Plans to overhaul higher education hit systemic blocks

Announcing the 100-day agenda for the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) in June 2009, the then minister Kapil Sibal (now telecom minister) promised radical reforms in the country’s education system. While the major portions of the priorities were the HRD ministry’s unfinished agenda for the last five years, Sibal added some new proposals to overhaul the education system in the country. One of them was to make Class 10 board examination optional, while another a law to check and punish ‘malpractices’ in higher educational institutions. Sibal also proposed setting up of an overarching authority for higher education and research. These reforms were touted by the ministry as ‘important steps’ in deciding the destiny of the children and youth of the country.

In subsequent years, Sibal announced more ambitious plans as part of the UPA government’s agenda for education reforms. His ministry formulated over a dozen bills, with bulk of them aiming at bringing greater transparency and accountability in the education sector. Five years down the line, most of the plans of the HRD ministry, made since 2009, remain a far-fetched dream. Aakash, a low cost access-cum-computing device promised by Sibal, continues to elude students of higher education as the new HRD minister M M Pallam Raju dumped Sibal’s idea. As Raju showed interest only in research and development of Aakash, Sibal assured that his telecom and information technology ministries will make tablets available to students but nothing has come on the ground so far.

The ministry’s agenda to bring reforms in education sector was a victim of the stalemate in Parliament over a range of issues from corruption to price rise, continuing since October 2010 after the Commonwealth Games scam came to fore. As many as 13 key bills of the ministry aiming at streamlining the education system in the country have been stuck in Parliament for more than last two years. “It happened because these bills did not get public acceptability,” said Delhi University teachers’ association president Nandita Narain. Some of the ministry’s pending bills included one to check unfair practices and a national accreditation regulatory authority for higher educational institutions. None of them, however, could be pushed through for passage in Parliament as they did not figure in the priority list of the government with the sole exception of a bill to set up central university for women in Rae Bareli, the constituency of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

Pending bill

A bill to regulate entry and operation of foreign institutions in the country is pending for passage in Parliament for long, amid stiff opposition from various stake holders including MPs cutting across party line. The ministry decided to implement its plan through executive orders and formulated rules for setting up of foreign universities’ campuses in the country. The department of industrial policy and promotion as well as the department of economic affairs gave their nod to the idea but the matter is pending with the law ministry for its opinion. “This is unfortunate. The bill was seen as government’s attempt to allow foreign institutions open shops in India while the actual intent was to regulate their operation in the country and provide students an opportunity to get world class education at much lower cost,” said ministry official.

It was only during the term of former HRD minister Arjun Singh that the government could bring some reforms in the education sector. A much-debated legislation granting 27 per cent reservation to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the centrally-funded educational institutions got approval of Parliament in 2006. Higher education sector was expanded to meet the rising demand of universities and colleges. Eight new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), 20 National Institutes of Technology (NITs), seven Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), 16 central universities and five Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) were set up. IISERs, however, got legal status later in 2012 with passage of a law.

During its five-year term, UPA-II could only successfully bring the Right to Education Act, a landmark legislation, but its implementation continues to remain a concern. Government has been patting its back for substantial increase in the number of children enrolled in the schools and decline in the rate of children dropping out to 5.6 per cent in 2012-13 from 9.1 in 2009-10 as a result of RTE, but the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) in its latest report indicated most of the elementary schools fall short of attaining the level of progress that was expected from them by the legislation in terms of access, infrastructure and quality of education.

The process of continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) being implemented in schools as part of no-detention policy under the RTE Act has drawn criticism from various quarters. A committee, set up by the central advisory body on education, has reportedly flagged various drawbacks in the no-detention policy.

Sibal made an attempt to introduce a system of single entrance examination for all technical institutions. But under pressure from the IITs, the government settled with a new format of joint entrance examination, to be conducted in two parts—JEE-Main and JEE-Advance, which brought major relief to the aspiring engineers. Only time will tell whether the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), meant to strengthen the higher education system by funding the states, will make a difference as it is in the initial stage of implementation.

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