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Overdue Regulatory Initiatives in Higher Education

Children being born today will require digitally enabled environment for primary, secondary and higher education in the coming years. They will need skills, learning foundation and pedagogy to deal with artificial intelligence and an ecosystem where plumbing, space travel, synthetic body organs/implants, learning, living, travelling and recreation will be seamlessly interfaced & managed by digital, wearable, embedded and IOT technologies.

Within two decades more than half of them will be taking up jobs and whipping up business which neither exist today nor have been conceived yet.

India is the largest, existing and future, education market. With so much to capitalise on, the milieu is ripe for the Government, the HRD Ministry, the industry leaders and policy think tanks to press the throttle to the floor. The beginning can be made by bringing the system in sync with ground realities, ensuring basic ecosystem conducive to learning in terms of technology, policy, pedagogy, various structures for the education system and regulatory regime governing higher education.

Concepts of employability, deployability, entrepreneurship, industry and vocational skills specialisations, technological citizenship, continuous learning orientation must lead these reforms. This must be followed by transparent and futuristic evaluation criteria for students, teachers, curriculum which even include defined criteria of evaluating the evaluators and Regulators. This shall also require methodologies to facilitate continuous sculpting, upgrading, mixing and matching and revision of innovative curriculum.

Last major educational reforms happened in 1986. Implementations in the aftermath of Yashpal committee report in 2009 have been piecemeal, not matching the era of fastest technological changes. These changes include driverless vehicles and digitalisation of almost all social, economic and governance activities within our current life span and interplanetary travel to a complete virtual environment in the lifetime of the current student population.

Recommendations of two high profile panels on policy inputs are now awaiting law makers’ nod to push overdue initiatives to logical conclusions. Group of Secretaries of the GOI too have put their weight behind need and scope of educational reforms very recently.

To achieve the desired, the contemporary regulatory apparatus governing education has to be reinvented. The entire argument and potential of India’s ‘demographic dividend’ is currently at stake and well past the point where a choice of ‘evolutionary path to reforms’ could have been exercised.


India-the biggest market

INDIA has an enviable 315 million students, 1.5 million schools, 40,000 professional institutions and over 750 universities. It is and will continue to be the largest education market in the world. With 105 million in the age group of 0-4 years, India’s bandwagon of learners will soon be larger than the population of the United States. China, the most populated country in the world has only about 252 million students.

We witnessed a 25 percent rise in the number of students going to the US in 2015. We also saw the budget outlay on education brought down to less than four percent of the GDP which was five percent earlier. It dropped further, though marginally, from INR 69,074 crore to INR 68,968 crore in 2016. The overall trends reflected a growth that was imbalanced and lop-sided. The outlay for such a huge market has to be a minimum of six percent of the GDP. This outlay is critical for the higher education sector as investments in school education will only result in good and reasonable quality of intake at higher education level. The intake quality plays a significant part in determining the output quality (which is currently poor) given the large number of graduates Vis a Vis employability, entrepreneurship and soft skills evaluation criteria.

On the other hand, annually 300,000 Indian scholars leave the shores to study abroad. If the annual spend of 165,000 students in US is estimated to be INR 33,000 Crore, we can safely assume that we as a country, are already spending 6-7 Billion USD for less than 1.5 % students of higher education. This almost competes with total allocation of Govt. of India budget for the entire education sector. While there will always be a ‘overseas choice for education’ which comes with the added advantage of international education experience, there is a very clear case that this is also reflective of growing ‘inadequacy of capacity in quality higher education Institution’ in India. The underlying issue here is of quality which requires investment (for which there exist a clear market potential) and development of future ready academic talent.

Indians have made their mark in IT and digital applications earning the respect of the world. Moreover, after India’s successful Mars mission and the launch of 100 plus satellites in one go, it has displayed its expertise rocketing itself into an exclusive club. Indian origin talent either heads and/ or powers important international business from IT, Engineering, Automobiles, Aviation, Infrastructure to Energy, Genetics, Space and Nano technology.

