The four Bills introduced in Parliament and the one on the anvil can provide a strong foundation to overcome aberrations and enhance the credibility of Indian higher educational qualifications.

All those who are genuinely interested in higher education have articulated the core concerns of the sector often enough. Ever since the nation recognised the value of higher education for promoting economic growth and social development, the pressure for reforms has been escalating. This has been formally embodied in two eminent reports brought out in recent years, one by the National Knowledge Commission headed by Sam Pitroda and the other by the Committee on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education headed by Yash Pal. Unlike the tendency in the past to implement such reports in piece-meal fashion, efforts are on to provide legislative basis to usher in the reforms effectively. Notwithstanding the criticism that Union Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal is launching too many initiatives in too short a time, it is necessary to recognise the fact that disjointed efforts will not produce the necessary impact on the higher education system.

Specifically, the four Bills introduced in Parliament in April and the one on the anvil, if enacted with whatever changes Parliament deems fit, can provide a strong foundation to overcome the present aberrations and enhance the credibility of Indian higher educational qualifications among the nations of the world.

The four Bills are: Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operation) Bill, 2010; Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Technical, Medical Educational Institutions and Universities Bill; the Educational Tribunal Bill and the National Accreditation Authority Bill. Of them, the Bill on the entry and operation of foreign institutions has created the most controversy.

Unfortunately, the criticism of the Foreign Institutions Bill is based on uninformed misapprehensions. Most of the critics tend to ignore the ground reality that more than 200 foreign programmes are offered in India in various modes. A majority of them is of substandard quality and value. Regrettably, no agency in India has an account of the number of foreign programmes, their mode of operation, nature of partnership, quality of instruction, fee structure and the protection of students' interest. Many of them put out glossy and misleading advertisements, enticing gullible students with false promises.

The basic premise of the Foreign Institutions Bill is that every foreign educational service provider engaged in offering programmes leading to degrees and diplomas, whether it already operates in India or intends to do so in future either on its own or in collaboration with an Indian partner, must register itself with a designated authority, giving all the necessary information. The apprehension that the legislation will open the floodgates to all kinds of foreign educational institutions is unfounded. On the contrary, the provision in the Bill against the repatriation of surpluses will effectively prevent the entry of commercially motivated institutions.

The requirement that these institutions must have a track record of 20 years in offering recognised and accredited degree programmes in their home country will help weed out fly-by-night operators. They have to comply with the relevant laws of the land. They should deposit Rs.50 crore to meet any liability to students, faculty and others in case they quit or their registration is withdrawn.

The concern for assuring the quality of higher education programmes has been acutely felt partly because of the unprecedented growth in the number of institutions. It is also because of the need to meet the ever-changing norms and standards of accreditation so that mutual recognition of programmes among institutions in India or abroad is streamlined. In less than 20 years, the accreditation system in India has been struggling to demonstrate its viability. In future, every educational programme may be subjected to mandatory accreditations, unlike the present voluntary process. In such an event, the total number of institutions and programmes requiring accreditation in a vast range of disciplines is mind-boggling. The approach suggested in this Bill is to license competent professional organisations to undertake the accreditation responsibilities, in accordance with norms and standards prescribed by a competent agency. There are sufficient provisions in the Bill to make the accreditation process transparent and reliable.

Malpractices occur on a large enough scale in Indian higher education to cause major worry about their cumulative effect on society. Many of these show wanton disregard for existing regulations and guidelines, which have loopholes that are large enough. Unfortunately, in quite a few institutions, the irregularities are abetted by those who are supposed to watch their proper implementation. The existing set of regulations and guidelines, designed decades ago, do not provide for any meaningful penalties to be imposed on offenders. Perhaps these norms were formulated, not anticipating the entry of a new class of educational entrepreneurs whose greed exceeds limits of decency and propriety. Such excesses have been seen in several deemed-to-be-universities, which came into existence with the connivance of power centres that are equally greedy.

The need for the legislation on malpractices should be viewed in this context. It lists all those (mal)practices that will attract the penalty of hefty fines and jail terms. The Bill requires prior announcement and publication of institutional facilities, faculty, procedures for admission and examination, fee structure and so on. Any wilful deviation will attract penalty.

As it happens so frequently, any attempt to correct the educational anomalies ends up in litigation, invariably prolonged. The Bill on educational tribunals at the Central and State levels can help ensure speedy disposal of such disputes.

Beyond the issues covered in these Bills, there are certain fundamental concerns in the reports of the National Knowledge Commission and the Yash Pal Committee which take a long-term view of the higher education scenario. They draw critical attention to fundamental academic weaknesses such as compartmentalisation and fragmentation of knowledge systems, absence of innovation in learning methods, disconnect with the society, and excessive emphasis on a multitude of harmful entrance and qualifying tests. These reports reflect concerns over the growing trend of loss of university autonomy damaging the prospect of healthy growth of the spirit of enquiry, creativity, and innovation.

To arrest these trends, a number of recommendations have been made which are sought to be incorporated in the overarching Bill on the establishment of a National Commission on Higher Education and Research (NCHER). Contrary to the prevailing impression, the NCHER is not a regulating or controlling or licensing or inspecting body. Its primary task is to evolve norms and standards for various aspects of higher education, including assessment and accreditation. Several of the regulating bodies dealing with academic norms for higher education will consequently stand abolished. It restores to universities the autonomy and responsibility to implement these norms and standards.

Among the other unique functions of the NCHER is one relating to the identification of academic-administrators of national standing who are eligible and qualify for appointment as Vice-Chancellors of universities or heads of central educational institutions. Considering the high degree of dissatisfaction that often manifests in the process of selection of the heads of such institutions, this function assumes special importance.

The members of the NCHER, who would be selected by a committee comprising the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, will be free of control by any Ministry and will be responsible only to Parliament.

Another important feature of the NCHER Bill is a provision to review by a committee of eminent persons the performance of the Commission with respect to the extent of fulfilment of its goals and objectives and recommend suitable action. This is somewhat exceptional in the sense that the performance of institutions or organisations created by Acts and statutes seldom get reviewed in this fashion. Hopefully, the various consultative processes that are envisaged between now and its enactment will further enhance the distinctive role assigned to the Commission for the renovation and rejuvenation of higher education in India.

(The author, who was a member of the Yash Pal Committee, is the Chairman of IIT Kanpur.)

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