Given the experience with private universities in India, the unlimited freedom the Innovation Universities Bill guarantees them is surprising

Following the recommendation of the National Knowledge Commission, the government expressed the desire to set up 14 world-class universities in the country. But few were clear on what was meant by a world-class university or why and how such a university can be set up from scratch. So, after prolonged discussions, it was decided in favour of setting up research and innovation universities, briefly called innovation universities, and a draft Bill 2010 was prepared, which was revised and introduced in Parliament in May 2012. The Bill aims at allowing the innovation universities to aspire for attaining the pinnacle of knowledge in a particular area by innovation in design and producing research that will eliminate deprivation, by bridging linkages between research institutions and industry.

The Universities for Research and Innovation Bill, 2012, provides for the setting up of new universities by the Union government, or by private bodies — domestic or foreign — or to classify some of the existing universities as research and innovation universities.  According to the Bill, “acclaimed” Indian institutions with 25 years standing or foreign institutions with 50 years standing, or private bodies — registered societies, trusts or companies registered under Section 25 of the Companies Act — “with proven record in innovations,” termed as “promoters” can set up innovation universities. A large part of the Bill refers to private universities and only a small section (Chapter VII consisting of seven clauses out of a total of 45 clauses) refers to public-funded universities. There is not much difference between entirely publicly-funded universities and other universities, private or foreign.

Each university is now set up through legislation by Parliament in case of Central universities or by State Assemblies in case of State universities. The present “umbrella” Bill allows setting up of any number of innovation universities without any separate legislation for each university. Once the Bill becomes an Act, such universities can be set up through executive orders. In a sense, the Bill minimises the role of Parliament. The new Bill makes no mention of the number of such universities to be set up.

The innovation universities are conceived to be totally autonomous in all academic aspects including the nature of programmes, degrees and diplomas, their nomenclature, hiring of faculty, finances including the quantum of student fees, methods of generation of other resources, and in overall administration.  Only government-funded institutions will have to follow the existing policies of reservation in admission of students. Government has, on the whole, a very limited role in these universities — publicly-funded or otherwise — as these universities will be free from any kind of government regulation, supervision, monitoring or social control.

Each innovation university will be governed by a board of governors, where every member will be appointed or nominated or sponsored by the promoter, and which will not have any member from government agencies like the University Grants Commission or the proposed National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER), or the MHRD. Except that one-third of the members of the board will be appointed or nominated from teachers or officers of the university concerned, there is no requirement of having any academic personality or university administrator on the board.

The members are expected to be innovators and industry leaders having experience of innovation. The chancellor of the university is appointed by the promoter in case of private universities. The promoter and the board of governors constituted by the promoter will have all powers relating to the university.

The board of governors will be responsible for all the policies and directions of the university, and the management of its affairs. Thus, the university enjoys full and unrestricted freedom in every realm. In the case of publicly-funded universities, the President of India will be the visitor who will appoint a chancellor. In all cases, the board of governors appoints the vice-chancellor. In contrast to the 2010 draft, the new Bill provides for no role for the NCHER with respect to these universities. These universities neither have to get any names from the NCHER for appointment of vice-chancellors nor have to submit any annual report or financial statements to the government or Parliament. At best, these universities are expected to place their reports on their websites. Their financial accounts will be audited by private persons. No public accountability mechanisms are felt necessary in case of these universities. In sum, the Bill provides for setting up autonomous universities with no accountability of any kind. The government has almost no role of any kind in the innovation universities, and in the case of publicly-funded innovation universities, too, it is extremely limited; the audited statements need to be submitted to Parliament. Given the experience with private universities and foreign institutions in India, one wonders how to justify the unlimited freedom that the Bill guarantees to these institutions.

There is the Foreign Universities Bill pending in Parliament, over which many have expressed apprehension. As per the Innovation Universities Bill, foreign universities can establish innovation universities in India. So the Bill allows, independent of the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill, the entry of foreign universities.

It also, of course, allows the universities to establish their own centres overseas. Moreover, sensing the unlikelihood of the passing of the Foreign Universities Bill by Parliament, it appears the government is already examining two possible ways of going about it — allowing foreign institutions to enter as “deemed universities” under Section 3 of the UGC Act, 1956, or as private universities under the State laws.

In short, the Innovation Universities Bill is yet another Bill that shows the government’s reluctance to look at whole higher education as an integrated holistic system, and its unwillingness to take an active role and responsibility in the development of higher education and reiterates its unflinching faith in the unregulated private sector.

Second, these universities are viewed to be so special and distinct that they are above any law of the land; they do not come under the purview of any public body. Neither the existing rules of the UGC or any other public body in higher education nor the provisions of any of the Acts/Bills under process are applicable to these universities. These universities are not to be touched by Bills such as the NCHER Bill, the Educational Tribunals Bill, the Bill prohibiting unfair practices, and the Foreign Universities Bill, pending in Parliament.

Any dispute between the innovation university and the statutory bodies regarding academic standards will be referred not to the National Educational Tribunal but to a special three-member committee, specially constituted in each case. These universities might not come under the purview of the National or Educational Tribunals. It is indeed incomprehensible that the innovation universities are viewed as something special and above others, including other Bills/Acts.

(Jandhyala B.G. Tilak is Professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi. Email: jtilak@nuepa.org)

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