The gaping redundancy and anachronisms in the education machinery and the delivery divides are, however, totally in contrast. Questions have repeatedly been raised over the functioning of the University Grants Commission (UGC), All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), Association of Indian Universities (AIU) and other bodies of the regulatory apparatus. At a time when online education is exponentially proliferating and Massive Open Online Courses is the need of the hour, Distance Education Council stands dissolved.

Under the UGC, not much has moved in this direction since 2013. The Medical Council of India is also in a limbo. The functioning of many bodies like AICTE, National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) and Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), too has come under fire.

Does this augur well for a country that has over 30 million enrolments in higher education, 7.37 million graduating annually and betting on the future of demographic dividend of its young population?

Blueprints already exist

Some blueprints already exist and there is no need to reinvent the wheel all the time. In fact, the agenda was provided in 2016 by former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramaniam and Niti Aayog Vice Chairman Arvind Panagariya. Besides, there was the Yashpal Committee under a former UGC Chairman who had made numerous recommendations. There were high level panels that brainstormed, identified and segregated issues and suggested systematic repositioning and realignments. Senior bureaucrats (Group of Secretaries) also recently deliberated on it and forwarded their report in early 2017. All these bodies clearly expressed displeasure over directionless progress suggesting long term, midterm and immediate remedial measures.

Some urgently required regulatory enablement steps in this direction would be:

1. A single-window, dynamic, efficient and all-purpose Regulator with an effective enforceable governing apparatus.

2. A National Accreditation body which has an ‘open book’ criteria encompassing assessment and audit of all educational providers

3. Clear and facilitating provisions for:

  • Enabling the creation of all categories of ‘For Profit’ corporate and ‘Not for Profit’ structures including restructuring of existing structures.

  • Operation of Foreign Universities, campuses, twinning Agreements

  • Restructuring of self-financing universities including change of ownerships & control

  • ‘Autonomy’ with laid down norms for ‘Institutions of Excellence/Eminence’

4. Enablement and recognition of all JV type of Agreements and structures with Corporates, Industry bodies, Central & State Govt. bodies, Associations and recognised forums where joint Degrees, diplomas and certification are offered for specific or new age courses.

5. A Higher Education Promotion body with specific focus and resources to support:

  • Distance and online education

  • Teachers’ training and pedagogy support

  • Vocation training

  • Industry Academia Platforms

  • Technology and innovation forums for learning & teaching certification & evolution

  • Deployability skills promotion (soft skills, governance, best practices, corporate citizenship and gender neutrality

6. Direct Education Subsidy: The Govt. may consider that rather than continuing to promote minority, regional, reservation based, economic criteria based Institutions and annual grants (despite poor quality education and low employability index of students) a direct education subsidy scheme based on ‘merit’ based criteria can be implemented for economically weaker student. This will give ‘open choice’ to students to go for Private or public Institutions in any geography and pay full fee and receive subsidy for it directly into the personal account. If we can do it for LPG we can surely do it for higher education and even primary education.

Commission for Higher Education and Research

The formation of a superior body to look after the overall affairs of education and regulatory bodies has been under discussion for long. Prof Yashpal advocated for it eight years back. The proposal finds mention in both the recent panel reports. A Group of Secretaries had also asked for an overhaul of existing set up. Is it not high time that an all-purpose, efficient, effective and coherent commission is set up, providing one-stop services for all matters related to higher education? If that indeed has to happen, the Ministry for Human Resource Development will have only one body to deal with which is accountable and responsible for delivering and raising the bar in tune with future aspirations. We can also learn from the experience drawn from successful examples of the regulatory commissions established for some of the industries like Banking, Insurance, Power and Telecom.

