Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Super regulator plan for higher education may be scrapped

After putting on ice the much-hyped, low-cost tablet called Aakash, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) is set to junk another plan to establish an autonomous “super regulator” for higher education, championed by Kapil Sibal when he was HRD minister.

There’s little enthusiasm in the present dispensation to pursue the plan for the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER), said two government officials with knowledge of the situation. M.M. Pallam Raju took over as HRD minister in October last year after a cabinet reshuffle.

Sibal, who is minister for Communications and Information Technology, as well as Law, had pushed the plan for the creation of NCHER, meant to be an overarching body overseeing higher education that would subsume existing regulators such as the University Grants Commission (UGC), the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE).

“The ministry is unwilling to pursue the NCHER plan,” said one of the two officials cited above. “There is no point scrapping functioning institutions like UGC, AICTE or NCTE.” Instead, there is a “need to strengthen them”, said this official. Neither of the two officials wanted to be named.

Lack of political support has held up several education Bills in Parliament in the last three years. Some of the pending Bills include the Education Tribunal Bill, the Prohibition of Unfair Practices Bill, the National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for Higher Educational Institutions Bill, the Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill, 2010.

The first official said the Higher Education Research Bill, which provides for setting up NCHER, is back in the MHRD after a parliamentary committee suggested that existing regulators not be scrapped. The Bill had sought to repeal the UGC Act, 1956; the AICTE Act, 1987; and the NCTE Act, 1993.

On 3 May, the standing committee said in a report that it strongly favours “continuance of the existence of these vital bodies for effective regulation of higher and technical education”. An official said, “we have to be practical about what can be achieved and what is tough.”

The ministry believes that since nearly a dozen Bills are pending in Parliament, there is no point in pursuing those which may not come through in the next two sessions of Parliament. “In the current situation of key Bills pending in the Parliament, the ministry intends to pursue the reform through executive decisions,” the second official added.

The decision to shelve NCHER marks the second reversal for the plans pushed by Sibal when he was HRD minister during 2009-2012. Aakash, the $35 tablet that was pitched as India’s solution to bridge the divide between digital haves and have-nots, has been put in cold storage, with Pallam Raju telling reporters in March: “Let’s not get obsessed with hardware... The overall (issue) is how we enable students. Let the students decide which device is useful.” The MHRD put up a cabinet note on procuring five million more tablets in 2013, but the note has been returned to the ministry. The plan to float a fresh tender and have the device manufactured by some public sector companies has effectively been stalled, Mint reported on 23 March.

“The ministry seems to have realized that Bills and educational policies prepared in haste are not going to achieve success,” said H. Chaturvedi, Alternate President of Education Promotion Society of India, a lobby group of education institutes. “The former minister relied more on (a) few bureaucrats without having enough consultations and that’s why the Bills are facing criticism from academicians and lawmakers,” said Chaturvedi, who is also the director of Birla Institute of Management Technology in Greater Noida.

The existing regulatory system seems set to stay with some changes. On MHRD’s direction, UGC has already issued a notice for mandatory accreditation of all institutions that have either completed six years of existence or have had two batches graduate from it. Previously accreditation was voluntary and less than 20% of the 33,000 colleges are accredited currently. Unless an institution opts for accreditation, it won’t get UGC grants, as per the new guideline.

Similarly, AICTE too will put in place a mechanism for mandatory accreditation of technical institutions. This has happened even as a Bill on mandatory accreditation of educational institutes was pending in Parliament. The MHRD, too, is looking to issue an executive order to curb malpractices in educational institutions even as legislation on the subject is awaiting parliamentary approval.

Outside the ministry, there does exist support for status quo. “There is a bad system in our country that when an old institution is not doing great, the solution is (to) create a new (one),” said Pritam Singh, a former director of the Indian Institute of Management-Lucknow. “I believe AICTE and UGC are good institutions; what is required is to make them enablers of quality education than just regulators.”

Source: Mint, May 22, 2013

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