The Yash Pal Committee recommendations differ from those of the National Knowledge Commission's recommendations. Will a single body subsuming the academic and regulatory functions of many bodies cope with the emerging challenges?

That the Right to Education Act, which was pending for six-and-a-half years, has been passed is a good augury. So is the government's decision to set up 2,500 Kendriya Vidyalayas. But the real test will involve improving and expanding the municipal and village schools. While the States have to play a major role in this, public-private partnership will be an important option.

Kapil Sibal, the Minister for Human Resource Development, mentioned two other priority issues — opening the door for foreign universities, and setting up a high-power National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) within 100 days. This Commission will monitor, regulate and grade academic institutions, and take over the educational functions of all the regulatory bodies.

These bodies include the University Grants Commission (UGC), the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the Bar Council of India (BCI) and the Medical Council of India (MCI).The NCHER will be the main instrument to revamp higher education. It should subsume the tasks of all the 13 regulatory bodies that have been set up by Parliament at various points in time.There is hardly any disagreement over the fact that duplication and over-regulation should be removed, or minimised. But the question is: will a single body subsuming the academic and regulatory functions of all these bodies resolve the problems, create greater openness, and cope with the emerging challenges?The Yash Pal Committee recommendations differ in some important respects from those of the National Knowledge Commission's recommendations.

The NKC calls the apex body an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Educations (IRAHE).The emphasis is on “setting up criteria and deciding on entry” for institutions both in the government sector and the private sector, and on “monitoring standards and settling disputes.” It does not propose the taking over of the functions of all the professional institutions, such as those in the fields of engineering or management, including the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management. The NKC recommends the setting up of a separate National Science and Engineering Research Board to raise standards of research in all fields, thus limiting the functions of the apex body.

Left vague

The structure and functioning of the vastly expanded apex body, the NCHER, has been left vague by the Yash Pal Committee. It needs an extensive public debate — something that the Yash Pal Committee itself had recommended but has not happened. It talks vaguely of autonomy and of being free from government control. But regulating, setting up norms for and monitoring educational institutions for conformity to the norms, are likely to face opposition from various quarters including State governments.

To meet such opposition, political support will be needed. How is that to be ensured?Even the task of regulating, monitoring and grading diverse institutions, coping with the addition of 16 central and 1,500 State-level universities, half-a-dozen new IITs and IIMs as envisaged, will pose an impossible task before the NCHER. It will lead to bottlenecks, and the creation of a slow, clumsy and top-heavy organisation, almost a Leviathan. To cope with this, the Yash Pal Committee suggests the creation of State-level NCHERs. But this will be a remedy worse than the disease. Such State NCHERs will fragment, not unify, higher education. State governments will naturally want a say in their functioning. Experience shows that such committees tend to encroach on the autonomy of universities in the States.

The Yash Pal Committee proposes sub-committees for IITs, IIMs and so on, that function under the NCHER. Since the NCHER itself will function broadly under government control, this will mean more government control, not greater autonomy, for these institutions. These world-renowned institutions will have to fight closer government control, as they had to do when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power, without any academic advantage.

The structure, functioning and academic and research powers visualised for the NCHER can hardly be carried out by means of a constitutional amendment, as the Minister for Human Resource Development has said. And, such an amendment can hardly be carried without the support of the Opposition — which is not likely.

Hence, the task and structure of the NCHER need careful thought and discussion. Perhaps it should be a coordinating body playing only the role of a regulating and monitoring agency — functions that did not really belong to the UGC. Its constitutional task was the “determination and coordination of standards.”

Foreign universities

The question of inviting foreign universities to set up campuses in India should be seen in the context of improving the standards of existing universities. This will have to be a phased programme, choosing, say 20 per cent of the universities for upgradation within a time-frame. More germane is the functioning of the proposed 16 central universities.

Apart from structure, which is important, the question is: will they charge the same fees, and pay salaries as per international norms? It is assumed that foreign universities would come in only if they are allowed to levy international fees, and pay international salaries. Unless the new central universities and some of the major national universities are allowed to charge the same fees, how can they compete with the foreign universities? If not, the best students and teachers will move to these foreign universities, making the Indian universities second-rate. This will not benefit the students at large, but only those who are now paying exorbitant fees to educate their children abroad.

The Kothari Commission on Higher Education (1966) set forward a bold plan for educational reform. It visualised linking education with productivity, the government spending 6 per cent of GDP in 10 years, centres of advanced study in universities, autonomous colleges, and common neighbourhood schools. Due to financial and political constraints, only a few of these — such as centres of advanced study in some universities, and some autonomous colleges — could be promoted. The National Education Plan (NEC 1986) made some important recommendations. These, as also the NKC's and the Yash Pal Committee's suggestions can provide a forward surge in the field of educational reforms which have been stalled for long. The Prime Minister's call for a hundred-day programme was a call to overcome lethargy. It did not mean action without careful thought, discussion and preparation.

(Prof. Satish Chandra is a former Chairman of the University Grants Commission.)

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