HE vision: Transformational, does govt have the will?

Rishikesh

The draft NEP is over 450 pages and divided into four main parts and an addendum. About 136 pages of it is devoted to Higher Education (HE). Using recent research and surveys, NEP-2019 addresses each aspect of higher education methodically. It highlights the challenges faced by our HE system. The overarching objective of the policy is to “Revamp the higher education system, create world-class multidisciplinary higher education institutions across the country -- increase GER to at least 50% by 2035’.  The magnitude of this goal is best understood by what this entails: Creating an additional capacity for the enrollment of 35 million students into our HE institutions (the current GER stands at about 25%). This won’t happen unless a complete institutional re-structuring is done.  

Re-architecting HE landscape

The policy recommends consolidating our higher education institutions (HEI) from the more than 40,000 colleges and over 900 universities into about 15,000 high-quality multi-disciplinary institutions.

These HEIs  are to be classified into three types, with each focusing on research and teaching in different ratios -- Type 1 primarily focuses on research, whereas Type 3 will focus more on teaching; Type 2 will do both. The goal for all three types is to develop individuals with “capabilities that will separate humans from robots and empower workers of the future to become enterprising and creative innovators.”

Scale and Quality  

All HEIs will either be universities or autonomous degree-granting colleges, each with 5,000 students or more. A multi-disciplinary environment is feasible in these large institutions which will break the rut we have created of overspecialized institutions catering to specific professions. Hence, the policy rightly makes it mandatory for teacher education programs to be located in multi-disciplinary environments so that they are well-rounded integrated degrees.

The policy emphasizes that this ought to be the case for all professional courses such that it is feasible for a student of medicine or engineering or humanities to take a few courses of interest in other disciplines. Enriching oneself in this manner is crucial for holistic development of any individual.

All this requires curricular and regulatory reforms that the policy addresses through various means – flexible entry and exit options for students made possible through a credit-based system is one such measure. These measures, along with substantial public investments in developing high-quality institutions in disadvantaged geographies, could be transformational measures. 

Governance, regulation

The existing HE system stifles the growth of good quality institutions and is also unable to weed out institutions of poor quality. To address this, is a well-crafted path of ‘light but tight’ regulatory framework. This model provides operational and financial autonomy to all HEIs, public and private, making them into Independent Board-Governed Institutions.

The other important policy decision is to collapse all regulatory functions into one authority. One of the reasons for the mess in HE is overlapping powers of various authorities. NEP-2019 aims to correct this by simplifying the mechanism and having only one regulator – The National Higher Education Regulatory Authority (NHERA) -- for the entire domain. It proposes two options for the existing authorities – to be either dismantled or to be transformed into standard setting bodies. For instance, the UGC, whose chief role is to support and encourage promising institutions, should do precisely that: give out grants to deserving HEIs.

National Research Foundation  

The NEP 2019 recommends a separate institution with a clear-cut agenda and operational and financial autonomy to spur research and innovation. There is a focus on creating conducive environments as well as an eco-system to ensure high-quality research is accomplished. What is significant, is that the NRF is about research in all areas and not only in science and technology.

With a corpus of Rs 20,000 crore, the NRF would fund all types of good quality research proposals across all disciplines; facilitate research at all academic institutions, including colleges; act as a liaison between real world problems and academics. Importantly, the NRF will have the responsibility to recognize outstanding research.

Concerns

This kind of a comprehensive and detailed effort has made the policy walk further than just lay down policy points. It has taken an additional step by presenting the initial action points as well. It is a unique policy document in this regard.  The policy is comprehensive not just in the coverage of the topics, but also in spirit. Many policy points are inter-connected and it is essential that all points are considered while implementing the policy.

In fact, this could be the biggest concern with this policy. It will work only if the government displays the same courage that the committee has shown and implements the policy in its entirety.  

(The writer is faculty at Azim Premji University)

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