What HECI must do

What HECI must do

STRENGTHENING HIGHER EDUCATION

India’s higher education system needs thorough overhauling and sweeping changes imminently for five reasons: (a) to catch up with the global higher education order and be relevant to changing times; (b) to integrate it with the job market more effectively; (c) to stop the discriminatory functioning style; (d) to universalise the global and domestic best practices in the curriculum; and (e) to protect the system from politicisation and government intervention and to introduce new methods of accountability.

Unfortunately, development of global competitiveness, capabilities, the establishment of universities-industry linkages for employment, adoption of uniform systems and procedures across higher education institutions have all continued to be distant dreams. Instead, it is commonly said that our universities have become production centres of unemployed youth, political grounding and casteist thinking.

The University Grants Commission, which currently overseas this rotten system, is to be replaced by a new Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), to correct all the existing defects. A deeper perusal of the HECI Act draft, however, would leave many disappointed as the bill has not set out how it is going to meet the challenges and achieve its overall objectives or even a roadmap of action plan and the new set of authorities and institutional order to be set up under it.

The HECI plan does well to justify the new bill, the failures of the system, changes in the global economy, employment issues and strategies for arresting discriminatory curriculum, but except for declaring lofty ambitions like uniform development of quality and standard higher education in the preamble, it has not looked deeper into the daunting issues to confront.

In the composition of the HECI, its chairman and vice chairman are to be salaried and full-time individuals, selected by a common search committee. The other members hold office for five years, on honorary basis. To achieve objectivity, it would be ideal to appoint a retired central university vice chancellor as chairman and an eminent scholar from other research institutions of national importance as vice chairman. Similarly, to cover all segments of the system, it would be ideal to have each director from the Indian Institute of Science, Indian Institutes of Management, National Council of Technical Education, National Assessment and Accreditation Centre, National Board of Accreditation, two serving VCs -- from central and state universities -- and two/three industry leaders. These people should have proven record in upholding the ethos and principles of natural and social justice, as enshrined in the Constitution. There should also be secretaries from the Department of Higher Education, Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Science and Technology and Social Justice and Empowerment.

The objective of the HECI is to be a “think tank” that guides the course of higher education administration. It should pave the way for achievement of social objectives like inclusiveness and enhancing enrolment. It should work holistically to bring back universities to their traditional role as centres of knowledge production, knowledge dissemination and teaching centres, rather than centres for breeding casteist politics.

So, the proposed commission should stand to achieve: common national curriculum for central and state universities; revision of the curriculum every five years compulsorily; multi-disciplinary approach in curriculum design, with advanced academic knowledge, research component and industry requirement for each discipline; regular and frequent training for teachers to upgrade their knowledge and skills; compulsory internship for university students; university-industry interaction; and, placement activities for students.

The last three objectives are already in vogue in technical education but UGC has not replicated it in the general university system.

Given the mandate of the HECI, it is necessary to give financial autonomy with a “HECI Corpus Fund”, created by the central government. If the “Contingent Fund of India” could be the source for the salaries and establishments of the chairman and vice chairman, the Ministry of Human Resource Development can be the source for the general establishment of the commission by way of annual budgetary allocations. Further, state governments as major stakeholders should fall in line with the HECI, especially by enhancing their budgetary allocations for higher education, in order to achieve a competitive and jobs-linked system.

Free of political meddling

Emancipating higher education from political intervention and state governments by confining their roles to financing the development and maintenance of universities is the need of the hour. Unfortunately, even appointments have been totally guided by political bosses, at the cost of merit, resulting in the denial to students of both natural and social justice. Hence, this call for serious debate and strict policy guidelines by the HECI.

A common set of procedures for appointments, attainments, experience, exposure to global standards and quality would definitely make the administration of education effective. Inter-state composition of search committees for administrative posts, university-industry interactions, student internships, placements will all go a long way. If these issues are not attended to and university administration is not streamlined, HECI will become a futile exercise.

Lastly, what has not so far been heard of is “social audit” of the university systems by the general public, as the most important stakeholders. The universities have never been subjected to such an audit. Its absence has led to a number of malpractices, corruption in expenditure of taxpayers’ money. Unjustified, unauthorised constructions, appointments without sanctions and violation of constitutional norms have been the practice in many institutions. Therefore, annual social audits of the academic, administration, public works and other functions is necessary. The audit findings should be publicised, and a compliance report should be included in the annual report sent to the HECI. This will go a long way in ensuring public accountability by the various authorities.

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(The author is a former faculty at Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru, and former member of the KPSC)

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