Let's talk reforms

Pawan Agarwal

Currently secretary in the West Bengal Government, Pawan Agarwal has served earlier as director in the Ministry of Human Resource Development at the Centre.  He has  also held a senior position with the University Grants Commission. Author of Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future, recently brought out by Sage Publications, Agarwal explains why and how facilities need to be created to coach deprived students. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Is the quota system the best affirmative action in education, especially with regard to higher education?
Affirmative action is required to build a more equitable society, but the quota system is not the only way forward. In fact, the mindless application of quotas could compromise quality and create divisions in society.

What are the viable options to ensure that merit is not compromised for the sake of vote bank politics?
 A good affirmative action policy should be based on deprivation points. Such points could give a fair deal to poor students and those who come from backward regions.
Deprivation points should be based on transparent criteria. They  should target students from poor families, those who study in rural and backward regions and physically disabled students. But, care should be taken that it does not compromise merit significantly.

Within a broad framework, institutions could have their own schemes of affirmative action. Issues relating to socio-economic backwardness vary from state to state, the states therefore could have their own policies.
 Facilities could be created for coaching deprived students. Despite affirmative action, students from poor families are unable to meet the rising cost of education. Therefore, a fee waiver and student aid should go hand in hand with affirmative action policies.  Affirmative action policy should be based on providing equal opportunities to all. It should be broadly based on merit and it should work towards a non-divisive society.
Does the idea of having a list of institutions of national importance, where there is no reservation based on caste, appeal to you?
A proper framework for affirmative action based on the principles I’ve just mentioned should obviate the need for a separate list of such institutions. It must, however, be realised that the top institutions compete with the best in world. Anything that puts them at a disadvantage in a fiercely competitive environment is best avoided.    
What is your opinion on setting up an overarching body like the National Commission for Higher Education and Research, which would subsume UGC/AICTE?
 It is well known that Indian higher education is over-regulated but under-governed. The regulatory structure is multi-layered and complex with large gaps and many overlaps. An overhaul of the entire structure is overdue.
Setting up a National Commission on Higher Education and Research (NCHER) appears to be a step in the right direction.   
 The proposed regulator could provide an overall approach to regulate and fund higher education. It could give an overarching framework for coordinating standards. An ideal regulatory system should be based on addressing the minimum set of regulatory concerns.
The role of the state has to be redefined. It has to be more sensitive and less intrusive than it is in its current ‘one-size fits all’ role. Unnecessary regulations need to be terminated. The entire recognition and approval system is to be redesigned so that baseline standards are met.

The number of IITs and IIMs has gone up. Do you think this increase will solve the problem of lack of technically trained manpower or will it dilute the brand value of these institutions?
In a robust system of higher education, there are some institutions at the top that compete with the best in the world, and a much larger number of average quality institutions. IITs and IIMs are institutions that compare favourably with the world’s top institutions.

 Unfortunately, for far too long, we had just a few such institutions. Increasing their numbers is good. A country of the size of India needs many top quality institutions. There is absolutely no fear of any brand dilution from the current increase.
 But, it must be realised that new IITs and IIMs would not significantly increase the overall capacity. They would hardly add a few thousand seats. Capacities of new institutions are usually small to begin with. They take several decades to mature and blossom. The expectation that these institutions would widen the base of quality higher education in the country anytime soon would be unreal.
 In technical education, large capacity addition comes from the private sector and would continue to be so.

For instance, 627 and 456 new institutions with an intake of 150,000 and 100,000 were approved in 2004-05 and 2006-07 respectively in the fields of engineering, pharmacy, architecture, hotel management, MBA and MCA. The growth may have slowed down, but the private share is still very large. A bigger challenge is to ensure quality of private provision to address the problem of quality manpower in the country.

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