Profit and Not for Profit Education

An overwhelming number of institutions of higher education are registered under the category of not for profit societies or trusts. Ironically, most of them are profit driven! The difference is that of the narrative only. Section 8 (old section 25) companies also fall under the same category. The debate on “Not for profit” and “For profit” is neither relevant nor futuristic. The critical distinction is actually between “self-financing Institution” and Institutions “financed through annual grants” by the state or central government.

On one hand the capacity of quality government funded Institutions is severely limited. The expansion or establishment of new IITs IIMs, Metro City and some central universities will take decades to reach the desired quality level. While the government’s drive is to make affordable state funded higher education available, rapid creation, upgradation, capacity utilisation, higher quality and employability orientated higher education infrastructure can be timely achieved through the “self-financing institution” route.

An on-demand program via Massive Open Online Courses if allowed in the ‘For profit’ space is also a viable solution to the challenge of futuristic higher education with higher employability of graduates. Speeding up this process is also becoming critical as worldwide economic growth is not resulting in proportionate level of employment opportunities due to automation and digitalisation. This means that India’s demographic dividend despite economic growth can become a challenge and even a disaster if a large number of qualified graduates are either not employable or trained for new age jobs or both.

Restructuring universities and curricula & teachers’ education

In recent years, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has added to the number of IITs and IIMs and provided the status of national importance to other institutions of substance. However, majority of the Central Universities and NITs, established in last few years, are operating in shared or rented buildings with labs and other infrastructure not meeting required standards. The established ones, the crème de la of India, too have been inert, somewhat stagnating. These premier institutions ought to diversify and expand as universities, keeping intact their unique identity and features. An upcoming Bill that will make IIMs autonomous and authorise it to award degree is indeed good news.

The existing 350 plus public universities too need restructuring. Branches like sciences, social sciences and humanities require to be bridged. Linking of domain-specific education to newer fields of engineering and management, establishment of inter-university centres of research and innovation, raising futuristic simulation labs are the measures to match the fast-approaching times of augmented and mixed realities, humanoids and contextual computers. On one hand, an autonomous culture needs to take route in these institutions. But the suggested moratorium of five years for establishing any new public institutions should be followed to bring back focus on quality, infrastructure and futuristic realignment in terms of learning and teaching in existing Institutions.

While 260 plus private universities, created under Acts of State Legislature, demand closer monitoring, they also require a more facilitative environment, knowledge and development agenda partnership with their respective state governments. It should not be just restricted to ensuring that they have an upper hand in controlling profiteering or commercialisation of education. The state governments should also be collaborative and open to facilitate restructuring both the direction, scope of existing Institutions through amendment of their original charter and changes in enabling Acts through the legislative process. This will help existing institutions to take continuous ‘rejuvenation’ measures within the framework of their own governance structures for raising capital investment, expanding facilities, entering new territories, introducing new curriculum, courses, research projects, pedagogy and alliances to make its student outcomes much more future ready.

Online and Distance Education

Massive Open Online Courses have opened floodgates of opportunities for the students, the teachers, the content creation fraternity and various institutions. Talks of distinguished professors can be accessed anywhere today through these courses for free or at a reasonable cost. World class operators of these courses, both under for profit and not for profit banners are already in India, offering an elaborate platter from certificate courses to diplomas and full-fledged degrees. An institution today can invite an internationally acclaimed faculty for a semester and later share professionally edited recordings to others in the business – a perfect example of online education that is sculpted for profits. To start with, the Ministry of Human Resource Development can aggressively push Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM) to take the current number of courses from 219 to the promised stage II target of 1,200 and stage III level of 2,000. It is also important that the distance education body is reorganised and introduced again.

