Thursday, August 04, 2011

Higher Education Reforms in India: Education Bills face lawmakers' test

The ongoing session of Parliament is critical to the education sector, with around 15 Bills, including one that will allow foreign universities to operate in India and another that will curb the menace of fake degrees, waiting to be cleared. In an effort to ensure their smooth passage, Human Resource Development (HRD) minister Kapil Sibal, who has in recent months emerged as the government’s preferred crisis manager, has been doing his bit to convince members of Parliament, across parties, of the merits of the Bills.

Two officials in his ministry (the Ministry of Human Resource Development - MHRD) said the minister has, in recent weeks, met members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, which discusses Bills and suggests changes before they are put to vote in Parliament. “The government understands that education reform is a key issue as it touches everybody’s lives. It is also known that one of the high points of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government is the Right to Education (RTE) Act,” one of the two senior ministry officials said. For the record, RTE, which guarantees education for all children between the ages of six and 14, came into effect on 1 April 2010.

The official, who didn’t want to be named, added that because many of the Bills were interrelated, they wouldn’t have the desired impact unless passed in concert. “For example, the Educational Tribunal Bill and the unfair practices Bill are related legislation,” he said, explaining that the two will together make the functioning of educational institutions more transparent by curbing unfair practices such as donations or capitation fees students pay in return for admission.

The second official, who too did not want to be named, said the Standing Committee has submitted its report on the foreign university and unfair practices Bills to Parliament. He added that while the committee has made a few suggestions, it is largely in agreement with the direction of the laws.

Narayanan Ramaswamy, executive director (education practice) at audit and consulting firm KPMG, said that the number of Bills indicates the seriousness with which India is taking education. “It’s a good thing that education is getting its due. Some of the Bills are real game-changers for the education sector. If foreign universities enter India, then the landscape of the sector will change the way the entry of foreign auto companies changed the automobile sector in the country.” He added that some of the Bills could need changes. If foreign universities are not allowed to repatriate a portion of their earnings—the current Bill doesn’t allow this—then they may not be interested in entering the country, he said. Ramaswamy struck a note of caution about the implementation of the Bills once they are approved. “Here (on implementation) I’m a little sceptical,” he said.

N.K. Singh, a member of the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Indian Parliament) and part of the Standing Committee, said the number of Bills that can be passed depends on the urgency shown by the ministry. “The committee has given its report on two Bills and let’s see how quickly they move on this,” he said. “There are many education Bills on different stages, but this session has many important issues to debate and decide,” added Singh, who represents the Janata Dal (United) and also sits on the board of HT Media Ltd, the publisher of Mint.

Singh was optimistic about the chances of the Education Tribunal Bill being passed. The Bill seeks to set up tribunals at the Centre and in states to adjudicate on disputes involving students, teachers, university authorities and statutory regulators. The order of the tribunal shall be treated as a decree of a civil court.

Source: Mint, August 4, 2011
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