Wednesday, August 08, 2012

MHRD not to push for Foreign Educational Institutions Bill

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has decided not to push the legislation allowing foreign education institutions to set up base in India in the Monsoon Session of Parliament. Instead, the ministry is focusing on the troika of higher education reform bills --- prevention of malpractices, setting up education tribunals and mandatory accreditation for institutions --- which form the core of Kapil Sibal's higher education reform agenda.

The human resource development minister Kapil Sibal's decision to put the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill on the back burner is in line with the strategy adopted in the Budget session—move ahead with the less contentious bills to create a momentum. In the past, Sibal has pushed the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill as central to increasing opportunities and improving quality of the higher education sector. However, the minister is well aware that a bill as contentious as one, which allows foreign education institutions to set up campuses in India, could well derail his entire legislative agenda.
There are seven Bills that are pending in Parliament. The ministry proposes to introduce two more --- the Indian Institutes of Information Technology Bill and the Central Board of Secondary Education --- in the Monsoon Session.

After nearly two years of legislative setbacks, Sibal managed to break the logjam in the Budget session of parliament and ensured passage of six Bills. While most of these Bills were non-controversial amendments, it did include the contentious Copyright Amendment Bill. Sibal is keen not to upset the hard won equilibrium.

The Foreign Educational Institutions Bill predates Sibal's tenure in Shastri Bhavan. It was first cleared by Cabinet in 2008 during the late Arjun Singh's tenure in the UPA-I government. The proposed legislation could not be introduced given the opposition by the Left, which was then supporting the UPA-I government. Following his appointment as human resource development minister, Sibal went ahead with the legislation reaching out to stakeholders, and meeting with top administrators of top ranking universities in the US and UK.

But it is not just the Left or the BJP that has issues with the Bill. Even political parties that are supporting the UPA, such as the Samajwadi Party and RJD, are uncomfortable with the idea of allowing foreign education institutions to set up campuses in India. Given that the legislation is viewed as permitting foreign direct investment in higher education, it is unlikely that allies like Trinamool Congress and DMK will lend their support to such legislation. Clearly aware that the legislative route was difficult, the government gave the University Grants Commission (UGC) the go ahead through the executive route. The University Grants Commission has already issued guidelines to regulate collaborations between Indian and foreign institutions.

The focus is on the three legislations that form the bedrock of Sibal's higher education reforms --- Higher Educational Institutions Bill (earlier known as the Prohibition of Unfair Practices Bill), Educational Tribunal Bill and the National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions Bill.

These legislations form a higher education reform triad, and were conceived of as linked legislations. However, with the Rajya Sabha not passing the educational tribunal bill, the remaining two legislations could not be taken up. The ministry has decided to delink these legislations. This will mean removing cross-references.

Changes have been made to the bills on the basis of inputs from MPs during the discussions Sibal held with them to garner support. Some of the changes are on the basis of recommendations of the Standing Committee. A clear measure of Sibal's keeness to push through his pending Bills is evident from the fact that many these changes are clearly trivial or routine, and as such make no material difference to the legislation. Similarly other efforts have also been made to reach out to MPs. The minister has recently approved increasing the MP's quota in Kendriya Vidyalayas (Central Schools) from two seats to six. Sibal had earned the displeasure of MPs when he abolished the quota early on in his tenure.

Sibal has also been meeting with leaders of the opposition, allies and UPA supporters to ensure safe passage for his Bills. These meetings have been with individual leaders as well as small groups of MPs who are seen as vocal on education related issues. Sources close to the developments said that the minister and officials sought to address each of the issues, through careful reading and threadbare discussion on the bills, in an effort to allay apprehensions of the political parties. Legislations to curb malpractices and mandatory accreditation are likely to be passed without much trouble. The minister is expected to hold additional meetings with allies and party members on the tribunal bill, which had been opposed by Congress members in the Rajya Sabha.

Source: The Economic Times (Online Edition), August 8, 2012
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