Entry of Foreign Universities

When we look from a futuristic perspective, discriminating between International education providers and national ones goes against the very objective and purpose of education. Panels have advised that the lapsed Foreign Universities Bill should be taken up again in whatever form or shape it can to at least make a beginning in this arena. The move is important to bring in much required competition, to lift the standards of education and presenting a global outlook. Once done, research aspirants and those studying abroad will start getting world class degrees at home at a much lower cost. This also could be a game changer in terms of faculty. The development of research associates will get a much wider sourcing base for them. The Group of Secretaries has suggested the establishment of National Research Foundation with seed money of INR 500 crore for research associates for foreign university research scholars for this purpose. Also recommended is a direct ticket to PhD for outstanding B. Tech graduates of IITs, NITs and IISTER. The Ministry for Human Resource Development can introduce a new bill and invite top 200 institutions on the condition that degrees offered will be valid worldwide. Twinning programs may be one of the choices.

Corpus Fund and Direct Subsidy

The entry of foreign universities, self-financed Institutions and rising costs of associated facilities in terms of lodging boarding travel and recreation will make higher education relatively expensive. Given that today digital and identity linked means of subsidy transfers are taking shape, it’s also time to introduce economic and academic performance based direct subsidy system for higher education. Besides scholarships, this could revolutionise higher education opportunities as a student based on his academic performance can continue to receive his subsidy directly in the bank account while making a full fee payment to the Institution of choice. This will also make the vast quota monitoring process and the practice of “ghettoising” the education model by promoting quotas, minority Institutions, complex scholarship schemes and special institutions for economically weaker sections.

Medical education

The area coming under Ministry of Health and Family Welfare calls for immediate intervention. India’s 400 medical colleges fall exceedingly short in catering to the growing demands of a population of 132 billion. Allegations of nepotism led to recommendation of the scrapping of Medical Council of India in 2016. The Supreme Court had to step in ordering National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) to put a stop to mushrooming number of qualifying exams being conducted by the States and other players. Close to 60,000 undergraduate aspirants went offshore in 2015 for degrees in medicine and dental sciences to the countries whose credentials are suspect. Under the circumstances, the current dispensation must do the following:

  1. Institute National Medical Commission (NMC)

  2. Accord clearances to pending cases on condition of fulfilling the required norms

  3. Set right the admissions process. Provisional short-term changes are being made to Indian Medical Council (Amendment) Act annually. A complete recast of the machinery, overdue since 1987, is the answer

India being the largest education market with largest demographic dividend suffers from low employability of graduates. It also is woefully short of quality institutions of higher education. The solutions are obvious. However, lack of political will for implementation due to political risks and requirement of very high level of various state and central government coordination and collaboration remains a vexed issue. More challenging is the fact that several such national initiatives and reforms like land acquisition, taxation, environmental governance, mining and water sharing is seen as a greater priority over education in an environment where ‘electioneering’ takes precedence over reforms.

As higher education is a fundamental long term growth driver, we need to begin sincere efforts to ensure that it happens the way it should. We have little time as the demographic dividend threatens to turn into a demographic challenge if we do not act now.

Sanjay Kaul is founder of the University of Petroleum Studies, Dehradun, University of Technology and Management, Shillong and Indian School of Petroleum and Energy Studies.

Also, Read Articles (By Sanjay Kaul)

Abbreviations used

UPES ­-- University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun

UTM -- University of Technology and Management, Shillong

UGC -- University Grants Commission

AICTE -- All India Council for Technical Education

NAAC -- National Assessment and Accreditation Council

NCTE -- National Council for Teachers of Education

NBA -- National Bureau of Accreditation

MHRD – Ministry of Human Resource Development

MOOC -- Massive Open Online Courses

MCI -- Medical Council of India

IMC -- Indian Medical Council

DEC -- Distance Education Council

NUEPA -- National University of Educational Planning and Administration

IGNOU – Indira Gandhi National Open University

SWAYAM -- Study Webs of Active -Learning for Young Aspiring Minds

IIT -- Indian Institute of Technology

IIIT -- Indian Institute of Informational Technology

IIM -- Indian Institute of Management

NMC -- National Medical Commission

IISTER -- Indian Institutes of Science, Technology, Engineering and Research

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