct. All three of them will stand abolished and an entirely new body will be established.

Unfortunately, the Bill has so fatal a flaw that the Commission cannot be established without an amendment being made to the Bill before it is introduced in Parliament.

The process of its establishment is to begin with the nomination of the core Fellows, the election of co-opted Fellows by the core Fellows, the formation of a Collegium, and the Collegium sending on a panel of three names for the chairperson and each of the members, to the selection committee. Ultimately, the chairperson and members are to be appointed by the President of India.

But the Bill neither specifies the number of core Fellows nor lays down the procedure for their nomination. The soul of the institution is missing. It is such a fatal flaw as to render the Bill unimplementable. The provision for the choice of core Fellows is a formidable task since it is difficult to find a method of nomination that will ensure the independence of this really core component of the structure.

The Collegium is to meet once a year. Its major functions are limited to the choice of a panel for the position of chairperson and each of the positions of members and the preparation of a National Registry for posts of Vice-Chancellors. The strength of the Collegium will depend on the number of core Fellows, but this number is not specified in the draft Bill. If the number is around 10, the strength of the Collegium will be 40. Scholars they may be, but they are some 40 strangers among themselves who meet once a year under a chair elected at the particular meeting or in an earlier one. It is doubtful whether such an assembly could be guided to scan the academic horizon for talent and choose appropriate persons for the preparation of a panel for the vital positions of the chairperson and members of the Commission. The entire exercise involves a great amount of responsibility and perhaps some risk. All the executive powers are vested in a single body, that is, the Commission, which is not directly answerable to any authority and is not bound by the advice of any larger representative body.

A body comparable to the Commission that is now envisaged does not seem to exist in the field of education in any advanced country. What we have before the nation really is a totally new experimental design for the management of higher education. Any experiment, when it covers a whole nation, needs consultations on a much wider scale: the exercise that is now being carried out by the Task Force is a very limited one.

The Commission recognises only two providers in higher education: the State and Central governments. Central institutions are very few in number and the State universities are what really count. The long-winding procedures that have been proposed in granting authorisation to establish a university are amazing, even when the applicant is a mighty State government. Eight steps are contemplated. First will come the decision of a State government to establish a university. For this it will have to obtain an assessment report from an accreditation agency, and apply to the Commission with the assessment report. The Commission, after examination, will decide to grant authorisation or return the application seeking more information. The Commission, when it is satisfied about the case, will issue a public notice calling for views and any objections. The next two steps involve referring the views back to the State government and examining the replies received. Thereafter, permission is granted or rejected. If permission is granted, the institution will remain on probation for 10 years. During this period the permission granted could be revoked.

For a State government, the running of a university is tantamount to providing social service. For it to go through the hurdles of a bureaucracy as though it is an applicant for a licence to run a business is totally unacceptable. If this is not centralisation, then what could be so called? Again, it is not as though State governments are anxious to establish more universities and are rushing in with proposals. Many of them are, for want of funds, quietly trying to transfer their responsibility for higher education to private providers. By 2006, as much as 63.2 per cent of all educational institutions and 51.5 per cent of the total enrolment were already in the private sector. The authors of the 11th Five-Year Plan have recorded that out of the additional student enrolment of seven million that is contemplated between 2007 and 2012, the share of the private sector is expected to be 3.5 million.

The Task Force does not seem to recognise what is happening in the country and seems to be sitting in a world of its own. It seems to be drafting rules and regulations to ensure academic quality as a theoretical exercise. While the overwhelming need is for the promotion of avenues of higher education, the inherent characteristic of the Bill is restrictive at every step.

Having thus got the requisite authorisation, the State government has to appoint a Vice-Chancellor. Here again, the Commission will maintain a national registry of persons eligible and qualified to be Vice-Chancellors. From the registry the Commission will recommend a panel of five names for the State to choose from, perhaps based on the biodata, or maybe again through a committee of its own. It is amazing that anyone could think of a registry that would contain the names of, and do justice to, all the academics in this vast country who are qualified to be Vice-Chancellors. The preparation of such a list, which will be a really exhaustive exercise, is not practicable even at the State level. The list is to be prepared by the Collegium from among names received from the Central and State universities and governments. One can imagine the degree of lobbying that will ensue at the levels from where the list would emanate, and the part played by prejudices, malpractices and manipulation for patronage. How will anyone ensure fairness and exhaustiveness in the lists received for the preparation of the registry?

Why should one assume that this procedure would be superior, and preferable to, the appointment of a Vice-Chancellor at the State level by means of a search committee? The seeming disbelief in the honesty of all the instruments that are closer to the scene of action and are answerable to the people around, and unconditionally trusting an authority that is far removed from the field of occurrence and is not answerable to the stakeholders, is basically a negation of the principle of autonomy. It devalues the credibility of elected governments, the university authorities, and even the Chancellor.

From the time of Plato to Thomas More to Francis Bacon, there have been many efforts to design an ideal society. But it is a grievous error to believe that we will ever be able to create a system anywhere by means of rules and regulations that would ensure virtuous conduct far above the level of the people who ultimately go to make the system. The reasonable path to relatively honest behaviour is decentralisation and making every authority answerable to the immediate stakeholders.

The reference in the Bill only to the existing deemed-to-be universities indicate that there will be no new deemed universities. Misuse of the power to grant such status by the regulatory authority in some cases, and abuse of the privilege so acquired by certain institutions, cannot be considered adequate reasons to abolish the system itself. Remediable ills do not demand drastic solutions. The prevailing mood seems to be in favour of closing all new channels and opportunities for higher education rather than opening the gates for new providers — which today is the pressing need.

(The writer is Vice-Chairman, Central Institute of Classical Tamil.)

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