The T S R Subramanian Committee has come out with the draft National Policy on Education, 2016. For a government report, it is thankfully brief. Spanning across school and higher education system, it devotes significant space to institutional and governance perspectives, distilled through broad range of consultative engagements and discussions with stakeholders. Impressive work in less than eight months.
Chapter VII of the report discusses ideas related to higher education. It answers to a lot of ‘what’, though those interested in ‘how’ could be disappointed. If one draws the painting analogy, it is like an impressionist’s efforts, looking at the essence rather than the details. In a country where every month a million people celebrate their 18th birthday, large-scale insights into higher education become important.
Six points stand out if one begins observing the recommendations laid out therein. First, it unambiguously underscores the problems of faculty positions lying vacant in various universities, observing better outcomes in states where the problem is less pronounced. The panel recommends a Public Service Commission-type body for fulfilling the role of recruiting faculty, though this comes at odds with the committee’s general appreciation for plurality of education, for example, rightfully suggesting the needlessness of PhDs as eligibility for being a teacher in college.
Cultivating young and talented students to become teachers through an integrated government programme is an interesting idea. This merits further exploration and may prove to be very useful in triggering the revival of public faith in teaching as a profession. Rightly identifying perverse incentives embedded in the present structure of promotion through academic performance indexes, the report argues for a more scientific procedure to be instituted in assessing promotions and retentions.
Secondly, the committee relies heavily on assuring quality through making accreditation mandatory. Here, it outlays a broad plan for evolving alternative accrediting structures through a single National Accreditation Agency. For instance, it proposes increased levels of categorisation–A to G, instead of the present A to C–and then dole out higher incentives based on the institution’s higher scale-rank.
For example, institutions receiving an A will be granted full autonomy in salaries, fee, collaborations etc, while those at the bottom will be served notice to close down. The idea is surely interesting, but such mechanisms often do not work in the absence of adequately strong structure to ensure that assessing bodies are not hijacked by interest groups. The committee has also nudged stakeholders to take rankings seriously.
Thirdly, the committee has observed important issues that need urgent attention at the regulatory level. This is laudable. The report underscores the importance of autonomy and academic freedom, stressing the need for detaching governments from universities. This is indeed crucially important for any possibility of reform to emerge. It also observes, very importantly, the indifference, inability and incompetence of the present regulatory agencies in monitoring and approving various higher educational institutions, leading to an irreparable loss of credibility.
Given the large number of evaluating bodies, the regulatory burden on institutions is enormous, amounting to various malpractices. For example, if the fee structure is dictated by the government, alternative black money route will automatically open up, capitation fee is one example. To address these issues, the committee pushes forth the need for a new National Higher Education Promotion and Management Act. This is an important reiteration of a prevailing sentiment and the committee has intelligently crystallised issues and directions towards which a new body must look into.
Foreign varsity conundrum
The committee offers a rather half-baked solution on internationalisation of higher education. While it recognises the value of being receptive to the idea of foreign universities, it makes two disabling points – not only should these foreign universities enter into a collaboration with an Indian university, but also, such entry is restricted to only the top 200 in the world.
Such foreign institutions would rather collaborate with another institution of equivalent standing, which is not possible given the mediocre standing of Indian universities in any ranking framework. Further, there is no reason to believe in any discontinuity of quality of the institution at the 200th rank. A better idea could have been to accept universities which are better than, say the 5th best Indian university.
That the committee emphasises on the lack of research and innovation in higher education is a very useful reminder. But here, it fails to recognise the need for purpose-specific government funding. The report argues for raising public expenditure on education in general, but not particularly for research. Simply installing a supportive regulatory architecture to encourage emergence of 100 Centres for Excellence or establishing Council for Excellence in Higher Education without adequate funding proposals will be a superficial intervention. Without public funding, in the beginning at least, research and innovation cannot flourish. The committee has proposed incentivising research sponsors but the figure of Rs 1,000 crore is unusually large.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the report stresses on the importance of de-politicisation of the appointment of vice-chancellors. This is pivotal and needs to be taken very seriously. Indeed, if the appointments are sanitised, much of the issues undermining higher education will begin to be addressed systematically. The effort is laudable, definitely in identifying problems and calling out loud for where we need to look. The policy recommendations often hop around the specifics, but the language of autonomy and accountability offers a promising starting point.
(The writer teaches Economics at O P Jindal Global University, where he is also the deputy director of the International Institute for Higher Education Research and Capacity Building)