The Yash Pal committee on renovation and rejuvenation of higher education submitted its report recently. The committee has given several useful suggestions that could have far-reaching consequences. Yet, the report misses out on one vital point: the diversity in provision of higher education.
The 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, held by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization this month, identified diversification as the second most important dynamic at work in higher education. Spawned by rising demand, globalization and new information technologies, more complex and competitive systems of higher education are emerging. These would have a variety of institutions, education providers and approaches. However, the need for a diverse system is not adequately understood in India.
At the time of Independence, with a small number of universities and colleges offering degrees in a limited range of subjects, it was possible to assume that all universities in India were equally good; hence, it was possible to fund and treat them equally. Today, there are more universities, a larger body of students and a greater diversity of subjects. In such a scenario, different institutions would serve different purposes. Hence, they would need to be funded and treated differently.
There are two distinct models of higher education. First, the Anglo-American model, which sees the higher education provision as heterogeneous, encourages diversity. Second, the Scandinavian model which, based on the assumption that the institutions are homogeneous, treats them equally and regards all programmes as equal.
India’s higher education system, with a large population leading to mass enrolment, should ideally support a diverse and decentralized system. A robust system would align itself with the nation’s social diversity and the more complex division of labour in the economy today.
Currently, the Indian system is highly centralized and driven by an unrealistic myth of uniformity and a commitment to egalitarianism. It is believed that inequality in the quality of institutions would create class-related differences, with well-off students attending better institutions and thus getting an easier access to social and economic opportunities. No wonder, then, that the government often pursues policies that ensure equalizing quality, but which only drive everyone to the lowest level.
The Yash Pal committee has recommended the creation of an all-encompassing national commission for higher education and research (NCHER) to regulate quality standards in all branches of higher education. This would be a constitutional body free of political intrusions, replacing the current regime of multiple regulators saddled with their dysfunctional inspection-based regulatory arrangements. According to the report, the new commission would be the super-regulator and the main funding body for higher education. But it remains doubtful if such a superstructure can govern a complex and increasingly diverse system.
However, careful design of structure and instruments of regulation could create the desired regulatory system. Such a system would rely more on peers than the government, with accreditation bodies and agencies responsible for maintaining standards. The regulator would be confined to a validating role.
NCHER could provide an over-arching framework for coordinating standards. Unnecessary regulations should be terminated and only a minimum set of regulatory concerns need to be addressed. The new regulator’s role should be more sensitive and less intrusive than what the multiple regulators do currently.
The country needs a regulatory environment that encourages diversity and quality comparisons between institutions—not one that centralizes authority or enforces dead uniformity.
Pawan Agarwal is a civil servant and author of Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future (2009). The views expressed here are personal. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org